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The rambling metropolis of Los Angeles sprawls across the thousand square miles of a great desert basin, knitted together by an intricate network of congested freeways between the ocean and the snowcapped mountains. Its colorful melange of shopping malls, palm trees and swimming pools is both mildly surreal and startlingly familiar, thanks to the celluloid self-image that it has spread all over the world.

LA is a young city; in the mid-nineteenth century, it was a community of white American immigrants, poor Chinese laborers and wealthy Mexican ranchers, with a population of less than fifty thousand. Only on completion of the transcontinental railroad in the 1880s did it really begin to grow, as a national mecca for good health, clean living, plentiful sunshine and endless acres of citrus crops. The biggest group of transplants were refugees from the Midwest, who created a new political ruling class to replace the old Mexican elite. The old ranchos were soon subdivided, the population grew rapidly, and the enduring symbol of the city became the family-sized suburban house (with swimming pool and two-car garage). The biggest boom came after World War II with the mushrooming of the aeronautics industry – which, until post-Cold War military cutbacks, accounted for one in four jobs.

The first-time visitor may well find Los Angeles thrilling and threatening in equal proportions; it's a place that picks you up and sweeps you along whether you want it to or not. While it has its fine-art museums, California cuisine and a few old-fashioned urban plazas, what people really come here for is to experience the city that has come to epitomize the American Dream – the fantasy worlds of Disneyland and Hollywood, as well as the gilded opulence of Beverly Hills and Malibu.

Los Angeles is a bright and eclectic patchwork of neighborhoods and lifestyles. Made up of dozens of communities, there is no one unifying experience that sums up the life and the heartbeat of this city among cities. From the eternal sunshine and Hollywood glitz to the traffic and smog, this City of Angels will forever be many things to many people.

Downtown While not exactly in the center of town geographically, downtown is still a major center of activity. But while the focus is mostly on business, downtown also features many shops, restaurants, bars and even a few museums.

Hollywood The big sign just about says it all. The center of things is, without a doubt, Hollywood Boulevard, location of world-famous tourist spots that include Mann's Chinese Theater, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and countless souvenir shops.

The Miracle Mile/Hancock Park area is another of L.A.'s historical neighborhoods. Here you will find Wilshire Boulevard's Museum Row. The museums are contained within Hancock Park, a small but peaceful oasis in the center of hectic urban activity.

Ritzy West Hollywood is home to one of the city's most famous (or infamous) attractions: the Sunset Strip. Here you'll find most of the city's hippest and hottest clubs, as well as some of the city's finest shopping and hotels. West Hollywood is also the center of the city's gay and lesbian community, and it puts on one of the bawdiest and most exhilarating annual Halloween Parades in the state.

Beverly Hills and the Westside This world-famous city with the world-famous zip code is synonymous with wealth, status and celebrity. The understated elegance and grace of the residential neighborhoods is balanced out by Rodeo Drive, which offers some of the finest (and most expensive) shopping on the entire planet.

Santa Monica and Bay Cities Back in the heyday of Route 66, this was the end of the line. Today, this beachfront community offers the best in shopping, dining and entertainment.

The motto of the coastal community of Malibu is "27 miles of scenic beauty," and that about describes it best. The main attraction here is the drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, which takes you past beach after beach on one side of the road and million-dollar hilltop estates on the other. Make sure you have plenty of film and sunscreen. Even at night, the stars just seem brighter.

Venice, just south of Santa Monica, is the city's home to all things eclectic—and many things downright bizarre. This small, artsy beach town offers one of the greatest collections of cafes, bars, galleries, antiques and one-of-a-kind shops around. Weekend afternoons on the boardwalk are definitely a memorable experience for any visitor to the city.

San Fernando Valley On the other side of the Hollywood Hills sits "The Valley," as it is known to locals. It features a seemingly endless sea of suburban culs-de-sac, strip malls, funky shops and restaurants. Hollywood makes its presence known in the cities of Burbank and Universal City, which are home to Warner Bros. Studio and Universal Studios, respectively. There are two things you can always count on in the Valley: the earthquakes always feel stronger, and the temperature is always 10 degrees hotter.

South Central and Compton Although the South Central neighborhood of Crenshaw gained worldwide publicity as the center of the infamous 1992 riots, this area remains one of the city's best-kept secrets. Home to a great number of African-Americans, South Central communities such as Crenshaw and Leimert Park offer wonderful shopping, dining, recreation and live music clubs. It has also long been a place of culture and diversity, as evidenced by the African American Cultural Center and the Museum In Black.

Long Beach and the South Bay Long Beach is a fairly large city in its own right. Aside from a plethora of shopping and dining options, this beach community is perhaps best known for the Queen Mary, a Titanic-esque ocean liner now permanently docked here and open for tours.

The South Bay is made up of smaller beach towns and quiet neighborhoods such as Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Palos Verdes Estates.

Orange County As you drive south of L.A., the pastures seem to get greener—quite literally. Orange County is a collection of beautifully manicured suburbs and picturesque beach communities. Some great spots include Anaheim (home of Disneyland), Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and Dana Point.

Pasadena and Points East Pasadena is one of the most prominent communities in the entire state of California. Old Town Pasadena provides one of the greatest clusters of bars, shops, cafes and restaurants in the entire L.A. area. And every New Years' Day, this not-so-sleepy town becomes the focus of the entire world for the annual Tournament of Roses Parade.

East L.A., as evidenced by its name, forms the eastern edge of the city and is home to a large part of L.A.'s Latino population. Perhaps nowhere else in the city is L.A.'s cultural diversity better represented than here.

LAX and Inglewood LAX is the third largest airport in the United States, when it comes to the sheer number of people passing through its hallways. The airport is the main feature of the otherwise-sleepy, suburban neighborhood of Westchester. This pocket of quiet, tree-lined streets and neighborhood schools and churches is a refreshing oasis in an often-frenetic city.

Inglewood, home to many of L.A.'s African-American population, features a wide variety of restaurants, music and sports venues. Here you will find Hollywood Park Racetrack and the Great Western Forum sports arena, home to the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks. Inglewood also hosts the annual Hollywood Black Film Festival, which pays homage to African-American filmmakers--past, present and future

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