Push past the glitz and glamour to reveal Hollywood’s seedy underbelly. We find the dark past of an entirely different LA. Love it or hate it, Los Angeles has a unique allure. Beneath the haze of smog from its car-clogged highways, there is something charming about the City of Angels – and the 50 million visitors it attracted last year clearly agree.
For many Aussies, the California lifestyle is a glitzier version of our own and LA is our gateway to the US and the airlines, including Qantas, Virgin Australia, United Airlines and Delta, often slash airfares to as low as $800 return during sale season.
But beneath the glamour of Rodeo Drive – the Hollywood starlets and the fast and furious life of celebrities like the Kardashians in Calabasas – there is another side to La La Land. A secret side.
It is filled with clairvoyants, psychics, superstition, murder and mystery. The seedy underbelly that was so L.A. Confidential.
We’re here to discover the other LA. It seems as if every building has a story – LA’s murky past is tainted with gangs and mobsters, pimps, pushers and prostitutes. It’s a city with a past and it’s worth discovering.
I took my first trip to Los Angeles when I was 15. Scarred by the experience of hours spent in traffic, thugs hustling tourists outside the then Kodak Theatre and soggy egg rolls from PF Chang’s, it was almost enough to put me off returning, despite the amazing time I had at Disneyland.
But the more times you return to LA, like a junkie looking for the next hit, the more you become addicted.
This time around, we are staying at the chic and modern Mondrian hotel on Sunset Boulevard. It has a stunning rooftop pool where a DJ spins tunes in the evenings. And for eats, the hotel’s restaurant, Ivory on Sunset, serves up a mean breakfast. Whether you’re keeping to your Cali diet of egg-white omelettes and green smoothies or wanting the whole hog of buttermilk pancakes with extra crispy American bacon, the food is delightful.
The rooms are spacious but minimal with pops of colour in the blue lampshades and orange mirror-TVs – a quiet haven away from the hustle and bustle.
But like many of the places in Hollywood, the Mondrian comes with its own dark past. In 2007, rapper Pimp C was found dead in one of the suites, after an overdose of “purple drank”, a toxic concoction of codeine and promethazine.
Just down the road from the hotel is the famous Viper Room where, back in the day, you would be rubbing shoulders with regulars included Jennifer Aniston, Leonardo DiCaprio and Angelina Jolie at the whisky bar. It was home to punk and metal bands, and to this day holds great gigs, best paired with a whisky sour.
But it’s also the place where Joaquin Phoenix’s big brother River died in the most clichéd way possible – a drug overdose on Sunset Boulevard.
The Hollywood Forever Cemetery is the final resting place for some of the biggest names in Tinseltown. The lush green landscape on Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood is on America’s National Register of Historic Places. You’ll find the graves of celebrities such as filmmaker Cecil B DeMille, guitarist Johnny Ramone and TV star Estelle Getty of The Golden Girls. One of the most impressive is philanthropist William A Clark Jr’s Greek Revival-style catacomb. You’ll walk over a 150-metre granite bridge to reach his resting place in the Clark family mausoleum – it sits on its own island and cost US$500,000 to build in the 1920s.
If you’re in LA during the sweltering summer months, you can watch movies under the stars in the cemetery. It’s popular with the locals, so grab your picnic basket, blanket and lawn chairs and join them. The movies are projected onto the side of one of the mausoleums.
Across the road from the flamboyant cemetery is the Dearly Departed Museum where you’ll find bizarre artefacts like Mae West’s false teeth, Karen Carpenter’s bathroom sink and even a tile from the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F Kennedy was shot. The trivia-loving guides share their Hollywood-insider knowledge and retell stories from friends and family of the deceased celebrities.
A tour of the underground tunnels of Downtown Los Angeles provides further insight into this city’s amazing past. While the rest of the country was going dry in the 1900s, the city’s service tunnels rocked with free-flowing booze, an 18-kilometre network of speakeasies designed to defeat prohibition.
One of the most notable watering holes was the King Eddy Saloon, which is still running today. Located at 5th and Main, it was a place for music and martinis. Today, its basement remains part of the tunnel system.
While the underground network is not officially open to the public, visitors can slip down behind the Hall of Records on Temple Street where an elevator will take you below the surface to passageways filled with amazing murals and street art.
On the edge of Miracle Mile, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard (home to scenes from Pretty Woman and La La Land) is the largest along the West Coast. It has an amazing collection from artists such as Cézanne, Magritte and Rembrandt, but also sculptures from the pre-Columbian era, ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. At the museum’s entrance, stop for a photo amongst the dozens of vintage streetlights in the outdoor installation “Urban Light” by the late Chris Burden.
For something slightly quirky nearby, wander around the La Brea Tar Pits where tar still bubbles from the depths of the earth. Scientists have been able to unearth impressive fossils of sabre-toothed tigers, dire wolves, mastodons and dragonflys from the pits. You can view them in the adjacent museum.
A hot dog while watching the Lakers shoot some hoops at the Staples Center, a hike up Runyon Canyon or a visit to the Getty Museum might be iconic tourist activities in LA, but at some of her lesser-known sites you’ll see the city’s beautiful dark past.
Take me there
Fly: Virgin Australia, Delta and United Airlines fly from Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. Virgin fares start from $881 (ex-Mel), $893 (ex-Bris) and $898 (ex-Syd). virginaustralia.com
Stay: Rooms at the Mondrian in West Hollywood start at about $500 per night. morganshotelgroup.com
Explore more: discoverlosangeles.com