What Visitors From Abroad Need to Know About Los Angeles

Los Angeles
One of my favorite LAX landmarks. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I connect with travelers visiting the U.S. from abroad, there’s one destination that’s invariably on their itineraries: Los Angeles.

I like Los Angeles – probably more than most Americans. But it has some highly visible warts. And my foreign friends are so eager to see it that I cringe at the disappointment that can follow. I’d like to prepare them for the reality of Los Angeles with this list of observations gleaned from way too many visits to the area.

Hollywood – All the Grunge, Little of the Glamor

Los Angeles
Definitely an icon.

If you have dreams of Hollywood glitz, lower your expectations. It’s shabby and run-down with its best years decades in the past. I actually like the Sunset Strip quite a bit, but not for the usual reasons – the place is packed full of guitar shops selling some serious pro-grade gear. And you can walk from one to the other (perfect for a guy like me who spent way too much time playing in local bands), unlike my city where I could spend a day driving around and never find anything interesting. By and large, dining is pretty much focused on chains. I suppose things could get interesting if you’re interested in seeing where celebrities live or once lived – they have all sorts of tours for that sort of thing.

Los Angeles
Tanning beds not required at Muscle Beach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beaches are Meh, But People Watching is Amazing

I know, I know – it’s sunny SoCal! The water should be warm and inviting, right? Nope. This is, year-round, some chilly water. Navy SEAL operators train just 120 miles away because the water is cold enough to test their endurance and fortitude. If you want warm, clear, sparkly water, you will not find it on a Los Angeles beach. You will, however, find absolutely epic people watching. Venice Beach, Muscle Beach, all the spots in Santa Monica -- I’ll just say to bring your camera. The fun part of Muscle Beach is watching people try their hands at some of the activities; my wife once saw an amazing wipeout on a slackline, and we both wished she’d been rolling some video of it.

Los Angeles
Have a mammoth time at La Brea Tar Pits. (Wikimedia Commons)

Natural History in the Concrete

My favorite place in LA is going to surprise you: the La Brea Tar Pits. Here’s the deal -- Los Angeles is a huge mass of concrete. Here, the earth looks completely static. But the La Brea Tar Pits are a reminder that the earth is alive, that it is moving and living right under our feet – even in a city that appears locked into its current form. You can watch scientists at work there, dredging up clues from the earth’s long history. It’s absolutely hypnotic, especially jammed into the backdrop of concrete, crowds and traffic.

Speaking of Sprawling

Travelers from abroad are often used to public transit. If you’re from Tokyo, London, Frankfurt or Seoul, there’s literally nowhere you can’t reach thanks to their world-class public transit and inherent walkability. You will not find that here. Just leaving Los Angeles International Airport is difficult. There is no Tube or Metro to zip you to the most-interesting parts of the city (compare that to Stockholm, where a sweet rail system can help you make the most of a 7-hour layover). There is allegedly some sort of rail system under construction. For now, you’re best-off making prior arrangements. You have taxis, but they can be hit-and-miss from a quality standpoint. I never thought about this before being a parent, but booking something in advance can make sure that you’ll have a car seat, adequate space, a knowledgeable driver -- all very important to get a trip started off well. I’d lean toward booking a car service from LAX.

Los Angeles
Hollywood celebrities and dignitaries at Roosevelt Birthday Ball activities in Washington, (left to… – NARA – 199317 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tons of Theme Parks

If you have kids that watch too much TV, chances are they’re clamoring for a visit to a certain rodent-fronted theme park. It’s here, it’s sprawling and it’s absolutely astounding in its ability to absolutely dominate everything about Anaheim. If you’re traveling without little people, you’ll find better rides at Magic Mountain Parkway or Knotts Berry Farm. But there are other theme parks and attractions, from paintball fields to racecar-themed parks. Los Angeles is pretty astounding that way – if there’s an obscure hobby, you can find people practicing it here.

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Why You Should Go to Finland

I can’t even tell you how many times I hear American travelers go on about Spain, Italy, France and England. You’ll hear about culture, history, museums and food (a little less so with England on that last one!). But I can’t say I’ve ever heard an American traveler all wound up about the idea of a trip to Finland.

And I just don’t get it.

Finland – and also Iceland and Norway – have a certain sense of community spirit that’s hard to define. But that spirit makes Finland an incredibly fun place to travel. And then you have the scenery, the events, the food, the public transit and the shopping. I’m not ordinarily a big shopper. But I always look out for things that will interest others, and I can tell you that any fashionista with an eye for one-of-a-kind items from small, independent designers will love Finland.

Let me share some information that gives you an idea of why you should go to Finland.

First Impressions

We arrived in Helsinki after a flight from Tromsö, Norway via Oslo aboard Norwegian Air Shuttle. I sat across the aisle from a young female rock band, one member of which got startled when my wife accidentally launched a gob of sanitizer directly onto her lap (pressurization, yo). Sharing a plane with young rockers reinforced my notion that Finland is a paradise for good, loud rock music; part of our reason for visiting was to go to the Ruisrock festival in Turku (the Ruisrock link includes a story about having several people convinced that I’m a rock star who performed at the festival).

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It’s early evening – soon, this park will be jammed with people on blankets hanging out.

I was a little surprised that the rail line from the airport to the city center was still under construction during our visit (it may be ready now, though). The bus ride was still pleasant, and I thought more than a few times of Minnesota as we cruised along through rolling plains and evergreen trees.

Downtown Helsinki, though, was all cool Old World architecture alongside sleek but welcoming new architecture. It’s a blend Finland wears well, just like so many other countries in the region.

First example of the community spirit I mentioned earlier – we asked a young Finnish woman for directions, and she walked us to within a few steps of our hotel and told us all about herself as we walked.

What’s So Cool About Finland?

go to finland
Helsinki could give Portland a few lessons in weird.

If American travelers knew what I do about Finland, it would be a huge, up-and-coming destination. It’s just that awesome. Let me break it down:

Absolutely Vibrant During Summer – Finland comes alive in the summer, with music festivals spanning nearly every genre practically every weekend somewhere in the country. Also, there’s a nightly tradition in the cities -- people fill up a cooler, grab a blanket, head to the nearest park and hang out with their friends and neighbors in the post-dinner hours. I imagine winter is a little less social, but I’d bet it’s still a picture-perfect scene of a holiday season.

Getting Around is Super Easy – Whether you walk, bicycle or take a train, the transit options are affordable and easy to navigate. Our two-hour trip on the VR train to Turku was a marvel of comfort and efficiency. We also used a combination of train and bus travel to enjoy a day hiking at the Nuuksion Koulu. Every leg of the trip went off without a hitch. And cyclists – be prepared for an astounding bicycle infrastructure.

go to Finland
Finland has cool architecture a-plenty

History and Fun – We also took a quick boat trip out to Suomenlinna, where we spent a day enjoying the island’s history and sites -- be prepared for some gusty Baltic winds, though. I also got to try some bear sausage. Back in Helsinki, we took an evening trip out to the Linnanmaki amusement park.

Things to Know

  • You might be tempted to call Finland a Scandinavian country. Resist the urge. Refer to it as a Nordic country instead.
  • Also, Finland uses the Euro. That’s part of the reason its prices aren’t quite as high as Norway.
  • Try sahti. It’s a traditional Finnish beer that’s hard to find … and slightly hard to pronounce. Here’s everything you need to know about sahti.
  • If you’re a beer connoisseur, let’s just say Finland hasn’t quite hopped into the craft-beer movement just yet. There are a few places to get good brews, but you’ll mostly see fizzy, watery, pale-yellow lagers.
go to finland
Nuuksion National Park an easy combination of train and bus travel from Helsinki.

Finland in a Word: Liveable

I could very easily see living in Finland, even with its winters. There seems to be a work-life balance that allows the country to prosper, but it exudes a "work to live, not live to work" outlook. That’s healthy. The country’s fixation on sauna (pronounce it “sah-oo-nah”) is another healthy element, along with well-marked hiking trails serves by huts. Finland is the place to be for backpackers and cross-country skiers.

Other Details

My total time in Finland was about nine days – enough to convince me that you should go to Finland – split between Turku and Helsinki. Turku is built around a river, and it is so incredibly relaxed and pleasant that you might never realize that many of the world’s behemoth cruise ships are built there. As for Helsinki -- I could easily use a few weeks to dive into all that it offers. I’d love a chance to learn more about its heavy metal scene and to get out into the surrounding natural areas.

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Turku is a maritime city you’ll love … if you like strolling along rivers, walking on tree-shaded paths and meeting people.