Our list of the best things to do in L.A. this year includes a virtual reality experience that won’t break the bank, an art gallery that always pushes the boundaries, and a comedy club that’s known for its celeb drop-ins.
Shana Brenion twists balloons into Frozen characters at well-heeled Westside children’s birthday parties—but don’t expect her to wear a clown outfit. “That’s below my pay grade,” says Brenion, the owner of Nifty Balloons, whose talents extend well beyond Disney creations. The 38-year-old can create nearly anything out of latex tubes as long as she has a reference photo. “I’ve made the Taj Mahal. I’ve made Ace Frehley from Kiss on an orca whale,” says Brenion, who was taught ballooning by a family friend 13 years ago. “Once you learn the basics, you understand the tool that you have.” She offers her services ($200 an hour) to events ranging from weddings to corporate events, but kiddie parties are her most common jobs. Even then, she says, “the grown-ups are definitely the ones that are more into it.”
»Island Camping Spot
Avalon Cyn. Rd., Avalon
Camping on Catalina doesn’t have to involve schlepping tons of gear onto the ferry. Hermit Gulch is a full-service campground on the island’s east side, within walking distance of both downtown Avalon and the Wrigley Botanical Garden. Wood-floored tent cabins ($60 to $80 a night, plus $17 to $29 per person) come with six cots, a lantern, and a stove with propane. The shared bathrooms are clean and have toilets that actually flush (true luxury!). When you find yourself hungry for civilization, you can walk to downtown or hop on the Garibaldi, the city’s electric bus, which stops right in front of the campground.
»Morbid Tourist Attraction
The Dearly Departed Artifact Museum
5901 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood
Dearly Departed is best known for its celebrity death and scandal tours, but the company’s hidden gem is a living-room-size exhibition space at its Hollywood headquarters. The Dearly Departed Artifact Museum is packed with delightfully strange exhibits, and it’s free for those who take one of the company’s tours or $10 for the general public. The centerpiece is the totaled car from the 1967 crash that killed platinum-blond movie star Jayne Mansfield, but other treasures abound, including a door from the hotel room where drag legend Divine passed and a piece of the jacket that “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” singer Tiny Tim wore at his final performance. Life is beautiful, but so is death.
»Place to Ditch Your Kids and Be Productive
Wiggle & Work
968 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz
While some trendy private clubs offer vague notions of babysitting for older kids, Wiggle & Work is really serious about child care. The coworking space, which opened last year, takes children as young as three months and as old as four years in a bright, 1,500- square-foot, groundfloor fun house. Caretakers are skilled in the art of getting your child to let go so you can go upstairs with your laptop. Prices range from $8 to $24 an hour, depending on how many sessions you purchase.
»Place for a Weekday Matinee
New Beverly Cinema
7165 Beverly Blvd., Fairfax District
Time to quit your day job. After a nearly yearlong hiatus, Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema reopened in late 2018 with improved projection and sound, plus great midday movies for just $6. Programmed according to a monthly theme, the Monday matinees skew mainstream—think Brad Pitt classics like Seven and Interview with the Vampire—and the Wednesday offerings target serious cinephiles with Hitchcock flicks and Vincent Minnelli musicals.
»Place to Get Spiritual With Fido
DEN Urban Dog Retreat
3252 Arroyo Seco Ave., Cypress Park
Since opening six months ago, DEN Urban Dog Retreat has filled a very tiny and very L.A. niche in the market, offering dog owners a chic venue where they can get various wellness treatments with their pets. “We’re dedicated to elevating dogs and their humans to higher states of consciousness,” says cofounder Lindsay Velez. During group meditations (free on Saturdays) and sound baths ($25), even hyper pups tend to calm down. If you and your pooch need further relaxation, splurge on a private intuitive healing and crystal energy session ($80 to $155).
Hansen Dam Aquatic Center
11798 Foothill Blvd., Sylmar
Sure, public pools are full of children and half-naked strangers, but if you put your faith in the power of chlorine and pick the right one, they’re great, cheap places to cool off. Case in point: the Hansen Dam Aquatic Center’s 1.5-acre “swimming lake.” It combines the comforts of a pool—chlorine, nonscuzzy concrete floors—with the charms of a lake—a white-sand beach for lounging and a massive size that can accommodate 3,000 swimmers, so it seldom feels overcrowded. There’s even a double water slide that really makes the $4 price of admission feel like a steal.
»Urban Lake That Isn’t Echo Park
6300 Balboa Blvd., Van Nuys
Lake Balboa is less crowded than the beloved Eastside reservoir but provides an equally idyllic setting. Part of Van Nuys’s lush Anthony C. Beilenson Park, the sparkling 27-acre lake is flanked by gentle hills that call for a picnic. Rent a bicycle—they even have surrey bikes for the whole family—and cruise beneath the park’s canopy of cherry trees. If you’re missing Echo Park’s iconic swan boats, fret not—Balboa rents ’em out, too, for just $11 an hour.
El Porto Beach
The strand between 38th and 45th streets in Manhattan Beach; parking lot entrance on 45th.
Too often hitting the sand means fighting crowds, but not at El Porto Beach. Eleven miles south of and worlds away from the Santa Monica Pier, the clean, flat, soft-sanded strip is typically uncrowded. Views of the El Segundo power plant and the Chevron refinery, in addition to the mighty Pacific, supply a strange sort of industrial beauty. When you get hungry, wander up the hill to El Tarasco, a bright-yellow hut serving tasty, cheap burritos. As you chow down on a Super Deluxe and sip a horchata, you might forget you’re not in Baja. All that’s missing is a margarita.
»Place to Pet a Dog
8134 W. 3rd St., Beverly Grove
Lisa Vanderpump might not love her fellow Housewives, but she loves her pooches. It shows at Vanderpump Dogs, a pink palace with comfy velvet couches and adorable rescues looking for homes. The space feels far less depressing than many pet shops and adoption centers in the city—animals are kept in white-picket playpens, not cages—the staff is always friendly, and it doesn’t even smell like pee. After a quick sign-in process, you get to play with puppies in an airy, sun-filled “living room.” It’s almost as much fun as bingeing on Bravo reunion specials.
»Way to Become Someone Else
Westfield Century City,10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City
Are you tired of your flesh prison? At Dreamscape ($20), an ambitious virtual reality attraction that opened in the Westfield Century City mall last year, you can strap on some goggles and battle rubbery, multitentacled monsters—that you can reach out and touch—while standing on a platform that vibrates and shakes. It’s one of the most immersive, cinematic VR experiences in the country. No wonder: The makers of the attraction include the former chief creative officer of Walt Disney Imagineering and a producer of Men in Black.
»Teen Art Gallery
Las Fotos Project
2658 Pasadena Ave., Lincoln Heights
For a look at work by the next Diane Arbus or Lauren Greenfield, check out Las Fotos Project. The nonprofit teaches teenage girls to use photography to document life in their communities, and the results are showcased in a free gallery that’s open Wednesdays and Fridays. Exhibitions are often organized around a specific theme—from immigration to gender identity—and they offer an up-close, personal, and unfiltered look at what it’s like to be a young woman growing up in L.A. now.
Aquarium of the Pacific
100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach
In May the Aquarium of the Pacific debuted a $53 million sustainable wing, its first major expansion since opening 20 years ago. Called Pacific Visions, the undulating, blue-glass building has an immersive theater with vibrating seats, fog, wind, and even smells, plus an art gallery and an exhibit of three very specific sea creatures: delta smelt, yellowtail, and Pacific oysters, all of which highlight the importance of preserving marine habitats. It’s a beautiful addition, yes, but also one with a deeper purpose.
»Comedy Club For Celeb Drop-Ins
2511 Wilshire Blvd., Westlake
While the comedy institutions on Sunset Boulevard are quick to proclaim their associations with A-list comedians, they’re not the only place to catch a surprise set from a big name. In late 2017 actress-producer Vanessa Ragland and talent booker Jamie Flam reopened Westlake’s Hayworth Theatre as Dynasty Typewriter and created an environment where noteworthy comics and die-hard comedy fans feel equally comfortable. The 199-seat Churrigueresque building is cozy and intimate, minus WeHo clubs’ two-drink minimums and spotty warm-up acts. Sarah Silverman, Hannibal Buress, and Chelsea Peretti have all recently taken the stage there.
»Place to Spend Intermission
The Oval Bar
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown
The Oval Bar at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is the city’s sexiest spot for a midshow toast. The dark mirrors, black-walnut paneling and plush, green carpet transport you back to the 1960s, when operagoers in tails, formal gowns, and white gloves sipped champagne. Savvy audience members avoid lines by ordering intermission beverages before the show, allowing more time to enjoy their sparkling wine ($14 and up) and peruse the bar’s impressive art collection. Don’t miss the Frank Stella painting and Thomas Hardy’s Sun Birds sculpture, which features some 500 gold-leafed bronze birds swooping and soaring above the space in a crownlike formation.
945 Sun Mun Way, Chinatown
Aura photos are everywhere on Instagram, but actually finding an aura photographer can prove difficult. Thankfully there’s Auragami, one of the only studios in the city devoted to the practice. Portraits cost just $40, and founder Belle Nguyen or a member
of her team will walk you through the process, which involves holding a biofeedback sensor that makes your aura show up on Polaroid film and entering a domed tent that appears to have dropped from outer space. Once your picture develops, a practitioner explains what it all means. If you need further guidance, private clairvoyant readings and healing sessions are $200.
Ernest E. Debs Regional Park
4700 N. Griffin Ave., Montecito Heights
If you’re tired of hiking with the thousands of selfie opportunists and cellphone DJs who flood L.A.’s top trails, check out Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in Montecito Hills. Start at the Audubon Center for a preview of the birds you might expect to see, then hit the jogging- and stroller-friendly trails and head up the hill. About four miles up you’ll find great views of the city and a small gem of a lake. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic or turtle and duck watching. The roughly seven-mile loop takes about three hours. Afterward head on up to Highland Park’s Figueroa Avenue, just a few minutes from the park by car, to refresh and refuel with a brunch or beer.
12401 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 101, Santa Monica, and 8500 Melrose Ave., Ste. 201, West Hollywood
Healing your soul by listening to someone touch crystal bowls for nearly an hour—aka taking a sound bath—doesn’t appeal to everyone, but Unplug Meditation does a nice job of making the ancient Eastern tradition accessible and enjoyable. The studio provides chairs that rest on the ground to up the comfort level, and there’s a welcoming, come-as-you-are vibe. Sure, you have to take off your shoes and leave your cellphone at the front desk, but the friendly staff will charge your device while you commune with your higher self. “Sound healing” sessions ($24 each or $190 for 10) are typically 45 minutes, which is less of a time commitment than the 90-minute or longer baths common elsewhere. The space itself is ultramodern and clean, adding to the peaceful atmosphere.
»Boundary-Pushing Art Gallery
443 Lei Min Way, Chinatown
Shows at Chinatown’s LeiminSpace always defy expectations. Earlier this summer the second-floor gallery was devoted to the amusing, thought-provoking yarn creations of Mikki Yamashiro, from smiley faces with Venus symbols for eyes to comic-strip character Cathy wearing a tank top that says, “I’m not gay but my girlfriend is.” Artist Schelsey Mahammadie-Sabet opened the place in 2015 with the aim of highlighting artists, many of them women, who might be turned away from showing at stodgier spaces run by men. Over the years, with each edgy exhibition, she’s done just that.
»Kid-Friendly Bar (Sometimes)
5684 York Blvd., Highland Park
Plenty of drinking establishments allow tiny tots, but Barcade actually entertains them. Every few Sundays from noon to 5 p.m., the new Highland Park watering hole allows children into its wonderland of 70 retro arcade games for a special family day. (The next one is August 4. At other times the establishment is strictly 21 and over.) Parents can enjoy an impressive array of beers from breweries like Figueroa Mountain and Claremont Craft Ales, while kids can amuse themselves on vintage pinball machines, a four-player Pac-Man Battle Royale and various driving and racing video games. There’s even a special menu of tyke-targeted treats like chicken tenders ($8) and hot dogs ($8). Just know that it’s not weekend day care. “Kids have to be accompanied by a parent or guardian, no drop-offs, which has happened a couple of times [at our New York location],” Barcade cofounder Paul Kermizian says with a laugh.
Want to impress your jaded friends at your next party? Go for the goats (as opposed to puppies, face painting, or shirtless waiters). Since 2017 Party Goats has been supplying adorable Nigerian dwarf goats to events ($250 for two hours). The farm animals are so popular they are booked a month in advance and make appearances in a raft of trendy glossies. The business’s owner and “goat mom,” Scout Raskin, says her critters—Spanky, Pippin, Gizmo, and Doc—help relax people and encourage them to live in the moment. “Goats are very confident animals, but they also have a very calm presence,” she says.
»Workout Under 30 Minutes
Platefit Brentwood, 13050 San Vicente Blvd
The ladies of B & B—that’s Beverly Hills and Brentwood—keep it tight at Platefit between browsing shoes at Neimans and meeting agent hubbies for dinner. The studio’s 27-minute high-intensity interval training has an extra kick: It’s done on individual vibrating Power Plates. The machines look like large scales and supposedly aid muscle contractions and lymphatic drainage. Naturally both Madonna and Donatella Versace are fans. Trainer and former Fear Factor champion Mark Hewlett’s classes at the Brentwood Country Mart branch are especially popular. For the slightly less geographically gifted, there are studios in WeHo and Studio City.
Lab Rat at Hatch Escapes
1919 3rd Ave., Arlington Heights
Lab Rat at Hatch Escapes ($39) pulls you into a parallel universe where you’re a tiny lab human used in a grad student’s dissertation experiment. The story—written by Tommy Wallach, author of the best seller We All Looked Up—takes place in a cage and a maze and includes encounters with huge everyday objects like pencils and books that are delightfully disorienting. Such high-production value, obsessive attention to detail, and deceptively challenging puzzles set this attraction apart from the many other escape rooms It’s one of the best in the world, not just the city.
RELATED: The Best of L.A. 2019
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