Brilliant white against the blue Los Angeles sky, each letter measuring 13.4 meters high, the Hollywood sign – born as “Hollywoodland”, to promote interest in a housing development – is instantly recognisable. 2023 marks its 100 yearsth anniversary and, in true Hollywood icon fashion, she’s had a makeover (read: a pressure wash and 250 gallons of paint) to make sure she looks her best for the big birthday.
Los Angeles has long cast a spell: on hopefuls in search of discovery and on tourists eager to admire walled mansions, celebrity spots or see, firsthand, locations where familiar scenes were filmed.
Of course, the way we consume the moving image has changed significantly since 1910, when California was filmed, the first motion picture ever made in the state of the same name. Domestic television diluted the allure of the Silver Screen, and box sets, streaming platforms, and binge-watching have since eliminated the allure of the cinema.
Thanks to the internet, social media platforms and gossip magazines, today’s stars are far less enigmatic than they once were, so is it any wonder we crave old-school glamor and excitement if walls could talk? Thankfully, it’s still there: and since you’ll have to venture further than the Boulevard of Broken Dreams to find it, it’s also a wonderful way to get under the star-dusted skin of Los Angeles.
Sumptuous hardly describes this confection of ornate tapestries, heavy drapes, gold, crystal and bronze. Also celebrating its centennial in 2023, the design for the iconic Oscar statuette was first conceived (in sketch form on a napkin by MGM artistic director Cedric Gibbons) here – and the hotel’s ballroom hosted the Awards eight times between 1931 and 1942.
Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, you can still explore the opulence of the public spaces, sip a cocktail at the Granite Bar or ask to be shown to the Gold Room, where a secret door with a (now sealed) path to the street bears witness to the past bars like speakeasies. Double rooms from £332 a night (millenniumhotels.com).
The joke room
Located next door to the famous Pantages Theater, a step into this dimly lit, jukebox-bustling dive bar is truly a step back in time. Originally a speakeasy (complete with a secret passageway that connected it to the theatre), the Frolic Room became legit at the end of Prohibition – though the tunnel is said to still be used by stars looking for a low-key post-Oscar tipple between 1950 and 1960, when the Pantages hosted the event.
Red leather stools flank the bar on one side of the narrow room and sit beneath the Al Hirschfeld mural, featuring images of Monroe, Chaplin, and Sinatra, on the other (6245 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA, 90028).
Even if it hadn’t been immortalized in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause – the film that made James Dean the symbol boy for generations of disaffected youth – the massive graceful presence of this Art Deco structure, towering over the entire Los Angeles basin, is worth worth the drive in the hills.
Wander the grounds, where some of the film’s pivotal scenes were filmed (and where a bust of the tragic star sits, with the Hollywood sign visible in the distance) before heading to the grand central dome of the Samuel Oschin Planetarium for screenings stellar, similar to those of the scene where Jim Stark (Dean) connects with Plato (Sal Mineo). Open Wednesday to Friday, 12:00 to 22:00, Saturday and Sunday, 10:00 to 22:00. Admission is free and the planetarium shows run every 60-90 minutes and cost $10/£8.50 per adult (griffithobservatory.org).
Built in 1927, The Roosevelt was the site of the first Academy Awards in 1929, and even with the addition of David Hockney’s swirls to the bottom of the outdoor pool in the 1980s, the area has retained a sense of nostalgic edge. glamorous pool, with proud palms, striped towels and plush sunbeds. Marilyn Monroe kept a suite overlooking the pool for two years, as well as posing on the diving board for her first ever commercial.
A stay in his suite is pricier than others, but you can settle for a cocktail in one of the lounges or visit the recently revitalized Cinegrill, once the haunt of Arthur Miller, Humphrey Bogart and F Scott Fitzgerald. With its entrance hidden behind a bookcase, the theater, awash in red velvet and gold accents, hosts burlesque and stand-up comedy shows, as well as screenings of classic films. Double rooms from £260 a night (thehollywoodroosevelt.com).
Located across from what was once Samuel Goldwyn’s studio, the Formosa opened in 1939 and has become a favorite spot for stars to drink and dine. To the right of the entrance is the cabin where John Wayne allegedly passed out, before being found in the kitchen the following morning, cooking eggs in his underwear.
The ‘Elvis’ booth – the star’s favorite – with its cabinet and framed photos, is unmistakable, and legend has it that he left a Cadillac for a pretty waitress as a tip. Portraits of Gilded Age stars line the walls and the rear of the restaurant is fashioned from a red tram dating from 1904. Decor throughout – deep red, tasselled lanterns, flocked wallpaper and wood dark – it’s gorgeous, the food sublime, reasonably priced and huge portions (theformosacafe.com).
What’s a step back in time, without a dash of tapophilia (an interest in historic cemeteries, for the uninitiated)? Established in 1899, Hollywood Forever Cemetery is adjacent to Paramount Studios, which ties it inextricably to the screen – no wonder Garland, Rooney, Fairbanks and Valentino are all buried here.
There is a memorial to Toto from the Wizard of Oz – while Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Oscar, for her role in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, was, due to segregation laws, buried elsewhere, despite the specific instructions in his will. It was only in 1999 that a lakeside memorial was finally dedicated to her, under the gaze of the Hollywood sign (hollywoodforever.com).
Opened in 1929, Chateau Marmont was considered the place to go if you didn’t want to be seen, as opposed to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where an under-the-radar exit is, to this day, difficult to pull off. The Norman-style building, high above Sunset, is synonymous with celebrity shenanigans as well as staff discretion. Sure, we can’t know all the salacious and scandalous details of what Bogart, Flynn, Harlow, Gable, Newman, de Niro, Davis and Monroe have been up to behind these hallowed walls, but it’s fun to tap into snippets of Hollywood lore.
The rooms are, of course, expensive, but if you don’t feel like staying (and with a little luck), you might be able to book a non-resident table in the restaurant and soak up the atmosphere with your Old Fashioned. Junior suites from £630 per night (chateaumarmont.com).
Musso & Frank
Peek closely at the sleeves of the red-jacketed waiters and bar staff and you’ll see an explosion of embroidered stars, one for each year they’ve worked at this legendary venue, which opened in 1919. The decor is pure Old School Hollywood and the stories, if you can get one of the super discreet staff to speak, are as dazzling as the service.
Home to Hollywood’s first payphone, business was done in these aged red leather booths, while Chaplin, Valentino, Fairbanks, Marx and Bacall were all regulars – ask the staff for their favorite seats and orders. Literary history also abounds here, with the likes of Fitzgerald, Chandler, Steinbeck and Huxley all using this evocative space across the street from the Screen Writers Guild (mussoandfrank.com).
Sarah Rodrigues was a guest of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board (discoverlosangeles.com).
Find more of the best things to do in Los Angeles in our dedicated guide and plan your trip to the City of Angels using our expert’s ultimate itinerary.