Usually associated with Hollywood and a busy urban life, this California city offers more to see than meets the eye.

Prowling mountain lions, a home built like an ancient Mayan temple, a cinema full of dead people. It must be… Los Angeles?

Go urban mountaineering with the beautiful people along Runyon Canyon
Los Angeles doesn’t flaunt its public spaces. It’s happy for out-of-towners to come, get sucked into the concrete vortex of 12-lane freeways and 20-mile-long boulevards, and leave with the words of American writer and poet Gertrude Stein on their mind: ‘There is no there there’ (the quote was originally directed towards Stein’s torn-down childhood home in Oakland, California, hundreds of miles to the north).

Of course, there is plenty of here here; you just have to know the city, give it some time and some respect, before it rewards you. Nothing proves that more than Runyon Canyon, a protected urban wilderness of sheer rock face, hidden trails and parched scrubland in the section of the Santa Monica Mountains known as the Hollywood Hills. At the highest lookout point, you find yourself at eye level with the circling newscopters and LAPD air patrols as they track car chases below. To the east, there’s the famous Hollywood sign and triple-domed Griffith Park Observatory set against desert brush and the epic, white-peaked San Gabriel Mountains. To the west lies the vast circuit board of LA’s grid, with the city’s major boulevards cutting skyscraper-lined paths to the Pacific shoreline. If you peer over the cliff edge to the east, you can also see the rusting hulk of the old Outpost Estates sign, built in the 1920s to promote a rival development to Hollywoodland.

The best time to experience Runyon is just before dusk, ideally after a smog-cleansing rainfall. It’s worth bearing in mind that getting to the top from the entrance on Fuller Avenue, a few blocks north of Sunset Boulevard, is quite a workout: in fact, the locals use it as a gym – or at least as an advertising opportunity, this being a neighbourhood popular with expertly toned wannabe actors. Dogs are another crucial element of the Runyon experience – there’s every size, shape and breed imaginable, most of them running free of their leads.

There are less friendly animals, too: coyotes, rattlesnakes, bobcats and even the very occasional mountain lion. ‘Oh, I don’t worry about that,’ says Jake, a scriptwriter I meet who’s setting out on a hike to clear his mind between penning TV pilots. ‘The last time anyone in California got eaten by a mountain lion was in 2004, I think.’

  • Runyon Canyon’s entrance is at the top of Fuller Avenue in Hollywood – turn north from Sunset Boulevard. It’s open from dawn until dusk.

Take-away via Twitter: Experience the food truck revolution
Lunch trucks, also known as ‘roach coaches’ due to their reputation for less-than-perfect sanitation, have always been a part of life in LA. Every day, they make their way slowly through the Hollywood Hills, sounding steam horns which, like Mississippi steamboats, you can hear for miles around as they pass mountainside construction sites. Customers are pretty much exclusively Hispanic labourers and menu items are usually limited to burritos and tacos, along with the typical rice and beans accompaniments and sweet Mexican refrescos (brightly coloured soft drinks).

Yet the mobile food concept has taken on a new meaning since the recession, which has devastated many of the city’s fancier restaurants. Kitchen staff were made redundant and aspiring restaurateurs weren’t able to launch new concepts because the banks were too cautious to hand out loans.

Hence the ‘gourmet lunch truck’ revolution was born. Fed up with the hostile economic conditions, LA’s best chefs took to the streets: they bought second-hand trucks, gave them custom paint jobs and advertised their positions every day via Twitter. And now there are literally dozens of them. Each truck is a work of art selling everything from cheese steak sandwiches at Lee’s Philly and truffle-enhanced burgers at Baby’s Badass Burgers to chocolate-banana cupcakes from Sprinkles and, arguably most famous of all, Korean barbecue tacos from the Kogi BBQ truck. All of which means that the city’s finest food is now available for not much more than the cost of the ingredients – albeit outdoors, without seating and on paper plates.

On a Friday night in Silver Lake, I stop at a red-and-yellow food truck going by the name of Let’s Be Frank. It’s a hot dog truck – sorry, a ‘doghouse’ – except that the cows that the beef comes from are grass-fed, the casing is made from lamb and the spices are organic. ‘We have a Frank Dog, a Brat Dog or a Not Dog,’ says Sue from the counter hatch. A Not Dog? ‘It’s vegan,’ she says.

I choose a Frank and a Brat, each loaded with homemade relish, grilled onions and her apocalyptic ‘devil sauce’, and then resist the temptation to order a couple more.

Catch a movie screening in a cemetery
As the memorial service for Michael Jackson proved, nowhere does farewells quite like LA. The city’s funeral business has been world-famous since 1948, thanks to Evelyn Waugh, who based his satire The Loved One – in particular the ‘memorial park’ of Whispering Glades – on the real-life Forest Lawn.

You don’t have to be dead to experience the surreal creativity of this town’s most recession-proof industry. In summer, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard hosts outdoor film screenings on Saturday and Sunday nights from Cinespia, which celebrates ten years of events this year. Here, movies are projected onto the white marble wall of Rudolph Valentino’s tomb (the cemetery also features touchscreen consoles allowing you to view short films about the departed).

At a free screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest, aside from the £7 suggested donation, I take the website’s advice and bring blankets, pillows, food and plenty of booze. The movie itself turns out to be little more than a backdrop; the real appeal lies more with the random conversations you strike up, the DJs performing before and after the screening and the creepily peaceful beauty of the place.

Another attraction: wondering if any of the stars on the screen are now buried beneath my feet.

  • Cemetery movie screenings are operated by Cinespia during the summer

Shop and play detective at an estate sale
For many Angelenos, the most satisfying way to shop isn’t at one of the city’s many pristine outdoor malls, but at ‘estate sales’. These events are held every weekend at the homes of the wealthy and powerful, typically not long after their obituary has appeared in the Los Angeles Times. However, these basement clearouts aren’t only held after funerals: they’re also organised by divorcing couples or those downsizing from, say, a castle in Bel Air to a cosier 10-bedroom palace in Beverly Hills.

If you were to drive around one of LA’s richer neighbourhoods on a weekend, you’ll see makeshift sandwich boards on street corners advertising such sales, but the most devoted of estates salers check in advance for times and locations on websites such as estatesales.net. These same people – generally interior designers and antiques dealers – will then arrive at dawn and fight for the best items, which can range from 1920s fixtures to jewellery, paintings, rare books, furniture and even cars. At one notorious estate sale held after the dotcom bubble burst a decade or so ago, mobile phone billionaire Craig McCaw sold his private island, a 985-metre-long yacht, a hangar’s worth of executive jets and a rare wine collection.

Don’t expect to be told whose home you’re poking around, however. ‘Part of the fun is guessing,’ says Lucie, a self-confessed estate-sale junkie, as she buys a wrought-iron birdcage at a sale in the hills above Los Feliz. ‘The clues come from which eras of the city are most obviously represented and if the person has picked up a lot of items from another part of the world.’

Of course, it’s often the homes – many of them in aggressively gated communities with godlike views over the city or ocean – that are the real draw, not the dusty old curiosities on sale. Visiting a sale in Bel Air, I find the property set within several acres of grounds with a private railway, complete with two stations, connecting the main residence to the gardens below. The trains aren’t working, so I queue up with my fellow scavengers to be taken to the house on an electric golf cart.

Nobody seems to care if people actually buy anything; it seems that this rare glimpse into how some of the richest people on Earth spend their money is more than enough for most.

  • See estatesales.net and pacificestatesales.com. Cash is the best method of payment, but events organised by professional liquidators may take cards. Although high, prices are usually far lower than at antiques shops or on eBay.

Spot whales, dolphins and possibly cheer on the empty, sandy beaches of Malibu
When LA locals want a day at the beach, they tend to avoid Santa Monica, with its crowded, touristy pier and snoozing bums. Instead, they head further west up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, more commonly known as The ’Bu.

Specifically, they go to Zuma Beach – an unbroken, two-mile-long stretch of white sand, clean water and churning surf. Neil Young named an album after this place, Gwen Stefani named a son after it, and David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson ran along it in slow motion for the opening credits of Baywatch (it also features in the original Planet of the Apes movie as the place where Charlton Heston finds the half-buried Statue of Liberty).

Zuma is also of interest for other reasons: it was an ancient hunting ground for Clovis man – the prehistoric Paleo-Indians who populated America about 13,000 years ago – and it remains a site of intense academic interest (the ‘real’ Indiana Jones, a Los Angeles archaeologist named Gary Stickel, infamously attempted to halt the construction of a clifftop mansion in 2005 so he could do more digging). It’s also home to many dolphins – they will swim alongside you if you get out far enough. During winter it attracts migrating whales.

I go to Zuma on an off-season Sunday and more or less have the place to myself. From the beach, I hike up a well-marked trail lined with sea figs, sage, coreopsis (a type of yellow-flowered herb) and prickly pear cacti to the top of Point Dume – a triangular bluff that juts out into the Pacific. The view from the top is so good, it feels like I’m floating above the ocean. I don’t spot any whales, but I do see dolphins and sea lions.

A local, Bruce Lampcov, tells me that in Malibu’s wilder days, I might also have been able to see a few nudists down in the bay of Pirate’s Cove to the east. Nowadays, he sighs, ‘you’re more likely to see paparazzi’, thanks to the area’s countless famous residents, including the likes of Cher, Robert Redford and Ozzy Osbourne.

  • Zuma Beach is about 25 miles west of Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s quiet on weekdays and off-season, but expect crowds in August.

Drink like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
If the English had colonised a far-away planet in the early 1900s, the result might have looked like The Prince, near downtown LA. There’s an extraterrestrial vibe to this underground lounge thanks to a bloody paint job, creaking leather, oil paintings and suits of armour – especially with an all-Korean menu and half-Korean, half-Hollywood clientele. It’s as though you’ve stumbled onto the set of a Merchant Ivory remake of Blade Runner.

Arguably The Prince’s biggest moment came in the mid-1970s when one of its red leather booths was used in a scene featuring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Today, the place is a regular haunt for the likes of Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks – in fact, it appeared in the show as a stand-in for Toots Shor’s, the infamous ‘booze and broads’ lounge in Manhattan.

The Prince isn’t the only place in LA where you can drink martinis and get all film noir; the city is full of historical hangouts. Among them is the bordello-themed drinking room of Hollywood’s newly restored Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, which hosted the very first Academy Awards in 1929.

The hotel itself is vast, dark and superbly atmospheric thanks to its Spanish-Gothic architecture which defined the city in the 1920s. In the bar there’s a long wooden counter, oxblood leather, mirrored wall tiles, thick fuchsia wallpaper, chandeliers and wines served in mini-carafes. The burgers are among the best in LA – a high compliment in such a burger-obsessed town – and can be served with 13 different kinds of cheese and 13 alternatives to ketchup, including horseradish cream and lemon dill.

  • The Prince (Blue Hawaiian £6, valet parking £1.50; 3198 ½ West 7th Street; 001 213 389 2007).
  • The Roosevelt/25 Degrees (Guinness milkshake £5, valet parking £12 maximum; 001 323 466 7000).

Admire the free-thinking architecture
Los Angeles’ houses don’t have to conform too much more than basic earthquake codes.

 I set out on a tour of LA’s architectural landmarks, starting with Frank Gehry’s Binoculars Building in Venice and on to Rudolph Schindler’s 1922 Kings Road House in West Hollywood, generally agreed to be the first private residence built in the Modernist style. Next is Walt Disney Concert Hall, another Gehry creation, which resembles a kind of cyborg insect. A guide ushers me into the main hall, directing my view towards the organ. ‘People say it looks like a bag of French fries,’ she laughs, pointing to its vast, chip-shaped pipes. She adds that the final design was more conservative than the original plan, which was impossible under the planet’s current laws of physics. That didn’t seem to stop Gehry with the rest of the building, however.

The same could be said of LA: it refuses to conform to rules, including that which says it ought to be a gridlocked, smog-choked metropolis fit only for poseurs and wannabes. The reality is quite different.

The article 'Rediscover Los Angeles' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.