Three Perfect Days: Iceland
Story by Diane Vadino | Photography by Adrienne Pitts | Hemispheres May 2019
Not long ago, Iceland was a spectacularly beautiful but seldom visited wonderland of waterfalls, volcanoes, and geysers in the lonely North Atlantic, still finding its national feet after centuries of Norwegian and Danish rule. Then, an unlikely confluence of events: The economic crisis of 2008–09 turned the country upside down—and paradoxically made the once prohibitively expensive destination affordable for visitors. A year later, the air traffic–halting eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano landed Iceland, in all its geothermal splendor, on news broadcasts around the world. Now, the word is truly out, and the supremely photogenic country welcomes so many tourists—2.3 million in 2018—that visitors outnumber residents by a ratio of seven to one. How to find a place for yourself, away from the crowds? Make a break for the majestic north, where whales sidle up to sightseeing boats, and the aurora borealis can be viewed from the comfort of geothermally heated pools. Then cap things off with a day in the picturesque capital, Reykjavík, home to a world-class art and dining scene, dramatic seascapes, and a pretzel that's possibly worth the trip itself. These days, the sun barely sets. The lupine is blooming. Paradise awaits.
Tailing whales across Skjálfandi Bay
The GeoSea Geothermal Sea Baths
All is quiet, and all is magnificent.
We have sailed west, into the center of Skjálfandi Bay. Everything around our ship—land, sea, sky—is some variation of gray, except for our full-length, cherry-red survival suits, which resemble the gear crabbers wear during blizzards on Deadliest Catch. My seasick fellow passengers, unsteady on their feet, haul themselves to the guardrail and peer stoically into the distance.
Naustið, a restaurant in Húsavík
At first, the wildlife is limited to birds: gannets, Arctic terns, black guillemots with white patches on their wings.
But we are not here for birds. All of us—I hear Japanese, French, English, German, Scandinavian languages that I can't distinguish from one another—are here for whales.
The whales cannot be trusted to appear on cue, our North Sailing guide says over the ship's loudspeaker. We rely on their favor. This is the North Atlantic, not SeaWorld.
And so we wait. I email my landlord, my boss, and a woman who wants to buy an antique pitcher from me. But then we hear it: a whale surfacing, blowing air through its spout, and, all at once, it's magical. (It sounds like a massive, wet poof.) We hear it again. Then, suddenly, we see the source of the sound, as a slick black tail flips up and then down into the water. Everyone on the boat rushes in the direction of the whale, slipping on the wet deck, jockeying for a place at the rail. The whale, a humpback, skims the surface desultorily before diving again. It's soon trailed by a boat from a competing tour company, whose passengers look exactly like us, except their suits are black and fluorescent yellow. At times, the whale swims just below the surface, perhaps 50 feet from us and sinking fast, so we see only its massive outline. Another boat arrives, its passengers clad in neon orange. The boats follow the whales. Sometimes we get the best view; sometimes another boat does.
A stuffed hooded seal at the Húsavík Culture House
A rhythm establishes itself: tedium, the majesty of whales, tedium, the majesty of whales. The majesty, though, is cumulative: Before we turn and head back to the small port at the town of Húsavík, Iceland's whale-watching capital, we have seen a dozen of them (or the same whale a dozen times; who can say for sure?), flipping and swimming and turning tail in the water. As we disembark, I feel strangely euphoric, enchanted. I want whales everywhere to be happy and safe.
In summary, my dominant impulse is not to eat them. I discover at the nearby Húsavík Whale Museum that not everyone shares this response. “People go on the tours, come into the museum, and ask where they can eat it," says Garðar Þröstur Einarsson, a whale specialist and former guide. “Sixty percent of the minke whale meat in Iceland is eaten by tourists."
We're surrounded by exhibits that testify to the immense humanity of whales. “That is bananas," I reply.
No restaurants in Húsavík serve whale meat—certainly not Naustið, with its bright, mid-century mariner design. What it does serve: potatoes and wild arctic char, caught that day in a lake named Kálfborgarárvatn. (When Naustið's owner tells me the lake's name, I write down “K-???????" in my notebook.)
“Then we hear it: a whale surfacing blowing air through its spout, and, all at once, it's magical."
From there, I drive to the other end of Húsavík, to the GeoSea Geothermal Sea Baths, a brand-new pool complex perched on a cliff above the harbor. Pools are central to Iceland's idea of itself—as primary to its national identity as pubs are to Britain or cafés are to France, according to Icelandic author Alda Sigmundsdóttir. The Blue Lagoon, a massive bathing complex near the airport in Keflavík, is the best known, but it's just one of many in towns large and small across the country. None are as beautiful as Húsavík's.
Or, at least, I think they're the most beautiful. By the time I get to the pools, it's pitch-black. (It's hard to imagine a better place to view the northern lights, though the optimal viewing time is late September through March.)
The air is cold, so I sit as low as I can in the naturally heated water. The Icelanders are less delicate, walking between the pool and the bar, picking
up beers through a service window and drinking them at leisure.
I have seen my fill of whales, but I know that it should be possible to hear them from the pool, so I stay in the water much too long, waiting for another of those spouting poofs.
The GeoSea Geothermal Sea Baths
Pool EtiquetteOf the wide array of Icelandic souvenirs—from the ubiquitous wool sweaters to every iteration of puffin memorabilia—none will offer a window onto the national view on visitors like Alda Sigmundsdóttir's The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland, a collection of essays on local sensibilities. If you heed just one of her advisories, let it be this: Before entering a public pool, take a shower. (No clothes. Not optional.) “You need to shower, naked, at the pool before going in," she says. “It sounds kind of facetious and silly, but not showering really does upset the local population." Swimming pools, Sigmundsdóttir says, are crucial to the culture—and their customs must be respected.
A pair of waterfalls and Iceland's biggest toy box
The grand Goðafass waterfall
I've been to Iceland several times before, but like many visitors, I stayed in and around the capital, Reykjavík, exploring only as far as the Golden Circle. The attractions on this well-worn circuit—Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir—are spectacular. They are also very, very popular, meaning that they are in some ways victims of their own exceptional success.
A ram at Deplar Farm
So, instead, today I've decided to embark on a self-drive version of the north's equivalent of the Golden Circle: the Diamond Circle tour. (There is also a Silver Circle tour, near Reykjavík; Iceland will run out of gem names before it runs out of scenic excursion possibilities.) To see as much as I want to today, I leave at 6:30 a.m., before anything (including Húsavík's bakeries) is open.
The spa at Deplar Farm
I begin with a 50-mile drive that meanders north (and then south) to Dettifoss, Europe's most powerful waterfall by volume and the location used for the opening scene in Ridley Scott's Prometheus. It is staggering, monumental. From there, I head south to the Ring Road, which circles the entire island: If I turn east and go about 500 miles, I'll hit Reykjavík. I go west, though, to Mývatn, a wild expanse of a lake that looks broody and Scottish when the sun ducks behind the clouds and like a sparkling turquoise field when it emerges. My third stop is Goðafoss, another waterfall. It's more approachable than Dettifoss—literally, in that it seems less like the sort of thing you fall into by accident, never to be seen again. All things being equal, I prefer Goðafoss (pretty) to Dettifoss (existential).
North Atlantic salon at Depler Farm
My fourth stop is the reason for my non-leisurely pace: Deplar Farm, an unassuming yet gorgeous hotel in the Fljót Valley run by Eleven Experience that's a magnet for the sort of finance executive or celebrity seeking a no-expense-spared vacation. “You're going to Deplar!" a guide I meet at Mývatn exclaims when I share my itinerary. “They've got the biggest toy box in the country." Justin Timberlake, he adds, is a fan.
I don't understand what “toy box" means until a couple of hours later, when I see it while trailing behind my guide, a mountaineer/artist named Thorlakur Ingolfsson. He goes by Laki, which is pronounced “Loki," like the god/Avengers villain. (Tom Hiddleston has some serious competition.) Guests at Deplar are paired with a guide, and I am lucky Laki is mine. The lodge offers myriad activities, from helicopter skiing in the winter to salmon fishing and kayaking the nearby fjord in warmer months. Equipment for all these activities is stored in the “toy box," a hut stocked with snowmobiles, hiking boots, snowshoes—anything you might need for expeditions big and small.
“Imagine the adventure you'd have if you just rent a car and follow the weather."
The grand Goðafass waterfall
Not feeling particularly sporty, I opt for an easy hike into the surrounding hills, followed by a very late lunch of North Atlantic salmon with lentils and beets at the property's Ghost Farm. This gives Laki and I plenty of time to discuss the best way to travel through Iceland. “The weather has such a huge impact on what you're able to do here," he says. “Really, the thing to do is check the weather in the morning and go where it's good." That's easy, I say, if you're not coming from far away and if you didn't have to make hotel reservations six months in advance. “If you can, being flexible is better," he replies. “Imagine the sort of adventure you'd have if you just rent a car and follow the weather, if you truly go and explore a world that's beautiful, pristine." I can imagine it.
Afterward, there is yoga, a massage, and the opportunity to soak in an outdoor pool. (Clouds scupper my northern lights ambitions.) Dinner is served at 9, and it is tremendous: beef medallions with beets and sunchokes, all locally sourced.
I've stayed in hotels all over the world, and Deplar just might be the best. Even before I fall asleep, I am sending imploring emails to my friends, with pictures of the property—even in an all-day mist, with low, gray clouds, it is stunning—asking them to return with me.
Reykjavík from land and sky
In the morning, I leave Deplar Farm with regret, after a breakfast of delicious, crepe-like Icelandic pancakes with powdered sugar and berries. From here, it's either a tidy helicopter ride or a straightforward drive to Reykjavík. Not being Justin Timberlake, I opt for the latter: a five-hour trek I make under sullen skies. Even without any sunshine, the scenery is dizzying; I have to fight the impulse to pull over and take photos at every turn.
A green corner at the Coocoo's Nest in Reykjavik
Reykjavík is so compact that it's easy to see a lot, fast. I begin with the city's most distinctive landmark: Hallgrímskirkja, which looks somehow both Art Deco and ancient. The exterior is striking—it looks like a fighter jet sitting upright or, equally, where elves in a Tolkien book might worship—while the interior resembles the Lutheran churches of my childhood (read: like a suburban hotel ballroom). It's well worth the wait to go to the observation tower: At 240 feet, it offers superb, 360-degree views of Reykjavík, the harbor, and the mountains to the north.
Smoked beef fillet at Moss
Two hundred miles of driving followed by some intense church viewing means that I'm both (a) ready for a walk and (b) starving—so I head toward Grandi, a onetime industrial, now up-and-coming area by the harbor that's home to a popular ice cream shop, Valdís, and a buzzy brunch spot, Coocoo's Nest, as well as Reykjavík's oldest restaurant, Kaffivagninn, where I have a plate of light and crisp fish and chips (basically the official meal of Reykjavík).
Sufficiently reenergized, I head to my second stop in Grandi: Studio Olafur Eliasson. If you don't recognize Eliasson's name, you may know his work: He installed waterfalls that seemed to hover 100 feet above New York City's East River in 2008—and, later, above the Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles. He is also the author of my favorite book about Iceland, a collection of 35 images, submitted by Icelanders, of their cars stuck in rivers (title: Cars in Rivers), and the designer of the glass facade at Harpa, Reykjavík's concert hall.
“If there's a problem with Iceland, it's that the spectacular becomes everyday."
The studio, which is open to the public, is at Marshall House, a former fish factory. I wander past Eliasson's works, including Untitled (Spiral), a tall spiral of metal spinning up (or down), and then I see the artist himself. (If you couldn't tell, I'm a fan.) I know it makes sense that an artist would be working in his own studio—and would be involved, it seems, with the taking down of one installation or the setup of another—but it is too great. I stop and stare and then run away as quickly as I can, before anyone catches me staring.
A statue of Leif Erikson in front of Hallgrímskirkja
I have one more stop in Reykjavik: Brauð & Co., which makes pretzels that might be the finest anywhere in the world. I buy three (one for now, one for the very near future, one I will save for a post-dinner snack) and head to the heliport. The weather has cleared, and the sky is cloudless for my flight with Reykjavík Helicopters, which I share with a British woman and her teenage daughter. We fly from the city to a geothermal area, with burbling hot pots and steam vents. Sheep cling to the side of a hill, undoubtedly enjoying the warmth: It's like standing above a laundry vent, except it smells of sulfur instead of fabric softener. The Brits and I trade travel suggestions (as well as seats on the way back so that both the daughter and I have a chance to sit in the front, next to the pilot, an Austrian who trained in Oregon). They report particular enthusiasm for their northern lights tour. “We saw them the first night, and it was nothing special," the mother says. “But the second night—truly one of the most wonderful things I've ever seen." They show me an app that provides a positive forecast for tonight's aurora: Like the whales, the northern lights may appear. Or, they may not.
Iceland by Cruise
Have nine perfect days to spend in Iceland? Circumnavigate the country on Hurtigruten's expedition voyage and explore every aspect of the wild landscape, from the Westfjords and northern volcanic lakes to picturesque coastal towns like Bakkagerði, where some of the 100 or so residents might regale you with tales of elves and trolls. Onboard, enjoy in-depth biology lectures and a photography workshop (gotta get that whale shot!) along with locally sourced meals. There are also on-deck hot tubs and a sauna—this is Iceland, after all. From $4,444, hurtigruten.com
As we fly back to Reykjavík, we agree that it's all spectacular: the lakes and mountains, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in the distance. But is this more marvelous than the whales? The cliffside pools? The continent's most powerful waterfall? The other, less obviously murderous waterfall? The sheep, the hotel, the view from Hallgrímskirkja?
If there is a problem with Iceland, it's that the spectacular becomes everyday. (Confession: I spend the last 10 minutes of our time at this geothermal area, one of the most dazzling places I have ever seen, playing Candy Crush.) Can you burn out on natural beauty? Is there a point when too much is too much?
Inside the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík
As it turns out, I may be at that point. I head to The Retreat, the new five-star hotel attached to the Blue Lagoon, which offers a more exclusive experience of this exceptionally popular attraction. In the pool, I watch an Instagram influencer do a photoshoot, surely a daily occurrence here. Another vote for northern Iceland! At this point, I take my directions from the hotel's name and retreat to my room—specifically, to the tub positioned in front of floor-to-ceiling windows and the shockingly turquoise water outside—before going to chef Ingi Þórarinn Friðriksson's showcase restaurant, Moss.
Where to Stay
The Retreat at Blue LagoonThe minimalist 62-suite Retreat opened last year, offering a super-exclusive experience of the popular geothermal day spa. Retreat guests can enter the adjoining Blue Lagoon, but Blue Lagoon day-trippers have to pay for access to the Retreat, where every angle reveals an Instagram-ready vista of the turquoise, mineral-rich water or the surrounding lava field. The staff, four restaurants, and spa treatment options are all top-notch. From $1,350, bluelagoon.com
Alda HotelIdeally located on Laugavegur street, surrounded by the city's best shopping and restaurants, Alda is within easy walking distance of all of Reykjavík's attractions. In addition to the spacious rooms, this boutique property offers a sauna and outdoor hot tub, plus three buzzing spots on the ground floor: a design-y lounge, the busy Brass restaurant, and a hip, award-winning barber shop (book a cut in advance). From $135, aldahotel.is
Hotel BergNearly all foreign visitors arrive in Iceland through Keflavík, home to the international airport, but few stick around to explore the surrounding Reykjanes Peninsula beyond the Blue Lagoon. Ease your arrival by staying nearish to the airport at the super-stylish Hotel Berg, which offers a rooftop pool (ideal for northern lights viewing), free airport transfers, and a master class in Scandi design. From $131, hotelberg.is
Depler FarmAt Deplar Farm, an all-inclusive resort on the remote Troll Peninsula in northern Iceland, experience is the key word. The 13 rooms in the turf-roofed lodge are cozy, but visitors will spend most of their time taking advantage of the outdoor activities: heli-skiing, fat-tire biking, fly-fishing, and much more.elevenexperience.com
Remember the north.United offers daily service from New York/Newark to Reykjavík, Iceland, between June 6 and October 3. Visit united.com or check the United mobile app for details and schedule.
Today, we remember the colleagues, customers and every single victim of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
I know each of us in the United family marks this difficult moment in our own way. Still, we all share a common commitment to honor how our brothers and sisters left us and also celebrate what they gave to us during their lives. We remember their professionalism and heroism. We cherish their camaraderie and friendship. We carry with us the examples they set forth, especially in the heroism and bravery displayed by so many on that terrible day. Above all, we understand a simple truth: While thousands of our fellow human beings lost their lives in New York City, Arlington and Shanksville, the attacks of September 11th were aimed at all people of peace and good will, everywhere. They were attacks on the values that make life worth living, as well as the shared purpose that make us proud of what we do as members of the United family: connecting people and uniting the world.
We may live in times scarred by discord and disagreement, and we know there are those around the world who seek to divide us against one another. But, on this day – above all – we come together, as one. We affirm our core belief that far, far more unites us as citizens and fellow human beings than can ever divide us.
Let us embody that belief as we go about serving our customers and one another – on this day and every day – as we continue to help building a world that's more united. Let that be our memorial to the sisters and brothers we lost, eighteen Septembers ago.
Story by Justin Goldman | Photography by Tanveer Badal | Hemispheres September 2019
No one comes to Los Angeles without having at least a little foreknowledge. If you're a film geek (like me), you know where the heist crew had breakfast in Reservoir Dogs and which building was Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. If you're a music geek (like me) you can name the clubs Guns N' Roses welcomed to the jungle and the streets Dr. Dre went rollin' in his '64. If you're from New York or San Francisco (like me), you probably hate LA on principle—for the smog, the Lakers fans, the fame-seeking ethos of Hollywood. And yet, no matter how much you think you know the City of Angels, there's always something more to learn, something real to find. LA County, after all, comprises more than 4,000 square miles and 10 million people (including the largest Mexican and Asian immigrant communities in the U.S.), with a GDP of $700 billion. It's impossible to make an LA guide for everyone, but if you (like me) are a fan of Chinatown and Charles Bukowski, beaches and bowling alleys, Michelin stars and micheladas, here's one for you.
Beaches and speakeasies on the Westside
I'm in Los Angeles, so of course I'm eating breakfast by the pool. More specifically, I'm in the lovely atrium at FIG, the poolside restaurant at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. In the water, a couple of kids are splashing around in unicorn floaties. On the wall above, Muscle Beach's best-known lifter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, flexes in a mural. On my plate is a scramble chock-full of fresh produce—tomatoes, asparagus, peppers, spinach—from Santa Monica's famed farmers market.
The pool may be Hockney-worthy, but these flip-flops were made for walking. Five minutes down Ocean Avenue, I cross a bridge over the Pacific Coast Highway and onto the Santa Monica Pier, passing the Route 66 sign, caricature artists, funnel cake stands, and carnival rides on my way to the end of the pier, where fishermen toss their lines in the water and tourists snap photos of a sea lion barking for scraps. The sharp salt smell of the ocean beckons, so I backtrack to the sand, where I roll up my jeans and watch the surf slide over my feet. I lose my thoughts in the rhythm of the waves, until a big one crashes in. Reverie over.
A prideful lifeguard tower on Venice Beach
Going wheels-up at the Venice Skatepark
I watch the surf slide over my feet, losing my thoughts in the rhythm of the waves, until a big one crashes in.
I keep flippin' and floppin' my way south toward Venice Beach, the epicenter of Southern California's grungy, punky beach culture. Snatches of the Doors leak from surf shops and sunglass stands on the very strip where Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek formed the band. Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light? Or just another lost angel… I kill a few minutes watching skaters ollie along the undulating walls of the Venice Skatepark, and then I exit the beach, going a few blocks inland to the Venice Canals. Developer Abbot Kinney built these narrow waterways in 1905 to evoke some other Venice, and while I don't see any gondoliers, the homes lining the canals make for a fun self-guided architecture tour, veering from glass-walled Modernist structures to mosaic-tiled hippie bungalows.
A few more blocks up Venice Boulevard, I reach the town's main drag, Abbot Kinney Boulevard. I'm having lunch at Gjelina, which for more than a decade has offered the sort of farm-fresh cuisine and casual-yet-sceney vibe that the rest of the world thinks is LA. I sit at a distressed-wood table and chow down on California king salmon tataki; grilled peaches with burrata, prosciutto, and chicory greens; and a perfectly cooked black bass with olives and heirloom tomatoes. If this is what people associate with LA, I can see why everyone wants to move here.
My feet are flip-flopped out, so it's a good thing my college buddy Matt, who lives in Hermosa Beach, has loaned me his car—a cobalt Chevy Volt we call the Blue Dragon—to help me navigate this unending city. Fortunately, you don't need to be a Targaryen to ride this dragon, so after retrieving the car from the Fairmont valet, I fly up the 405 to the J. Paul Getty Museum, which stands on a hill above the most heavily trafficked freeway in the U.S. I park and take the tram up, then meander through the Robert Irwin–designed Central Garden, following a trickling waterfall to a reflecting pool and an X-Files-esque azalea labyrinth. The scene is so transporting that it's easy to pass a couple of hours without even entering the galleries. Oops.
No time for regrets, though. The afternoon has begun to wane, so I drive back to the Fairmont and take a seat on my balcony to watch the curtain fall on another day in America. Once night has settled and the lights have come up on the pier, I walk over to the Third Street Promenade, an outdoor mallwhere fairy lights twinkle and purple jacarandas bloom above shoppers and buskers singing Justin Timberlake. At the food court, I go up an escalator and tap a code into a black door marked "private." When it opens, I enter Dialogue, an 18-seat tasting-menu hideaway that was one of just 24 restaurants in LA to receive a Michelin star this June. As he passes me the gorgeous plates (21 of them!), chef Dave Beran explains how the Roots' album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin inspired his menu.
"I reached out to Questlove, and he told me they wrote that album over the course of the last year of their manager's life," Beran says. "It's essentially their progression emotionally. You had to experience that album the way they intended it, and that led us to the idea of writing a tasting menu that had to be experienced the way we intended. Just as the seasons look forward and backward, the dishes do as well. Every dish has something in it from the last one and something to look forward to in the next. Your snapper had a ginger mist on it, which went into the ginger-rhubarb foam, which leads to a rhubarb chip with matcha and lilac pudding, followed by a cucumber-lilac soda. None of our dishes are intended to be complete thoughts as much as completing each other's thoughts." Food for thought, indeed.
The landmark Venice Sign at sunset
After dinner, I'm buying Matt a drink as a thanks for lending me the Blue Dragon. I take a cab to Abbot Kinney and meet him at the restaurant Scopa Italian Roots, where we tell the maître d' we have a reservation at Old Lightning. He promptly confiscates our phones and leads us around to the side of the building, through an unmarked door, and into LA's premier bourbon bar. The glass case along the wall taunts us with shelf after shelf of nigh-impossible-to-find vintage bottles. Matt leers covetously at a collection of limited-edition Willett, while I pine for the Pappy. I tell the bartender, Jesús, that I love the wheated flavor profile of the Van Winkles but can't shell out $3,000 for a flight. He brings me a more affordable sampler: a delectably corn-sweet Old Taylor 6-year from 1980; an Old Fitzgerald made by a legendary Kentucky warehouse manager who stole from his stores to create his own sought-after blends; and a 101-proof Evan Williams 12-year that's normally available only in the Bluegrass State. "I hope you didn't drive," Matt deadpans, although I think he's just trying to confiscate my Old Fitzgerald. Not a chance, pal.
Artful architecture and swinging nightlife in DTLA
Los Angeles may have an underrated metro system, but the city's true essence is found where the Blue Dragon and I now sit: in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 10. I pull up my rush-hour playlist, and Guy Clark sings, If I can just get off of this LA freeway, without getting killed or caught…
Eventually, I reach the center of the city, which the Spanish founded in 1781 as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles but has in recent years been rebranded simply as DTLA. I'm starting the morning with a bite at Grand Central Market, a 1917 building that's home to all sorts of hip food stalls. I stop at the G&B Coffee counter and get an almond macadamia latte to sip while I wriggle to the Clark Street Bread stand, where I order avocado toast. It tastes like California.
On the other side of the market, I spot one of LA's signature architectural sights, the Bradbury Building. The interior of this National Historic Landmark, which was built in 1893 and features five floors of ornate iron railings and elevator shafts climbing toward an expansive skylight, looks both stunningly vintage and eerily futuristic. It's little wonder Ridley Scott chose it as the setting for the climactic scene of Blade Runner.
I exit through the side door and gawp at the Pope of Broadway, a soaring mural of Anthony Quinn on the former Victor Clothing Company building across the way, before continuing on through DTLA. This area was once so rundown that it wasn't much of a leap for Scott to imagine that by 2019 it would look like a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but over the last decade it has become the reenergized hub of the city, thanks to places like The Last Bookstore. This temple to the written word is probably best known for its second-floor book tunnel, which tourists and wannabe influencers line up to snap selfies in. I ask a clerk what he thinks is the definitive LA novel, and he points me to John Fante's Ask the Dust, which local literary god Charles Bukowski called "a wild and enormous miracle."
It's a good thing I picked up the reading material, because I'm going to have a wait at my next stop. One of the wonderful, contradictory things about this wonderful, contradictory city is that some of its best restaurants are in run-of-the-mill strip malls. One of these is Sushi Gen, in DTLA's Little Tokyo, where a long line has formed before the doors even open. I take my spot and read for a few minutes—Los Angeles, come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets … you sad flower in the sand—before I'm seated at the sushi bar, where a chef slings slices of Tsukiji Market–quality fish (buttery tuna, briney sea bream, sweet shrimp, creamy uni) at me until I wave my napkin in the air like a white flag.
The Pacific Seas bar at Clifton's
The afternoon sun is beating down and bouncing up off the pavement, so I elect to walk off my meal indoors, at The Broad Museum. The four-year-old building, which entrepreneur Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, created to house their 2,000-piece collection, stands like a square of honeycomb next to the flamboyantly curvaceous Walt Disney Concert Hall next door—a contrast that associate curator Sarah Loyer tells me was very much intentional.
Jeff Koon's "Tulips" at the Broad Museum
"Where the Disney Concert Hall reflects light, our building draws light in," she explains. "The ceiling has 318 individual skylights that light the collection gallery. At peak sun hours we have all natural light." We ride the escalator up to the third-floor gallery, an acre of column-free space where pieces by Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, and Kara Walker are on display. I'm particularly struck by Deep Blue, an expansive mixed-media canvas by Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford. "It's inspired by the 1965 Watts Rebellion," Loyer notes. "You can see the map of the city grid, and the different dots and colors represent historic losses from that event."
We ride the Broad's escalator up to an acre of column-free space to see pieces by Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama
I thank Loyer for enlightening me and then zip over to the recently restored Hotel Figueroa, which features works from a new artist—often a Southern California woman—every quarter. I valet the Blue Dragon and take a few minutes to peruse Topanga-based painter Sophie Kipner's blind-contour portraits before stretching out on a poolside lounge chair with a Bohemia beer. When I mention to the waitress that something about the pool seems odd, she tells me it's shaped like a coffin. That seems like a bad omen for tonight…
But hey, if I gotta go, there are worse places to have my last meal than Nightshade, Top Chef winner Mei Lin's much-hyped new restaurant in the up-and-coming Arts District. A taxi drops me at a converted warehouse space that's an Instagrammer's dream—blond wood, white brick, mint and emerald green upholstery, and hanging plants—surpassed only by the presentation of the dishes: Hokkaido scallops in a coconut vinaigrette, chicharrón chunks with a bright green coconut and trout roe dipping sauce, prawn toast that tastes like Vietnamese spring rolls, Szechuan hot quail served atop Japanese milk bread (à la Nashville hot chicken). If the atmosphere is heavenly, that last plate is hellish; my eyes start burning upon its arrival, and it takes an extra glass of grüner to cool my mouth after its departure.
Let's keep turning up the heat! Clifton's is a DTLA institution, a Depression-era cafeteria that fed 10,000 people a day, eventually fell into disrepair, and was ultimately reborn as a four-story nightlife bazaar following a 2015 renovation. I climb past the giant trunk of an (admittedly fake) redwood tree to the top-floor Pacific Seas tiki bar, where I sit in a wicker chair under a mermaid statue and sip a Scorpion Bowl (rum, gin, cognac, orgeat, and god knows what else) that is, yes, set on fire by my waitress. Before I get stung, I descend one floor to the Brookdale Ballroom, where dancers in Gatsby-esque getups swing to a New Orleans jazz band. A woman sashays by me in a peacock-feather outfit, but she's gone before I can ask her if this is real or if I've been consumed by the flames of Szechuan pepper and Polynesian mixology.
Hollywood history and Eastside eats
It was all real, and I'm paying for it now. Good thing I know the perfect place for a clean-living kind of breakfast. Sqirl is on the edge of East Hollywood, in an area that's still dotted with 99-cent stores, but the line of part-time models waiting outside betrays its hip quotient. I make my way to the counter, order an Horchoffee (vegan horchata shaken with a double espresso) and a Crispy Disco (brown rice with mint, cilantro, cucumber, scallion, avocado, fried egg, and sausage), and grab a seat at the sideboard. The restaurant's sprightly owner, Jessica Koslow, brings over my food and gives me a playful punch on the knee as she takes the stool next to mine.
"It was a lot of pressure to be this funky place and be like, 'Here's what's happening in Los Angeles,'" the Long Beach native says, recalling the rapturous reviews she received after opening in 2012. However, she does take pride in being an evangelist for SoCal cooking. "There are so many different pockets of LA that [its cuisine] is hard to describe, but if you want a neighborhood restaurant for LA, you're here."
The Angel of Breakfast gives me a hug and waves me back to my food. After devouring the Crispy Disco, I head to The Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. Upon checking in, I rendezvous with Tours by Locals guide Jasmine Jia, who takes me on a winding drive through Griffith Park to the Griffith Observatory. The triple-domed Greek Revival building is one of LA's most recognizable—it can be seen in Rebel Without a Cause and La La Land—but Jia tells me it almost didn't get built. The city turned down funding from tycoon Griffith J. Griffith in 1912 because he had infamously shot his wife (who survived) a decade earlier. "There was a sensational trial," Jia says. Griffith re-donated the money when he died in 1919, and the Observatory was completed by the WPA in 1935. Today it's both an interactive astronomy museum and a spot from which you can see the Pacific Ocean, DTLA, Dodger Stadium, and the Hollywood sign.
The soup bowl–size chalices of salty, limey beer are garnished with shrimp, and the straws are even crusted with tamarind candy.
Now, the question every tourist in LA inevitably faces: Should I take a picture with the sign? As we drive over, Jia tells me it was erected as a real estate advertisement in 1923, when it originally read "Hollywoodland." "The land was sold, and the sign should have been taken down," she says, "but it became associated with the movie industry and LA and became a landmark." It was later shortened to Hollywood—better to fit the photo Jia snaps of me from the vista point in Lake Hollywood Park below.
Jia drops me back at the Blue Dragon, and I head to a far less touristed part of the city. Another college buddy of mine, Rob, was born and raised in Cypress Park, his parents among the tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants who settled on the east side of the Los Angeles River, and I've asked him to show me a couple of off-the-radar spots. I cross the concrete riverbed into Boyle Heights and meet him at El Tepeyac Café, an institution that serves old-school Mexican food. Rob points me toward the gargantuan chile verde–slathered Original Hollenbeck burrito, which is stuffed with rice and beans and guacamole and pork and comfort. Next, we zip over to La Chupería, in neighboring Lincoln Heights, where the bartender brings us two micheladas, soup bowl–size chalices of salty, limey beer (a Modelo bottle floats mouth-down in each cup) rimmed with chili sauce and garnished with cucumber, celery, and shrimp. The straws are even crusted with tamarind candy. As we slurp our drinks and watch a replay of the previous night's Dodgers game on the TV, I ask Rob what places like this mean to LA, and if he's worried about them disappearing as the city changes.
The busy lanes at Highland Park Bowl
"Gentrification brings restaurants and nightlife to areas that were overlooked, but now you have these immigrant-run mom-and-pop businesses, which have contributed so much to LA's cultural identity, operating under the threat of extinction," he tells me. "Without culture, LA risks losing its home too."
I thank the homie for the knowledge, and we split up with plans to meet later. I really need to stretch my legs, so I head to Echo Park. A popular walking path circles the lake where Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes snapped compromising photos of Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown, but today it's strangely calm: just a couple of teenagers lazily peddling swan boats and a few kids quacking at the ducks near the shore.
Feeling a little lighter, I get back in the car and cruise up Sunset Boulevard, shopping my way through LA's hippest 'hood, Silver Lake. I browse kid-centric bios of Prince and Bowie at MRKT, whip-stitched watchbands at Dean, and vintage rock 'n' roll tees at Sick City Records. Past the junction with Hollywood Boulevard, I make a pilgrimage to the swirling mural that appeared on the cover of Elliott Smith's Figure 8 album. The storefront has changed tenants several times—it's now a well-regarded Filipino restaurant—but most of the artwork remains, serving as a shrine where fans of the deceased songwriter still leave remembrances.
Echo Park Lake
We order frozen White Russians and 'Dead Flowers' comes on. I'm pretty sure we're in a Big Lebowski dream sequence.
Nostalgia makes me hungry. Dinner is at Majordomo, superstar chef David Chang's first California restaurant. I'm joined by Rob and Matt (who has come to reclaim the Blue Dragon) at a table beneath a skylit warehouse ceiling, and we go in on silky tofu topped with uni and avocado, dungeness crab mafaldine pasta, and a pot of boneless chuck short rib onto which our waiter slices a hunk of raclette. "Has anyone ever asked you to carve it straight into their mouth?" Matt asks. "All the time," the waiter replies.
We continue the impromptu reunion at another one of Rob's favorite spots, Highland Park Bowl. A diverse young crowd rolls strikes inside the 92-year-old bowling alley, LA's oldest, which is decorated with league championship banners from decades gone by. We order a round of frozen White Russians, a cocktail the bar calls The Dude Abides, and as we lace up our shoes, the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers" comes on. I'm pretty sure we're in a Big Lebowski dream sequence, but I don't see any purple jumpsuits, and the only thing that's nihilistic is the score of our game.
I hug my friends goodbye and hail a ride back to the Roosevelt, where I slip into a robe and look out the window of my suite. Hollywood Boulevard is asleep; the only stars sparkling are the ones embedded in the sidewalk. Good night, stars. Good night, moon. Good night, Los Angeles. I'll see you soon.