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Los Angeles Today

Starstruck...excessive...smoggy...superficial...There's a modicum of truth to each of the adjectives regularly applied to L.A. But Angelenos—and most objective visitors—dismiss their prevalence as signs of envy from people who hail from places less blessed with fun and sun. Pop Culture, for instance, does permeate life in LaLaLand: a massive economy employing millions of Southern Californians is built around it.

However, this city also boasts highbrow appeal, having amassed an impressive array of world-class museums and arts venues. America's second-largest city has more depth than paparazzi shutters can ever capture. So set aside your preconceived notions and take a look at L.A. today.

Downtown's Upswing

Los Angeles has been archly described as "72 suburbs in search of a city." Hence the renaissance its once-desolate Downtown is experiencing may come as something of a surprise. Long-neglected neighborhoods here have been spruced up, and streets even the police deemed irredeemable have been revitalized.

Even taking an ailing economy into account, in the last decade Downtown saw a remarkable development boom—most notably L.A. LIVE: a 27-acre, $2.5-billion entertainment complex, which includes the Nokia Theatre and the innovative Grammy Museum.

And there's plenty more to come in the next few years. The Autry National Center in Griffith Park will expand its space by an additional 25,000 square feet, to house its collection of artifacts from the American West. And Downtown L.A. will get Southern California's only museum dedicated to the Italian-American experience, due to open in 2012 in the historic Italian Hall near Olvera Street.

State of the Art

SoCal's beauty-obsessed citizens aren't the only ones opting for a fresh look these days: esteemed art museums are, too. Take the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens' recent $20-million makeover of its galleries, a "must-see" for lovers of European art.

The biggest news in L.A.'s museum world today puts the spotlight on Downtown. Plans for The Broad Foundation's new, 120,000-square-foot, three-story contemporary art museum, simply called "the Broad" is in the works, to be built across the street from Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LACMA).

The museum is being designed by architectural firm Diller Scofido + Renfro, expected to cost more than $100 million, and is scheduled to open in 2013. In 2008, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA was built, designed by starchitect Renzo Piano.

Access Hollywood

Hollywood may disappoint tourists looking to overdose on glitz: after all, most of its moviemakers departed for the San Fernando Valley decades ago, leaving the area to languish. Even after the much-hyped 2001 debut of the Hollywood & Highland Center, the area remained more gritty than glamorous.

Yet new life continues to be pumped in. In the last few years, Vintage venues such as the Hollywood Palladium have been refurbished; the popular Madame Tussauds constructed a movie-theme museum adjacent to Grauman's Chinese Theatre; and Cirque du Soleil began a show with a decade-long run at the Kodak Theatre.

The newest addition to the heart of Tinseltown will be the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (AMMP), which will highlight how film and the moviemaking business has woven its way into pop culture over the course of time since its creation. The museum, said to cost around $400 million, is due to open in 2013.

New Lights on the Coast

Having fun in the sun isn't relegated to the beaches and other outdoor activities alone in L.A., when you consider the number of amusement parks close to the city.

One of the first sites you see driving into Santa Monica is a tremendous Ferris wheel at Pacific Park out on the Santa Monica Pier—and now it stands out even more. The wheel was recently replaced, and the new one is covered with about 160,000 dazzling LED lights that shine much brighter than the 5,000 or so red, white and blue bulbs on the old one.

Food for Thought

Star chefs continue to flock from across the country to make their mark on Los Angeles. Recent big openings have included Red O, a classic Mexican eatery in West Hollywood, from Chicagoan TV chef Rick Bayless, and The Royce, in the Langhan Hotel in Pasadena, with its menu created by David Feau. Thomas Keller's recent launch of L.A.'s outpost of Bouchon is just as popular as ever, and other big names including Gordon Ramsay, José Andrés, and Michael Mina are on the list as well for noteworthy additions to the dining scene.

Nevertheless, eats in L.A. remain relatively equalitarian. Even posh places seldom require jackets, so the dress code is casual. Ditto for the menu. (In the city that invented fast food, it's no coincidence Govind Armstrong flips gourmet burgers or that Wolfgang Puck built his reputation on pizza!)

Of course, if you want to go budget, you can easily justify chowing down at McDonald's, Carl's Jr., and In-N-Out Burger because all, having started in the Five-County Area, qualify as "indigenous cuisine." Alternately, you can savor L.A.'s international flavor by grabbing some sushi in a kaiten-zushi restaurant or ordering carne asada from an old-school taco truck.

L.A. Free Ways

Though high-profile Angelenos have elevated conspicuous consumption to an art, you can still spend time here without dropping a dime. Visiting culture vultures will be relieved to learn the Getty Center and Getty Villa offer free entry, and that the Los Angeles County Music Center hosts complimentary tours, plus no-cost programs under the "Active Arts" banner.

Frugal movie fans can get reel on Hollywood Boulevard's star-paved Walk of Fame or in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese where celebs have been pressing hands, feet, and other body parts into cement since 1927 (time it right and you may catch a premiere, too).

Music buffs, meanwhile, can view memorabilia from past headliners at the free Hollywood Bowl Museum. Interested in a different kind of stargazing? There is no fee to see the Griffith Observatory's stellar exhibits or peer through its giant telescope.

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