Los Angeles; LA; City of Angels; the home of Hollywood. Though I rarely have expectations of places when I travel, Los Angeles is a ubiquitous sight on films and TV shows, so it’s hard not to think you know something about the feel and look of the place. As with most things, it’s not how you imagine it.

One of the most striking things about LA is the sunsets. LA is plagued with smog, but with easterly winds pushing it out to the sea, the sunsets you can see from the beaches are a haze of rainbow colours. Beautiful.

Sunset on Laguna Beach, Los Angeles

Sunset on Laguna Beach, Los Angeles

LA is also massive. Although a small part of it (Downtown LA) is very busy and reasonably well-served by public transport, that’s only a fraction of the greater Los Angeles area. It’s reminiscent of Istanbul in that there are many “centres” with their own communities and appeal – the buzzing hive of perfect bodies in Venice Beach and Huntington Beach, the family-friendly Laguna Beach, the younger, more relaxed vibe of Long Beach…and that’s without mentioning the many distinct suburbs in the outskirts, which nevertheless have huge shopping centres (“strip malls”) with everything from grocery stores to martial arts gyms. The distances are huge, the whole area is sprawling, and getting around without a car is essentially impossible, although the Uber phenomenon has greatly liberated Angelenos. It is on this note that I count my blessings of having some local friends. Travelling for me is always about the people, and LA has not disappointed.

In my 2014 summer travels in Europe, I was lucky enough to befriend two guys from LA (Francis, in Vienna; Eric, in Seville) who offered to host me when I mentioned I would be heading there this year. Eric was kind enough to pick me up from the airport and let me stay at his brand new place in Long Beach. We drove to various parts of LA, played bocce ball (like bowls, but on the beach), went out a couple of times (though the winter bar scene in Long Beach seemed uninspiring) and just generally enjoyed hanging out together, which is not hard to do with such a friendly, down-to-earth guy who you always feel has your back. Thanks Eric, it was a blast.

Canal on Long Beach, Los Angeles

Canal on Long Beach, Los Angeles

Next was Francis, who was intent on giving me the full tourist experience over the next couple of days – meeting a partner of his law firm, Alan, for food at Huntington Beach; driving to Balboa and seeing the Big Wedge, a renowned and dangerous surfing spot; seeing the Hollywood Hills (yes, where the Hollywood sign is) and Griffith Observatory, which looks out over LA; cruising past all the fancy houses in Beverley Hills; and trying the smorgasbord that is the LA food scene. We really hit it off, and between that and the fact that I had some work to catch up with, I ended up staying here several days longer than expected, working while Francis was at work and, surprisingly, finding a great MMA gym round the corner (Millennia MMA in Chino Hills).

Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles

Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles

I have to say that seeing the city mostly through a car window felt a little bit strange compared to walking through European cities, but I can certainly say I had the local experience, and I saw many parts of the greater Los Angeles area. There’s a very particular feel to the sprawled-out suburban life with strip malls and empty sidewalks that unsettles me somewhat…it’s hard not to feel some disconnection. Something to work with.

Next, it’s time for Vegas – ready your stomachs!