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WeHo leads the way in gay-friendly LA

by Ed Walsh

The Hollywood sign, as seen from Starline's Hollywood Sign Tour, is just one of many southern California landmarks. Photo: Ed Walsh
The Hollywood sign, as seen from Starline's Hollywood Sign Tour, is just one of many southern California landmarks. Photo: Ed Walsh   

Los Angeles has long been a popular getaway for northern Californians. And by San Francisco standards, Los Angeles has year-round beach weather. The city's average winter high temperature is about 70 degrees, which is the average high in San Francisco in the summer.

The greater Los Angeles area has also long been LGBT-friendly with West Hollywood leading the way. WeHo eventually became one of the gayest cities in the country as the result of its location, just outside of the Los Angeles city limits. The once-notoriously homophobic Los Angeles Police Department was much more aggressive than the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which has jurisdiction over West Hollywood. Similarly, the city's famed Sunset Strip got its start during the Prohibition era when the sheriff's office was not as strict in enforcement of the liquor ban.

West Hollywood officially became incorporated as a city in 1984. With a population of nearly 37,000 in less than two square miles, it is one of the state's smallest cities in area but one of the most densely populated. WeHo's compactness also makes it arguably southern California's most walkable and least car-dependent city. To entice more residents and visitors to ditch their cars, the city provides a free weekend night shuttle bus called WeHo Pickup that makes a loop around the city. The city also has a bike sharing program, WeHo Pedals, similar to San Francisco's Ford bike-docking system.

West Hollywood makes the perfect basecamp for exploring the Los Angeles area. It is about halfway between the beach and downtown LA. To its west is the city whose name is synonymous with wealth: Beverly Hills. Hollywood, which is part of the city of Los Angeles, borders WeHo to the east. CBS Television City, the adjacent farmers market, and the Disneyland-like Grove shopping center are less than two miles from most of West Hollywood.

Nightlife
As southern California's gayest city, it's no surprise that West Hollywood is also where you will find the biggest concentration of gay nightlife. Santa Monica Boulevard is WeHo's main drag and its gayest part is where it is crossed by San Vicente Boulevard. You can't miss the intersection's rainbow crosswalks.

The newest nightspot in town is just steps west of that intersection at 8928 Santa Monica Boulevard.

Beaches Bar & Grill opened in February in place of the old Skynny Kitchen restaurant. Beaches did a great job creating a fun, hip, and colorful space that is already attracting regular clientele. Its owner told the Bay Area Reporter that he will be listening to the community about planning possible theme nights.

WeHo's most famous gay bar is the Abbey, where one of Hollywood's most famous stars, the late Elizabeth Taylor, was a regular. In January, Diana Ross showed up and danced as part of a promotion of a new remix of her anthem "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." The Chapel is a bar that adjoins the Abbey. It opened just last year. Since it is connected to the Abbey, the open-air space feels even more spacious.

Since the closing of the Palms four years ago, WeHo has no full-time lesbian bars, but the Chapel hosts a women's night every Wednesday and the Abbey has always been very lesbian-friendly.

WeHo mainstays, including Mickey's, the Rage, Fiesta Cantina, Trunks, and Blazing Saddles are going strong. The Mother Lode is WeHo's oldest gay bar, and if you see construction in front of it, fear not. The bar is just adding a patio, but the interior will retain the rustic look that keeps its longtime regulars coming back for more.

The Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles is about five miles east of WeHo and has been gay-popular for decades. It had its own version of Stonewall, in 1967, two years before the better known uprising in New York City. A plaque in front of the building that housed the Black Cat at 3903 Sunset Boulevard recognizes the location as the place of the first known formal organized gay rights protest in the U.S. Among the most popular gay bars in Silver Lake are Akbar, the Eagle LA, and Faultline.


A giant steel rainbow hangs over the lot at Sony Studios in tribute to  

Sights
One of the best ways to see the sights of LA is through an organized tour. One of the best is the Out and About walking tour put on by the nonprofit Lavender Effect. The 2.5-hour walk is a great way to meet new friends while hearing about the early LGBT history of the city. For more information and to make a reservation, visit http://www.thelavendereffect.org/tours/.

A great way to see the overall sites of the city without getting lost is through Starline's Hop On Hop Off bus. Starline offers color-coded routes throughout the greater LA area, including Santa Monica, Hollywood, and downtown Los Angeles. The Red Line includes a stop in the heart of WeHo, so you can hop on there and explore just about everything. Starline is based near the TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman's Chinese Theatre), in the Hollywood and Highlands Center. One of its newest tours is about an hour long and takes guests to a vantage point to get some of the best views just below the Hollywood sign for that perfect selfie. The tour departs several times a day from the Chinese Theatre.

The beachside city of Santa Monica is a must-see attraction for any visitor to LA. The city's iconic pier with a Ferris wheel marks the end of Route 66 and was made famous in "Forrest Gump" and other movies and TV shows. The Third Street Promenade is another of the city's big attractions. It is three open-air pedestrian shopping blocks anchored by the upscale Santa Monica Place shopping mall. The city's newest attraction opened almost five years ago. Tongva Park is a six-acre park that cost over $43 million. It opened in what used to be a parking lot across from City Hall. It is a stunning space with a kids play area, but it is also frequented by a large number of homeless people who use the park's benches as bunks.

Sony, Universal, Paramount, and Warner Brothers offer studio tours. Universal Studios is more of an amusement park than a studio tour. Universal's admission price of $115 is reflected in its extra offerings. The other studio tours are about half that price. The Sony Studios tour is a wonderful 2.5-hour walk through the studios that include the old MGM lot where "The Wizard of Oz" was filmed. A little over five years ago, the studio paid homage to the film by installing a $1.5 million 94-foot steel rainbow arch over the lot. The rainbow also fulfilled the studio's public art obligation. Unfortunately, MGM didn't think "The Wizard of Oz" would be the iconic movie classic that we know today, so most of the old sets were trashed or recycled. But a museum on the studio site includes stuff from other movie classics. Its largest piece of memorabilia is one of the RVs used in the "Breaking Bad" TV series.

Accommodations
The 176-room Ramada Plaza Hotel and Suites, also known as Ramada WeHo, is in a perfect location in the heart of West Hollywood on Santa Monica Boulevard. It is across the street from 24 Hour Fitness and steps away from the city's best restaurant and nightlife options. It is one of the less expensive hotels in WeHo, with rates that start about $161.

West Hollywood's newest hotel, the Kimpton La Peer, opened just last month. The 105-room luxury hotel may be the most expensive in the Kimpton chain, with room rates starting in the $400 range.

The fab 226-room London West Hollywood is another luxury hotel in WeHo. Its rates start at about $250. It includes a large fitness center and a free continental breakfast. It's on a hill on San Vicente Boulevard, just a short walk to WeHo's gay epicenter on Santa Monica Boulevard.


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