A California itinerary that takes in the best of the Southland...
Classic L.A.: Stars, Cars, and Vistas
A car is virtually a necessity in L.A. (public transit is sparse and taxis are expensive). If renting a car, this is the perfect place to make it a convertible. Play for local sympathy and say you hail from a cold place and need solar therapy!
Day 1: Beverly Hills & the Getty Center
Make like the Clampetts and head straight for the riches of Beverly Hills. Many of the stereotypes about Angelenos are rooted here. Hey, you're a visitor, you're allowed to indulge in some gawking! Do a bit of driving along Sunset Boulevard, perhaps dipping into Bel Air to see some of the over-the-top mansions. Then stretch your legs with shopping, real or window, on Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard.
Next up: a bird's-eye view of the city from the Getty Center in Brentwood. Wander among the stunning, travertine marble-clad pavilions and explore the gardens. And then there's the art, including exceptional European paintings and antique French furniture. But it's hard to tear your eyes from the view, especially at sunset. As the day winds down, splurge on a posh meal in Beverly Hills or West Hollywood.
Day 2: Culture Vulture
Follow your artsy preferences to today's destination -- but wherever you end up, you're sure to defeat the old joke that L.A. is a cultural vacuum. The newest major museum is the revamped Getty Villa Malibu, dedicated to Greco-Roman antiquities. As with the Getty Center, the gardens and views are almost as mesmerizing as what's in the galleries.
If you're a serious museum fan, consider the cluster along Museum Row, especially the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Or, you could drive inland to the Pasadena area to see the art and enormous gardens of the Huntington Estate, plus the impressive European and Asian exhibits at the Norton Simon Museum. Let your hair down at night (and rest your museum-fatigued feet) at a live-music or comedy club.
Day 3: Hit the Beach!
In L.A., parents frequently pack up the car, make lunch, cancel lessons, and take the kids to the beach. Take a page from the locals and spend a day just enjoying the sun and sand. Do some planning and pick a beach that suits your needs. Remember to bring cash for parking and bring along some books or games in case the water's too cold for swimming.
If you end up in Venice, you might want to rent bikes to ride along the boardwalk, and also spend an hour browsing in Abbot Kinney Boulevard's funky boutiques. If you're in Santa Monica, there's always the pier, with its old-school amusement-park rides.
Day 4: Downtown Bound
Pick a weekday to venture downtown -- and wear comfortable shoes because unlike other parts of L.A., downtown is best explored on the DASH bus. Start at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. You can see the Music Center, with the shining Walt Disney Concert Hall, on the way to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Not far from here is the Grand Central Market, where you might pick up a tamale or fresh fruit juice while eyeing the produce.
Hop back in the car for the short drive to the grand Union Station; zip across to Olvera Street for a browse through the crafts market and perhaps an early Mexican dinner. Do you still have time for a performance at the Disney concert hall? Hurry, back to the car!
Logistics: Downtown has some sketchy blocks, so use common sense. If you don't like the look of a certain street, turn around. There's also a DASH shuttle bus for short hops between sights.
Day 5: Hurray for Hollywood
Over breakfast, check the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times for showtimes at the old movie palaces like Grauman's Chinese Theater or The Arclight. Once you're in Hollywood, pay your respects to your favorite celluloid stars at their plaques on the Walk of Fame.
Hit the Hollywood and Highland complex for a great view of the "Hollywood" sign and perhaps lunch at Vert. If you're a major movie buff, you may want to tour the complex's Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards are held, or spend an hour at the Hollywood Museum.
Music fans should make time for the awesome Amoeba Records. If you'd like to do some funkier shopping, or try a low-key place for dinner, drive east on Sunset Boulevard to Los Feliz or Silver Lake. Somewhere in the day, take time out for a flick -- it's Hollywood, after all.
L.A. with Children
When planning a trip to L.A. with kids, do your best to keep freeway time to a minimum. Stick to one general area per day rather than trying to cross the city more than once. Santa Monica, with its beach access and bike trails, is a good base for families. If you have older children, the Hollywood day described in the itinerary above may be suitable, too.
Day 1: Get Sandy
Get acclimated on your first day with a beachfront ride, picking up the oceanfront bike trail near the Santa Monica Pier. Follow the concrete path south to Venice Beach, grab a boardwalk snack, and take in the waves of magicians, body builders, and street artists. Pedal back up to Santa Monica for an evening at the Third Street Promenade.
Day 2: Theme Park Time
Disneyland Resort, in Orange County, is likely top of your list. If you're coming here, it's best to spend the previous night nearby and get an early start at the parks, rather than trying to drive down from L.A. the same day. If you've already done Disney, consider Knott's Berry Farm (also in OC, lots of coasters), Universal Studios Hollywood, or Six Flags Magic Mountain (for thrill rides).
Day 3: Green Spaces, Urban Places
Recover from the rides -- and all the lines for the rides -- with a few hours in Griffith Park, exploring its well-marked trails, zoo, and museums. Children's activities include pony rides, a 1926 merry-go-round, and the Griffith Park Southern Railroad, a miniature train that takes young riders past fabricated scenes of the Old West.
If you'd like to squeeze in a museum, the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits may be best, especially if you have younger children. If your kid loves sports, find out what's on at the Staples Center, Dodger Stadium, or Angel Stadium Anaheim and go for a game.