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Forget driving in LA – here’s how to explore the sprawling California city by bike

Venice Beach is skater and cyclist territory (Los Angeles Tourism)
Venice Beach is skater and cyclist territory (Los Angeles Tourism)

LA is the Amsterdam of America,” said no one, ever. In fact, Los Angeles was named “Worst Bike City” in the United States by Bicycling magazine in 2018, the reasons being a lack of protective road infrastructure and a car bias that stymies any such development. Over five years on, little has changed. Ultimately, LA worships the fast and furious – and luxurious.

I acknowledge this truth while also banging the drum for cycling in LA. Perfect weather, beaches, mountains and cool neighbourhoods and an immersive, traffic-beating vehicle make for an exquisite combination.

I start north through Santa Monica on the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, the famous 22-mile bike path that cuts across the beach then joins the traffic on Ocean Avenue. The coast is no longer in view, but the water makes the bottom of the sky glow. Some local cyclists at a red light compliment my wheels – a rental from Helen’s Cycles in Mid City, Santa Monica, which I rate for quality road and mountain bikes. It seems we’re all restless for a ride after the week’s rain.

Joining a group cycling tour is a great way to experience LA by bike (Kinza Shenn)
Joining a group cycling tour is a great way to experience LA by bike (Kinza Shenn)

I’m heading towards the Topanga state park in the Santa Monica mountains, going through the Will Rogers state historic park along the way. The ride up is beautiful. It goes through a hilly, forested neighbourhood called Rustic Canyon, passing over a small stream via a wooden bridge at one point. The roads are extremely quiet, and the air feels warm and botanical. True of most affluent properties in LA, each house is an elegant weirdo, and worth eyeing for the long moments it takes to cycle by.

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Needless to say, things get more spectacular the higher (and harder) the climb. Will Rogers is beginner-intermediate in terms of elevation, overlooking foamy mountains from its Inspiration Loop Trail. Views from Topanga are blue, mainly ocean, with LA hanging out to the side. It’s pale, strangely peaceful from a distance, and ready to take on by bike with a healthy dose of discernment and strategy.  With such an approach, LA opens itself up for cyclists, and I far prefer it to shuttling around by car. What follows is a rundown on doing the thing properly.

Where to cycle

When holidaying on bike in LA, delve deep into a handful of neighbourhoods. It’s how most locals live, because crossing town on any mode of transport is a drag. The main roads are often most intimidating for cyclists, and I prefer side-street longcuts for their calmer atmosphere. I tend to stick to a small handful of destinations, taking the bus between them. The bumper of every bus has a rack to mount two bikes.

Alternatively, there’s the Metro Bike Share – a map of its stations across the county is a tell for which districts are set up for cyclists. The stretch of Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Echo Park is sometimes likened to a mini, west-coastified Brooklyn. All three are less touristy spots with plenty to do, see and eat, and also neighbour Griffith Park for more hikes and views. The south side of Griffith grants you the Hollywood sign and observatory. I’ve also enjoyed a route with E-Bike Tours LA that takes you to the park’s more remote “Wild Backside”, with views over the San Gabriel mountains, and the Bee Rock trail.

The Griffith Observatory is a steep climb on a bike but worth it for the views (Korak Taylor)
The Griffith Observatory is a steep climb on a bike but worth it for the views (Korak Taylor)

Downtown LA is the densest territory in the city for Metro Bike Share stations. The once run-down financial district has undergone a transformation post-pandemic. Its arts district includes the new Row DTLA, a converted American Apparel manufacturing facility that is now a giant complex of shops, bars and restaurants, with a cool market on Sunday mornings. Cycling there from DTLA proper, it’s worth taking a detour north along the way, stopping first at Grand Central Market for its historic festival of food and coffee vendors. Little Tokyo is also on the doorstep.

Rubbing shoulders, Santa Monica and Venice Beach are skater and cyclist territory. There’s a life beyond the beach in the city of Santa Monica (while always being within a short cycle). It’s nice being located in the Mid City neighbourhood for a less touristy base with great eateries: note the cute brunch spots Huckleberry Cafe and Tartine.

Santa Monica beach is a relaxed place to ride, before the path rejoins the road (Kinza Shenn)
Santa Monica beach is a relaxed place to ride, before the path rejoins the road (Kinza Shenn)

Venice Beach is also dotted with a mix of chic, indie gems around Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Pacific Avenue – like Hooked for coffee and Great White for brunch. You won’t struggle to find bikes here, but Jay’s Rentals is my favourite. It’s a beachy, ramshackle local institution off the boardwalk that’s been around since the nineties, with no-frills rides that don’t feel precious.

Who to cycle with

There’s safety, and fun, in numbers. I recommend scheduling both tours and cycling groups – those I encounter on my way around all agree. You might already be familiar with Critical Mass, a community-ride-meets-party that is active across the States. In LA, thousands roll out on the last Friday of the month from Koreatown. Total Trash Cycling Club is a trail-based group harbouring Nineties rock and mountain bike nostalgia (its name is a homage to Sonic Youth). The Mixed Race is a female-led night ride that meets weekly on Thursdays in West LA. Warning: it’s a speedy “drop ride”, so they won’t wait up for those left behind. For a cosier night out, The Family Ride leaves no man behind and welcomes beginners.

Also, keep an eye on CicLAvia’s event page around your travel dates. The non-profit temporarily closes streets to car traffic, encouraging cyclists, skaters and pedestrians. It’s a major get-together for the local cycling scene.

Bikes & Hikes LA offers Hollywood and LA-wide tours on standard and e-bikes. If you have the time, I’d go for the full “LA in a Day”. At 32 miles long, it’s a rare opportunity to circuit all the main neighbourhoods in the company of a great guide. You’ll hit West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Sunset Strip, Marina del Rey and Culver Studios, to name just a few.

On the home stretch, you’ll pitstop along a series of rolling bridges over Abbot Kinney’s canals. With palm trees and houseboats bordering the water, the scene is like a painting. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, maybe this one makes a case for the Amsterdam of America after all.

Travel essentials

How to get there

British Airways flies from Heathrow to LAX from £428 return.

Where to stay

Hotel Erwin is in the heart of Venice Beach, and supplies bike rentals and storage.

Hotel Per La in Downtown, with its striking Ristorante Per L’Ora, leans into the glamorous, metropolitan side of LA.

In Mid-City Santa Monica, the Ambrose Hotel offers bike and e-bike rentals to guests.

Read more on the best hotels in LA

Kinza was travelling as a guest of Discover Los Angeles and Visit Santa Monica