The observatory is sometimes so dismissively associated with tourists and high school field trips (including the famous one from Rebel Without a Cause) that it takes a visit by distant relatives to make you realize how ethereal this place really is. Elevation is everything in L.A., and the home of the big telescope is more than 500 feet higher than Hollywood's celebrated if overly pricey Yoshimura restaurant. The observatory grounds are also a more democratic wonder than Yoshimura, since parking is free and, along with the Santa Monica Pier, is one of those rare public spaces in L.A. County where ethnic and class lines melt away. Nighttime is the right time to visit — not because you'll see any stars in the foggy, light-polluted sky (though you will, at least on those days when the telescopes are out in force), but because it's when a chilly sense of mystery cloaks the observatory's parapets with the damp air. Surrounded by steep, chapparel-covered hills, you look at the illuminated city below and, like millions who've come to L.A., try to orient yourself. The big red signs of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and Hancock Park's Ravenswood apartments help frame the anarchy, even if they're too far to actually read. But there are always those huge blacked-out areas that, during the day, are expensive neighborhoods or golf courses but now seem dark and forbidding. After a while you stop wondering what's going on down there, having caught yourself, once again, trying to make sense of this town.

—Steven Mikulan