I'm writing this at LAX airport in Los Angeles at the tearful end of a wonderful family 'vacation' (as they say in the States).
We've been staying in the beautiful area of Pasadena – as my extremely talented sister-in-law has been on a five week fellowship at the Huntington Library which holds a large archive of the 18th Century essayist Charles Lamb. (She's also a very big eight months pregnant!) And I've been on full-on babysitting duty of my two-year-old nephew.
It's been a wonderful mix of domestic life with full-on theme park adventures. And yes, a bit of indulgent tourism.
With two kids in two – my 8-year-old son as well as my 2-year-old nephew – it means we've needed to search out the best things to do with children in Los Angeles County.
Being a bit addicted to travelogues, family travel and top 10 lists myself I thought what better to try and banish the end-of-holiday blues by writing down our own top 10.
I've split it into two. So here's part one, and watch out for part two coming soon.
Chiswick Mum's (very subjective) Top 10 family things to do in Los Angeles
1. Huntington Library: Spend a day strolling around the botanical gardens
I wouldn't have visited here if my sister-in-law hadn't been based here on her fellowship, and I'm so glad we did.
Because I live just down the road from Kew Gardens I didn't think I needed to visit some more botanical gardens, but they really are delightful. In different themed areas – from Japan and China to Australia and more – they are a gorgeous way to enjoy the sunshine.
If we lived there it would be the perfect place to take a book or an ipad and read/work. For holidaying families it's a perfect place to explore, ramble and relax.
Top ranking is the children's garden which is an outdoor wonderland for kids – complete with hidden doors, water to play in, natural soundscapes and quirky sculptures. It's a great place to meet other kids for a while, if your child is missing their friends from home and needs a bit of child time.
Second favourite section was the Chinese Gardens: a picture book perfect walk complete with river and bridges and delicate stone work.
Costs: Around $24 per person for day pass which includes art galleries as well as the gardens.
Snacks: Bring your own as you'll be rambling far from the cafe. Basic cafe at the entrance does hot and cold drinks and the sort of snacks and food you'd expect to find in a gallery cafe. So good to grab a drink at the end of your day.
Pocket money souvenirs?: Maybe not. The shop is the high gallery end of the maket – but there is a lovely cosy children's book shop in one corner of the shop, so one to buy your little darlings a literary souvenir from!
Buggy-friendly? Yes. Well built paths throughout.
2. Olvera Street: Immerse yourself in old Los Angeles and buy purse-friendly Mexican gifts
It's hard to imagine that the sprawling diversity that is Los Angeles began with just 11 families founding a new town called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles It's just as hard to believe that the sprawl has happened so quickly. The oldest house in Los Angeles is on Olvera Street and dates from just 1818! When I think of the thousands of years that have shaped and reshaped London, it's difficult to grasp how quickly Los Angeles has grown.
Olvera Street gives a glimpse into what life was like for the first settlers here as well as giving an immersion in Mexican culture. Yes, it's touristy. And the Mexican culture is very much one that is being displayed for the benefits of tourists. But if you are robust enough though to not mind being a tourist then this really should be near the top of your list of places to visit.
In the square you'll probably be able to see a free performance (donations welcomed) of Aztec Native American dancing. And you'll hear Spanish spoken freer than English here. Tacos and tortillas are plentiful and cheap, and sitting in the sunshine nursing a coffee and tortilla is a very pleasant way to while away an hour or so.
The market has enough stalls to sastisfy some good browsing for gifts and token souvenirs in the sun. And there are some really interesting small museums along the street.
Where: Olvera Street, near Union Street Metro
Costs: Nothing, apart from pocket money for snacks and souvenirs.
Snacks: Authentic tortilla cafes at every turn. Hot, freshly made and cheap.
Pocket money souvenirs? Definitely. Take your pick from plastic cars and mexican wrestling masks, to ponchos and sombreros.
Buggy-friendly? Yes. Bit of a squeeze down some of the market aisles but plenty of museums to push the buggy through, and generous pedestinarised square and pavements.
3. Santa Monica and Malibu: Hit the beach and paddle in the waves
Driving to the beach is half the fun, as you join the famous Pacific highway which skims the coast.
Santa Monica and Malibu beaches are family friendly, with plenty of sand to lie on and luxuriate in the very non-British sun, and gentle waves to jump over in the shallows before making a sandcastle. (At least they were gentle waves on the days we visited – I've seen some photos of people surfing on these beaches, so I suppose it depends on the weather.)
What struck me is that the beaches were really clean. That means no cigarette butts to unearth while gathering sand for castles, which I've found a common occurence in European and British beaches.
Santa Monica has a famous pier filled with attractions for young and old alike. Including an automated fortune telling booth, like the one in 'Big'. You can also walk under the boardwalk, shoes in hand, listening to the strains of the buskers from the pier.
Where: Up the coast
Costs: You'll need between $6 and $20 to park.
Snacks: Plenty of burger and hot dog stands to fill you up.
Pocket money souvenirs? Yes. Particularly if you like stuff that has California emblazoned across it. (I do!)
Buggy-friendly? Yes on the pier, and Santa Monica has a boulevard running alongside the sand that you can easily roll the buggy down (some even rollerskate with their buggy!)
4. Universal Studios: Unleash your inner child on a fun filled movie-themed day
This was top of my list to visit on our holiday, and it didn't disappoint.
At $99 for a basic ticket it may seem pricey, but it's genuinely worth the money and I think it would be a real shame to leave California without visiting this theme park.
We intended to go with both our 2 year old nephew and our 8 year old son, but in the end our nephew was a bit sniffly and we thought it would be too much for him. This was a really wise choice. Although there are areas where younger children can play, the rides are really aimed at I'd say six years old and above. And being with just Chiswick Daddy, Chiswick Boy and me meant that we could stick together and go on the rides.
Don't worry – we're not talking tower of terror, turn you head over heels rides here. Most of the rides focus on using 3D and motion chairs to give the impact and feel of high action, without actually being thrown around too much.
Top ride for us was the Transformers 4D ride – which I say is the best ride I have been on in any theme park or attraction.
Me, checking out the rain effects in the Western themed part of the working studios. Yes, my hair really is that red!
The overall highlight though was the tour of Universal studios, in a tram. This lasted an hour and as well as driving you through the studios (which are still fully functioning as a film studio), it includes two 3D rides that happen along the way.
I'm a massive film fan and it was brilliant to see sets from such classics as Psycho, and the car from Knight Rider!
You also get to experience the full on action effects – from earthquakes to flash floods.
Another plus is that outside the theme park is Universal City, a pedestranised street with cinema, restaurants and gift shops.
All in all, a perfect day ut.
Where: Universal City
Costs: $99 for basic ticket. They tried to sell us upgrades at the door – fast passes, and even more expensive VIP passes. We resisted and didn't need them so it was a good choice, and the most we queued was 40 minutes for the studio tour, with the rest of the rides 15m max. If money's not an issue and time is, then you may want to get the queue jumper. But you can manage fine without them.
Snacks: Fairly pricey – but you're never more than a stone's throw from a themed burger or hot dog joint. Bring enough bottled water and snacks to see you through the queues.
Pocket money souvenirs? Not really pocket money prices, but it has to be done! Set a budget per child and then let them pick something. You'll want to budget $25 per child, although they may pick something worth much less.
Buggy-friendly? Yes if you're just walking around, but not for queues.
5. Disneyland – feel the magic and banish your inner cynic at the theme park to end all theme parks
You can't go to California without visiting Disneyland. I'm sure it's written into the visa waiver scheme agreement. And if it isn't then it should be.
Even if you don't know your Tinkerbell from your Minnie Mouse, even if you don't like Disney films, even if you don't have small children as an excuse – you need to go to Disneyland!
I've been to Walt Disney World before, but no-one else in our party had been to any type of Disney park before. So three generations of us (Granny, me, my brother, our kids, and my partner, Chiswick Daddy) trooped along.
There are rides of course – but it's not all about the rides. It's about immersion in the magic that makes Disney such a well branded organisation. Love it or loathe it (and I love, love, love it!) you have to admire Disney for building a brand that all its employees buy into. Nobody does customer service and experience like Disney.
It's open for a collosal 14 hours (and if you stay in a Disney hotel you get another 1-2 hours in the morning as extra time), and filled with enough zones to keep people of different ages entertained with shows, experiences and parades.
My dream is to go back and stay in a Disney hotel for two nights so we can have a much bigger explore of the park without being worried about the drive back (it's 45 minutes from Pasadena, where we were based.)
Where: Anaheim, Orange County.
Costs: $99 for a one day ticket per person
Snacks: Eateries can be pricey and confusing. If you are organised then book a character dining experience in advance, where you sit and meet the characters. If you're more like us, then you'll find people in your party want to eat and different times. So stick to synchronicity and grab things as you see them, from stalls and quick hamburger places.
Pocket money souvenirs? Shopping is one of the best things here – lots of different shops to choose from. Decide a budget per child in advance and try and stick to it! Minnie Mouse ears are a must.
Buggy-friendly? Incredibly. And where you can't take the buggies there are clearly marked buggy parks.
Okay, so the first part of my list was a bit predictable – with Disneyland and Universal Studios both making it into my top 10!
But I have a few surprises in store for the second part of my top ten. Watch out for it on my blog in the next few days…