No one can outshop my sister, Jennifer. She is a master in both breadth (at home in Target as well as Tiffany & Co.) and depth (culling vintage pottery from knockoffs at a glance).
Naturally, Jen appreciates a good bargain. So when I say I've planned a three-day excursion in her adopted city of Los Angeles and can't spend more than $400, she's delighted. And then, after a moment: "I could do it for less than that!"
Yep, she is, and always will be, my big sister.
Next: Boutiques, the beach, and Korean barbecue.
More California travel tips and trips
Day 1: Boutiques, the beach, and Korean barbecue
Our first stop is Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, the postindustrial strip with a shabby-chic style. We admire the beautiful, pricey furniture in Plantation and the iron garden ornaments at Bountiful.
We work our way west toward Santa Monica and boutiques full of delights, including modern furnishings at Weego Home, sweet-scented bath treats at Splash, and imported kitchen goods at Blue Door. Jen takes me to her favorite shop here (she has one in each neighborhood): Paris 1900, with delicate antique dresses. She's greeted by name.
I'm ready for a break, so we head to the water for banana-date smoothies at Perry's Cafe 2, just off the Santa Monica Pier. The sun shines off the white sand and kids yell from the Ferris wheel. "This is just the beginning," Jen promises.
We drive into downtown to wander the quiet spaces of Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels; a soft light from its high windows warms the sandstone. Jen pulls me into MOCA Grand Avenue ― the Museum of Contemporary Art's main branch ― because it's free tonight. ("We're saving $16," she insists.) But we spend most of our time in the gift shop.
"I've got the best dinner bargain for you," says Jen, leading me into the dark interior of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. We stop at a dimly lit stand, Korean BBQ Plus. The menu against the glass has faded photographs of each dish. I'm skeptical.
Jen orders us chap che chicken and spicy tofu and stocks up on kim chee. On a park bench outside, I dig in with my plastic fork. And I'm amazed: It's delicious, an enormous amount of food ― and it cost $15. Jen nods. "Never doubt a master."
She's still smug when she drops me at the boutique hotel Farmer's Daughter. (I've gotten a deal through Expedia.) My room's a modern take on denim-and-kerchief farm style; surprisingly, it works.
The tab: Day 1
Browsing Venice and Santa Monica boutiques FREE
Banana-date smoothies near the Santa Monica Pier $6
Cathedral tour $4
MOCA Grand Avenue's weekly deal FREE
Dinner at Korean BBQ Plus $15.05
Next: Shopping, bakeries, and TV
Before tackling West Third Street's mile of shops between the Beverly Center and the Grove shopping and dining complex, we fuel up at the busy Toast Bakery Cafe. Over eggs and oatmeal, we plan our attack. Jen looks worried. "This isn't enough."
Day 2: Shopping, bakeries, and TV
"Not enough? A person could spend a year shopping at all the stores you mentioned."
"No, not enough food. We'll need more energy."
So we wait at the bakery counter behind a curly-haired brunette in platform shoes. Jen orders a chocolate cupcake with cream cheese frosting; I get banana pudding.
"You do realize that was a star sighting?" Jen asks as we leave, bag of treats in hand. I shrug.
"Sara Gilbert? From "Roseanne"? And Twins?" It's my first star sighting ever. I'm just glad Jen is here to clue me in.
On West Third Street, we browse among Plastica's sleek kids' toys, sassy dresses in Trina Turk, and elegant dishes at Zipper Art Form + Function.
After four hours of shopping, I need to sit down. I pull Jen into Doughboys Bakery, and though we have yet to try our cupcakes, I can't resist the towering Red Velvet cake. Ab fab, as they say in L.A. Or maybe they don't ― regardless, the cake is great.
When I tell Jen about the must-do L.A. adventure I've scheduled next, she suddenly decides to rush home to her kids. She's not opposed to being a member of a TV audience, it's just the only show that fits our schedule is Best Damn Sports Show Period. Taggart women are endurance shoppers, not sports fans.
Inside the studio, I'm flattered that the guy in charge puts me in the front row ― until I realize that the camera is directly in front of me. Not only do I miss some of the action, but when the camera turns to scan the audience, it only catches my shoulder. So much for getting discovered.
But I do have fun watching the taping: I learn things I never expected to know about boxing, and the hosts joke with the audience during breaks.
It's late by the time I get to the famed open-air Farmers Market, where dozens of restaurants offer a global choice of food. I order a ham-and-Swiss treat at the French Crêpe Co.'s counter, sitting beside another solo diner. In a cotton T and sports coat, with a scruffy goatee, he looks entirely L.A., especially as he barks into his cell phone: "But my look," he shouts. "What did they say about my look?"
Back at the hotel, I'm just in time to catch the sports show. Before a commercial break, I catch a flash of a very familiar shoulder.
It couldn't have been a more L.A. day.
The tab: Day 2
Toast Bakery Cafe breakfast, plus cupcakes $29.98
Marathon shopping on West Third Street FREE
Red Velvet cake, latte, and chocolate milk, Doughboys Bakery $12.50
Studio TV audience member FREE
Dinner at French Crêpe Co. $12.22
Chinatown and Pasadena
Jen and I head to Chinatown: Along brightly decorated Gin Ling Way, Munky King has anime figures and digital devices, Realm has nice inexpensive dishware, and K&A has deals on jewelry, bags, and art.
Day 3: Chinatown and Pasadena's Craftsman landmark
For dim sum at the Empress Pavilion, Jen flags down women zipping by with carts, and our table fills with steamed ginger-chicken buns, sesame rolls, and broccoli with oyster sauce.
My flight's in a few hours, but there's one last place calling. Since buying a modest Craftsman bungalow two years ago, I've wanted to see the Gamble House, a gorgeous Greene and Greene landmark in Pasadena.
A one-hour guided tour reveals its many artful features, from a glowing leaded-glass front door to an elaborate teak staircase to tiny carved details on custom furniture.
I begin to leave, looking forward to our delicious and well-priced lunch at Father Nature's Lavash Wraps, when Jen cries out, shocked: "What are you doing?! We still have to check out the gift shop!"
I sigh and turn around. After all, she is, and always will be, my big sister.
The tab: Day 3
Two nights at Farmer's Daughter Hotel, including tax and $5 housekeeping tip $248.62
Chinatown browsing FREE
Dim sum at Empress Pavilion $34.85
Gamble House tour $16
Wraps and Greek salad at Father Nature's Lavash Wraps $15.80