Say what you will about Southern California - crowds and freeways, Hollywood and actors, cars and smog, plus fires, landslides, and earthquakes - it is still one of the most vibrant and exciting places to live.

And sure, some of the 'hype' about the Los Angeles area is true. The kooky entertainment industry is centered here. The freeways are congested most of the time. And sure, for the 34 years I've called Southern California home, we've been bracing ourselves to shake so hard we fall into the ocean.

On the other hand, it's February, and while a good percentage of the country is freezing, it's been mostly 75 degrees and sunny here. We drive to the ocean or the mountains in about an hour. We head to the Disneyland Resort in 45 minutes. And we also have access to one of the newest, most beautiful, and most impressive structures I've ever seen in Southern California -- Getty Center.

The Getty Center opened in 1997 to great fanfare and great crowds. It became the must-see attraction. And why not? 16 years in the making, at a cost of one billion dollars, situated alongside one of LA's busiest freeways, atop one of the most looked upon mountains in the area, the Getty generated buzz, interest and word-of-mouth like no movie studio could ever hope for. With a true Hollywood ending.

Yes, The Getty has been constructed on what must have been the last great chunk of land not owned by Bob Hope -- overlooking the tony communities of Brentwood, Bel Air and Pacific Palisades. And while parts the structures can be seen while driving by on the 405 Freeway, the view from below only provides a hint of the sprawling, expansive feel of this complex once you actually get there.

We visited for the very first time on Sunday, and I feel like my mouth is still hanging open. It is a large, beautiful, accessible, and friendly campus - and considering we only walked into two museum galleries, that really is saying something.

It is, and I don't use this word often - spectacular.

For those who made the required reservations and parked in the main lot, a sleek looking tram smoothly navigates up the hillside and drops visitors off at the main Arrival Plaza. The shuttle bus took about 10 minutes from the parking lot, it drives parallel to the tram track up the hill, and drops off right next to the tram exit. The tram is the coolest though. Some healthy looking souls actually were walking up the hill.

The travertine blocks used for the Getty Center were cut from a special quarry in Italy, and have a wonderful, and intentional, roughshod look to them.

Architect Richard Meier [chosen among 32 other applicants back in 1983] worked hard to use the location, the topography, and the 405 Freeway as parts of the Getty Center design. He used the natural ridges on the existing mountain, and created a structure that seems to rise up out of it. And he has succeeded. The Center is made of stone and steel and it's huge.

Yet it feels completely warm and friendly and accessible.


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