Los Angeles occupies part of a mountainrimmed lowland fronting on the Pacific Ocean. It also lies in an earthquake zone near the San Andreas Fault, which cuts across much of California. The city covers an area of 464 square miles (1,202 km2)—one of the largest municipal areas in the nation.
Much of Los Angeles, primarily the older part, occupies level to rolling land south and east of the Santa Monica Mountains, a coastal range rising almost 2,000 feet (610 m) within Los Angeles. Immediately north of this range, and flanked by the Santa Susana, San Gabriel, and Verdugo Mountains, is the San Fernando Valley, an integral part of the city. Elevations in the San Gabriel Mountains reach slightly more than 5,000 feet (1,500 m) within the city and more than 10,000 feet (3,000 m) nearby.
Los Angeles extends more than 25 miles (40 km) inland and, including the city's long southerly arm, some 50 miles (80 km) north-south.
Downtown Los Angeles lies about 15 miles (24 km) inland in the vicinity of the Civic Center, site of the city hall and other government buildings. For many years it lacked the high-rise structures common in many major American cities. The low profile was due mainly to a ban on tall buildings (because of the danger of earthquakes), which was not lifted until the early 1960's. In the 1970's downtown Los Angeles underwent redevelopment and today has an impressive skyline.
The Los Angeles mass-transit system is generally inadequate and the city is heavily dependent on private automobiles. More than a dozen freeways crisscross the city and interconnect. Many of them converge near the downtown area; several bypass it.
A system of roughly north-south and east-west boulevards and thoroughfares supplements the freeways. Among the best known of these are Hollywood, Santa Monica, Sunset, and Wilshire boulevards. Other streets, especially secondary ones, form highly irregular patterns. In hilly and mountainous areas they are generally winding. Elsewhere they are laid out in rectangular sections aligned in many directions.
Within Los Angeles are a number of distinct sections with names of their own. Some of them—such as Canoga Park, Encino, Hollywood, North Hollywood, San Pedro, Van Nuys, and Wilmington—are often considered separate communities. Other sections that are integral parts of Los Angeles include Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock, Hyde Park, Pacific Palisades, Venice, West Los Angeles, and Watts. Three of the most luxurious residential sections are Bel Air, Westwood Village, and Brentwood Park.
A number of separate cities have been completely surrounded by Los Angeles in the course of its rapid expansion. Among them are Beverly Hills, Culver City, Santa Monica, and San Fernando. In addition to Long Beach, large cities that border on Los Angeles include Alhambra, Burbank, Carson, Compton, Glendale, Inglewood, Pasadena, and Torrance. Also within the metropolitan area are Downey, East Los Angeles (unincorporated), El Monte, Lakewood, Nor-walk, Pomona, West Covina, and Whittier.