If you are visiting LA, you really need to rent a car. Distances in LA are huge--and this is what most people coming from overseas don't understand. To give you an idea, the area of LA alone (not counting its over 100 suburbs) covers an area that is approximately 80 kilometers long by 50 kilometers wide. It makes London (which is also quite large) look like a postage stamp by comparison.
There are four major airports just in the LA area alone --since people don't want to have to fly into the main airport on the west side of town and then have to travel to their suburb home over 65 kilometers away on the east or south side of town. The downtown portion of LA is about 30 kilometers from the airport and a taxi will cost you at least $60 one-way to get there. On the other hand, if you rent a car, it will cost you maybe $30 per day. Also, the way the bus system works in the LA area is stupid, since every city has its own system--and they don't work together well--and unlike other metro areas in the US, the LA area has no master rapid transit organization (meaning no one to get the different cities to work together with their schedules). Thus, the only good buses to go long distances are all run by private companies.
But you really shouldn't plan to stay downtown unless you this is a business trip. The better areas to stay are near the beaches (even Long Beach is okay if you stay in the "Belmont Shore" area of Long Beach--which is very nice)--although the preference would be for Santa Monica, Marina del Rey, Manhattan Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach (my favorite--but a long way from the airport) or near one of the major amusement parks (either in Anaheim or in Buena Park--near Disneyland or Knotts Berry Farm).
And the best shopping is in the Fashion District in LA--I posted on that on another thread on here--so just search through ones on LA and you'll find it easily.
Let me complete my comment on shopping. The cheapest shopping is in the Fashion District.
If you want good shopping---you can find it in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, or at the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa--just a short ways from Newport Beach. Also, there are small, interesting shops in Huntington Beach near the shoreline and in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.
The transport from the airport to the beach area around Santa Monica/Marina Del Rey has me concerned.
Is car hire the best option ?
I am not too keen to drive on the right hand side of the road.
I have done it several times in Hawaii, New Caledonia etc. but it may be a life changing experience in a large city!!!!!
I think you'll find there will be a shuttle bus service from most hotels in the Santa Monica area to the airport. Santa Monica/Vencie are actually not that far from LAX. If you do rent a car, it's a fairly short first drive on the 'wrong' side of the road - can be done without using any freeways, for example. Although in my experience driving the freeways is easier than the 'surface' streets with all the intersections etc.
Yeah, Dom's exactly right. Marina del Rey and then Venice Beach and then Santa Monica beach are the closest beaches going north. Manhattan Beach and then Redondo Beach are the closest going south. I'd go to either Santa Monica or Manhattan Beach if I were you--both are fun places--and you should be able to get a hotel shuttle for low cost or probably even for free.
Good stuff, Thanks guys.