The community was founded in 1923 by Alphonzo Bell. Bell owned farm property in Santa Fe Springs, California, where oil was discovered. He bought a large ranch with a home on what is now Bel Air Road. He subdivided and developed the property with large residential lots, with work on the master plan led by the landscape architect Mark Daniels. He also built the Bel-Air Beach Club in Santa Monica and the Bel-Air Country Club. His wife chose Italian names for the streets. She also founded the Bel-Air Garden Club in 1931.
Bel Air is situated about 12 miles (19 km) west of Downtown Los Angeles and includes some of the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. It lies across Sunset Boulevard from the northern edge of the main campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. At the heart of the community sits the Bel-Air Country Club and the Hotel Bel-Air.
Along with Beverly Hills and the Los Angeles community of Brentwood, it is one of the "Three Bs", a wealthy area in the Los Angeles Westside.
Of several entrances, there are two main ones: the East Gate at Beverly Glen and Sunset Boulevards and the West Gate at Bellagio Way and Sunset Boulevard, opposite an entrance to UCLA. Bel Air is generally subdivided into three distinct neighborhoods: East Gate Old Bel Air, West Gate Bel Air, and Upper Bel Air.
Bel Air Estates, the original subdivision of the Bel Air community, is generally bounded by Nimes Road to the north, Sunset Boulevard to the south, Beverly Glen Boulevard to the east and both sides of Bel Air Road to the west.