Next time you’re planning a trip to Los Angeles and thinking about throwing in another beach day (no judgement there), may I suggest something that might not immediately be on your travel radar? Give Downtown Los Angeles a day in your holiday planning. If you want to spend a full day exploring an area that is steeped in history, this is where to do it. You’ll get lost looking up at architecture that will simply take your breath away. You’ll step into eateries that feel like local secrets and be welcomed with open arms and food that so masterfully captures the life of this city. Quirky activities like a $1 tram ride or a tour around a bookstore that features tunnels made from novels (truth) will have you thinking you’ve entered a movie set. It all feels like something from another world, and it’s all too often overlooked by tourists visiting Los Angeles.
But why is it overlooked? Why is a part of LA that has obviously seen booming times become a secondary place for tourists to frequent? Well, a quick history is in order, and some tough truths, as this part of Los Angeles was booming and then entered a severe decline, which has taken decades to recover from.
Let’s start from the beginning. In the 1920’s, Downtown Los Angeles was thriving, which is clear as the buildings in front of your face. As you walk around you will see architecture frozen in time from this era and if you are a fan of art deco, you will be in heaven. It was in this decade that banks all stationed themselves in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles, eventually earning the nickname “Wall Street of The West.” With the banks came the ornate hotels, the theatres, the movie palaces, shopping and entertainment. This also became THE destination for jewellery. Fans of Harry Winston? This is where they found their start, alongside many other famous American labels at the time. Downtown Los Angeles was exploding. Even the public transport was at peak, said to be better than even what New York City had at the time. So what happened? How did a downtown that was so alive and thriving enter such a severe decline?
Well in short, World War II happened and the introduction of suburbanization. As more people bought cars and relied less on public transport, people spread out across Los Angeles and left downtown. Corporations relocated and the city would eventually demolish buildings in favour of parking lots – a decision that meant the destruction of a great deal of beautiful architectural history. As people disappeared, so too did the need for shops and high streets in general. In short, Downtown Los Angeles lost its residential population and with it went the glitz and glamour of the rip-roaring 20s. It became a gritty rundown neighbourhood.
Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending here, but I think it’s extremely important to understand where this neighbourhood has come from and what it’s been through to truly appreciate just how special an area it is. Over the past few decades, Downtown Los Angeles has completely transformed, slowly making its way back to a hive of activity. In 1999, Los Angeles introduced the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, which made it possible for historic commercial buildings to be repurposed into chic lofts and apartments. “If you build it, they will come.” And they did. The current population of Downtown Los Angeles shows a steady growth of new residences, taking advantage of beautiful new residences in buildings so many dreamt of inhabiting. With the new residences came a need for restaurants, entertainment and hotels. In the past twenty years, Downtown Los Angeles has seen an investment of over $24 billion. The Staples Center, opened in 1999, holds 20,000 people and is home to several major sports teams. It also hosts the Grammys! With 20,000 people regularly entering Downtown LA for various events, you can see where a major interest in additional redevelopment would appear. Enter also one of America’s most prestigious contemporary art galleries, The Broad, and the introduction of The Walt Disney Concert Hall. In a span of two decades, we’ve seen an area, that was once left derelict and decaying, become a destination for entertainment and culture. The incredible regrowth has spotlighted its illustrious history and potential for future continuing development.
For now, in 2020, this part of Los Angeles is still one of the least densely populated when it comes to tourists, which makes it ideal. It’s a place to discover so much. But, as with everything I write, I do like to tell the truth about the area in general. While it has seen a great investment over the past two decades, you will still be confronted with some unfortunate problems that built up in Downtown LA during its times of turmoil. I say this not to scare you, but to remind you that, just as you should in any big city, you need to have your whits about you. This isn’t an area where you can be totally unaware of your surroundings. Be mindful of those around you, pay attention to your belongings and just navigate intelligently. If you do that, you’ll be absolutely fine!
Now, the history stuff is out of the way. Let’s get into this guide, shall we? This isn’t a guide written from the internet. I’m featuring only places I have been myself in one day in Los Angeles. This is my guide, my places I love to visit and will time and again. This will most likely be an ever evolving guide so watch this space for future updates. But for now, as of February 2020, this is my Downtown Los Angeles…
The Last Bookstore
453 S Spring Street
I feel so lucky to have been introduced to The Last Bookstore by a good friend who spends at least one day a week here for inspiration. It is a place that feels as if it were created by JK Rowling specifically for a scene in Harry Potter. Instagrammers flock here to take pictures in the tunnel of books. Artists come here for inspiration. Music junkies come to flip through vinyl. There’s a little something for everyone. There’s even a gallery area upstairs supporting new and emerging local artists. You can spend an hour here or an entire afternoon. Enter with an open mind and you will be left completely stunned by what you discover.
304 S Broadway
Thinking the Bradbury Building looks so familiar? You aren’t losing your mind. You will have seen this many times before in movies and TV episodes. It’s been featured in the movies 500 Days of Summer and The Artist. Cher, Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake and many more musicians have all filmed music videos here as well. And I could spend all day listing TV programmes that have used this as a location for filming. Basically, it’s a big deal, and on most days (when not be used for filming), it’s open to the public to enjoy. Built in 1893, this is the oldest landmarked building in Los Angeles. The skylit atrium and exposed stairwells with ornate ironwork are truly extraordinary and worthy of a quick visit!
700 S Grand Ave
You are not prepared for the amount of white marble that presents itself in Bottega Louie. It’s intense. White marble and brass trim. That’s what comes to mind when I think of this Downtown Los Angeles eatery. Well, that and the incredible selection of baked goods. 20 foot ceilings make up this a space that seems entirely too decadent. But then again, one bite into one of their macarons and you’ll understand that decadence is the name of the game here. Even with 255 covers in the restaurant, some days can be harder than others for finding a seat. But, simply strolling in, grabbing a pastry and eating it as you walk is an experience worth having!
929 S Broadway
I’ve only ever stayed at The Ace in Downtown Los Angeles. That, for me, means a lot. The Ace is beautiful. The staff are above and beyond friendly and the rooftop is Los Angeles dreams come true. This hotel is everything you would think Downtown LA would be and more. Come to stay, come to play or come to eat. Also ask to see the grand Art Deco theatre next door. This will blow your mind!
Grand Central Market
317 S Broadway
Grand Central Market has been in Downtown LA for over 100 years. This is a foodie’s paradise. My first visit was to grab a breakfast sandwich from Eggslut and I queued for half an hour with locals waiting for their morning hit. It was worth the wait. But the market is so much more than an egg sandwich. This might be what it’s most famous for in recent years, but the market features just about everything you could imagine from Chinese noodles to pizza, oysters to tacos. This isn’t just a place for a picky family with kids that want to eat six different cuisines in a night. This is a place where you can go and literally eat your way around the world, with foods that have to come to Los Angeles over time and been perfected here in fast food style. This is a must visit if you are in the area.
Located just behind Grand Central Market, you will find the world’s shortest railway journey. Stretching just 315 feet and running at a 33 percent grade, this journey, costing only $1, will keep you from huffing and puffing your way up a series of rather steep steps. Let’s be honest, you do this for the fun of it, and it certainly is fun. If this is your first time in the area, do this. It’s heavenly.
800 North Alameda Street
I know what you’re thinking. Why would you visit a train station if you aren’t getting on a train? Well, trust me on this one. Union Station in Los Angeles is one to visit with a cup of coffee and wide eyes. Built just over 80 years ago, it is still one of America’s busiest train stations. But, it’s the architecture that is the main pull and the decor that seems permanently stuck in the 1940s is a plus point. I fell in love with Los Angeles all over again in these halls. It is magic. I know I use that a lot in describing Downtown Los Angeles, but it’s how I truly feel. There is a fairydust that is constantly circulating in this beautiful city.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
111 S Grand Ave
If you adore contemporary architecture, run, don’t walk, over to The Walt Disney Concert Hall. Architect Frank Gehry completed this monumental structure in 2003 in Downtown Los Angeles. The project cost an estimated $274 million with the parking garage alone rumoured to have cost in excess of $100 million. To experience a concert in this space is an honour indeed. Look ahead for tickets and get your rear end in a chair. This space was specifically designed with superior acoustics in mind and it delivers ten fold.
The city itself!
Downtown Los Angeles
Just look up, look all around and truly take in the history above and around you. Some of the country’s finest architects contributed to the living and breathing museum around you in Downtown Los Angeles. If all you did was walk around and nothing else, I think you’d still instantly fall in love with this area.
That’s it for now. Back later this year and will add more. But, please, don’t forget to add this location to your next itinerary. It’s such a beautiful part of the world and one the deserves a thousand more accolades than I can place on it here.