Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) may not be what first comes to mind when you think of visiting Los Angeles. It’s a bit gritty and there’s a significant number of homeless people, but it’s the cultural and historical heart of the city and an important place to visit if you want a better picture of this city. After all it’s where it all started. Here’s a complete Downtown Los Angeles itinerary for making the most of your time in this vibrant part of the city.
Downtown LA History
Walking around DTLA, one of the first things you notice is the ornate historical buildings everywhere. I kept feeling like I was in New York, with the turn of the century arctecture and the rush of traffic down the wide streets.
The downtown core during the Victorian Era was a thriving area with major banking institutions giving it the nickname “the Wall Street of the West” and the wealthy living in lavish Victorians up on Bunker Hill (I’d love to time travel back to this time in the city’s history). With this economic growth came the need for lavish hotels like the Biltmore, the Alexandria and the Rosslyn, and entertainment in the form of Broadway’s many theaters.
Slowly the downtown area declined after World War II, with the invention of the freeway and the move to the migration to the suburbs. Victorian homes were replaced with low-income housing.
In the early 2000s there was a revitalization of DTLA, breathing life once again into the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
As a fan of Disney and Frank Gehry, the self-guided tour of this concert hall held my undivided attention for well over an hour. I couldn’t get enough of the fascinating antidotes, like how hard it was to get the acoustics just right in this unconventional building or how Gehry knew exactly what to build when Disney’s widow Lillian mentioned she wanted something warm and inviting for this concert hall. The architect nerd in me was thrilled to say the least.
Travel tip: There’s an elevated, shaded garden that makes the perfect alternative spot if you couldn’t find seating during the lunch hour at Grand Central Market or are just looking for a moment of quiet.
Grand Central Market
Celebrating its 100th birthday, this food hall has a dizzying amount of good things to eat. I was overwhelmed the first time I visited, but luckily this time I was able to do a little pre-planning beforehand and figured out what I would make a beeline for. Egg Slut may be the stair of the show (with lines to prove it), but don’t overlook other older options, like: Tacos Tumbras A Tomas, Wexler’s Deli, China Café or La Huerta for dessert.
Travel tips: The hall was a furnace when I was there during the lunch rush and the best seating is in the back where it’s much cooler. Also, try not to make the same mistake and avoid lunchtime when all the workers from nearby also have the same idea. Go a little later in the afternoon, but not too late since some vendors do close earlier than others.
LA City Hall
After I learned there’s a free observatory deck on the top of LA’s city hall, I knew I had to squeeze it into my limited itinerary. The building itself is steeped in so much history, from the photos of the city’s past mayors and their accomplishments to the torch from when the city hosted the Olympics in 1984. Also, don’t forget to look up, especially when coming out of the elevators into the Rotunda, with its decorated mosaic ceiling.
Travel tips: The visitor entrance is on Main Street and you need to go through security and check in to be allowed in. To get to the deck you need to take the first elevator to the 22nd floor and then the second one to the 26th floor (this is how you know the building has history). Finally, walk up the stairs to a room that holds the entrance to the deck.
LA Public Library
As someone who is obsessed with public libraries (I basically lived in the Boston Public Library as a student) I had to make sure to stop by LA’s central library. The building itself was built back in 1926 and is stunning with ancient Egyptian-inspired architecture like the central tower that has a mosaic pyramid on the top and the sphinxes statues inside.
Travel tips: there are daily-guided tours and self-guided tours of the library that allow you to fully appreciate all the artwork that is displayed around the building.
Grand Central Station
I’m a sucker for historical train stations, which are not too common on the West Coast. There’s something about those high ceilings and large cathedral windows in this station that makes me swoon and romanticize train travel. Never mind that the trains are never on time and that the women’s bathroom near the front has been a place where I’ve seen things I cannot unsee (go to the much cleaner, usually empty ones in the back instead).
Travel tip: If you have a few hours to kill before your train, go across the street to visit Olvera Street, which can be super touristy, but also has some interesting historical sights like the oldest house in LA. You can also take the metro one stop to Little Tokyo for lots of delicious pre-packaged food that you can bring back to the station.
As one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods there is a lot of historical sites to see in this area, including the Avila Adobe, Penlanconi House and the Sepulaveda House. As you head down the street, there are numerous booths selling arts and crafts, and touristy trinkets. It’s especially fun to go during special celebrations like Dia De Los Muertos. For food head to Mr. Churro for stuffed churros (try the chocolate) and Cielito Lindo for taquitos.