Beverly Hills and Venice Beach may be favorite tourist attractions, but downtown should not be overlooked. Historic art deco structures share the street-scape with glass- or titanium-clad masterpieces, and even movie stars are snapping up hip lofts carved out of turn-of-the-century structures. The city’s arts scene roars to life in downtown, a place where the usual image of L.A. as “laid-back” hardly applies.
The ornate Union Station was the last of the grand railroad terminals built in the U.S. Its importance faded as the automobile began to dominate life in L.A., but Union Station has staged a comeback, thanks to a renovation and downtown’s new energy. From Union Station, the hub of the Metro system, you can board the Red Line to Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley or the light rail Gold Line to Pasadena, Blue Line to Long Beach and Expo Line to Culver City. Nonstop bus service to LAX is available 24/7. Metrolink commuter trains connect distant suburbs, and you can jump on an Amtrak train for a scenic journey along the coast.
Grand Avenue + Music Center
The heart of L.A.’s performing-arts scene and the site of its most dramatic architecture, Grand Avenue is beginning to live up to its name. On Bunker Hill, once filled with Victorian mansions, four venues make up a formidable collection of stages at The Music Center. The 3,200-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is home to L.A. Opera, and the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum host theatrical productions. The flashiest venue is architect Frank Gehry’s curvaceous Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Its music director, Gustavo Dudamel, exudes an energy that rivals the building’s audacious design. Also housed at Disney Hall is REDCAT, which offers performance and visual arts productions.
After a show, take a stroll through the new 12-acre Grand Park, between Grand Avenue and Hill Street and First and Temple streets.
Decending Bunker Hill
Steps from the Music Center is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, designed by Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo. A short walk south on Grand is the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Southern California’s premier contemporary art museum. The Omni Hotel and California Plaza are adjacent. Nearby Angels Knoll is a welcome patch of greenery amid the concrete jungle.
Angels Flight, a vintage funicular that climbs to California Plaza from Hill Street below, is billed as “The Shortest Railway in the World” (just 298 feet!); a ride costs 25 cents. At the foot of the hill, the Bunker Hill Steps rise five stories at the U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Across the street is the Los Angeles Public Library, an art deco masterpiece.
The origin of the city of Los Angeles, dating back to 1781, is El Pueblo de Los Angeles, a collection of 27 buildings along festive pedestrian concourse Olvera Street. The city’s oldest building, Avila Adobe (circa 1818), is located here, along with Mexican restaurants, mariachi bands and merchants offering arts and crafts. A few blocks away is the city’s oldest restaurant, Philippe the Original (1908), where a cup of joe is just 45 cents.
Often overlooked by tourists is the Broadway Theatre District, home to once-opulent movie palaces. A few, such as the Orpheum Theatre, have been restored to their original grandeur. Historic structures are being converted into lofts; Johnny Depp owns a condo in Broadway’s Eastern Columbia Building. The Bradbury Building (304 S. Broadway), built in 1893 in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, was featured in the film Blade Runner.
Spring Street from 4th to 7th streets is a rapidly awakening area once referred to as the “Wall Street of the West.” Steps from this historic district is a row of hip bars on 6th Street (between Main and Los Angeles streets) that includes The Varnish.
Downtown’s heritage as a mercantile center can still be experienced in its historic shopping districts, popular with bargain hunters. The Jewelry District draws shoppers to markets such as St. Vincent Jewelry Center (650 S. Hill St.), where 500 merchants offer gold, diamonds and baubles. In the neighboring Fashion District, 115 blocks centered around the California Market Center, you can find designer clothing items. At Santee Alley, an open-air bargain bazaar, designer trends breed low-priced knockoffs. The Flower District offers blooms at wholesale prices. And for an awesome array of produce and international foods, Grand Central Market, near the foot of Angels Flight, is the place to go. Many vendors here deal in cash only.
Chinatown remains a great destination for sampling dim sum or browsing for authentic clothing, tea or home furnishings. Cultural highlights include the ornate Thien Hau Temple (750 Yale St.) and the Chinese American Museum. Pedestrian-oriented Chung King Road and Gin Ling Way are now home to galleries and Mountain Bar, while Broadway boasts cool boutiques. Dodger Stadium is a short drive away, as is San Antonio Winery, which offers tours and tastings.
Little Tokyo is still a proud ethnic enclave, but it, too, is emerging as an up-and-coming hipster ’hood. The dining scene is popping, led by newer restaurants such as The Spice Table, and you can still nibble on traditional sushi prepared by veteran chefs at Japanese Village Plaza. Just a few steps down 1st Street is the sleek, glass-ensconced Japanese American National Museum. The Geffen Contemporary, a Frank Gehry-renovated branch of MOCA, is next door. At 2nd and Main streets is the historic Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, formerly home of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
The $2.5 billion L.A. Live project has been called the epicenter of the downtown renaissance. Staples Center, home to the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings, hosts top pop acts, as does Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, which boasts state-of-the-art acoustics. The adjoining Grammy Museum honors myriad music genres with videos, artifacts and interactive exhibits. A dozen restaurants and nightlife venues—WP24, Trader Vic’s and Lucky Strike Lanes, to name a few—face a massive urban plaza lined with towering LED screens. The Los Angeles Convention Center, encompassing 16-plus acres of exhibition space, is also here.
Just south of downtown is Exposition Park, whose grounds hold major museums and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The seven-acre Exposition Park Rose Garden is legendary, and the Beaux-Arts-style Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County offers insight into prehistoric giants. The California Science Center has a 3-D IMAX theater and is the home of a new exhibit featuring the retired NASA space shuttle Endeavour, which was recently flown to L.A. on the back of a Boeing 747. Farther west of Exposition Park is the jazz and blues capital of Leimert Park; south is Watts, home of the Watts Towers.
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