As many locals will attest to, Downtown LA has been going through something of a renaissance these last few years. The catalyst that started it all was Staples Center, which opened in 1999. Since then this central enclave of California’s most image-conscious city has undergone a complete facelift. LA Live sprouted up in order to compliment the new stadium, and four-star hotels were erected to accommodate the fans. Low-income housing gave way to loft-style condos and run-down art deco hotels were refurbished and given a new lease on life. Today downtown LA boasts tranquil parks, trendy bars, art walks and weekly outdoor concerts. Those Angelinos who used to avoid downtown like the plague now make plans to drive out of their way to take part in the reawakening.
So with no shortage of sights to see and activities to take part in, here is a top ten list of things to do in downtown that should please both locals and tourists alike.
1. Disney Concert Hall
Located at the corner of Grand and 1st Street, this brainchild of famed architect Frank Gehry is one of the biggest draws in all of Los Angeles – and for good reason. It is home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, headed by the incomparable Gustavo Dudamel. There are plenty of opportunities to see the young composer in action, as the Disney Concert Hall hosts an average of 45 concerts a year. For those who can’t manage to score tickets there is a 60-minute building tour.
2. Olvera Street
Located just across the way from Union Station, this historic landmark is the very spot where Mexican settlers founded the city in the latter half of the 18th century. Visitors to this area can stroll the narrow village walkways and browse the handicrafts and trinkets. There is no shortage of Mexican restaurants and food stands either, and a couple of them boast some of the finest taquitos in the city.
Located just a couple blocks away from Olvera lies Los Angeles’ own Chinatown. Those visitors from San Francisco or New York might be inclined to dismiss LA’s version as “puny,” but what this barrio chino lacks in size it more than makes up for in authenticity. Shoppers have their pick of myriad Far East imports such as medicinal herbs, dried shitake mushrooms, toys and even home accessories. And after some light shopping, visitors can stop in for a bite to eat at Yang Chow or Golden City Seafood for authentic Chinese cuisine of the highest order.
4. The Standard Hotel
Just because it’s downtown doesn’t mean visitors can’t have a taste of posh Hollywood. Located on Flower Street, the central location of this chain hotel features a chic and modern rooftop bar with the best view of the downtown LA skyline in the whole city. Those who want to look the part can kick back with a fruit-infused martini in an egg-shaped lounge chair and watch the parade of models, actors, DJs, photographers, model/actors, model/actor/DJs and model/actor/DJ/photographers who populate the locale.
5. Millenium Biltmore Hotel
Those who like a little history with their upscale hotels would do well to visit the Millennium Biltmore on Grand Avenue. After all, for many years this landmark played host to the early Oscar telecasts. It’s kept much of its classic décor in tact, and visitors can get their Humphrey Bogart on at the throwback Gallery Bar located just off the lobby.
6. Staples/La Live
For sports fans (sans football) Staples and LA Live are a must experience. Score tickets to a Lakers, Clippers or Kings game and the night will take care of itself. Add to that the more than a dozen restaurants and bars that make up the adjacent LA Live and there’s little reason to stray far from the area.
7. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
What better way to offset a night spent yelling support or disapproval in a sports arena than by enjoying an Age of Mammals exhibit at the local museum? Located on Exposition Boulevard near the Coliseum, this other LA landmark boasts a number of fascinating exhibits as well as a popular dinosaur performance (perfect for kids).
8. Roller Derby
This may be an “underground” sport throughout much of the U.S., but it is decidedly mainstream in Los Angeles. Those who haven’t experienced a game owe it to themselves to come out for LA’s all-female roller derby league known as the Derby Dolls. With names team names like the Sirens and the Tough Cookies, what’s not to love?
9. Art Walk
Something of a staple now in Downtown Los Angeles, this grassroots happening has been going on since 2004. Those who come out to Spring or Main Street between 2nd and 9th streets on the second Thursday of the month will be treated to gallery exhibits and store promotions. Everything stays open late, and the booze and food trucks are ubiquitous.
10. Grand Central Market
With countless travel shows espousing the virtues of street food there’s no better place to experience it in LA than Grand Central Market located on Broadway near 3rd Street. Pull up a stool for some wonton soup out of a Styrofoam cup, or pull up a different stool for a fresh shrimp cocktail out of a slightly larger Styrofoam cup. Everything from fresh produce to pistachio ice cream can be found at Grand Central Market. It is a true culinary melting pot in the best sense of the phrase.
Those new to LA shouldn’t let its expansive size intimidate them. Every neighborhood is its own little world in this metropolis. And Downtown has, over just a short few years, established itself as a world that is wide open to foreigners and locals alike, with no shortage of activities to suit every taste.