Downtown Los Angeles, or DTLA as it’s know to locals, is usually missed by tourists but it should absolutely be on your itinerary when you’re exploring LA. I get it, Hollywood, Beverley Hills and the beautiful coastal spots of Santa Monica and Venice Beach are the big draws, but if you want to get beneath the skin of the city and explore the phenomenal history of LA, you need to head to the place where the city started, complete with all of its Mexican, Chinese and Japanese roots.
In this article, I’ll guide you through the best things to do in Downtown LA from the history and culture to the modern buildings and where to eat and drink. At the end, I’ve included a map of the locations featured in this guide.
1. Grand Central Market
Grand Central Market is worth the journey to DTLA even if you’re not interested in exploring the rest of downtown. A collection of casual eateries and bars, the covered market dates back to 1917, making it an iconic part of Los Angeles. The food vendors represent cuisines from around the world – chomp on Mexican Street food, Japanese bento boxes or get super local with a typical US deli sandwich, pizza or PB&J. Grand Central Market is the perfect spot for a quick, cheap bite. I ate at Ana Maria and highly recommend it.
Don’t miss: Saritas, the spot where Mia and Sebastian went on their first date in the movie La La Land.
Like a food themed trip? You might like my guide to What & Where to Eat in New Orleans or my guide to The Best Places to Eat Italian in Greenwich Village
2. Walt Disney Concert Hall
Designed by Frank Ghery and opened as recently as 2003, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is an impressive addition to downtown Los Angeles. A stunning wave of silver metal, the structure is definitely photogenic, capturing the oh-so LA sunshine in all its glory. Of course, the architecture is just the beginning. The concert hall is home to the LA Philharmonic, one of the best orchestras in the world (reminds me to pay another visit to my local Liverpool Philharmonic). Grab tickets to a performance and you’ll see the stunning wood-style interior. If you don’t have time for a performance, you can take a free self-guided tour of the lobby.
3. MOCA Grand
With the claim to fame of being the only artist-founded museum in Los Angeles, MOCA Grand – Museum of Contemporary Art – has a focus on modern art. Featuring American and European artists from the post 1940s period, there are nearly 6,000 works of art including pieces from Jackson Pollock and David Hockney. General admission is free but you must pre-book a timed ticket.
Travel tip – Los Angeles Museums: Most museums require you to pre-book a timed entry ticket. So definitely plan your museum visits in advance.
4. Angel’s Flight
Blink and you’ll miss it. Angel’s flight is the world’s shortest railway, taking passengers up one of the steep hills of DTLA from Hill Street to Bunker Hill’s Grand Avenue. The funicular railway opened in 1901 and features two cable cars, cutely named Sinai and Olivet. Sure, you can hike the stairs but for $1 each way, you can board this historic, wooden tram-like train. The station is just opposite Grand Central Market, making it an ideal activity after gorging on lunch.
Fun fact: I first read about Angel’s flight in a book, Angel’s Flight by Michael Connelly. You might be more familiar with the TV version – Bosch on Amazon Prime. Season 4 features the murder on Angels Flight. Don’t worry. It’s all fiction.
Interested in a longer train ride? Here’s my guide to taking the Copper Canyon railway in Mexico.
5. Grammy Museum
If you’re a music fan, you have to get to the Grammy Museum. Dedicated to the Grammy Awards, the museum is interactive and immersive with everything from costumes, instruments, lyrics and records to touch screens and even recording booths (if you dare). There is an ever changing series of special exhibits so check the Grammy Website to work out what’s on. This is in addition to the permanent collection. Standard adult tickets cost $18.
6. El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument
El Pueblo has had a few name changes over the years – including Los Angeles Plaza Historic District, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora, La Reina de Los Angeles (the town of our Lady, the Queen of the Angels), and El Pueblo de Los Ángeles State Historic Park. What is it? It’s the birthplace of Los Angeles, no less. What many visitors don’t realise is that Los Angeles’ first settlers arrived in 1781 from Mexico. There isn’t a single monument, as such, despite what the name suggests. The pueblo is the entire original district and contains several sights (more below), making it a living historic museum.
7. Olvera Street Stalls
Wander down tiny Olvera Street and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into Mexico. Lined on both sides with traditional Mexican shops and restaurants, Olvera Street is the place to go to experience the heart of El Pueblo’s historic district. My best suggestion is to stop by during lunch or early dinner where you can get a taste of traditional Mexican food. Olvera Street’s vendors are generally open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with longer hours at the weekend and during summer.
8. Old Plaza Firehouse Museum
Also within the El Pueblo de Los Angeles historic district is the old Plaza Firehouse, the oldest Firehouse in LA. Operational for only a few short years, from 1884 to 1897, the Firehouse has had multiple ‘interesting’ uses since then. It has been used as a saloon, flop house, Chinese market and drugstore. The Firehouse was restored and turned into a museum in the 1960s. It’s not open every day so plan your visit if you want to go inside.
9. Avila Adobe – LA’s Oldest House
Known as the oldest residence in Los Angeles, Avila Adobe is also part of the El Pueblo historic district. Located near Olvera Street, the Adobe is a fascinating insight into life in the 1800s. Built in 1818, the house belonged to Francisco Avila, a rich cattle rancher. In case you’re wondering, Adobe is the name of the materials used for building the house, which are basically earth and water, also known as mudbrick. Avila Adobe is free to enter and offers a great retreat from the heat of the day.
Downtown Los Angeles has always been a wonderful melting pot of immigration. So, it’s only a short walk from El Pueblo to DTLA’s Chinatown. Once again, it felt to me like stepping into China. The best thing to do is wander the streets and soak up the sights, smells and atmosphere. If you want to focus on the ‘big’ sights, look out for Chinatown Gateway Monument, gates that mark the entrance to the area with snaking dragons on the top. Also don’t miss the Chinese Gateway at Southern California Teo-Chew Association (above), an impressive multi-tiered Chinese gate with the traditional red-brick roof, and the Chinatown Metro station with its unique Chinese roof.
11. Little Tokyo
Being an avid traveler, I love nothing more than being able to wander through some many cultures in one area and DTLA offers this in spades. Not far from Chinatown, you’ll find Little Tokyo. It was the heart of Japanese immigration in the early 1900s and has been named a National Historic Landmark District. Today, Little Tokyo is around 5 blocks of Japanese businesses, shops and restaurants. Definitely worth a wonder if you want to immerse yourself in Japanese life. See if you can find one of my favourite Japanese dishes: Okonomiyaki, Kobe beef or, if you dare (and less likely), deadly Fugu.
Did you know – there are three main Japantowns in the United States and all of them are in California. The other two are in San Francisco and San Jose.
12. Japanese American National Museum
If you want to explore Japanese American history and culture in a little more depth, stop into the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). The museum has preserved over 130 years of Japanese cultural history in the USA. You can watch home movies, see art and photographs and listen to oral histories. Affiliated with the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC, it’s definitely a high-quality museum. Adult tickets are $16 for general admission.
13. City Hall
Unless you’re really into politics, the main draw of LA’s City Hall will be the architecture. Finished in 1928, the 32 floor structure has two sprawling wings. It has one of those very specific claims to fame, being the tallest ‘base isolated’ structure in the world (whatever that means). What might be more interesting is the Observation Deck. Also known as the Tom Bradley Tower, the deck is open to the public and gives you great views from the 17th floor. There are toilets inside if you’ve been sightseeing with too much coffee to accompany you.
14. Grand Park
Grand Park is another part of DTLA that has gone through several name changes – you might have heard of it as the Civic Centre Mall or Grand Avenue Project, or, as the park organizers call it, the park for everyone. Either way, it’s a wonderful outdoor space complete with a decorative fountain, a sweeping plaza and dancing fountains for the kids (or adults) to play in summer. Some refer to Grand Park as the Central Park of Downtown LA. While I wouldn’t go that far – it’s nowhere near as green or vast – it does feature a collection of tropical plants, shaded walking areas and a snack kiosk. The park is also an event space so check it out if you’re looking for some cool things to do in Los Angeles at night. There are several memorials in the park, including Pobladores memorial and map (memorial to the original settlers) and a Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
15. The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles
First of all, don’t panic – it’s not actually the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. But it is the biggest in California. What do they mean by biggest? Well, they have the largest collection of new and used books in the entire state. Not only that, across 22,000 square feet, The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles has a comic book store, record store, art stores and a yarn store. Don’t miss the famous book tunnel. Honestly, as someone who regularly reads a book a week (or more), I could live here. I just need a small corner to take mid-book naps. Not sure what to buy? Check out my list of the best travel books of all time.
16. Rooftop drinks at Ace Hotel
I love the slogan on the website for Ace Hotel in DTLA – where the grit meets the glamour. And if you’re looking for a bit of glamour after exploring the grit of downtown, head to the rooftop of the Ace Hotel. Sit poolside and drink in both the panoramic views of the city as well as the superb cocktails. Expect a cool mix of urban industrial design and, somehow, pleasingly and surprisingly, what looks like the fascia of a gothic church. I know, right? It’s a perfect nighttime activity. But try to get there for mid-week happy hour when you can enjoy the bartender’s choice of cocktail for just $7. Want to stay overnight, check out rates for the Ace Hotel.
17. Enjoy the modern architecture
I’m no architect, but so many of the buildings in Downtown caught my eye. Maybe it was the blue sky reflecting the oh-so-ethereal Californian light off the grey, glass and steel, after months of winter in England. But I spent a decent amount of time looking up, feeling the awe and respect for what goes into designing and building a skyscraper. If nothing else, this is a wonderful free thing to do in Los Angeles. And it will give you some pretty darn good looking photos to boot.
18. Union Station
If you want a shining example of the golden age of rail travel, just step inside Los Angeles’ Union Station. Immediately, you’ll be met by the grand waiting room complete with wood-effect ceiling, Art Deco chandeliers and tiled floors. The ticket lobby and counter are original, and have been wonderfully maintained and restored. Although I only went to look, it instantly made me with I was catching a train – sometime in the 1930s (the station opened in 1939). The station contains several works of art as well as boards charting the history of the station. If you’re after a free museum experience in LA, Union station is the place to go. It’s also served as the backdrop to many movies.
19. See the LA skyline from afar
DTLA might not have the skyline of New York but it’s still an impressive sight. And often the best way to appreciate the sight of a city is from afar. The best view I got of the sweeping LA skyline and Downtown LA Skyline was from the Griffith Observatory. It also happens to be a great place to view the Hollywood sign, so you get two sights for one.
Map of things to do in Downtown LA
Here is my map of things to do in DTLA.
So, that’s my guide to the best things to do in Downtown Los Angeles. Got any questions or suggestions, let me know in the comments below.
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