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Rediscovering downtown Los Angeles
Ok, I admit, I’ve taken downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) for granted. After living in Southern California for 35 years I’ve not given this section of LA its due. Normally it’s the place I go for meetings, and occasionally the theater, but I’ve never taken the time to really explore it. Jason and I decided that had to change and we recently spent two days exploring this historic, gritty, and vibrant part of the city. From our two days we've developed a list of ten things to do in downtown LA that we hope will guide your future visit.
Let me give a little background. Jason attended University of Southern California, so we have both spent plenty of time in the general vicinity of DTLA. But what this area was 20 years ago has little relation to what you’ll see today. I had to set aside my general negative perceptions of a neighborhood filled with homeless, where the sidewalks rolled-up at 5 p.m., and all the commuters drove home to the suburbs.
An Improving Downtown Los Angeles
In the past, I would never have dreamed of walking the streets of DTLA to get breakfast early in the morning, or a drink after sunset, yet we did both. I also did not expect the friendliness of everyone in the area--the Uber drivers, coffee shop baristas, fellow diners, waiters, valets, etc. People seemed genuinely happy to be in downtown.
In all transparency, the area is not perfect. The City of Los Angeles has clearly not addressed the homelessness issue, and it’s truly sad to see how many men and women still live on the streets, many in tents. Downtown LA includes Skid Row which is home to some of the largest homeless shelters in the country. In fact, as DTLA has become a hip neighborhood and new construction is booming, it’s harder than ever for someone with a low income to find a place to live. The slide from low income to homeless can happen all too quickly in an area with skyrocketing rents.
So in this area struggling to balance new found appeal and wealth with seemingly intractable social problems, we began our weekend.
One — Have Lunch at One of Downtown LA’s Ethnic Restaurants
Our trip began with lunch at the RiceBar after reading a review by the legendary food writer, Jonathan Gold. I recently watched City of Gold--a documentary about Gold--and decided I had to start visiting restaurants he recommends. What’s important to know about Gold is that he favors small, independent, ethnic restaurants in Los Angeles. And RiceBar, as part of a growing trend of Filipino restaurants in the region, fit this category perfectly. As suggested in their name, the focus of the menu is on rice bowls that come topped with a variety of meat, seafood and vegetables.
Entering the restaurant on a sweltering hot day, I was praying their airconditioner worked, and it did, but just barely. Somehow this seemed to make the experience more authentic, almost as if we were eating street food in Southeast Asia. And oh boy, was the food delicious! I had the pork longganisa rice bowl and Jason had the chili squid and dilis rice bowl. Both were excellent.
Another great ethnic restaurant is Little Sister Downtown, offering delicious Vietnamese Cuisine. The pork, shrimp and crab dumplings on the starter menu are excellent. In fact the sauce was so tasty I considered drinking it from the bowl (fortunately I refrained since I didn't want to embarass Jason).
While DTLA continues to attract new dining establishments with the backing of well financed restaurant groups, it is also attracting younger chefs and entrepreneurs opening small places with a focus on a particular ethnic cuisine, often with a modern twist. Nearby Little Tokyo and Chinatown are especially the focus of this trend. I look forward to this trend continuing since it will give me reasons to keep coming back.
Here's a helpful article about What To Pack For Los Angeles In The Summer.
Two, Three and Four–DTLA Walking Tour
A great way to check-off several of downtown's sites is to join a tour. We opted for Downtown LA Walking Tours which allowed us to visit Angels Flight, the Bradbury Building and The Last Bookstore.
There’s no greater booster for DTLA then the owner of the tour company, Neil, who greets everyone enthusiastically in his bright yellow t-shirt. Passionate about the history and culture of the area, Neil tells every story with zeal. Having participated in walking tours in several cities around the world, I appreciated Neil’s extra touches like recommending the perfect photo spot or showing us videos on his ipad to augment the sites we were seeing.
Angels Flight is a very short railroad that was built so rich Angelenos of the early 20th century didn't have to walk up a steep hill. The Bradbury Building is famous for its skylit atrium and decorative ironwork. Both have been featured in movies and television shows. You won't have the opportunity to ride Angels Flight during the tour, so be sure to arrive for the tour early and enjoy the world's shortest funicular for just one dollar each way.
The Last Bookstore, selling both new and used books, might be the coolest bookstore you've ever seen. It rivals my other favorite bookstore, Powell's of Portland. But since The Last Bookstore is located in Los Angeles it also features several great instagram photos opportunities.
Our walking tour started at the recently reopened Angel’s Flight, continued past the Grand Central Market, led us through The Last Bookstore, past historic theaters on Broadway and ended at Pershing Square. I have driven these same streets many times and never paid attention to the beautiful and historic buildings, many of which have appeared in hundreds of movies and television shows.
Despite his enthusiasm for the area, Neil didn’t ignore the obvious problems of the area. To do so would have made the tour superficial and pointless. Instead, he began the tour discussing the challenges of gentrification. Later, he walked with us to the edge of Skid Row and gave a history of how this area came to be known for housing so many homeless. After two hours I had a fair and balanced understanding of this neighborhood.
DTLA Walking Tours offers eight different options for exploring this area and the price is a reasonable $17 per person, with kids 12 and under free.
Five–Cool off at Greenbar Distillery
Did I mention that the heat was 98 degrees the day we arrived in Los Angeles? The heat was radiating off the asphalt streets and intensified the smell of the garbage in alleys. So our next stop at Greenbar Distillery was much needed and appreciated.
Located in the newly hip section of DTLA called The Arts District, Greenbar Distillery fits right in. The copper distilling machines and giant wooden barrels of aging liquor are nicely complimented by the red brick walls. The young and energetic staff add to the environment making this a quick and fun tour. Our tour guides covered the history of this craft distillery--the first West of the Mississippi since prohibition--as well as the distillation process. We also learned that craft distilleries are exploding in the United States, with approximately 900 now in business.
After the educational portion of the tour, the real fun began! We had the opportunity to sample four liquors of our choice. Greenbar manufactures a wide variety of liquors including vodka, whiskey, tequila, rum and gin. Jason and I usually drink our liquor with mixers and ice, so we could feel the burn of these libations going down straight.
This one hour tour is just $12 a person and definitely worth the experience. They also offer a cocktail making class for $40. If you plan to make a trip to DTLA, then you should stop by Greenbar.
Six–Dine at Grand Central Market
Grand Central Market has become wildly popular in Los Angeles, but it’s definitely not new. In fact this market has been in continuous operation since 1917. In the past several years the market has been reimagined to attract both workers and residents for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are vendors that have been around for decades and some that opened in recent months. The combination makes for a unique LA experience of traditional ethnic eateries and trendy restaurants and bars.
After a long and hot afternoon, we were ready for food and a cold beer. Fortunately Grand Central offers both. Jason and I have visited this market before and have developed a love for the food at Tacos Tumbas A Tomas. This is one of the long time vendors, but it competes quite nicely with the newer and trendier purveyors. I highly recommend the carnitas and al pastor tacos. We then walked to the opposite side of the market to purchase a beer from Golden Road Brewing.
During previous visits to Grand Central Market we’ve enjoyed--and recommend--breakfast sandwiches at Eggslut, coffee at G&B, pizza at Olio, pupusas at Sarita’s, and bbq at Horse Thief. There are approximately 40 food vendors in the market, so almost any tastes can be accommodated.
Seven and Eight–The Broad and Brunch
Sunday morning Jason and I headed over to The Broad museum which features the contemporary art collection of Eli and Edythe Broad. This museum was built specifically to house this impressive collection and opened just two years ago. Located next to the Disney Concert Hall and across the street from the Colburn School of Music, this section of DTLA has become a cultural powerhouse.
The length of a visit to the Broad will depend on your knowledge and appreciation of contemporary art. We’ve visited twice and found that 90 minutes allows ample time to appreciate the collection on display. You’ll find works by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring and many more contemporary masters. One of the most photographed and instagrammed artworks is Under the Table by Robert Therrien. Regardless of opinions on contemporary art, this piece is always a hit with visitors of all ages (myself included!).
The Broad offers a free app that includes four audio tours to help educate visitors about both the museum and the artwork. I recommend bringing earphones so you can enjoy the narration while touring the museum. There is even an audio tour for kids that features some of the larger and best known pieces in the museum.
If you opt to take the stairs down from the galleries to the lobby, you’ll get a peak of the storage area. This museum is home to over 2,000 works and only a small portion of those are on display at any given time. In our two visits we noticed that the larger and more iconic works remain while a number of other works are rotated. I imagine it would take years of visits in order to view the whole collection.
Admission is free, but reservations are recommended in order to guarantee entrance. I’d recommend making your reservations about a month in advance in order to secure the most convenient time.
Love museums? Then check out the Best Museums in LA.
All that art viewing made us hungry, so we found our way to Redbird, the restaurant and event space housed in the former St. Vibiana’s Cathedral and Rectory. If you are from the Los Angeles area, you’ll know that the decision of a former Catholic Archbishop to abandon St. Vibiana’s and build the ultra modern Our Lady of Angels Cathedral nearby was highly controversial. I had followed this story for years and just recently visited the new cathedral. So it seemed right to make a visit to the former cathedral site and check out the trendy restaurant called Redbird.
The decor is simply lovely. The largest seating area is in the former courtyard of the rectory, but has been enclosed to allow heating or air conditioning as needed. With plenty of large windows, high, retractable, ceilings and carefully placed plants, diners experience both the benefits of outdoor dining and indoor comforts.
The menu did not disappoint. As Jason and I often do, we selected two different dishes and shared. We ordered the Basque baked eggs and the bacon wrapped trout. While the eggs were tasty, we both agreed that the trout was the standout dish, both in taste and presentation. I am always looking for unique fish dishes, and this one goes to the top of my list.
Nine–Eat Ice Cream While Viewing Murals In The Arts District
I think I mentioned a few times just how hot the weather was for our DTLA visit. I mention it again because it’s how we justified ice cream immediately after brunch. Regardless of the weather however, I admit I was determined to visit Salt and Straw because this ice cream is seriously good. My brother introduced me to the original location in Portland, Oregon about two years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since. So when I learned that there was a new location in The Arts District, I added it to our agenda.
Salt and Straw is famous for their unique flavors. Some of the most unusual flavors include black olive brittle & goat cheese, avocado & strawberry sherbert, and olive oil & lemon custard. Sampling is highly encouraged and even expected, and for this reason, the lines can be long at times as most customers will sample several flavors. During my first visit a woman in line sampled every single flavor on the menu, so I’m not kidding when I say its encouraged.
Visiting Salt and Straw gave us the opportunity to see more of The Arts District. This area was previously a collection of mostly abandoned warehouses and is now home to galleries, restaurants, boutiques and condo developments. In addition to galleries, the area has earned its name from the street art that appears on many walls, making an otherwise ugly section of Los Angeles much more attractive.
Ten–See the city from a slide at Oue Skyspace
Feeling like a kid and want to go down a slide? How about a slide on the 70th floor of a skyscaper? Then Oue Skyspace is the place for you. This is not the place for anyone with a fear of heights, but for everyone else it is definitely one of the things to do in downtown LA.
In addition to the slide, there is a great observation deck and a bar offering terrific martinis. The tickets for Oue Skyspace aren't cheap, but we found a great deal through TravelZoo that included two turns on the slide.
Ten Things To Do In Downtown LA
Covering an area of just 5.84 square miles, downtown Los Angeles is loaded with opportunities to eat, learn, and enjoy. I've listed ten of our favorite things to do, but there are many more!
LA is by no means perfect, and visitors here should proceed with caution, as you might in any major city. But when you consider the wealth of history, culture, and cuisine represented in this small area, then it’s definitely worth a visit. Whether you opt for a day trip or a weekend, you will not be wanting for things to do. Instead, like us, you’ll start planning an itinerary for your next trip.