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This must be downtown L.A.

If Los Angeles is a city in flux — a place with an ever-shifting center that’s home to many a transplant and is sometimes too eager to favor the new — then perhaps no neighborhood better embodies our town than downtown. Once the beating heart of the region, downtown has survived multiple eras of ups and downs, and remains a place in constant transformation.

To live in downtown — I have been a resident of the area for nearly 15 years — is not only to confront the fantasy of Los Angeles but also to come face to face with the city at its most dystopian. It’s a neighborhood of clashes, home to the grandeur of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the romance of rooftop eateries, the idealized history of Olvera Street and, of course, the harsh realities of class inequity and unrealized dreams, as downtown and Skid Row remain the epicenter of our homeless crisis.

And yet, downtown is history.

Get to know Los Angeles through the places that bring it to life. From restaurants to shops to outdoor spaces, here’s what to discover now.

The Angels Flight Railway today is a charmer, a short theme-park like journey connecting the heights of Bunker Hill with the Historic Core and Grand Central Market. But the Bunker Hill of today, with its skyscrapers and art museums, is a long way removed from its turn-of-the-century Victorian homes — or the so-called blight that the area was in the 1940s and ’50s when the rich jettisoned downtown. Displacement and leveling occurred.

Downtown is contradictions. Until 1957, downtown buildings were capped to a height of 150 feet. A building boom followed, and downtown won its reputation as a place occupied by 9-to-5 office workers by day, deserted by night. Today, unfinished skyscrapers have become canvases for graffiti artists, and a post-pandemic work-from-home lifestyle has pinned the hopes for downtown’s future on its potential as a residential area.

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Downtown is the center of our city — where settlers and indigenous people before them found freshwater — but emblematic of a region where its people refused to agree upon a center for any length of time. Or weren’t always given a choice. Our magnificent Union Station, today a burgeoning public transit hub, was built on ground that was the original Chinatown. To fully embrace downtown is to be forced to reconcile our city’s sometimes messy past.

And yet downtown is home. The ornate movie palaces of Broadway still stand, though are used more often as concert venues today. One is an Apple Store, the arrival of which in 2021 was itself seen as something of a pivotal moment, heralded, much as was the return of Ralphs to the area in 2007, as a sign that downtown was once again a livable destination.

But it always was. To try to capture downtown in a neighborhood guide is nearly impossible: The Historic Core is as different from Bunker Hill as South Park is from the Fashion District. We’ve splintered off the Arts District, which is equally unwieldy, and have defined downtown as a place stretching from around Union Station to the mecca of activity near Crypto.com Arena. Look for the neighborhoods-within-a-neighborhood that are Little Toyko and Chinatown to receive a similar treatment soon.

What you’ll find here is a look at a heavily walkable slice of Los Angeles, a place where gourmet food resides in the 100-plus-year-old food hall of Grand Central Market, where cocktail bars such as the Wolves attempt to whisk us to a yesteryear that never existed, and a bookstore has become a tourist destination that serves as a living art gallery. There’s more to the region than is captured here, of course — the details of our city’s founding, for instance, or the battle over the creation of a French dip sandwich. But what is here is comfortable and communal, be it the gloriousness of a flour tortilla or the coziness of a neighborhood bar.

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Downtown, finally, is a mystery. Venture into an alley, for example, to find the Smell, still the best all-ages location for underground and experimental music. Turn into a somewhat abandoned courtyard and stumble into a nearly forgotten slice of Old World kitsch. Nestled near the heart of Skid Row lies Mignon, one of the quietest, most intimate wine bars in the city. And hiding in the Central Library just happens to be one of the city’s niftiest little gift shops.

That it can hold all this and more, that it can be the birthplace of our city yet also one of our most malleable neighborhoods, is key to downtown’s allure. It can be grimy and unvarnished, sure, but it’s also never stopped dreaming. Is it the city core that it was envisioned as more than a couple of centuries ago? For many, it was never anything but.

What's included in this guide

Anyone who’s lived in a major metropolis can tell you that neighborhoods are a tricky thing. They’re eternally malleable and evoke sociological questions around how we place our homes, our neighbors and our communities within a wider tapestry. In the name of neighborly generosity, we included gems that may linger outside of technical parameters. Instead of leaning into stark definitions, we hope to celebrate all of the places that make us love where we live.

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A bottle of rose wine on a counter
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Get to know the locals at Kippered

Downtown L.A. Wine Bars
Tucked near some must-see tourist attractions — Grand Central Market, the Bradbury Building — Kippered happens to be downtown’s friendliest local hang, a place to find adventurous wines, a handful of craft beers (including a bevy of nonalcoholic options) and a food menu that’s essentially a snacker’s paradise. That is, if one’s idea of snacking includes cheese, meat and tinned fish. Kippered is something of an emporium for the latter.

As Kippered has settled in, co-owners Reed Herrick and Lydia Clarke have tinkered with the menu. Some nights, for instance, may feature tasteful sloppy Joes or decadent garlic cheese bread (follow along on Instagram for specials). The feel is casual but ever so slightly sophisticated, as burgundy-accented furnishings create a warm yet urban vibe. Cozy up to the bar, and don’t be surprised if unexpected conversations erupt, as Kippered’s ambition is to be a big city’s small-town bar.
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A laughing woman prepares to pour from a bottle into two glasses in front of her at a bar
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Be transported by Joyce's Southern, seafood-inspired menu

Downtown L.A. Seafood Soul Food
Joyce is buoyant — awash in sunlight in the afternoon, in the evening letting its coastal pastels set the mood. Start with a cocktail, perhaps a Valerie’s Voodoo, which will maintain the colorful vibe by leaning slightly tropical. From there, Joyce’s menu is built for exploration, equally playing off chef Sammy Monsour‘s North Carolina roots and his Southern California base. The seafood-leaning outpost contrasts a raw bar program with hearty, shareable plates such as cornbread and mac and cheese.

The raw offerings are generous, and there’s a down-home nature to much of the menu, home to crawfish hushpuppies, honey glazed pork belly and Nashville hot catfish; the spice on the latter will slowly sneak up on you rather than shout its presence. A favorite: the blue crab gratin en cocotte, a mix of cheesy, crabby goodness that serves as extravagant comfort food.
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People walk in an open food market building under hanging signs
(Yasara Gunawardena / For The Times)

Food is communal at Grand Central Market

Downtown L.A. Food market
Grand Central Market represents a changing downtown. The food hall is a palace dedicated to local cuisine and L.A.’s cultural melting pot. One can still find tacos — Tacos Tumbras a Tomas has been serving up tortillas overflowing with meat for more than 50 years — but today one also will find gourmet oysters, creamy key lime pie, towers of mini pancakes, home-style Korean lunchboxes, sushi handrolls, fried chicken, smoked BBQ meats, pupusas, lobster rolls ... and that’s just a sampling.

But the reason Grand Central Market is a must-visit for any local or tourist isn’t just because it has stood for more than 100 years and features a smattering of our town’s finest upscale offerings. No, Grand Central Market, with its food stalls on top of food stalls, butting up against coffee stands, neon light installations and a beer stand, still feels like L.A. at its most democratized, where crowds jostle for inventive ice cream, loaded egg sandwiches and lofty pastrami sandwiches. Its abundant diversity and overflowing crowds result in something uniquely communal.
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Looking up into a glass-roofed atrium with large hanging chandeliers
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Visit one of downtown's best gift shops at the Central Library

Downtown L.A. Library
Did you know that the rare books section of downtown’s Art Deco-style Central Library holds 1,700 books on bullfighting, believed to be the largest collection in the U.S.? Chinatown, apparently, had a bullring in the 1840s. As noted by Times reporter Jeffrey Fleishman, the Los Angeles Public Library’s mission has dramatically expanded since it was founded in 1872 with 500 books for a “bustling pueblo” of 6,000 people. Today, it has more than 8 million books and serves the largest and most diverse urban population of any library system in the country.

The Central Library can be awe-inspiring in its breadth, especially if one stands in its atrium, looking down into a vast collection of knowledge and up toward towering, sun-drenched sculptures. We declared it one of our favorite libraries to work, noting its historic details such as a staircase flanked by a pair of sphinxes, its ornate bronze Zodiac Chandelier and its murals that dot the original 1926 building. A tour is recommended.

But if one’s schedule doesn’t align, it’s worth popping into the Central Library for its rotating art exhibits, extensive list of events or even just to visit its gift shop, one of downtown L.A.’s best. There are books, yes, exploring the city’s culture and history, but also art, local crafts and even fancy gummy bears. Come for the stationery, go home with some California-branded socks.
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A movie theater's seats face the screen, on which is projected the logo for Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Attend a movie party at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

Downtown L.A. Movie Theater
Downtown is for movie lovers. Near Crypto.com Arena sits the first-run-focused Regal L.A. Live, and the Arts District is the home base for cult and unexpected screenings courtesy of the Secret Movie Club. Yet the anchor point for the area’s cinema fans is the Alamo Drafthouse, conveniently located right by the 7th Metro Center station for those who want to avoid downtown traffic.

Alamo Drafthouse was among the pioneers of in-seat service, with an extensive menu of food and beverages available to be ordered and served in the theater. The chain also prides itself on a strict policy of no texting or talking during a movie. That’s important, because its 12 downtown theaters, ranging from 40 to 63 seats, are all relatively intimate. And while much has been written in recent years about America’s moviegoing habits and the struggle to compete with streaming, screenings at the Alamo tend to be relatively full. Book your seat early via the website or app.

What audiences will find at the Alamo is a curated mix of new films and classics, brunch screenings and, for those who just need to shout or speak in a theater, “movie parties,” where fans can cheer, boo or quote favorite lines to films such as “The Twilight Saga: New Moon.” Get there early and hang out in the theater’s store/bar Video Vortex, where one can grab a pint, peruse board games and movie rentals or sometimes take part in a speed-dating event.
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A person walks among shelves of books at a bookstore
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Get lost in the labyrinth of the Last Bookstore

Downtown L.A. Bookstore
One can get lost in any great bookstore, but get turned around at the Last Bookstore and find yourself, perhaps, face to face with a birdcage holding a skull and a crow model next to military books. Or next to a bank vault leading to a dimly lit room housing old Encyclopedia Britannicas and bound Tax Court of the United States reports. Then, of course, there are oft-photographed spots, such as its second-floor tunnel of books leading to a maze-like labyrinth of bookshelves that tower and curve around visitors. An art piece, David Lovejoy’s “Diagnosis,” tends to stop most visitors on the store’s second floor, as it features books splayed open in a flying pose, as if a magician had called them into action.

The Last Bookstore has managed to turn the bookshop into a tourist attraction, where the act of perusing reading material feels unexpected, somewhat mystical, as shelves will suddenly open up as “portals” into another branch of the store. But beyond its hidden rooms and cozy-looking couches and chairs, this despite tape holding parts of them together, the Last Bookstore is in fact a formidable store, housing new and used books from every genre imaginable. Spy a creepy-looking picture of a young woman, and it’s likely to lead to an extensive horror section. One hidden nook will lead to graphic novels.

You’ll want to budget a fair amount of time to explore all the Last Bookstore has to offer, which includes a small second-floor coffee shop, a vinyl collection and a smattering of art galleries. The tiny Fold Gallery, for instance, is packed with unique gifts, ranging from local artworks to vintage maps, action figures and “Peanuts”-branded glassware from a fast food eatery. There are odd but irresistible gifts aplenty, such as a flask designed to look like a vintage Game Boy.
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A woman in black and white houndstooth takes a selfie in front of a black-and-white photo grid hanging on the wall
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Enter a box of contemporary art at the Broad

Downtown L.A. Art Museum
Grand Avenue is long removed from its days of Victorian homes and apartments, and today has ambitions of being a cultural hub of downtown, what with the Music Center, Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Broad is one of the street’s more recent additions, and it’s a striking boxy structure, one wrapped in a bone-white honeycomb of fiberglass-reinforced concrete panels. The Broad draws guests in from the sidewalks, its corners appearing to curve up to welcome visitors. It’s somewhat alien but as eye-catching as the art it houses.

Inside, guests are still getting lost in Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, which mesmerize and dazzle in the array of lights and colors (the main exhibit, “Infinity Mirrored Room — The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” still requires a reservation, which can be made when booking one’s admission online). But elsewhere, the Broad’s permanent collection of contemporary art is filled with Pop masterpieces, including extensive collections of work by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among many others. And keep an eye on the museum’s talks and music events.
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People stand at the glass door of a hotel under ornate windows, with a view out toward the street
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Have a cocktail surrounded by angels at the Biltmore

Downtown L.A. Historic hotel
“Italy, Spain, China, Persia, France, England — all of these with their choicest traditions and most famed attributes, have been poured into the melting pot, given a gentle stirring and, out of the blending — with the harmonious softness of all and the harshness of none — we find a perfect renaissance in the new Biltmore Hotel.” So reads a 1923 review in The Times of the then-new luxury hotel that spans a swath of Grand Avenue and Fifth Street across from Pershing Square. The Biltmore arrived as a palace of not just elegance but of optimism, viewing the downtown Los Angeles of the Jazz Age as a global mecca and a center for opulence.

It’s still a thing of beauty today, though its days of hosting the Academy Awards and the Beatles are behind it. Lovingly restored in the 1980s, the Biltmore now is a place of timeless gracefulness, even as it remains rooted in a period in which downtown seemed as if it would become the center of the world.

Come, for instance, on a Saturday afternoon for a Biltmore staple, the hotel’s refined take on afternoon tea (expect to book a few weeks in advance). Looking for something more casual? Pop in to the Gallery Bar and Cognac Room for a cocktail, small plates and complimentary popcorn. It’s a place to catch a Dodgers game, or just marvel at the carved angels that surround the granite bar. Or better yet, make it ground zero for your downtown staycation.
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The orange car of Angels Flight funicular railway in downtown Los Angeles
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Treat downtown like a theme park at Angels Flight Railway

Downtown L.A. Historic landmark
Today, Angels Flight Railway is primarily used by tourists. Billed as the “world’s shortest railway,” Angels Flight gives downtown a mini, theme-park-like attraction. But at more than 100 years old, the cable railway built on an incline, which today runs between Hill Street and California Plaza connecting L.A.’s Bunker Hill neighborhood and downtown’s Historic Core, once ferried about 4,000 passengers daily. Today, it sits about half a block from its original location. It dates to a time when Bunker Hill was a bit more of a residential neighborhood.

The tiny funicular railway — it’s a charmer — is a must-do at least once. Tack it on, for instance, to a visit to Grand Central Market. One-way rides are $1 apiece and, at the time of publication, Metro Tap Card users get a discount. Fun fact: Its two cars, built in a Beaux-Arts architectural style, are named Sinai and Olivet.
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A sign hanging over a walkway on the Grammy Museum building
(Rebecca Sapp / Grammy Museum)

Interact with music history at the Grammy Museum

Downtown L.A. Museum
A mistake many make with the Grammy Museum is thinking the space is dedicated solely to the Grammys rather than the history of music as a whole. Yes, there’s plenty of Grammy-related paraphernalia, including some red-carpet outfits, but the soul of the museum is in interactive exhibitions on the third and fourth floors.

On the latter, guests can currently touch their way through hip-hop history. It’s a good way to go down musical rabbit holes. One of the Grammy Museum’s showcase exhibitions, Mono to Immersive, also is interactive, designed to educate guests on the recording process, with an emphasis on technological advancements.

But arguably the main reason to keep the Grammy Museum on your radar is its events, most of which are held in the 200-seat Clive Davis Theatre. Artists who have appeared include Olivia Rodrigo, Janelle Monáe, Caroline Polachek and Mark Ronson. Expect intimate performances and stories behind an artist’s latest work.
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Plates of Mexican food on a wooden counter next to a white tiled wall
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Sample Sonoratown's glorious handmade flour tortillas

Downtown L.A. Tacos
In a city known for tacos, Sonoratown continues to stand apart. Its original Fashion District location — you may get a whiff of mesquite-grilled steak as soon as you spot the small restaurant’s smattering of outside tables and orange counter stools — remains a showcase for flour tortillas and plentifully prepared meats.

And those flour tortillas are a star, thin but rich in durability. Times Food Critic Bill Addison has rated Sonoratown as one of the 101 best restaurants in the region, writing lovingly of those flour tortillas. “Like the best pie crusts they manage to be at once flaky and buttery,” Addison wrote. “Nearly translucent and handsomely pocked from the griddle, it is the flour tortilla against which to judge all others in Los Angeles.”

They are marvelous as a taco, quesadilla, chivichanga or Sonoratown’s trademark Burrito 2.0, a muscular vessel for a choice of meat, swaths of guacamole and bitingly spicy chiltepin salsa. Overdo it on the latter, and be prepared to quickly down one of the aguas frescas. Tip: Addison states, “The meat of choice is costilla — a mix of boneless short rib and chuck robed in mesquite smoke. Go for the option to add poblano.”

Another tip: Order to go, and bring home one of Sonoratown’s taco kits for the family — or a long weekend.
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A brownish-red cocktail in a glass goblet, with leaves' shadows on the wall next to it
(Stefan Merriweather)

Dine in a former rectory at Redbird

Downtown L.A. American cuisine
Redbird is such a staple of downtown’s upscale dining scene that it’s easy to overlook. When the restaurant opened in late 2014, stories and reviews focused on the quickly gentrifying area it resides in. The restaurant has not only lasted but has become a reputable place for modern American cuisine with fanciful touches — roasted shishito peppers dusted with salty, shaved dried fish eggs, or scallops accentuated with curried pumpkin.

It’s also stunning inside, built in the former rectory building of St. Vibiana, now an event space also operated by the Redbird team of chef Neal Fraser and Amy Knoll Fraser. A circular bar near its entrance takes guests on a journey through a lounge and a lively covered patio space; it’s also a prime destination for happy hour, where one can nibble on those aforementioned shishito peppers as well as crispy duck wings and grilled prawns. Redbird is an old-fashioned place that feels contemporary, a restaurant to splurge on a steak but also sample a strawberry-fronted cocktail.
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A marble table nestled in a red diner booth
(Marty Robertson / Moonlark’s Dinette)

Marvel at the Midwest-influenced comfort food of Moonlark's Dinette

Downtown L.A. American
Chicago chef Chris Pandel has stated that he wanted the menu at Moonlark’s Dinette to capture the charm of Midwestern comfort food. As proof, one should order the mozzarella sticks, glorious things with luxuriant fried dough and a hefty helping of goopy cheese. They’ll certainly recall a favorite pizza parlor, that is, if any pizza parlor made them this generous and robust.

Familiar favorites, handled with respect and reverence, dot the menu. Breakfast is highlighted by a quesadilla with chorizo, and the space is geared for all-day dining, as omelets nest comfortably alongside the likes of a Monte Cristo with invitingly sweet bread and, of course, a thick-cut burger.

Moonlark’s is one of a few spaces leading a diner renaissance in downtown (also not to miss are Rita’s Deluxe and Denae’s Diner). The L-shaped restaurant on the ground floor of the Hoxton hotel is filled with comfortable booths and an abundance of counter seating; after 4 p.m. it offers a more dinner-focused menu, with spareribs and griddled shrimp. For a more bar-like experience, the Moonlark’s menu is available at the small lobby-adjacent cocktail lounge.
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A young girl strikes a ballet pose in a fountain at a park
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Do some yoga at Gloria Molina Grand Park

Downtown L.A. Park
Gloria Molina Grand Park has given Los Angeles not only a gathering space for major holidays — expect events geared around Día de los Muertos, the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve — but a year-round spot for outdoor relaxation in downtown. At this multitiered park — Grand Park stretches from the Music Center to City Hall, and is the rare park in which guests can get some steps in — each level offers something to discover. Pink picnic tables dot the breadth of the space, lending it a lively, welcoming feel, and near City Hall one will find a playground and a dog run.

Head west toward the Music Center, and you’ll pass a flag garden accentuated with cherry blossom trees, as well as smaller gardens with international plants that represent the diversity of Los Angeles. Continue to make your way toward the Music Center, and Grand Park opens up with a large fountain and splash pad for little ones. There’s even an in-park Starbucks, and usually a midweek food truck or two. Grand Park focuses on events for the local community, or those who want to make a day of it in downtown. Be on the lookout for yoga classes and weekend music sessions.
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Vendor stalls filled with colorful goods at Olvera Street.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Dive into L.A. history at Olvera Street

Downtown L.A. L.A. History
Los Angeles has always been grand at romanticizing its history. Olvera Street, often colloquially spoken of as the birthplace of Los Angeles, dates in its current form to around 1930, when, according to The Times’ archives, one Christine Sterling, a San Franciscan who had never visited Mexico, dreamed of creating “a Mexican marketplace in Los Angeles to preserve the old buildings of the region and promote Mexican crafts.” No matter, as it is near the area where the city was born as a Spanish pueblo in 1781, and in the 1880s was described as a key location for farming and community life.

Sterling’s tourist-centric vision succeeded, however, in saving many a historic building in the area and creating an idealized view of what downtown life could have looked like. Today, Olvera Street remains a joy to visit, as the area is dotted with museums — some small, such as the Los Angeles County Fire Museum, and others grand, such as the Latinx culture hub that is LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. Also a must-visit is ?vila Adobe, a popular museum with tours of the space as it would have looked in the 1840s.

Then, of course, there’s the marketplace and shops, which sell souvenirs, clothing, blankets, toys or leather goods. Spend some time perusing the cramped shops, as a candle store may just have that ranchero snowman ornament you can’t live without. Restaurants and stands serve largely traditional Mexican fare, but Cielito Lindo is a must for taquitos (also a quick and affordable lunch for when you’re on jury duty nearby).
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An overhead view of a person with a bike on an ornate tiled floor.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Explore the transitways — or have a pint — at Union Station

Downtown L.A. L.A. History
Union Station, for all its architectural magnificence — a combination of Art Deco, Mission Revival and Streamline Moderne stylings — has had an up and down history. As recently as the 1960s it was said Union Station was primarily filled with birds. Today, however, its original mission to unite the railways of Southern California seems at long last realized, thanks largely to a renewed interest in public transportation. Union Station is now a hub connecting Metro Rail’s intercity subway and light rail lines, not to mention the regional transportation of Metrolink.

It’s a welcome development. When Union Station launched in 1939, it was the last classic rail terminal to open in the United States, doing so at a moment when voters were rejecting investment in local rail lines in favor of the city’s reliance on freeways (the Arroyo Parkway was under construction at the time). To step into Union Station on any given modern weekday, however, is to find a busy, bustling transitway, and its gorgeous bell towers and Moorish tiles still stand.

Today, there is a space for art events — a recent exhibit focused on the original Chinatown, which the creation of Union Station displaced — a charming not-quite dive bar, Traxx, and its accompanying lunchtime restaurant ( Traxx Restaurant is not open on weekends, serving primarily weekday commuters and local businesspeople). Both have a surprisingly robust menu — try the prosciutto toast.

Keep an eye on Union Station’s tour schedule, and make the transit center part of an L.A. history stop after lunch at Philippe the Original or before a Dodgers game, as the Dodger Stadium Express is the best way to avoid the headache that is the stadium parking lot.
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The front of the Bradbury Building.
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Relax with a coffee at the Bradbury Building

Downtown L.A. L.A. History
This historic landmark — named for gold miner Lewis Bradbury, who financed the project — stands as one of downtown’s most luxurious buildings. The space was completed in 1894, for a reported cost of $500,000. When it opened, The Times reported, it contained “Italian marble, Mexican floor tiles, delicate water-powered bird-cage elevators from Chicago, 288 radiators, 50 fireplaces, 215 wash basins and the largest plate-glass windows in Los Angeles.”

Visiting today, you’ll want to get a glimpse of those famous cage elevators, although unless you have business to do in the building, explorers are confined to the first floor. It’s still worth a look, as the filtered daylight from those plate-glass windows gives the bronze-colored building a photogenic golden hue. The Bradbury underwent a $7 million renovation in the early 1990s and is today working offices, but tucked into the corner is the downtown outpost of Blue Bottle Coffee. So if you can’t wander the building’s workspaces, you can still chill in the Bradbury with a latte.
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A woman in a green dress onstage with several other people behind her
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Enjoy the buzz of live theater at the Ahmanson Theatre

Downtown L.A. Theater
The Los Angeles theater scene is spread far and wide, as exciting productions can be found across the Southland. But there’s no doubt that the Center Theatre Group acts, whether fans like it or not, as the heart of the local theater scene. Its two Music Center stages — the 1,600-plus-seat Ahmanson Theatre and the 736-seat Mark Taper Forum — are arguably our city’s two most prominent, headline-gathering theatrical spaces.

The Taper, typically, has been the more risk-taking of the two, although the post-pandemic plight of live theater has seen its regular programming, as of early 2024, temporarily halted. The Ahmanson can still be bold, recently hosting productions such as “Matthew Bourne’s Romeo & Juliet,” “Hadestown,” “A Soldier’s Play,” “The Lehman Trilogy” and more. It’s one of our city’s biggest and most famous stages, and it brings life to a slice of downtown.
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A view of Chinatown from the Observation Deck at City Hall.
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Skip the fancy rooftop brunch and see Los Angeles via City Hall

Downtown L.A. L.A. History
Downtown has no shortage of rooftop restaurants offering grand views and delectable bites. Check, for instance, the mini lobster rolls and tropical drinks found at Cara Cara, the empanadas and ceviches of the Peruvian-inspired Cabra or the French-leaning menu and relaxing sofas of longtime neighborhood staple Perch.

But one needn’t be splurging for brunch, a date or a business lunch to enjoy some downtown panoramas. Get a glimpse of L.A. history by visiting the Art Deco landmark that is City Hall and visit the 27th floor observation deck, where one can walk all sides of the building for a full 360-degree view of Los Angeles.

One can linger looking for historical or recognizable sites, as the deck is open as long as City Hall is open. Which brings us to the fine print: While it’s free to visit, one will need to do so on a weekday, excluding holidays, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. And since the center of the space is sometimes used for events or press conferences, guests are advised to call ahead: (213) 473-3231.
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A couple sit in a wood-paneled restaurant booth
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Explore the fantasy of another era at the Wolves

Downtown L.A. Cocktails
To step into the Wolves is to be transported, to be whisked to a downtown of yesteryear, when the neighborhood was a mecca for celebrity and a burgeoning entertainment industry. Pair an early-evening drink at the Wolves with a late-afternoon jaunt on Angels Flight, and one can play at living in another time. Only the Wolves is a recent creation, opening to long waits for a bar seat in 2018. The neighborhood has not yet returned to its pre-pandemic heights, which means that bar seat is easier to obtain, but the Wolves still manages to inspire wonder.

Is it Parisian? There’s a turn-of-the-century, stained-glass elegance to the space. Or it something more transitory, a journey through eras? Look up and spy a magnificent Belle ?poque-era ceiling sourced from a Lyonnais train station. While it fits the French vibe, it also creates a sense of fantasy, as if here we leave the grimy, crowded Spring Street behind. The rest of the space is no less elegant, with Batchelder floor tiles, antique Argentine lampposts, the aforementioned stained glass and mahogany booths. It feels turn-of-the-century, but an imagined version rather than a re-creation. A spiral staircase leads to a small balcony, a playful space that provides not just an overview of the proceedings but a bit of intimacy.

And then there’s the cocktail list and a small but well-curated food menu. The drink menu also feels lifted from a theme park, albeit at its most upscale — ingredients are as varied as asparagus, Greek yogurt, black garlic, salmon skin, croissant cream and quince. For food, look for such offerings as a charcuterie plate, smoked duck wings, poutine, escargot and a croque-monsieur sandwich. It’s a menu — and a space — built for exploration.
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A chef in a top hat flames a dish at a restaurant.
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Explore the variety of French wine at Gar?ons de Cafe

Downtown L.A. French
Along with the nearby dark and cozy Mignon, Gar?ons de Cafe has helped shape downtown’s wine bar scene. Gar?ons de Cafe recently had a glow-up, taking over its next-door space and merging with French bistro L’Appart, now giving what was once a tiny nook of a lounge a grown-up steak and seafood menu with highlights such as the thick onion and shallots soup and a moderately priced filet with rich baked potato gratin.

Yet Mathieu Giraud’s Gar?ons de Cafe still has a homey feel — a bar overflowing with wine bottles and lamps fashioned out of vintage cognac containers. A mix of furnishings — wood-backed chairs alternate with more family-room-style seating — lend the place a down-home vibe, creating a warm escape from the bustling Spring Arcade concourse in which the bar-restaurant resides.

The star, of course, is the wine, and Gar?ons de Cafe maintains a French-heavy selection that has been gradually diversifying to offer a number of bottles priced around $40. Like Mignon, it’s a space built for lingering, so why not make a date night of it and visit both?
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Walt Disney Concert Hall's silvery structures illuminated at twilight, with skyscrapers and hills in the distance
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Visit a rooftop garden before the symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Downtown L.A. Live Music Venue
When Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in 2003, it further cemented a transformation of downtown’s Grand Avenue, today home to the Music Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art and a towering complex, the Grand, that includes residences and the Conrad hotel. Disney Hall, and the Grand, were designed in the vision of famed architect Frank Gehry. The Times’ classical music critic Mark Swed called Disney Hall an “instant icon,” writing that it not only shaped the identity of downtown but that of a modern orchestra hall. “The immediacy of the acoustics, the intimate connection between the musicians and listeners, the warmth and visual allure of the interior — all were thrilling,” Swed wrote.

It’s also eye-catching from the outside, its reflective silvery wave-like surfaces signaling a sense of movement. Disney Hall remains one of L.A.’s most exciting venues, any concert feeling like an event. But don’t think of Disney Hall as a place only for a special occasion.

Disney Hall has helped make orchestral music more inviting by using its entire building for pre- and postshow events. Take, for instance, its Chamber & Wine Tuesdays program, where guests can enjoy a complimentary glass 90 minutes before small ensemble performances in the intimate BP Hall. Then there are Drinks in the Garden events, where on some Friday evenings guests can head to the rooftop garden for a complimentary beverage before the show. Collectively, it all helps Disney Hall feel like more of a neighborhood hang.
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