What comes to mind when you think of Los Angeles? I’d hazard a guess that—for non-Californians—the likes of Hollywood, the beach cities, and Beverly Hills are top of the list. (Locals may say traffic, homelessness and gentrification but we’ll try keep this a positive piece…) Downtown Los Angeles is an oft overlooked area for tourists despite, IMO, being home to some of the most unique activities, coolest buildings, and most interesting bars this sprawling city has to offer.
Just a quick note to UK readers, downtown is used in US English essentially in place of town centre. I’m not referring to that massive department store on the A1 near Grantham. And in a vaguely amusing twist, nearly every town out here is called a city, no matter how big it is. The word town isn’t really used in that sense. Just when referring to a city center. Got it?
DTLA sits mainly inside the 10, 101 and 110 freeways and is split into various districts, many with imaginative names like the Arts District, Fashion District and Financial District.
Despite the lackluster monikers, DTLA’s districts are each distinctive and unpredictable. Take Bunker Hill, for example. The humming, business hub of the city—alongside the Financial District—has benefited from swathes of redevelopment since the turn of the millennium, which has resulted in a tasteful blend of 20th meets 21st century architecture.
It’s home to some pretty stunning structures, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Angels Flight funicular. The latter has a fascinating—and deadly—history, as well as holding the record for being the world's shortest incorporated railway.
Oh yeah I forgot to mention it's bright orange and looks cool as shit
While it may be a fleeting journey (the short wait for the train to dock at the top is probably double the time it takes to travel the track), it’s worth it just to say you’ve done it, y’know? Barely any effort. And it’s only $0.50 on your TAP card. (It is actually quite fun, honest.)
On the eastern edge of DTLA lies the Arts District, which—like many vibrant city neighborhoods—has been subjected to decades of rent hikes. The area used to be known for housing artists in massive studios on the cheap. But while lots of the studios have been converted, many artists still call the area home.
And so you won’t be disappointed by the bucket loads of authenticity it possesses. The Arts District is an industrial, warehouse-filled neighborhood where murals adorn every other external wall. Plus there’s a slew of great food and drink options.
For one of the best pizza slices I’ve ever had the privilege of tasting, check out Pizzanista on 7th Street. The ominous black building serves something for everyone, with as much effort placed on creating exciting vegan options as its meat and dairy offerings.
On the other end of the spectrum, under a mile north of Pizzanista you’ll find Café Gratitude, a swanky vegetarian restaurant serving healthy and—quite frankly—annoyingly named dishes.
Yeah, it’s that kind of place with a menu that says “I am” at the top and then every meal is named something daft like Pure, Dazzling and—my favorite—Fortified. Don’t let it put you off though. The food is great.
My pick: the Original. It’s a burrito filled with mushroom carnitas, guac, cashew nacho cheese, black beans and more. You can’t choose it though now. Y’know, cause then you won’t have been original and you will be lying to yourself and the staff at Café Gratitude. Sorry.
Stolen from HappyCow. Didn't get an original photo of the Original
The Arts District is also becoming a new favorite wedding spot, with sites like The Unique Space offering stylish industrial chic complete with exposed brick walls and wooden beams. The area became even more well known for weddings after a popular transatlantic couple tied the knot there. No, not Harry and Meghan.
It would be remiss to talk about DTLA—and especially the Arts District—without at least mentioning Skid Row next door. It’s not as if other parts of the city don’t have a lot of unhoused people residing in them, it’s just Skid Row is the homeless epicenter of Los Angeles—and maybe the west coast.
Many of the sidewalks are lined with tents and possessions belonging to the city’s homeless population. The area’s been a “containment zone” for people without permanent residence since the 70s. Since then, it’s been thoroughly neglected.
Luckily, there’s some awesome people doing good shit for the residents there—like Beauty 2 The Streetz: Shirley and her team spend their Saturdays offering makeup, hygiene and essential services to Skid Row’s citizens.
Another area of downtown that feels like its own city altogether is the Fashion District. This city sells nothing but fabric and clothing. There are over 1,000 businesses in the district—which probably divides up into 999 apparel or textile stores and three 7-Elevens.
The Fashion District feels in parts like one encompassing, bustling market, as many storefronts spill out on to the sidewalks. I just hope my first post-pandemic visit feels at least close to the same. It’s an LA institution—one that hopefully survives this fairly horrendous time to own an independent business.
All this mental walking is making me thirsty. Or maybe we’re on Segways. (We’re certainly not on public transport though—that’s one area LA is severely lacking in.) Either way, there’s some great boozers in DTLA that can help in that department.
Angel City Brewery sits on the edge of the Arts District, boldly looming over Alameda Street with some striking wall art. The building itself has a great history: it was built in 1913 for John A. Roebling’s Sons Co., who made the steel cables that hold up the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and LA’s very own Vincent Thomas Bridge.
I'd guess that people don't have issues finding this place
The current owners have done a great job at preserving many of the building’s original features, including the iron spiral slide that was used for sending supplies down from the second floor. The brewery makes it clear where they stand on patrons trying out this feature, with a sign stating: "The existence of this slide is not a challenge."
The atmosphere’s great, and they handled operating under COVID restrictions very diligently. Oh, and there’s a food truck selling all kinds of Mexican foods—for both carnivores and vegans.
Sticking to that rough-round-the-edges feel, but this time in more of an accidental way, The King Eddy is a delightful dive nestled just inside the official boundaries of Skid Row.
On our visit, the bartenders were fun and friendly, the music was cool and the drinks dirt cheap. When you struggle to find a pint for under $9 elsewhere in DTLA, this place feels like a sanctuary. It’s up for debate whether it was frequented regularly by Charles Bukowski or not, but apparently Kiefer Sutherland is there all the bloody time.
If none of the food mentioned so far sounds like your thing, get yourself off to the Historic Core of DTLA. Once there, you’ll find Grand Central Market, which houses vendors for pretty much every cuisine you’ve tasted plus a bunch of ones you haven’t.
Pre-COVID, at least, it had a lively atmosphere with all kinds of scents wafting past your nose as you stumble about trying to work out which of the smells you like best.
There’s also a great light piece by one of the entrances that would make for a perfect influencer-esque Insta shot. Note that one down.
A short six-minute walk from Grand Central Market is one of my favorite book shops I’ve visited, The Last Bookstore. A stop here will enchant even the most apathetic readers, with its winding corridors, expansive rooms and twisted shelves that kinda make you feel like you’re reading Alice In Wonderland while at Hogwarts.
The Historic Core is also home to Pershing Square. This small park houses various public art, both permanent and temporary, and—while it doesn’t quite feel like a downtown oasis—the water features and grass space make it a popular spot to alleviate at least some of that inner city anxiety.
Not quite idyllic, but nice nonetheless
Finally, we’ll end this tour through the streets of DTLA at a suitable place: Union Station. The US certainly doesn’t take its train operations anywhere near as seriously as European countries, but they certainly know how to build a majestic-as-f*ck station.
It’s the same across the country: in Denver, New York, and especially D.C. My experience of being in train stations in this country has been one of awe and wonder at the monstrous halls with intricate artistry and a shit-ton of marble.
So if you get a chance, pop into Union Station and marvel at its splendor. Doesn’t matter if you’re not getting a train, just go.
Despite this post feeling on the long side (congrats for making it this far), there’s still lots of great stuff I haven’t mentioned about DTLA. The likes of Little Tokyo and El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument will both have to get their own posts one day.
For a city that prides itself on the glitz and glamor of its celebrity spots and beach resorts, Downtown Los Angeles has a surprising amount to offer. If you’re ever over for a visit, dedicate a couple of days to exploring the area, soaking up some art, history and beers—and the obligatory sun. Always lots of that.