Back in the day, a trip to Los Angeles for some R&R meant celebrity-spotting in the tonier neighborhoods, Disneyland, days at the beach and shopping on Rodeo Drive. Well, things have changed as more and more travelers are finding what the residents have known for a while—downtown Los Angeles is where it’s happening today. No more is it just the locale for Sgt. Friday and Skid Row, downtown has become a magnet for über-shoppers, high-culture mavens, locavore gourmands, lawyers in $1,000 suits and tourists in $50 floral shirts. You’ll find the traditional ethnic strongholds for Asian and Hispanic cultures, and you can even get there on the train or subway.
Los Angeles’s Fashion District can be likened to a huge department store; but instead of, say, finding women’s casual wear on the second floor, you’ll find several complete blocks in the southeast area of the district where women’s fashions are prevalent. Menswear is a few more blocks to the northwest. Most of the district is devoted to the wholesale side of the fashion trade so buyers, retailers, wholesalers and designers all gather here, creating an exciting synergy that has become synonymous with Los Angeles fashion. The energy spills over into the surrounding blocks to a retail shopper’s delight.
So, if you’re looking for bargains, you’re in the right neighborhood. Santee Alley is one of the most popular shopping areas in the L.A. Fashion District, best known for its festival-like atmosphere and low prices. Santee Alley’s more than 150 stores and vendors sell virtually everything—apparel for the entire family, accessories, toys, perfume, gift items and anything else you can think of. Santee Alley is an actual alley, located between Santee Street and Maple Avenue, from Olympic Boulevard to 12th Street.
Sometimes Some Great Notions (and Textiles)
The L.A. Fashion District is also home to the largest selection of textiles and notions in the United States. There are nearly 200 wholesale and retail textile stores selling trim, beading and fabric, crafts and home decor. Shoppers can find nearly every type of fabric, running the gamut from novelty to exotic silks and European upholstery. Textile and notion stores are generally centered within four blocks, from 8th Street down to Olympic Boulevard, between Maple Avenue and San Julian Street.
Technically, El Pueblo de Los Angeles encompasses a whole block of historic buildings, and Olvera Street is the named alley that was turned into a pedestrian Mexican marketplace that runs down the middle of the block between Main and Alameda Streets. But the entire area is usually referred to as Olvera Street. The famed Mexican marketplace with its colorful old-world feel was created in 1933 as a way to preserve the surrounding historic buildings, including the oldest structure in Los Angeles—the Avila Adobe ranch house—now squeezed between a couple of later brick buildings halfway down Olvera Street.
A National Historic District and focal point for local Japanese Americans, Little Tokyo has a lot to see. You’ll find the expected Japanese restaurants and shopping, but there’s much more. Of special note is the Japanese American National Museum at 100 N. Central Avenue, the only museum in the country focused on Americans of Japanese ancestry. The neighborhood is roughly bounded by Los Angeles, Alameda, 3rd and 1st Street.
The Los Angeles Music Center consists of three original theaters that are home to the city’s drama, dance and opera companies, as well as the more recently added Disney Concert Hall, the iconic structure designed by architect Frank Gehry, and home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. See the schedules of the various groups at musiccenter.org, as well as schedules for the ongoing series of free concerts held on the outdoor plaza.
L.A.’s Chinatown is less dense than New York or San Francisco. The shops don’t line the streets as thickly, but there are still a few cute stores and plazas through the serpent gateway heading north on Broadway from Cesar Chavez. The neon pagoda lights and lanterns at Central Plaza make a colorful display at night. There is a walking tour of the neighborhood on the first Saturday of the month.
The Museum of Contemporary Art is located just down Grand Avenue and across the street from the Music Center and Disney Concert Hall. The museum’s collection and touring exhibits feature work created since 1940. The museum’s holdings include thousands of creations in all media, and selected items are on view year-round. The special exhibition “Andy Warhol’s Shadows” runs at the museum through Feb. 2.
Discussions of public transportation in Los Angeles often are accompanied by sarcastic sneers. Nevertheless, several subway and light-rail lines serve the metro area, and all lines converge at Union Station in the heart of downtown. And downtown visitors can get around the area regularly and cheaply on special DASH buses, which are noted for their cleanliness and courteous drivers. Fares are only 50 cents (25 cents for seniors), and buses run at 10-minute intervals. There are five DASH routes, which connect to all downtown attractions mentioned in this article.
Ride-sharing by services such as Uber and Lyft are transforming the way that L.A. residents get around and are credited with helping the cultural resurgence in downtown by severing the permanent connection between car and driver. A short lift on Uber through downtown can cost as little as $4. Certainly cheaper than parking your own car.
The L.A. Flower Market, the largest flower market in the United States, is centered along Wall Street between 7th Street and 8th Street and is surrounded by numerous retail flower shops and suppliers. There is simply an overwhelming array of blooms and fragrances being bought and sold six days a week.
Midwesterners of course will need a day or two at an ocean beach just to prove to themselves that they were actually on the West Coast. There are plenty to choose from in the Los Angeles area. Here’s a brief list of the best beaches and what to do there:
Santa Monica Beach is a broad, sandy expanse complete with a pier filled with amusements and a site for summer concerts.
Redondo Beach also offers a pier to play on, as well as a long paved path for biking or walking. It’s considered one of the best family-friendly beaches in town.
Venice Beach is probably the city’s quirkiest and as a result is the best beach for people-watching. It’s a never-ending spectacle.
If you’re actually going into the water, the locals recommend Zuma Beach, just north of Malibu. Dolphins frequent the waters, as do surfers.
Where to Dine
The Daily Dose – Lots of cool places downtown seem to be located in alleys. This beloved eatery follows that rule and serves only locally raised meat and produce. It’s a picturesque and welcoming environment where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served. 820 Industrial St., 213-281-9300
Bottega Louie – A most popular café, pastisserie and gourmet market that renders a memorable meeting of the savory and the sweet. Some people come just for the macarons. Amazing sandwiches at lunchtime and a good array of poultry, seafood and meat at dinnertime. Take-out available. 700 S. Grand Ave., 213-802-1487
Church & State – Located in downtown Los Angeles’ up-and-coming loft district, this bistro serves up gourmet French cuisine such as escargots de Bourgogne, croque-monsieurs, steak frites and bouillabaisse and also runs a bar with much the same casual yet elegant feel. 1850 Industrial St., 213-405-1434
Sugarfish – This L.A. sushi favorite now has a downtown location. A unique and simplified menu is based on the philosophy of legendary sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa, which concentrates on the purity of the basic ingredients. 600 W. 7th St., 213-627-300.
The Gorbals – Unusual combinations of food served on small plates: golden beets, mussels, duck latkes. It might look “down-scale” but the food is definitely “up.” 216 W. 5th St., 213-488-3408
Where to Stay
Ace Hotel – This is the new, trendy hotel downtown. Converted from the former United Artists office building, the rooms vary in size but the amenities are uniform. The nightlife buzzes in the bar on weekends. Rooms from $240/night. 929 Broadway Ave.
The Standard – A midcentury landmark located in the heart of downtown featuring a rooftop pool, bar and beer garden. Remodeled in the best boutique tradition. Double room from $220. 550 S. Flower St.
The Westin Bonaventure – A glitzy mini-city in downtown Los Angeles complete with an indoor lake and fountains. A masterpiece of futuristic design. From $279/night double. 404 S. Figueroa St.
The Line – Appealing to a younger crowd, this hotel has sleek, spare styling in the rooms with views of the Hollywood Hills or the city. Rooms from $197/night. 3515 Wilshire Blvd.
Shelter Hotel – An affordable hotel located in Koreatown, convenient to the Wiltern Theater. Rooms from $129/night. 457 S. Mariposa Ave.