A stroll through LA’s historic downtown
Despite Los Angeles’ reputation to the contrary, the city does have a walkable downtown. In fact, it’s a surprising mix of old and new, classic and modern, with a smorgasbord of places to eat and drink.
This past June, I spent a day with my wife and several friends strolling through the city’s history and present, exploring its ethnic, architectural and gustatory diversity.
Our urban adventure began at the Grand Central Market, one of the oldest “food halls” in the western U.S., dating from 1917. The market is usually packed with people of all ages and ethnicities cruising among food stalls that offer cuisines ranging from Thai, Chinese and Korean to Mexican and Jewish deli fare.
We got there before most of the food stalls opened, but our destination, Eggslut (yes, that is really the name), already had a long line of hungry customers. I chose the gourmet bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. After wiping yolk off my mustache, we headed to Angels Flight, just across from the market.
Angels Flight Railway is a historic funicular that ferried blue-collar workers from the cramped, clapboard boarding houses on Bunker Hill (before it was leveled in the 1960s) to the stores and businesses on Broadway below. Angels Flight should be familiar to fans of the movies La La Land and 500 Days of Summer as well as the streaming TV series “Goliath” and “Bosch.”
At the top of the short railway is California Plaza, a spacious concrete area with an amphitheater for summer concerts. The plaza is surrounded by the soaring glass office towers and hotels that replaced the working-class houses of Bunker Hill.
From modern art to Disney
We walked across the plaza in a northwesterly direction, past the Museum of Contemporary Art (worth a visit if you have the time), to Grand Avenue, then up Grand past the Broad Museum with its striking collection of modern art (also worth a visit).
Our destination was Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the city’s most important buildings, architecturally, aesthetically and culturally. Designed by Frank Gehry, Disney Hall soars above the avenue like a gigantic surreal sailboat buffeted by turbulent waves of glistening steel.
We found the winding aerial pathway that wraps around the outside of the hall and inside the swirling, soaring waves of the external facade.
The unique pathway is accessible via a stairway behind a graceful rose-shaped fountain made of shards of blue-and-white Royal Delft pottery. Gehry dedicated this fountain to Lillian Disney, who supported him through the often difficult and contentious design and construction of the hall.
This pathway is one of my favorite features of Disney Hall because it allows a close-up view of the innards of its infrastructure, giving a glimpse of the building’s intricate, complex engineering. As the walkway emerged from behind the facade, we paused for an expansive view of the city.
Music Center to the Cathedral
From there, we crossed First Avenue to an iconic architectural and cultural landmark of another era: Music Center Plaza, a wide, open plaza surrounded by three of the largest performing arts venues in the country, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Ahmanson Theater and Mark Taper Forum.
Unlike the undulating, free-form architecture of Disney Hall, the style of the Music Center is 1960s modern, typical of the important institutional and civic buildings of the era.
The fountain in the center of Music Center Plaza, which surrounds the “Peace on Earth” work by famed sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, is the first in a series of graceful, modern, “walk on water” fountains that spill (figuratively) down the hill through Grand Park in the direction of City Hall, a building recognizable to any fan of the 1950s TV show “Dragnet” and its taciturn, “Just the facts, ma’am” Sgt. Joe Friday.
Before reaching City Hall, we headed to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a majestic modern structure markedly distinct from the shiny steel of Disney Hall or the white marble of the Music Center. The 21-year-old cathedral, which has no right angles, is the color of sun-baked adobe.
My favorite part of the cathedral is the mausoleum in the basement. The first thing you see at the bottom of the stairs is Gregory Peck’s crypt — creepy but also cool. Stained-glass windows line the walls of the mausoleum.
From the cathedral, we walked one block east to Broadway, then two blocks to the Bradbury Building, a National Historic Landmark built in 1893 and one of the oldest buildings in Los Angeles.
The five-story, red brick building is best known for its ornate filigree ironwork railings and open cage elevator. Filled with natural light that streams through the skylight that stretches across the entire ceiling, the Bradbury Building has been the location for many TV shows and movies, including Chinatown and Blade Runner.
Historic Theater District
Conveniently, the Bradbury Building is located just across the street from the Grand Central Market, where we stopped again to rehydrate and refuel with Thai iced tea with boba from Moon Rabbit and strawberry rhubarb pie from Fat and Flour.
By this time, the market was packed and bustling, so the people-watching enhanced our snack time.
After our break, we headed south on Broadway to the Historic Theater District, the first and largest theater district on the National Register of Historic Places.
Many of the old theaters are in an advanced state of decay, but it doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up their former grandeur. Some have been renovated and can be rented for special events.
The theaters are embedded among a funky mish-mash of jewelry stores, doughnut shops and bridal gown emporiums.
We strolled through Pershing Square toward the Millennial Biltmore Hotel, the grand dame of old Los Angeles money and movie fame, as well as a location for many movies and TV shows, such as “Columbo,” “Murder She Wrote,” Ghostbusters and Rocky III.
Inside the hotel we walked through Rendezvous Court, where high tea is served under a beautiful Moorish ceiling. In the Historic Corridor’s gallery, we checked out an exhibit of photographs from Academy Award ceremonies held in the grand ballroom of the Biltmore in the 1930s.
Next, we made our way to the rooftop restaurant atop the Pershing Square Building to enjoy a cold drink or two, along with excellent views of downtown LA.
Then we headed a couple of blocks to our final destination, the Los Angeles Central Library, to check out the famous pastel-hued murals inside the Grand Rotunda, which offer a 360-degree view of the history of California.
After turning slowly and craning our necks for several minutes, we decided to head back to the Grand Central Market for one last bite because, well, I like to eat. I chose a taco from Roast to Go, one of the oldest vendors at the market.
Our early dinner was a fitting conclusion to our historic, cultural, architectural and gustatory exploration of downtown Los Angeles — an urban center that, despite popular belief, is still thriving. There was still much more to explore, but that would have to wait for another day.
If you go
Nonstop round-trip airfare to LA from the D.C. area starts at $300 on several major carriers.
At Grand Central Market, I recommend Broad St. Oyster Co., McConnell’s Ice Cream, Wexler’s Deli and Sticky Rice.
For more upscale dining, try Asterid in Disney Hall (asteridla.com) and Clifton’s Republic (theneverlands.com/cliftons-republic), a makeover of the historic, forest-themed, fantasyland cafeteria in the heart of the theater district into an even more hallucinatory experience.
Rooms at Millennial Biltmore (millenniumhotels.com/en/los-angeles) start at $178/night. The Omni Los Angeles (omnihotels.com/hotels/los-angeles-california-plaza) is located on the California Plaza and has rooms starting in the low $200s.
For more information, see visitlosangeles.com.