Travel Guide: Downtown Los Angeles

Downtown Los Angeles in the evening with cars in the foreground and the Walt Disney Concert Hall and skyscrapers in the background

A first-timer’s ultimate guide to all the best things to see and do in downtown Los Angeles (DTLA)

Downtown Los Angeles, or DTLA, is not like other downtowns. This isn’t a judgment call on its appeal – there is a lot to love about downtown – but rather a useful thing to know before making it the prime focal point of a Los Angeles vacation. It’s not the hub of Los Angeles, but one of many.  

DTLA does share plenty of characteristics with a classic central business district of a major city. It’s got the postcard skyline, a handsome symbol of civic officialdom in City Hall, and the deepest roots in the realm beneath El Pueblo de Los Angeles. If you appreciate art, architecture and live entertainment, downtown is a must-explore destination. 

Some of the best places to visit in downtown Los Angeles are niche neighborhoods: the financial, theater, fashion and flower districts, the Historic Core with its old movie palaces, and Little Tokyo, Chinatown and Koreatown enticing you with their celebrated cuisines and cultural spaces.

You can visit a great concentration of beautiful, interesting, and tourist-friendly places in DTLA. Choose one of the many hotels in downtown LA for indoor/outdoor living in this energetic, artsy neighborhood. And be sure to include some of the following top things to see and do in DTLA in your itinerary.

The skyline of Los Angeles under a full moon with a snow-covered mountain backdrop
The downtown Los Angeles skyline (Photo by Jesus Curiel on Unsplash)

Downtown Los Angeles Landmarks

Los Angeles isn’t especially noted for its modesty, nor for urbane elegance. However, downtown’s skyline and concentration of Art Deco showpieces present a compelling counterpoint to that. The skyline might not have a huge number of skyscrapers to work with, but it has a pleasing asymmetric harmony. Best of all is the DTLA skyline’s jewel of a mountain backdrop, which is reliably and gorgeously snow-covered for a decent stretch of the year.  

Zooming into the street level, take a stroll around the landmarks of downtown Los Angeles to get a sense of its eclectic architectural miscellany. You might do so with an expert local guide on one of the Los Angeles Conservatory’s walking tours of DTLA. 

DTLA’s Landmark Towers and Observation Decks

A few of downtown’s landmark buildings feature public observation decks, a nice way to turn on-foot exploration into purposeful sightseeing. Los Angeles City Hall has an observation deck on its 27th floor, which is open to the public on weekdays. On a clear day you might spot the Hollywood Sign. This major monument, an Art Deco beauty completed in 1928, was the tallest building in Los Angeles until the 1960s. Its ornate lobby and rotunda are worth your attention, too. 

Los Angeles City Hall in downtown Los Angeles with tress and a fountain in the foreground
Los Angeles City Hall (Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash)

Claiming the title of the tallest building in California and anywhere west of the Mississippi (if its spire counts, which apparently it does), is the 73-story Wilshire Grand Center. The skyscraper houses offices, a luxury hotel, several high-rise restaurants and the tallest open-air bar in the western hemisphere. 

The US Bank Tower, the second-tallest building in Los Angeles (and tallest by roof height), hosts one of the top attractions downtown – OUE Skyspace LA. Two open-air terraces boast unobstructed, 360-degree views across the city from almost 1,000 feet up. You can also take in those views, if you dare, from a clear glass slide connecting the 70th and 69th floors. 

An interior view of the historic Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles with ornate cast iron railings and stairways
The Bradbury Building’s atrium (Photo by Marco Bicca on Unsplash)

Historic Landmarks of Downtown Los Angeles

Built in 1893, the Bradbury Building is Los Angeles’s oldest landmarked building and a National Historic Landmark. It’s not much to look at from outside, but venture in and admire the atrium, a jewelry box of ornate ironwork, polished wood and “bird cage” elevators, all beatifically illuminated by skylight. It’s a working office building and frequent filming location, but also offers limited public access as a downtown LA tourist attraction. 

Visitors looking for glimpses of Old Hollywood should explore downtown LA’s Broadway Theater District. Along six blocks of Broadway are a dozen surviving old movie palaces built between 1910 and 1931. It’s the only such enclave remaining anywhere in the world. A few highlights include Sid Grauman’s c.1917 Million Dollar Theater, one of the first movie palaces in the world; the Roxie with its evocative Art Deco angles; and the Orpheum Theatre, originally a showcase of vaudeville. A few of the district’s old movie palaces still function as performing arts venues, while others have become retail spaces. 

Next door to the Million Dollar Theater is downtown’s Grand Central Market, a historic landmark in its own right dating to 1917. There’s a bustling food and retail emporium inside the market’s huge arcade. 

View of an orange vintage train car at Angeles Flight, a tourist attraction and historic landmark in downtown Los Angeles, California
Angels Flight (Photo by Eliot on Unsplash)

An enjoyably immersive historic landmark of downtown LA is Angels Flight, a funicular railway running up and down Bunker Hill. The up and down rides on twin train cars are simultaneous via a shared cable and the fanciful marvel of turn-of-the-century engineering. A ride covers 298 feet of track and 96 vertical feet, making Angels Flight the world’s shortest railway. A ride saves passengers a short walk up some steep terrain along with being a fun, only-in-LA experience. 

You might take in the spectacle of downtown’s Union Station as a railway passenger alongside some 100,000-plus other daily public transport users. However, the west’s largest railroad passenger terminal is also a top DTLA tourist attraction. No ticket to ride is necessary to admire the 1930s grandeur of the waiting room with its soaring paneled ceiling and marble floors, copious public art, and several on-site eateries. Guided art and architecture tours are available. 

DTLA’s Performing Arts Venues

Downtown Los Angeles is a superb destination for performing arts, with numerous world-class venues whose year-round calendars cover every niche. You could score tickets to a show and build an amazing weekend getaway in DTLA around the event. 

One of the largest performing arts centers in the United States, Los Angeles Music Center comprises four theaters plus Jerry Moss Plaza and the green spaces of Gloria Molina Grand Park. Its four resident companies – Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles Master Chorale, LA Opera and LA Phil – are world renowned. So are the venues they call home. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion specializes in opera and dance, the intimate Mark Taper Forum in theater, and the Ahmanson Theatre in Broadway productions. 

A portion of the Walt Disney Concert Hall's curving metallic facade against a bright blue sky in downtown Los Angeles
The Walt Disney Concert Hall (Photo by Kind and Curious on Unsplash)

Showiest of all is the Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry with his signature exuberance. The exterior’s metallic curvature mimics the sweeps of a conductor’s baton, as if sound waves were made solid. Inside, bowed beams of Douglas fir and a centerpiece organ create astounding acoustics alongside aesthetic pleasure. You don’t need tickets to a show to see inside the concert hall – free, self-guided tours are available daily. 

The L.A. Live entertainment complex features six sports and performance venues along with restaurants, shops, a movie theater, bowling alley and hotel. It’s also home to the Los Angeles Convention Center. Anchoring L.A. Live is the Arena (formerly Staples Center). The 20,000-seat venue is home to the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Sparks and Kings, and presents a packed calendar of big-name performances and events.

El Pueblo District: The Birthplace of Los Angeles

El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, also known as El Pueblo District, is a living museum and cultural hub representing the birthplace of the city. The original Los Angeles pueblo was established near the site in 1781. Here, it grew and evolved under the flags of Spain, Mexico and the United States, ever evolving into today’s incomparable LA.

One of the most-visited downtown Los Angeles tourist attractions is the historic district’s Olvera Street. The street features a Mexican marketplace with a kaleidoscopic parade of embroidered textiles, hand-crafted leather goods, religious icons and souvenirs. The restaurants along Olvera Street offer some of the best Mexican cuisine in LA. 

A historic brick and tile storefront in Olvera Street, part of downtown Los Angeles's El Paseo historic district and a top tourist attraction
Olvera Street (Photo by Jimmy Woo on Unsplash)

If you’re looking for some free things to do in downtown Los Angeles, check out the historic district’s lineup of free museums and attractions. These include LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a museum dedicated to the history of Mexican and Mexican American Los Angeles. Also consider the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, the Chinese American Museum, and the Old Plaza Firehouse, built in 1884 and now a firefighting museum. More of DTLA’s oldest buildings around the plaza include Pico House, Sepulveda House and Our Lady Queen of Angels Church. 

Downtown Los Angeles’s Major Museums

Music fans looking for things to do in downtown Los Angeles should definitely visit the GRAMMY Museum at LA Live. The museum is dedicated to the cultural significance of American music, starting with its centuries-old roots. Permanent exhibits include On the Red Carpet featuring iconic outfits worn by celebrities to Grammy Awards ceremonies, the interactive Mono to Immersive Experience Room, and a journey through the history of recorded sound. 

A woman walks in front of the white honeycomb facade of The Broad art museum in downtown Los Angeles
The Broad (Photo by JB on Unsplash)

The Broad boasts one of the world’s leading collections of contemporary art, spanning some 2,000 works from the 1950s to today. The art museum opened in 2015, adding a new architectural landmark to DTLA with its unique honeycomb façade. Admission is free. Browse two floors of expansive gallery space featuring works by such names as Basquiat, Warhol, Cy Twombly and Jenny Saville. 

Admission is also free to MOCA, another world-renowned contemporary art museum. The museum has two venues in downtown Los Angeles: the MOCA Grand Avenue main campus and the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Little Tokyo. All 8,000 objects in MOCA’s collection were created after 1940. Just a few highlights include photographic portraits by Diane Arbus, mixed media art by Roy Lichtenstein, and abstract paintings by the LA artist Ed Moses. 

Looking for more top tourist attractions in Los Angeles? Check out “Museum Monday: La Brea Tar Pits

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