Downtown Los Angeles has gone from derelict to destination – here’s what to see and where to be seen
From top taquerias and fine-dining restaurants to cultural destinations and the hottest fashion, a revitalised LA core’s top features are within walking distance of your hip or heritage hotel
Even 10 years ago, tourists visiting Los Angeles would have given the downtown area a wide berth; it was grubby, mostly derelict and dangerous.
Today, Downtown Los Angeles (or DTLA as it is commonly written) is an area transformed. While it remains an epicentre of America’s homelessness crisis, there is new construction happening everywhere and once-abandoned historic buildings – often exquisite examples of turn-of-the-century architecture – are being turned into lofts at a blistering pace to house the young creatives who are flocking to the area.
In a few short years, downtown has become home to the city’s most exciting restaurants, hottest clubs and most swaggy local fashion labels. Visitors will find all of this within a short stroll of their hotels – a privilege almost unheard-of in car-obsessed Greater Los Angeles.
Once a food desert, DTLA is now a fine-dining destination. Husband-and-wife chef team Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis opened the Italian powerhouse Bestia in downtown’s arts district and followed it up this year with the Middle Eastern-inspired Bavel, which quickly became the hottest reservation in town.
“The area just felt right to us,” Gergis said. “We love the history of DTLA, the fact that it does not feel manufactured and there are a lot of fellow creatives and artists in the area that we run into on a daily basis.”
Los Angeles is a home of Latin food, especially Mexican, and its most modern, elevated iteration is at Chef Ray Garcia’s sophisticated Broken Spanish. Here, the chicharon (fried pork rinds) come served with elephant garlic mojo, radish sprouts, and herbs.
For tacos, in-the-know locals flock to the northern Mexican street tacos being served up at Sonoratown. Owners Jennifer Feltham and Teodoro Diaz-Rodriguez specialise in the arid cuisine of Sonora; so expect chewy home-made flour tortillas and steak grilled over mesquite wood.
Downtown is also home to two of LA’s greatest cultural gems: The Broad and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The Broad, the museum founded by prominent Los Angeles philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, is home to one of the finest collections of modern art in the country, including works from Basquiat, Calder, Warhol and Georges Braque.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall is just a short walk away. Even if you do not have time to take in a performance, it is worth a visit just to see the iconic building designed by Frank Gehry.
“I love what is occurring with the revitalisation of Downtown Los Angeles, especially all of the adaptive reuse projects,” said Cindy Schwarzstein, founder of Cartwheel Art, which provides immersive tours in the area, including an Underground LA Tour, Graffiti & Barbecue Tour and the LA Vice Tour.
“An old flour manufacturing mill has been converted into a world-class gallery,” she said, referring to the Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery in the former historic Globe Mills complex, containing buildings that date back to the 19th century. “An old beaux-arts-style office building as well as a bank have been converted into hotels.”
The neighbourhood abounds with old-school, cheap and cheerful watering holes such as Crane’s Downtown Bar and Hank’s Bar. Crane’s is a simple local favourite hidden in what was once an underground bank vault, so do not expect any phone reception. They host bands or stand-up comedy shows most weekends.
Hank’s isn’t subterranean but is dark enough you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. The bartenders here were serving cold beer back when most people avoided venturing downtown and, although rough around the edges, it remains the kind of place where they’ll know your name, even if you’re only in town for a week.
For tipplers who prefer mixologists to bartenders, newly opened The Wolves specialises in local craft cocktails with a theatrical flourish. Their amaro, liqueurs, bitters and vermouths are made in-house using seasonal produce.
If patrons want an even more sophisticated experience, they can head upstairs to Le Néant, a bar within a bar, offering downtown’s first omakase cocktail experience using ingredients from local farmers’ markets, served to a backdrop of live music, vaudevillian theatre and dance performances.
Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive might be LA’s better-known fashion destination, but for an updated experience of California cool head to a boutique called Downtown, offering diverse, youthful brands such as Day Space Night, 69 and “Intentionally ___________.”
After sundown, head to the trendy Ace Hotel’s see-and-be-seen rooftop pool – more suited to sipping and preening than swimming. At night the pool area turns into one of the area’s hottest bars, where fashionable couples lounge with cocktails under the stairs, in the shadow of the hotel’s glowing, ivory-coloured towers.
Theatre at Ace Hotel is a meticulously restored movie palace from the 1920s that hosts musicians, comedians and performances. Just down the street is the Freehand Los Angeles, with its design-porn lobby, excellent rooftop cocktails and hangover-killing breakfasts at its Israeli-inspired restaurant.
DTLA remains an area of extreme contrasts, and visiting often involves a complicated reckoning for tourists and residents alike. LA’s homeless population has surged 75 per cent in the past six years, according to the Los Angeles Times, with at least 55,000 people on the streets.
Downtown is on the front line of the city’s rapid and not always welcome gentrification: drug use, begging and informal tent cities are not uncommon sights outside even the glitziest restaurants. Rents are increasingly out of the reach of most of the area’s original residents.
“It used to be much more affordable for the artists in the area,” Gergis said. “Just like what happened with New York City and San Francisco, a lot of those artists and small businesses are getting pushed out due to the rent skyrocketing. On the other hand, because of so much buildout, the area has become a lot safer.”
In the meantime, proud Angelenos are reluctant to leave.
“I know rent can go up at any time and I might have to move out of here,” said Robert Powers, one of downtown’s best-known chroniclers, thanks to his Instagram account, DTLA Everyday.
“But I’ll ride the wave as long as I can … and hope to not go under. The future could go anywhere – you never know in a place like downtown.”
Where to eat
This Italian hotspot remains one of the most beloved restaurants in the city. The perfect choice for a date or celebration.
The team behind Bestia have tried their hand at modern Middle Eastern cuisine and the result is one of the best new restaurants in LA.
Broken Spanish (1050 S Flower St, Tel: +1-213-749-1460)
Chef Ray Garcia shows the world that there is more to Mexican food than tacos and burritos. Broken Spanish is soulful and sophisticated and not to be missed.
Angelenos take their taco loyalties very seriously, but we’re just going to say it: the best carne asada and chimichangas come from this DTLA storefront.
Where to drink
Crane’s Downtown Bar (810 S Spring St, Tel: +1-323-787-7966)
Ask locals their favourite bar downtown and nine out of 10 will say Crane’s. There’s just something about this subterranean boozer in an old bank vault that makes it impossible not to love.
Hank’s Bar (840 S Grand Ave, Tel: +1-213-623-7718)
Downtown might be changing, but here’s hoping Hank’s never does. The perfect stop for people who like their drinks basic, and characters colourful.
519 S Spring St, Tel: +1-213- 265-7952
The neighbourhood’s newest addition, The Wolves serves up locally sourced, artisanal tipples for the cocktail set.
What to see
The Broad (thebroad.org)
This is the kind of museum that will delight both serious museum lovers and casual art fans, boasting the city’s best collection of iconic post-war pieces. Admission is free.
Walt Disney Concert Hall (laphil.com)
From the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Romeo and Juliet, there is always something on at this visually striking concert hall.
The Museum of Contemporary Art (moca.org)
Just across the street from The Broad is The Museum of Contemporary Art, an LA institution beloved by Angelenos for its cache of works by local artists and bold curation.
Where to shop
Day Space Night (dayspacenight.com)
A sound rejoinder to anyone who says that fashion cannot be comfortable, Day Space Night’s modern urban ensembles scream California living.
69’s voluptuous silhouettes and almost futurist designs have caused a sensation in Los Angeles. If DTLA had a uniform it would be 69’s generous button-up onesies.
“Intentionally ___________.” (intentionallyblank.us)
While Intentionally Blank boasts a full clothing and accessories selection, we love it for its chic but skewed take on classic footwear.
Where to stay
Freehand Los Angeles (416 W 8th St, Tel: +1213-612-0021)
The Freehand is our choice for the neighbourhood’s best pool, great music and a laid-back tropical “beach” bar. The pool is free for non-guests as well.
Ace Hotel (acehotel.com)
The Ace encapsulates modern DTLA: part hotel, part community centre and perpetual party destination.
Getting there: Hong Kong Airlines and Cathay Pacific fly direct to Los Angeles from Hong Kong in about 13 hours.