You don't have to travel to Tijuana to get a taste of Old Mexico; there's a clean, nicely packaged slice of Mexican California right in downtown L.A. at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument also known as Olvera Street. Technically, El Pueblo encompasses the 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, but the terms are often used interchangeably. 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 later brick buildings halfway down Olvera Street.
Where Is Olvera Street?
Olvera Street is conveniently located across Alameda Street from L.A.'s historic Union Station in downtown Los Angeles next to Chinatown, which was once Little Italy, so there are remnants of all three cultures at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. While most visitors focus on the Mexican Marketplace, there are 27 historic buildings on the site, some of which are open to the public, so it is worth exploring a little further.
The block is bound by Alameda to the east, Plaza to the south, Main to the west, and Cesar E Chavez to the north.
The small parking lots at Olvera Street are quite expensive. You can usually find less pricey lots or metered street parking north of Cesar Chavez on North Spring Street or New High Street in Chinatown just a couple blocks away.
Directly across from Union Station at the southeast corner is the Old Plaza, which is a good point to start your exploration.
La Placita Olvera
The Plaza was the center of community life for the first settlers in Los Angeles. It is a square space with a circle of shade trees surrounding a bandstand or kiosko where events are held.
The Pobladores Plaque in the Plaza is dedicated to those first settlers of the City of Angels. According to the plaque, the original 44 settlers were Negro, Mulatto (Negro and Spanish), Indian, Mestizo (Indian and Spanish), and a couple of Spaniards.
The Plaza (Placita) is often used for festivals at Olvera Street including Dia de Los Muertos Novenarios, Cinco de Mayo, the Christmas Posadas, the Easter Blessing of the Animals, the Chinese Lantern Festival, and many more.
Plaza Methodist Church
On the right side of the plaza is the Plaza Methodist Church, which replaced an adobe house owned by Agustin Olvera who was the first judge of Los Angeles County. The street was named for him in 1877. The church is designated a Methodist Historical Site and a California Historic Monument. Its tower lords over the entrance to Olvera Street, which proceeds to the right. The church is still used by a local congregation. In 2012, the Los Angeles United Methodist Museum of Social Justice also opened on the site.
Next to the church is the Biscailuz Building, which was originally the United Methodist Church Conference Headquarters and the Plaza Community Center. It was more recently the Instituto Cultural Mexicano (Mexican Cultural Institute), and before that was the Mexican Consulate in L.A. for 30 years.
Blessing of the Animals Mural
In 1979, artist Leo Politi painted the mural "Blessing of the Animals" under the archways of the Biscailuz Building at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument. It represents the event that happens at Olvera Street every Easter.
Next to the Methodist church is the entrance to the Mexican Marketplace in the pedestrian zone that is Olvera Street proper. You really will find the same touristy souvenirs on Olvera Street that you would find in any marketplace in Mexico. The prices are just a little higher and you don't have to deal with vendors badgering you to buy their wares.
The Mexican Marketplace is bustling in summer, especially on weekends and perks up for holidays throughout the year, but can be pretty calm, if not totally dead on a winter weekday.
About halfway down Olvera Street on the right, you'll find the oldest surviving structure in Los Angeles: the Avila Adobe. It was built in 1818 by Francisco Jose Avila, who was mayor of Los Angeles in 1810. The Avila Adobe is now a museum furnished in the style of a 1940s ranch. It is free to walk through the house, courtyard, and the additional exhibits in an educational building at the back of the courtyard. These include the History of Water in Los Angeles and a Tribute to Christine Sterling, who was instrumental in saving the Avila Adobe and creating the Mexican Marketplace on Olvera Street.
You eat at Olvera Street more for the ambiance than the food itself, which is generally decent, if not inspired. La Golondrina and La Luz del Dia are both popular sit-down restaurants in historic buildings with open-air seating. At the outside tables, you have the advantage of people watching as well as enjoying the music from strolling musicians. La Golondrina, in the Pelanconi House, the oldest brick building in L.A., is famous for its enormous margaritas.
Churros from Mr. Churro's are an Olvera Street tradition, and the taco stand, Cielito Lindo at the Cesar Chavez end, is known for its taquitos.
Beyond the Avila Adobe, about halfway down the street is a gathering spot under a shade tree where musicians often stop to perform. There is a brick archway there that used to be the entrance to a winery. You'll find public restrooms and a gallery through the archway. The musicians are volunteers who play for tips, and only scheduled musicians are permitted to perform.
Italian-American Museum in Los Angeles
After exploring the Mexican Marketplace on Olvera Street, take a left at Cesar Chavez and walk left again around the corner to Main Street. The first building on the corner is Italian Hall, once the center of Italian community life in L.A.'s Little Italy. It is now the home of the Italian-American Museum in Los Angeles.
If you turn around and look up after you pass the building, you can see the winged canopy covering the restoration of a mural on the side of the second story of the building. Painted in 1932 by David Alfaro Siqueiros, it's called América Tropical and "featured an Indian bound to a double cross, surmounted by an imperialist eagle and surrounded by pre-Columbian symbols and revolutionary figures." About halfway down the street just before the Sepulveda House is the América Tropical Interpretive Center where you can learn more about Siqueiros and his work as well as the restoration of the mural. The main entrance is on the Olvera Street side.
The Sepulveda House (1887) is now a museum and the El Pueblo Visitor Center with the Interpretive Center for the David Alfaro Siqueiros' América Tropical mural next door. On the other side is the Jones Building, which used to be machine shops. Most of what you are looking at are street-front side—which is now the back—of the buildings that show their business side on Olvera Street. There is an entrance to the Visitors Center from the Olvera Street side through a corridor near Casa Flores Imports, opposite El Paseo Restaurant.
Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Angeles
Also known as La Placita and the Old Plaza Church, this is the oldest church in Los Angeles and the only building at El Pueblo that has always been used for its original purpose. The first chapel was built in 1784, but it was damaged in an earthquake. The current church was dedicated in 1822, but it too sustained earthquake damage and was rebuilt in 1861. The church is an active Parish of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes
LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, which is a museum about the history and contribution of Mexicans and Mexican culture in Los Angeles, occupies two historic buildings on Main Street near La Placita Old Plaza Church. The two-story Plaza House was built in 1883 as part of the Garnier Block by Frenchman Philippe Garnier. The lower level has been occupied by a variety of shops, saloons, and restaurants.
The five-story Vickrey-Brunswig Building next door was constructed in 1888 to house the Eastside Bank. It was purchased by the F. W. Braun Drug company in 1897 for its wholesale pharmaceutical operations and taken over in 1907 by one of the partners, Lucien Napoleon Brunswig, who, among other significant renovations, added his name to the top of the building. In 1930, the building was purchased by the County of Los Angeles and used for various offices including a courthouse and crime lab.
Both buildings suffered damage from earthquakes and fires and sat vacant for decades before being completely retrofitted and renovated for their current use as a museum.
On the Plaza side of the street, you'll see the Pico House, which is a grand hotel that opened in 1870 by Pio Pico, the last governor of Mexican California. On the Main Street side of Pico House, it abuts the Merced Theatre (1870), one of L.A.'s oldest theaters; and the Masonic Hall (1858), which after various other uses over the years is once again an active Masonic Hall and home to L.A. City Masonic Lodge 841. It is currently used as a special event space.
Las Angelitas del Pueblo
Around the corner, the opposite side of the old hotel faces the offices of Las Angelitas del Pueblo (Little Angels of the Pueblo) in the Hellman-Quon Building between the firehouse and the Chinese American Museum. Las Angelitas consists of a group of volunteer docents who conduct free, 50-minute tours of El Pueblo historic site. Their office also includes exhibits and is sometimes used for workshops during El Pueblo events.