Los Angeles is made up of more than 80 distinct neighborhoods. Echo Park is one the city's oldest and might be its hippest, although it gets some pretty stiff competition from the other two points of the Hipster Triangle, Silver Lake and Los Feliz, and its eastern neighbors Eagle Rock and Highland Park.)
Whether it ultimately nabs and retains the title of coolest is entirely too subjective to declare. Still, we can say with total certainty that it absolutely merits a slot on any LA itinerary thanks to its outdoor havens, its namesake lake, and Elysian Park, its fascinating history, which includes the Keystone Cops, Communists, "The Fast & The Furious" franchise, homoerotic art, a utopian society called The Semi-Tropic Spiritualists, and a female evangelist who founded the first megachurch, diverse architecture including the city's highest concentration of Victorians, colorful street art, and famous past and present residents like Charlie Chaplin fashion designer Clare Vivier, Frank Zappa, drag queen Valentina, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sia, and the guy who invented Go-Karts. There's also a wide array of indie boutiques, restaurants, bars, and cafes to while away the hours.
There are too many things to pack into a day's visit, but this guide to Echo Park's 10 best attractions, activities, and businesses should help determine which of the options should top your personal playlist.
Play at the Lake
Echo Park Lake, which started its life as a reservoir, inadvertently gave the area its name. During its conversion to a park in the 1890s, construction, the surrounding hills, and the basin's shape conspired to create an echo. The boss could hear conversations from across the pond. The phenomenon was temporary, but the name stuck. So did people's love of the lake, especially after the city spent millions and years to clean it up and restore it in 2006. Sunny days are jam-packed as people come for picnics, sunbathing, reading in the grass, strolls over the many bridges to look at wild birds and the replanted lotus beds, and paddle-boating. Swan boats have been outfitted with lights for nighttime rides to watch the downtown skyline wake up. The park also hosts an annual Lotus Festival and dragon boat race.
Walk Back in Time and Onto the Silver Screen in Angelino Heights
Angelino Heights—a well-preserved neighborhood within a neighborhood located below Sunset and East of Echo Park Avenue—was the first spot in L.A. to be recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. The honor was bestowed in large part to the high concentration of immaculately restored Victorians on Carroll Avenue. The 1300 block still has the original lampposts and hitching posts for securing horses. Naturally, the street and the 19th-century manors often appear in movies, TV shows, and music videos. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was shot here, and the manse at 1329 is best remembered as the home of the sister witches on "Charmed." The Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation group, runs informative walking tours of the area.
Less than half a mile away sits another famous screen dwelling, which played the home of the "Fast & Furious" franchise's Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) from the 2001 original until it was blown up 14 years later in the seventh installment. His family's corner bodega is also down the street at 1230 Bellevue Avenue.
Discover Elysian Park, More than the Home of Dodger Stadium
Often outshined by its bigger, more popular neighbor Griffith Park, Elysian Park deserves a closer look. And while Echo Park's borders technically fall just short of the green space, the time to explore its jogging path, bike path, baseball diamonds, disc golf course, picnic spots, and spring wildflower blooms is while you're hanging around the Eastside. There are lots of great trails, including one that (sometimes) leads to a secret swing (so secret you can get directions from Google) and several that contain panoramic views of downtown's skyline (Angels Point), the L.A. River, or the I-5. Most are under four miles and are rated easy to moderate, but wear good shoes because hikes can be slippery, filled with fire ants, or littered with broken glass. The Chavez Ravine Arboretum was the first tree garden in Southern California and features 138 varieties. Some are the oldest and largest example of their type in the state or U.S. Hungry after a hike? Hit the greasy spoon at the LA Police Revolver & Athletic Club (basically the academy shooting range). Sports fans can tour historic Dodger Stadium, the world's largest baseball stadium by capacity. Attending a game is also fun, even if only to chow down on world-famous Dodger Dogs.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
This is far from the worst place to find yourself hungry, thirsty, or both. You can get just about any food you crave, and there are far too many great eats to list them all. Some of the standouts include Masa (Italian and deep dish), Cosa Buona (Italian and thinner pizza), Ostrich Farm (especially for brunch), Mohawk Bend (pub food), Trencher (sammies), and Konbi (Japanese sammies). It's also one of the easiest parts of town to find meat-free meals. Most of the above restaurants go out of their way to have vegetarian/vegan options (and not just a sad grilled veggies plate.) But there are also several that are cruelty-free and scrumptious like Sage Vegan Bistro and Brewery, Monty's Good Burger (whose directions give appreciated parking tips), Elf, and Counterpart, where Chef Mimi makes jackfruit ceviche and seitan bacon taste pretty close to the real thing.
Imbibing in EP is also a varied experience. You can shoot pool and do shots at The Short Stop, a dive bar at the center for L.A.'s most famous crooked cop scandal (Rampart). On the other end of the spectrum, you've got Bar Caló, an elegant and hip mezcaleria and cocktail bar that showcases small-batch makers from Mexico to go with the menus. Enjoy spritzers in the sun on the patio at The Semi-Tropic and natural wines at Bar Bandini.
Tour Tom of Finland's Risqué House
When Tom of Finland (né Touko Laaksonen), a groundbreaking homoerotic illustrator known for drawing macho men in leather attire, sailors, and beefy cops from the 1950s until he died in 1991, moved to L.A. for the '80s, he bunked down in the attic of 1421 Laveta Terrace. The turn-of-the-century craftsman became an important gathering place for gay artists like John Waters and Robert Mapplethorpe. The house is now the base camp for the Tom of Finland Foundation, an archive for his work and homoerotic art in general. Recognized as a Historic-Cultural Monument, tours are offered by appointment. The tour is not for the faint of heart, as the art they preserve is displayed everywhere.
Attempt the High Score at a Retro Arcade
Five-year-old Button Mash was one of the first new old-fashioned arcades in the country, giving vintage video games and pinball machines a new lease on life and allowing game boys and girls to relive their youth. (Or if you were born after the '70s and '80s, to travel back in time to see just how crappy graphics and player interface used to be.) The gaming hall's collection numbers more than 100, and classic titles like Donkey Kong, Frogger, Tron, and Space Invaders are regularly rotated in and out. Children are allowed until 9 p.m.; then, it's barcade time. Unlike the play stations of old, which usually smelled of puberty, cigarettes, grease, and coagulated nacho cheese, Button Mash is clean, colorful, and comes with legit delicious food options from Starry Kitchen. It means you can follow up rounds of Food Fight with a feast of crispy tofu balls, gooey double cheeseburgers, Vietnamese spring rolls, craft beer, and noodles.
Scale a Set or Two of Secret Stairs
L.A. is much hillier than most people expect, and back in the day of the streetcar, numerous sets of staircases were built to help transport people from Red Car stops to their hillside homes. These days the historic steps are used more often for exercise and exploration. In fact, hiking them all became a popular pandemic pastime. Charles Fleming wrote the stairclimbers' bible, "Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide To The Historic Staircases of Los Angeles," and recently started putting together iPhone guides to make it even easier for urbanites to elevate their adventures. There are six such rambles in Echo Park including the Baxter Steps. They're a great way to see architecturally significant homes, public art (peep Park Drive's metal birds in the treetops), and landmarks like the massive Angelus Temple, headquarters of 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, or Red Hill, the area where left-leaning blacklisted screenwriters, authors, and artists like Upton Sinclair, Woody Guthrie, and Anna Louise Strong once hung their hats. Echo Park continued to attract prominent bohemians like Jackson Browne, Frank Zappa, director John Huston, and author John Fante in the '60s and '70s.
Play Critic at Shepard Fairey's Art Gallery
Artist Shepard Fairey, known for his Barack Obama "Hope" portrait and his OBEY Giant line, started Subliminal Projects in 1995 with Blaize Blouin to introduce collectors and critics to skateboard culture and design. The gallery and project space moved to EP, and the concept grew to amplify many emerging, activist, and marginalized creatives. Musicians turned artists Chuck D, Mark Mothersbaugh (DEVO), and Tim Armstrong (Rancid) show there as well. Another exhibition space worth checking out is iam8bit, which specializes in video game- and '80s cartoon-inspired art, vinyl, and collectibles. Or look around as this part of town has many street art and murals, including those in Animal Alley, one of the pathways taken from "blight to bright" as part of the Gabby Alley Project spearheaded by Jason Ostro who owns Gabba Gallery in nearby Filipinotown.
Shop 'Til You Drop at Unique Boutiques
Retail therapy in EP has a Small Business Saturday kind of vibe. P.F. Candle Co., whose flagship is here, makes some of the most divine smelling reed diffusers, room sprays, and candles. One scent line is inspired by L.A., where the products are made. They also carry goods for plant moms. The Time Travel Mart is a clever cerebral convenience store for time travelers selling postcards from Pangea, cans of mammoth meat, and floaty pins with the motto "Whenever you are, we're already then." It's also a front for 826LA, a nonprofit writing center for kids and teens, as well as a support system for teachers who inspire students to put pen to paper. Pick up the latest bestsellers at Stories Books & Cafe and dig into them on the patio with a cold brew. Vintage clothes and accessories fill every nook and cranny of Lemon Frog Shop and LOOK. Esqueleto and Shout And About are great places to pick up gifts, home goods, and jewelry. Cookbook is a specialized greengrocer that carries locally produced nibbles like cheese, chocolates, and prepared foods for your picnic at the lake.
Rock Out at a Show at The Echo or Echoplex
Tastemakers and sister venues, The Echo and Echoplex, which sit atop one another, have been great places to see live music in L.A. for going on two decades, especially if you prefer your tunes to be of the rock, punk, EDM, hip hop, and indie variety. They book eclectic acts from around the world and around the corner, often at very reasonable ticket prices. In fact, the free Monday Night Music residency has championed many now successful acts like Foster The People. The small-ish simple spaces have welcomed many chart-toppers on their way up and have hosted more than a few secret shows by established artists trying out new material like Beck, Skrillex, HAIM, and Kendrick Lamar.