Unlike other large cities, many people visit Los Angeles without ever setting foot in downtown, preferring to spend their time at the beach near Santa Monica or strolling around Hollywood. And while the downtown area may lack the most iconic attractions that people come to see in Los Angeles, those who venture into this underrated neighborhood know that it's rich with historic architecture, cultural attractions, and some of the best foodie hotspots in the city.
Eat Sushi in Little Tokyo
There are only three official Japantowns in the United States, and all three of them are in California. The one in Los Angeles, known as Little Tokyo, is the largest of the three and also a National Historic Landmark. Apart from actually going to Japan, it's one of the most authentic Japanese experiences you can have and the perfect place to pick-up some typical snacks, flip through some manga comics, or enjoy a cup of matcha tea.
Perhaps the best time of the day to explore Little Tokyo is around lunch, dinner, or anytime you're hungry. Several local eateries offer traditional Japanese and Japanese-American cuisine, from hot bowls of ramen to the fun-to-eat (and say) shabu-shabu. Also, don't miss out on trying a California roll from any one of the sushi restaurants in the area, which was invented right in the neighborhood.
Take a Ride on the Tram
It may not have the same global recognition as the San Francisco cable car or the Lisbon tram, but the Angels Flight Railway is still one of the most iconic landmarks in downtown L.A. (and even more so since it appeared in the Oscar-winning Best Picture, "La La Land"). The funicular train has been shuttling passengers one block—albeit one very steep block—since 1901, from Hill Street to Olive Street.
The cost is $1 to ride it one-way, or 50 cents if you have an L.A. Metro pass. You can ride the tram either direction, but enter at Hill Street to ride it uphill and avoid making the steep climb by foot.
Check Out Contemporary Art for Free
If you're into contemporary art, two of Southern California's preeminent museums are not just in downtown Los Angeles, but they're across the street from each other and both free to enter.
The Broad—pronounced like "brode"—is the newer contemporary art museum which opened in 2015 on Grand Avenue, next to the Walt Disney Disney Concert Hall. Built by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, the 120,000-square-foot museum houses their personal and foundation's art collection of more than 2,000 works by over 200 different artists, including the museums most Instagrammable exhibit, the Infinity Mirrored Room by Yayoi Kusama.
Walk out of the Broad and cross the street to enter the Museum of Contemporary Art, which locals just call the "MOCA." The MOCA doesn't have any permanent exhibits, so check ahead to see what's on display at the time of your trip
Visit El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument at Olvera Street
El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, more commonly known simply as Olvera Street, is the location of the oldest remaining structure in Los Angeles, the Avila Adobe. However, it's the Mexican Marketplace running up and down the pedestrian street that primarily draws visitors. The Marketplace started in 1930 and was originally conceived as a way to rejuvenate the dilapidated neighborhood by bringing in the charm of old-world Mexico with locals selling their crafts and vivacious fiestas. Nearly a century later, Olvera Street is still one of the most popular attractions in downtown Los Angeles.
It is also the home of the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a museum that charts Latino history from the arrival of the first 11 Mexican families who were among the earliest settlers in Los Angeles.
Olvera Street is a one-block pedestrian zone across from Union Station, which is served by the red and gold lines of the Metro.
Slide Down a Glass Observation Deck
Most major cities have an observation deck on top of a skyscraper, but the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles—the city's second-tallest building—includes an extra-special touch. Not only can you enjoy the view of the city and the San Gabriel Mountains from 70 stories up at OUE Skyspace, but you can take a ride in the glass slide down to the 69th floor. The chute is only one floor and it's a three-second experience, but it's an exhilarating experience and gives you an unbeatable view of the landscape.
If riding down a slide suspended hundreds of feet up in the air sounds too thrilling, you can always enjoy the view with a cocktail or craft beer from the observation deck bar for a more relaxing experience.
See a Show at the Disney Concert Hall
The Los Angeles Music Center consists of a group of original theaters that are home to the city's drama, dance, and opera companies, the most famous of which is the architecturally stunning Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry. It's home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the celebrated orchestras in the country. The "winter season" of the LA Phil at the Disney Concert Hall typically runs from October to June (in the summer, they play at the Hollywood Bowl).
Even if you can't make it to a concert or tickets are outside of your budget, it's worth visiting the Disney Concert Hall just to appreciate the building itself. Free tours are available of the interior with a guide or self-guided, but don't forget about the outside of the building. Gehry designed the hall to be explored from all sides and angles, including the exterior staircases that take visitors right up to the roof.
Feast at the Grand Central Market
Grand Central Market is an indoor public market on Broadway between Third and Fourth streets in downtown. The market has been open continuously since 1917 and has always housed a mix of greengrocers, butchers, delis, bakers, and prepared food vendors. The culinary offerings in the market have always been fresh and local, although they have definitely become more "artisanal and gourmet" compared to its early days. The options today also represent the diversity of the local area, including Thai street food, Salvadoran pupusas, and several flavors from Mexico.
The market itself is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., but individual vendors may set their own hours. If you're arriving by public transportation, take the red or purple line of the metro to Pershing Square.
Explore the Fashion District in Los Angeles
The Fashion District is a great place to shop for bargain clothes, textiles, and accessories. Previously known as the Garment District, this expansive neighborhood sits at the southern part of downtown L.A. and specializes in retail and wholesale for all types of clothing. One of the most popular areas is a street of outdoor shopping called Santee Alley, where you can find great deals and cheap knock-off brands.
Many businesses are closed on Sundays, so it's not as busy if you want to roam but there's not nearly as much selection. Aspiring designers will also love The Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising (FIDM) at Ninth Street and Grand, just outside the Fashion District, which has a gallery that features costume exhibits from movies and television.
Get Lost in the Downtown Los Angeles Arts District
Even though there's an endless option of art museums and galleries to visit around Los Angeles, none of them offer what you can find in the Downtown Los Angeles Arts District. It's nestled between Alameda Street and the L.A. River on the east side of downtown, and this industrial area has been a flourishing artist community since the 1970s. Most notable are the larger-than-life murals that dominate the walls and are constantly changing. In fact, it's one the best places to see street art in all of California.
Apart from the murals, the neighborhood also has a high density of studios and galleries that are free to enter. For an immersive experience and a comprehensive history of the Arts District, several companies offer guided tours to complement your tour, such as L.A. Art Tours.
Take a Tour of Los Angeles City Hall
Completed in 1928, the 32-story Los Angeles City Hall was the tallest building in the city until modern building methods allowed taller high-rise buildings to appear in the 1960s. The building is a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument and is still home to the mayor and city council office chambers. It is part of the Civic Center district, which also includes county, state, and federal buildings, and has appeared in dozens of TV shows, movies, and video games. You can walk in and explore on your own with the self-guided tour materials available at the information desk on the third floor, but whatever you do, be sure to take the elevator up to the free observation deck on the 27th floor.
Enjoy the Sun at Grand Park
It isn't easy finding refuge in all of the commotion of downtown L.A., but Grand Park is a 12-acre oasis nuzzled in between the skyscrapers. It stretches for over three blocks of tranquil green space, making it the perfect location to escape from a day of trekking around the concrete jungle. At the west end of the park, the restored Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain includes a spouted wading area that is a favorite place to cool off on hot summer days. At night, a light show draws romantic strolling couples and photo enthusiasts. The park also includes 24 botanic gardens inspired by the six floristic kingdoms of the world and plenty of green lawn for playing and relaxing.
Browse Around at The Last Bookstore
The Last Bookstore, at the corner of Fifth and Spring streets in Downtown Los Angeles, has become an international tourist draw. They don't just sell, buy and trade second-hand books and records at The Last Bookstore. They've created an intriguing combination of quirky art and wide-ranging literature in a really unique space. The bones of the original architecture are allowed to shine through with a painted beamed ceiling supported by classic columns. The second floor wraps around the open first floor with a balcony walkway, keeping your eyes busy with everything going on above and below. Upstairs houses unique art studios and galleries, a knitting shop, and a labyrinth of more books, including the dollar room with over 100,000 books for $1.
There are some overstuffed sofas and chairs around for reading, but you're just as likely to see people pull up a spot on the floor wherever they've discovered treasure among the stacks. The Last Bookstore hosts a variety of events from book signings, author talks, and art openings to comedy shows, music performances, and open mic nights.
Visit Union Station Los Angeles
Union Station is still the hub of long-distance and commuter rail transportation in Los Angeles, serving Amtrak, MetroLink, and MTA Metro trains. It's also worth visiting as an architectural landmark, with a gorgeous waiting hall and public areas. The historic station was built in 1939 and is a mix of Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival, Art Deco, and modern architectural styles.