On recent day trips to visit our LA-based son, we have found ourselves exploring the city’s Downtown District. Off the beaten path from major tourist attractions in Hollywood and the Coast, the area offers fabulous architecture, a rich history and even a couple of hidden treasures. I found this part of the city to be a real surprise and a great place to spend some time.
1. Walt Disney Concert Hall ~ 111 South Grand Avenue
I was transported back to Bilbao, Spain, when I first glimpsed the Disney Concert Hall. The captivating building is reminiscent of architect Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, and it is interesting to see how he incorporated elements of that design in this incredible space. With shimmering silver sail-like angles, the building appears ready to sail away in the next wind.
We had the special treat of attending a concert at Disney Hall several months ago when Irish singer Glen Hansard performed with the LA Philharmonic. Our family has been fans of Hansard’s beautiful music since the film Once, and we all met in LA for the chance to see him in concert – with the added bonus of the Disney venue. Our seats were near the top of the theater, but the fabulous acoustics made it seem as if we were in the front row!
2. The Broad ~ 221 South Grand Avenue
Down the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall sits The Broad (pronounced Brōde) contemporary art museum. Built by philanthropists Eli and Edyth Brode and designed by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, The Brode opened in 2015. The intriguing structure is described as “the veil and the vault,” with the airy, honeycomb-like veil draping the interior space, cleverly letting in natural light.
Admission to The Broad is free, but there is a catch: It’s a popular museum that books up quickly. To ensure a spot, you can book tickets through the museum’s website for a specific day and time slot. Advance tickets are released at noon on the first of each month for the following month. An onsite standby line is also available on Twitter @TheBroadStandby.
The other trick is getting into The Broad’s Infinity Mirrors Rooms. Created by Yayoi Kusama, these exhibits are a wonder of LED lights that immerse the visitor inside the installation. In Longing for Eternity, you view the chamber through a porthole-like window. In The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, you are given 45 seconds by yourself in a room that feels as if you have been dropped inside a kaleidoscope. Both are two of the most interesting 45 seconds imaginable.
The best guarantee to securing a spot in the Light Years room is to book a General Admission ticket for an early time slot or join the onsite standby line in the morning. I booked reservations a month in advance and was able to get 11:30 a.m. admissions. Once inside, we signed up for a time slot and were notified by a text message when we could join the line. Our estimated wait time was 3 hours and 22 minutes – which turned out to be a little less than three hours – resulting in a leisurely museum tour and a very long lunch!
3. Angels Flight ~ Upper Station|350 S. Grand; Lower Station|351 S. Hill St.
The perfect word to describe the bright orange Angels Flight is charming. The self-proclaimed “world’s shortest incorporated railway” opened in 1901 as a solution for transporting local residents up a steep hill. In 1969, the landmark funicular was taken apart and put in storage, reopening a in 1996 a half-block down the street. Two train cars travel in opposite directions, and riders can board from either the lower or upper station. The ride costs $1 – payable at the upper station – and takes only a few minutes.
We boarded at the lower station across from the Grand Central Market. A plaque at the top offers a bit of Angel Flight’s history:
“It is estimated that Angels Flight has carried more passengers per mile than any other railway in the world, over a hundred million in its first fifty years.”
4. Grand Central Market ~ 317 South Broadway
Traditional fruit and vegetable grocers mix with trendy specialty food stands at the indoor Grand Central Market. Opened in 1917 on the ground floor of the Homer Laughlin Building, the market is abuzz with just about any food item imaginable. Specialty coffees, breads and cheeses and international offerings including German sausages, Salvadorian pupusas and Thai street food are available to take away or eat at the market. It’s a fun place to walk through and enjoy brunch, lunch or a coffee break.
5. Bradbury Building ~ 304 South Broadway
It would be easy to pass the Bradbury Building without knowing what lies beyond its front door. But once inside, it’s definitely worth a peek into the architectural world of 1893. Open “bird-cage” elevators, ornate wrought-iron railings, pink-toned brick walls, rich polished woodwork and a grand marble staircase fill a sky-lit atrium that soars five stories. Natural light floods the space, creating a warm glow amid the opulent design.
The Bradbury Building is Downtown LA’s oldest commercial building and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1977. Visitors are permitted only as far as the first landing.
6. The Last Bookstore ~ 453 South Spring Street
Walking into The Last Bookstore feels like entering a book-themed movie set. Whimsical displays constructed with books are hidden throughout the turn-of-the-century former bank building. The curved book-decorated check-out desk by the front entrance is the first clue that this is no ordinary book shop. There are marble columns, a patterned vaulted ceiling, twinkle lights and walls bedecked in book-created artwork. Oh, and there are also books. New and used books line angled shelves along with a Rare Book Annex and a downstairs section called “Secret Headquarters Dungeon Dungeon.”
Upstairs is a veritable wonderland of creativity. Books fly through the air in an office gone awry. A magical dimly lit book tunnel creates a clever transition from one section to another. The original bank vault has even been repurposed as the “Horror Vault,” filled with books of that genre.
The Last Bookstore was founded in 2005 by Josh Spencer. It lays claim to being California’s largest used and new book and record store and “one of the largest independent bookstores in the world still standing.”
It may be one of my favorite bookstores of all time.
7. El Pueblo de Los Ángeles & Olvera Street ~ 845 North Alameda Street
The Mexican marketplace along Olvera Street is undoubtedly one of the best-known tourist destinations in Downtown LA. The historic district is part of El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument, the oldest section of the city founded in 1781. In addition to the cafés, gift shops and vendors that line red-brick Olvera Street, the district features a lovely plaza and a variety of historic buildings. Avila Adobe, the oldest surviving residence in Los Angeles, is registered as a California Historical Landmark, and the entire district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
8. Union Station ~ 800 North Alameda Street
Union Station‘s boasting rights as “the last of the great train stations” are truly well-deserved. Constructed in 1939 in a style called Mission Moderne, the station combines Art Deco, Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial architectural details in a grand display of chandeliers, vaulted ceilings, tilework and a 100-foot-tall clock tower. It’s easy to imagine travelers arriving here 70 years ago and milling about the beautiful space.
Today Union Station is the largest railroad passenger terminal in the Western United States. The major transportation hub for Southern California includes three Amtrak long-distance trains. Free guided tours are offered the second Sunday of every month.
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