The United States offers an almost inexhaustible supply of attractions and entertainments within its vast reaches, tempting all with the beautiful, sunny beaches of California and the quirkiness of San Francisco on one coast, the frenzied busyness of New York on the other, as well as the gracious charm of the South and the legendary hospitality of the Midwestern states in between.
Going Downtown in Los Angeles
Most people who come to Los Angeles, or L.A., don’t hang around Downtown. After all, they don’t see any reason to — most of the really popular spots they want to see are a good twenty minutes away. To the west is the oh-so-famous Hollywood area; just beyond it is the centre of decadent and indulgence,
West Hollywood; further along is the ostentatious eye-candy (both house and human) of Bel Air, Brentwood and Beverly Hills; then the beachside attractions of Malibu, Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica.
Nope, with so many places to check out, most visitors don’t give Downtown much more than a quick glance. Which is a pity, really, as they end up missing out on an area that has a fair bit of history, a smidgen of charm, and unlike much of the city, a whole lot of soul.
Why isn’t Downtown…downtown?
Part of the reason why the area is so overlooked is because in L.A., Downtown isn’t anything like what most people would think of as ‘downtown’. It isn’t really the centre of the city and most people never go there if they don’t need to. The way most people think of Downtown (if they think about it at all) is as the area marked out on the map by three freeways (the I-10, I-5 and US 101, if you must know) and the oversized drainage canal which now passes off as the Los Angeles river.
If you’re wondering why that is, blame history: L.A. was the first major town to come up just as the automobile was making its great impact on American society, and city planners basically figured: ‘Hey, we’ll all have cars in a few years, why build a city that’s all scrunched up tight? Let’s spread it out a bit!” And so L.A. became one of the most spread out, decentralized developments in the world, becoming not one colossal city, but technically a conglomerate of 88 very different cities spread out to the horizon. Understandably, in a city like this, its almost impossible for any one area to be a proper ‘downtown’.
What’s so special about it?
Still, Downtown does have a few things to distinguish it from its fellow cities. For one, it’s where all the tall buildings are. In any decent movie featuring L.A., there’s always at least one wide angle city shot, and the only tall spikes in the pancake flat skyline are the office buildings clustered in Downtown.
Another unusual thing about Downtown is its hills — that is, it actually has some, and fairly steep ones too, unlike the rest of city. The film industry takes full advantage of the hills, as with a little change in camera angles and some judicious editing, a quick two car jaunt down the hill and round the block can be turned into a high speed chase up and down every hill in sight. Quite often, you’ll find film crews blocking off a road or two for a shoot, and if you’re lucky, you can even volunteer as an extra and make some money on your holiday!
So what’s there to do in downtown?
There isn’t all that much to sight-seeing to do in Downtown, at least not in the usual, “Oh, what a pretty place!” sense. There aren’t any wide green parks or tree-lined boulevards in this part of town, and the towering buildings tend to leave the streets in shadow most of the time. Still, Downtown does have a certain charm.
The most popular place to start a tour of the area is at the Historic Core, a quiet enclave where many of the buildings were built during the heady days of the 1930’s and ‘40’s, when Downtown was still one of the most posh and desirable residential addresses in the city. Many of the preserved buildings are wonderful examples of the elegant Art Deco style popular at the time and the most famous of these buildings is undoubtedly the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. During Downtown’s heyday, celebrities flocked to stay in its most beautiful hotel and even today, the spectacular design and décor are worth a long look. Since that time, the area has slowed down to become a very quiet, residential and office area. Things may liven up in the future though, for many of these historic buildings are now being converted into swanky apartments and residences. As more people begin living in the area again, it may just one day regain its former glory.
Connected to the Historic Core via an equally historic funicular track is Bunker Hill, now known as the Financial District and the real reason why Downtown is has a special status amongst its fellow cities. Bunker Hill was once the home of the stars, before they moved west, but today it is home to stars of a different kind. It is now the home of world corporations and courthouses, the stomping ground of all those high-priced lawyers, wheeling-dealing stock brokers and what-have-yous. It is the towering offices on Bunker Hill which give Los Angeles its famous skyline and it is the destination for the 300, 000 commuters who flood in and out of Downtown every work day.
There are a few other sight-seeing attractions in Downtown but interestingly enough, the two most popular places have to do with transportation — and not even with cars, L.A.’s most famous and essential mode of transport. First, there’s Union Station, indisputable the most famous railway depot in L.A.. This beautiful structure was the last urban railroad station to be built in the United States, and its well preserved 1940’s design has made it a favorite stage for many movie scenes, most famously in Blade Runner, where the main hall was used as the police station.
More contemporary, but still keeping to the Art Deco theme of the area, is the Hollywood/Vine Metro Rail station. A part of the much maligned underground railway system, the station is most famous for its tribute to the city’s most famous industry. There are memorials to actors, actresses and films everywhere, and on the platforms, you can look overhead to see thousands of actual film reels mounted overheard. Unfortunately, no-one knows just which films were turned into ceiling ornaments.
Spending money in Downtown
There are plenty of things to do in Downtown, but the most popular one is a very respected activity in L.A.:spending money. For that, there’s no better place to begin than the Jewellery District. This very popular attraction is a parallel, three block stretch along Broadway, Olive and Hill Streets. Inhabiting the 30 or so buildings of the area is the second largest assemblage of jewellers in the world. There are more than 5, 000 jewellery shops in the District, all offering cutthroat wholesale prices on precious gems, watches and fine jewellery. Buyers can often walk away with a fine piece with discounts of anywhere from 50% to 70%. The most popular place to buy jewellery from is the St Vincent Jewellery Center on Hill Street, with over 450 tenants offering beautiful wares. You almost definitely won’t have time to go through everything, and very definitely won’t have enough money for it anyway, but it’s a great place to go to be dazzled by all things glittery.
For more shopping, you can head over to the Fashion District. The area spans some 82 blocks, so most visitors prefer to stick to Santee Alley between Ninth Street and Olympic Boulevard, which is designed specifically for retailers. This clotheshorse’s paradise is where al fresco vendors and stores hawk greatly discounted clothing and accessories from both known manufacturers and independent labels. This is a place for serious shoppers — the huge number of outlets can be overwhelming, and the prices sinfully tempting. The area is so overwhelming, there’s even tours offered by Urban Shopping Adventures to help bewildered visitors navigate around the district. Both small and large groups are catered for, and you can do a walking tour, take a limousine and best of all, get special discounts on the already low prices!
Eating in Downtown
For attractions of a different and tastier kind, you can head to Grand Central Market. Built into the ground floor of the Homer Laughlin Building on 317 South Broadway, this huge indoor bazaar is a favourite with both locals and tourists. The locals come for the food, which can be just about anything under the sun: Mexican tortillas, spices from the Ambon, tea from Sri Lanka and more, all offered by row upon row of haggling vendors. The tourists come for the food too, for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and also to take in atmosphere of the market itself, which has changed little since it was built in 1917.
A little bit further north on South Broadway is another favourite eating spot for locals: Clifton’s Cafeteria. Opened in 1935 and now practically a landmark, this three level cafeteria sports an interior that looks like a redwood forest, complete with waterfalls and babbling brooks. Not all its visitors like the decor or agree with the food, but enough of them to make it the world’s largest public cafeteria, serving on average 1000 meals daily 7 days a week including holidays.
If you’d rather skip the cafeteria food and want something more delectable, then Japanese Town, or J-Town offers some of the best sushi in the city. That’s not an idle boast – many of the restaurants even import their chefs from Japan to ensure authenticity. The sushi bars are usually open until the wee hours of the morning, catering to homesick Japanese businessmen and locals with a late night maki craving. You can also drop by the historic Far East Café, which opened in 1935 and has been a favourite filming location for movies and TV. If the timing is right, you might even be there for the famous nine day Nisei Week Festival and the two day weekend Tofu Festival.
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Many people also pop into Chinatown for a bit of American-style Chinese food. Unfortunately, despite its long and sometimes turbulent history, the Chinatown of today is fairly small and dreary compared to its counterparts around the world. Many of the Chinese immigrants now prefer to settle down in the establish immigrant communities in the pleasant suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley. Nowadays, Chinatown is more Vietnamese then anything else, so if you want really good pho noodles or Banh Mi sandwiches, that’s a good place to go.
The Financial District has an appropriately posh, bustling, businesslike feel to it during the day. After 5 pm though, it’s a different story. Everyone run home to the suburbs when the quitting bell rings and on the weekends, a zombie army could probably march through the streets without anyone noticing. If you’re in Downtown at night or on the weekends, you’d have to look elsewhere for your excitement.
A place for culture
You can do all the above in daytime, but what about after the sun goes down? Well, though it may feel spookily empty, Downtown is also a good place to go at night for if you want to absorb some culture (yes, it’s a shock, but L.A. really does have some).
Here, in this most unlikely of settings, sits the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a grand, world-acclaimed, avant-garde structure of stainless steel sheathed concrete. It is now home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Los Angeles Master Chorale and the concerts and performances regularly staged draw a steady audience to Downtown, even from as far away as Malibu.
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There are plenty of other attractions in Downtown and it would take many more pages to name them all. Most of them are only known to the locals and the occasion well-read traveller who’s not afraid to go a little off the beaten path. What they’ll discover within the few square miles of Downtown is a world far different from the L.A. of popular television: an area which, while it is little less glamorous and a little more gritty, is also less artificial, less soulless and just as interesting.
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