This post was most recently updated on July 2nd, 2018
I’ve lived in California for 29 years and I just visited downtown Los Angeles for the first time! Don’t wait as long as I did, and when you go, be sure to take a walking tour of the downtown historic area first. There is so much to see, history to learn, and fun things to do, too. Plus, if you’re looking for instagrammable sights, this is the tour for you! This tour was part of a recent Santa Monica/Los Angeles weekend getaway for my husband and I. Our tour guide was a volunteer from the HI Santa Monica hostel, where we were staying.
Walking Tour of Downtown Los Angeles
We actually started this tour from the 7th Street Center metro station, because we took the light rail train from Santa Monica to Los Angeles. It was wonderful to arrive “carless” in the city, and I suggest you do the same. I have no idea how much you’d have to pay for parking or how difficult it would be to find parking. Driving a car into Los Angeles isn’t really fun, anyway, because of traffic.
First Stop: Bottega Louie
Bottega Louie, at 700 S Grand Avenue, was the first stop on our walking tour. Bottega Louie is a beautiful Italian Restaurant and Patisserie that specializes in pizzas, pastas, and small plates, as well as a weekend brunch and macarons to go. Why is this a good stop? It’s a BEAUTIFUL place to see! Bright and spacious and very popular — with rows and rows of sumptuous bakery treats and colorful macarons — and a little bit of the European vibe we enjoyed so much in France and Italy. It reminded me very much of Laduree in Paris. I bought a Birthday Cake-flavored macaron and it totally transported me back to Paris for a moment!
Next Stop: Millenium Biltmore Hotel
Built in 1923 and located at 506 S Grand Avenue, the Biltmore Hotel was declared a historic monument in 1969. From the day it opened, it has been glamorous and opulent — and has been frequented by celebrities, presidents and dignitaries. Be sure to visit so you can see the intricate ceiling frescoes (painted by Giovanni Battista Smeraldi) , murals, carved marble fountains and columns, crystal chandeliers, and embroidered tapestries. A corridor off the grand hallway displays vintage photos of celebrity guests and special events — it is a grand collection of “Who’s Who” in early Los Angeles.
Stop #3: Pershing Square
Behind the Biltmore, between Olive and Hill Streets is Pershing Square, a public park with grass and patios, fountains, statues, art, playgrounds, a chess area, an amphitheater, a pet area, and ice skating rink (seasonal), and an outdoor farmers Market. We saw some of the art and sculptures as we walked by and then enjoyed an aerial view from Perch (our next destination).
4th Stop: Perch Rooftop Bistro
At 448 S. Hill Street, enter at the street level and take the elevator to the 15th floor to enjoy this cozy French-themed rooftop bistro with stunning views of downtown Los Angeles. Perch is a fitting name, because you will feel like you are “perched” on the edge of the building looking down on Pershing Square and the downtown core. Come relax with two outdoor fireplaces, various firepits, a lounge, and table seating indoors and out.
Stop #5: The Last Bookstore
About two blocks from Pershing Square, you’ll arrive at 453 S. Spring Street. Named “The Last Bookstore” because so many brick-and-mortar bookstores were going out of business, it’s possible that this bookstore very well may live up to its name. It’s the brainchild of Josh Spencer, who turned his hobby and obsession with books into a job. I loved being in this bookstore, as it has so much character and feels like someone’s comfortable living room. In fact, it serves as a kind of refuge to downtown residents, many of whom spend several hours a day reading or working in one of the comfortable chairs. The Last Bookstore is actually one of the largest physical bookstores still standing, with 22,000 feet. Don’t miss the upstairs level with a labyrinth of bookshelves, book art, and lots of instagrammable shots! It had a fun ‘Harry Potter’ kind of feeling to it. There’s also an art gallery and artisan workspace.
Stop #6: Bradbury Building
You’ll want to backtrack just half a block and go two blocks to 304 S. Broadway. From the outside, it is an unassuming office building. However, I assure you, you are in for a treat when you enter. The Bradbury Building was completed in 1893 and was commissioned by gold-mining millionaire, Lewis Bradbury, with a very specific result in mind. In fact, he fired his first architect when he didn’t think the man understood his vision. Inside is a grand light-filled Victorian court with open cage elevators, marble stairs, and ornate iron railings. The ceiling is a gorgeous glass skylight allowing natural light to bathe the interior.
The Bradbury Building is the oldest commercial building remaining in the central city and one of Los Angeles’ unique treasures. It has been used as the setting for many movies and music videos, but still operates as an office building. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Next Stop: Grand Central Market
Just across the street from the Bradbury Building is this emporium of food vendors and florists at 317 S Broadway. A downtown landmark since since 1917, Grand Central Market is a very popular place to buy produce, specialty meats and cheeses, and international cuisine. A hundred years ago, residents of the Victorian mansions on Bunker Hill to the west used to ride down on Angels Flight to shop for groceries in the open market. Now the market is a favorite meeting place for lunch among downtown residents and tourists alike. The Market also hosts game nights, movies, and other events. When you visit, it will be difficult to choose what to eat because it all looks so good, but I can recommend the pupusas at Sarita’s Pupuseria.
Stop #8: Angels Flight
Angels Flight is a bright orange funicular in the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles, at 351 S. Hill Street (right behind the Grand Central Market). Here are some fun facts: it was built in 1901 and is the world’s shortest railway. It has given more than 100 million rides along its track. It’s only $1.00 per ride, and it’s fun to watch the two cars pass side-by-side on the track. Angels Flight is open 365 days a year, from 6:45 am till 10:00 pm.
Stop #9: MOCA Plaza
The main branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA) can be found at 250 S. Grand Avenue. Even if you’re not into contemporary art, you should walk through this plaza, because it is a very pleasing space. There is a pyramid-shaped fountain and two oblong reflecting pools, benches for seating, and a sculpture made from pieces of three airplane wrecks. Perhaps the airplane sculpture is unique. But the reflection of skyscrapers and sky in the reflecting pools is quite breathtaking. We didn’t stay to see the museum on this walking tour, but if you’re interested, admission to the MOCA is free on Thursdays from 5-8 pm or $15 for adults at other times.
Next Stop: Walt Disney Concert Hall
I’d heard of the Walt Disney Concert Hall at 111 S. Grand Avenue (designed by Frank Gehry), but never seen it in person. I don’t think a picture can really do it justice. The architecture is both artistic and other-worldly at the same time. It reminded me of waves of the sea doubled back on themselves. Inside the hall, wooden structures resemble giant trees. There are lots of surprises here — including a walking path that winds up and around the outside of the structure, disappearing into the “folds” and revealing a garden, viewpoints, staircases to nowhere, and an outdoor amphitheatre. It’s a popular place for photo shoots, and now I know why.
This could definitely be the conclusion of your walking tour, and it will probably be pretty easy on your feet. But if you have the time and the stamina to add a bit more, I highly suggest checking out Olvera Street and Union Station, as it’s only about 7 blocks further. Since I’m never one to turn down an opportunity to explore more, I kept going!
#11 Grand Park & Olvera Street
From the Concert Hall, I was instructed to take 1st Street downhill to Main Street and turn left. As I created my map for you, I realized I could have walked through a beautiful park space if I’d known it was there. So, while my map shows my actual route, I’m suggesting you might want to take advantage of the park space called the Grand Park. It’s a 12-acre park located in the civic center of Los Angeles with a beautiful garden environment. Walk through and enjoy it, then make your way around the City Hall building to reach Main Street; turn left to make your way to Olvera Street.
Now it’s only about three blocks to Olvera Street (125 Paseo de la Plaza). It’s known as the “birthplace of Los Angeles” and includes a Mexican Marketplace with authentic Mexican crafts, tree-shaded vendor stalls, a central plaza with large gazebo, restaurants, murals, and historic buildings. There are often mariachi bands and Aztec and Mexican folkloric dancers performing. It’s all very colorful and vibrant.
Final Stop on our Tour: Union Station
Our last stop was the Union Station — right across the street from the plaza of Olvera Street. This was the end of our tour…and the beginning of our way back to Santa Monica. Union Station is an opulent train station, built in 1939. It is a hub for Amtrak trains, a light rail system, subway, buses, and taxis. It is also the “last of the great train stations” with shops, eateries, and waiting areas. There’s a courtyard with a gorgeous mosaic water fountain, and you’ll love all the architectural features within the station itself.
From Union Station, we easily took the subway back to the 7th Street Center Station to connect with the light rail back to Santa Monica. I’ll be sharing what we did in Santa Monica in another post. I do hope you’ll try this easy walking tour of Los Angeles. It was a wonderful introduction to the City of Angels!