San Francisco and Los Angeles have always been rivals. Like Sydney and Melbourne, their geographic proximity belies their cultural competition. Having grown up in the former, I naturally side with San Francisco in the perennial debate over which city is superior. But some parts of Los Angeles challenge my belief, and downtown LA is one of them.
I arrive knowing very little about this part of the city, having only explored Santa Monica and bits of Hollywood on previous trips to Los Angeles. But several things win me over, the first of which is the new Ace hotel in downtown LA. It opened just days before I arrive on my trip with Visit California, and I get to be one of the hotel’s first guests.
The Ace brand is one of the trendiest in travel these days, and it just opened a hotel in London, too. The hipster, no-frills vibe means that my room has exposed concrete walls and patchwork felt on the bedspread, but everything I need—from a desk to a bathrobe—is there.
The simplicity of the rooms is offset by the buzzing rooftop bar, which has spectacular views over Los Angeles. And that’s to say nothing of its historic 1920′s theater, an opulent 1,600-seat number modeled after a church in Segovia, Spain. It is the former United Artists Theater, and the Ace hotel is turning it into a concert venue starting next month.
Beyond the walls of the theater, downtown LA is experiencing a renaissance of its own. What used to be a district in decline is now a diverse neighborhood with new venues popping up everywhere. I learn this on a walking tour with travel writer Eric Hiss, who points out everything from famous Banksy art to filming locations like The Bradbury Building, where movies like Blade Runner were made.
But my favorite new place in downtown LA is The Last Bookstore. What used to be a bank is now a high-ceilinged literary temple with solid white columns interspersed among the shelves.
Upstairs, a perimeter gallery is home to the Spring Arts Collective as well as a secret maze of bookshelves. Some are arranged by color, while others form tunnels large enough to walk through. It is both amusing and enchanting, and I feel like Alice in Wonderland as I explore.
Around the corner is another shop with curious contents. At the intersection of 3rd and Broadway the unmarked storefront gives way to the Farmacia Y Botanica Million Dollar, a sort of pharmacy full of potions for everything from love to money, lust, and revenge. Candles in the form of vaginas sit next to a shrine to the Virgin of Something-or-Another, and the whole place is reminiscent of both the religious and the superstitious.
Down the street is one of downtown LA’s most famous highlights, this one a bit less bizarre. The Grand Central Market has been open since 1917, and contains a mix of vegetable vendors, ethnic food stalls, and yuppie cafes like the new Eggslut. The market is a great metaphor for the city’s diversity and the neighborhood’s revival, and I as sample the sweet jams at sleek, contemporary Valerie, I eye classic dishes from El Salvador a few stalls down.
I would love to stay for lunch, but the next stop on my tour of downtown LA is Bar Ama, one of the neighborhood’s many great new restaurants. The Mexican food there is as good as the best in San Francisco, and as I feast on fresh guacamole and fajitas, I wonder whether I’ve been too hard on Los Angeles all these years.
I feel the same way as I indulge in a bit of celebrity spotting in LA. I attend a Lakers game one night, and from my seat in the Stubhub box, I spot Jack Nicholson. Also in attendance is celebrity chef Roy Choi, whom I serendipitously met a few days earlier while having lunch at his A-Frame restaurant in Culver City.
Venturing out of downtown LA one evening, I spot Christopher Plummer (of The Sound of Music fame) at the Beverly Wilshire hotel (of Pretty Woman fame) while having drinks at THE Blvd bar. I even get to meet TV chef Curtis Stone at a special preview dinner in his soon-to-open Maude restaurant in Beverly Hills.
On my way out of downtown LA, I stop at Handsome Coffee Roasters in the Arts District. The coffee shop is famous for roasting its own beans and denying its patrons sugar (only espresso and milk here; these guys are serious about their coffee).
As I sip my latte, I realize that I may have been wrong about LA all these years. While I once brushed the city off as a giant strip mall-lined traffic jam, I have to admit that there is a lot more to Los Angeles than I allow myself to give it credit for. But San Francisco is still the best city in California. Obviously.