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.

Eastern Building in LA, California

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.

Ace Hotel in Downtown LA, California

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.

Room at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, California

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.

Eastern Building in Los Angeles, California

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.

Banksy in LA, California

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.

The Last Bookstore in LA, California

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.

The Last Bookstore in LA, California

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.

Theater in Downtown LA, California

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.

Eggslut in Grand Central Market in LA, California

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.

Lunch at Bar Ama in Los Angeles, California

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.

Jack Nicholson at a Lakers Game in Los Angeles, California

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.

Curtis Stone at Maude Restaurant in Beverly Hills, California

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).

Latte at Handsome Coffee Roasters in Los Angeles, California

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.

20 Comments on Lady in Downtown Los Angeles

  1. LA gets such a bad rap, but this is a great post to show otherwise! It’s been years since I was last in LA – it looks like there’s such a fun vintage revival going on though!

    I think I’m finally making my way up to San Francisco this year, and I CAN’T WAIT!

    Thanks for sharing.


  2. I loved my 4 years living in LA and always have believed that the “I hate LA” people have it wrong – how can you say that you completely hate a city that has so much variety? There’s far more to it than Hollywood and tabloid-fodder celebs. That said, I never explored downtown, and with all the buzz it’s getting these days I’d love to find the time to head back there primarily to eat!

  3. I have not really done LA. I have been once, but I really didn’t get a feel for the city. I would love to eat at a restaurant called Eggslut. The Eastern Building photo is gorgeous!

  4. OMG so many celebrity sightings!!!! I loved that about LA when I was in college down there. My big moment was standing next to Spike Lee at a hotel bar!

  5. I love this post! This is a fantastic walk-through of an area that has until recently been an overlooked part of Los Angeles. I grew up in the LA area and moved out as fast as I could to San Francisco, which I also prefer to SoCal’s capital, however the downtown area is my favorite part of LA. I used to take the blue line up there to drink at the Edison during their Friday Soup Night’s way back when, as well at Kohls and Varnish. The Last Bookstore is one of my favorite places that I have to stop by whenever I’m passing through. Most of these restaurants you’ve quoted are new to me though, and I’m super excited to check them out when next in town! I’m so glad this area is growing, there’s such a wealth of history and beautiful architecture there. Thanks so much for sharing your discoveries!

  6. I wish I could travel to America and discover all of the amazing places there are there, but until then I have your blog to marvel at all the wonderful places I could get to visit!
    XO, Miriam

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