Los Angeles is a city with two faces.
On one level, there’s the superficial side of the city. It’s the tourist idea of what Los Angeles is: glitz and glamour in Hollywood and rough neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. It’s a pretty polarized dynamic of wealth and poverty. At a quick glance, it’s easy to see the city as it’s stereotyped.
But there’s the other level that tourists don’t really see. It’s the Los Angeles for people who live in the city and understand that Los Angeles has had a rich history since its founding, through the true-to-life noir days of gangster Mickey Cohen to today’s eclectic mix of cultures, all united by highways and streets. For Angelenos, native and new, there are places to see local acts, grab an excellent meal in an a historic building or spend a day exploring.
And no neighborhood represents that mix better than Downtown. It is, after all, one of the oldest parts of the city, and it shows its age. It’s not decrepit, but instead of tearing things down to start over, the area rebuilds itself, putting new stores and homes in grand decades-old buildings from the early booming years of the city.
Though Downtown has gone through a revitalization in recent years, there’s much to see besides the popular tourist areas. Yes, L.A. Live and the Staples Center have become centerpieces of sorts for the “new” Downtown, but there’s far more to this lifestyle. The neighborhood can often look into the city’s culture as created by those who live there, for those who live there.
Downtown is usually bustling during the daytime, but at night, restaurants spring to life, bars open up and normal store fronts give way to events you can’t find during the day.
For those old enough to drink legally, Downtown doesn’t have as big a focus on nightclubs as more western parts of Los Angeles do. Instead, it boasts some of the best bars in the city — like the mezcal and tequila-centric Rivera — and some hidden treasures in unexpected places, such as Bar & Kitchen inside the O Hotel on Eighth and Flower streets where a single drink can include whiskey, rum, anisette, rhubarb, lime, pineapple and bitters.
For a hidden treasure, head to The Varnish in the back of Cole’s — itself home to an excellent 1930s-style bar — on Sixth and Main streets. The small and often-packed space just won the Spirited Awards’ Best American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail convention.
If you really need to be at a club, try the 21-and-up joint The Edison. It combines a club atmosphere with high-end drinks, as well as an Art Deco design. It’s even housed in what was the city’s first private power plant, so there’s more history there than just retro design.
And for the especially low-key drinker — if spirits and clubs are a bit too much — try Buzz at Fifth and Spring streets. It’s a beer and wine specialty shop with selections ranging from California-brewed IPAs to Trappist ales. Best of all, it has weekly tasting events for both drink options.
Music lovers will also find plenty to enjoy in Downtown. Though the neighborhood doesn’t have the music scene of the Sunset Strip, spots like The Smell have become landmarks for live music. There, one can nod their head to everything from California punk rock to experimental electronica. For a solid jazz setup, head to the Blue Whale Bar.
As a haven for the arts, Downtown competes with, and even surpasses, the more ostensibly arts-focused cultures of Silverlake and Venice. Gallery Row, centered around Spring Street, is littered with photo galleries, painting displays and new installations. And that’s all before running into the large, well-known museums like MOCA.
At night there are usually events, special exhibits and even the occasional party.
And if film is your passion, visit the Downtown Independent, a movie theater showing everything from Japanese samurai movies to local short films.
The neighborhood’s art focus goes beyond galleries. The Los Angeles Theatre Center not only has plays, but also speaking events with leaders like Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim and art exhibits in the main lobby.
In a city as big as Los Angeles, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and seek out the landmarks and hot spots. But it’s worth checking out the side of the city that isn’t in the travel guides. Once in Downtown, it’s easy to walk around and explore. It’s a dense, truly eclectic neighborhood with a seemingly unlimited amount of places to see art, grab a bite to eat or just stop to take in the city.
Los Angeles’ future is unwritten, but exploring Downtown is a great way to see the city’s past and to experience its present.