Depending on how you look at it, downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) either cramps or commands LA’s skyline. Flying into Los Angeles International Airport over the years, I was always confused by the urban center’s show of skyscrapers in a sea of suburban sprawl. They seemed to spring up out of nowhere, and nobody ever talked about the “tall” part of town.  

In past visits, I barely registered DTLA’s 65 square blocks. I was more drawn to LA’s sultry mix of beach and boardwalk; Hollywood hills and Rodeo frills. 

That was then—then being the late ‘90s when LA’s birthplace was just starting its slow and steady rise from gritty to grand.

While the masses were standing in line for cupcakes and frozen yogurt, modern skyscrapers were added to the city skyline. Sports arenas moved in. Museums took up residence. Architecture and music took center stage at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. Beaux Arts buildings were re-beautified. Art Deco structures—derelict from neglect—were given facelifts. Lofts sprung up. Artists moved in. Restaurants opened. 

 

Exploring downtown LA

As the tides of Los Angeles shifted from down-and-out to place-to-be, I found myself less interested in California’s coastline, and more attracted to its cultural hub. Even without palm trees lining every street and shiny convertibles setting the scene—things I’ve grown to love about LA—I was strangely drawn to Downtown and its departure from California stereotypes. So I went all-in on Downtown.

Having dabbled in DTLA on past visits, I gave into its edgy mix of classic and cutting-edge for a December 2014 stay. I wanted to avoid what I’d done in the past, which was to stay in another neighborhood and drive in. Plus, staying Downtown meant I could explore on foot—quite a feat for a car-centric city.

Viewfinder Tip: To savor LA’s sun and city, book a downtown hotel with a rooftop pool. 

To start, I stayed at the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles, a creative hub opened in 2014 and housed in the 1927-built United Artists Building. Located along a stretch of Broadway punctuated by parking lots, it-girl boutiques, once-grand theaters, and Alma—one of LA’s most celebrated restaurants—the area oozes energy as if it’s a star on the verge. 

The Ace isn’t the only accommodation to predict and profit from Downtown’s potential. Other recent recruits include The Ritz-Carlton and The Standard.  

Keen on discovering the City of Angels on foot, I strolled along Broadway to Grand Central Market, a food emporium dating back to 1917. Perfectly timed with DTLA’s revival, this collective space was named one of America’s 10 best new restaurants of 2014 by Bon Appetit.

Eating at eggslut

With stalls that include a wood-fired pizzeria, a cheese shop, a taqueria, a juice bar, and a German sausage house, I had trouble choosing where to nosh. I finally settled on a late-morning gooey-good breakfast sandwich from eggslut—once a food truck, now the market’s most sought-after tenant. And don’t even get me started on the hot cocoa from Valerie Confections. The chocolate is blasted to a fine dust that creates a creaminess reminiscent of the river running through Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. (Or so I’d imagine.)

While I could have spent days feasting on all that Grand Central Market has to offer, I was interested in the rest of the it-neighborhood’s cuisine scene dubbed “Restaurant Row” by the Los Angeles Times.

As a loyal follower of LA tastemakers on social media outlets, I started seeing Downtown fare featured in Instagram feeds around 2009. The much-photographed queen bee, Bottega Louie, which offers Neapolitan-style pizzas and Parisian pastries, was one of the first to make a splash. Based on its success, others such as Alma, Baco Mercat, and Terroni followed suit. 

Because a girl can’t eat every hour of the day, my stomach and I sought solace back at The Ace’s rooftop pool. Here, I got another perspective of LA; this time looking out versus looking in. In that moment, I remembered my friend, an LA resident, telling me how much she’s dying to move to the “tall” part of town. I’m now convinced Downtown commands LA’s skyline and, after a few days, my waistline.

What are some of your favorite downtown districts and why?