Visitors to Los Angeles often think of the city as a Johnny-come-lately, especially when compared to historic East Coast cities that date back to colonial days. They stay in sparkling new hotels, flock to the latest amusement park attractions, and seek out the au courant restaurants.
However, Los Angeles has a long history, as evidenced by its many well-preserved architectural landmarks, several of which are celebrating centennials and major events this year.
Built in 1901, Angels Flight—the shortest railway in the world—is once again carrying passengers up and down the steep slope between Bunker Hill and downtown. After a four-year closure and major repairs, the funicular re-opened on Thursday. Without the railway’s two orange railcars, named Olivet and Sinai, a 153-step walkway was the only direct connection between the top station at California Plaza and the lower station on Hill Street.
At the turn of the century, when Victorian mansions populated Bunker Hill, its well-heeled citizens needed a way to commute to downtown jobs and shopping, so Angels Flight, with its glossy wood paneled interior and seats, was built. High-rise apartments and office buildings replaced the mansions during the late 1960s, and the railway was idled during the period of development. Service ceased again after several accidents and the need for major upgrades.
Repairs now completed, the beloved funicular will operate daily from 6:45 a.m. until 10 p.m. for $1 a trip, 100 times its original penny fare.
Across Hill Street from the lower station, the Grand Central Market, a 30,000-square-foot food and retail emporium, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. In its early days, the market was the source of groceries for Bunker Hill’s residents, who rode Angels Flight to shop for vegetables, meats, fish, eggs, baked goods, and more in an open-air arcade.
Today, the market has evolved to offer prepared foods reflecting the many ethnic backgrounds of Angelenos, including Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Italian, Chinese, Salvadoran, and others. There's also baked goods, meats, fish, wines, and an oyster bar. It’s the place where locals and visitors head for their favorite foods among the constant bustle and chatter.
For a full day (or two) of exploring L.A.’s historic spots, start at Grand Central Market with an espresso or latte from G & B Coffee, where many locals begin their days—or at Valerie’s Confections for a freshly baked pastry to go with your coffee. If you’re really hungry, join the queue at Egg Slut and wait patiently for your bacon, egg, and cheese on warm brioche.
After you’re fortified and happy, browse through the market, and you’ll probably be tempted to start planning for lunch. Then, exit on the South Broadway side, and you’ll be steps from a downtown Los Angeles architectural masterpiece, the Bradbury Building.
A National Historic Landmark, the Bradbury Building is the oldest remaining commercial building in the city. It was built in 1893 by mining millionaire Lewis Bradbury, who envisioned a spectacular office building—and most certainly achieved that vision. The dramatic, light-filled central court rises nearly 50 feet, adorned by ornate iron railings, Belgian marble stairs, and open-cage elevators, and illuminated by a massive skylight. The unique building was restored in the early 1990s and is considered to be one of downtown L.A.’s greatest treasures.
From there, walk—yes, people do walk in Los Angeles!—back to Hill Street, and head towards Fifth Street and Grand Avenue to the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. This classic building opened in 1923, a magnificent example of Beaux Arts architecture. High tea is still served in the Rendezvous Court on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, a lovely event whether you participate or just climb the ornate Baroque stairway and gaze down at the fancied-up guests, delicate china service, and elegant pastries. The retro Gallery Bar and Cognac Room is the place for a classic cocktail in sumptuous surroundings.
Just across Grand Avenue, you’ll find the Los Angeles Public Library, a major architectural landmark as well as a leading research library. The original library, built in 1926, is an early example of Art Deco, with decorative sculpture, sphinxes, and a rooftop pyramid evidencing the era’s fascination with Ancient Egypt after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. The library is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument. Daily tours lasting about an hour are docent-led, and a self-guided tour is available as well.
On the other side of downtown is another must-see on your tour of historic Los Angeles: the City Hall building. Completed in 1928, the three-tiered building’s design was described as “Modern American” by one of its architects, incorporating Art Deco in its pyramid-topped tower, along with classic elements such as the arches, columns, and steps on the Spring Street entrance. A great reason to visit City Hall is the free observation tower, which affords a breathtaking 360-degree view of Los Angeles. Enter on Main Street and take the elevators during business hours on weekdays.
Union Station, completed in 1939, is another Los Angeles building on the National Register of Historic Places. The design blends Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival, and Art Deco, incorporating ornate chandeliers, inlaid marble floors, and hand-painted tiles. Free tours of its extensive artwork led by Metro Art docents include art, architecture, and access to spaces generally not open to the public.
Nearby Olvera Street, a block-long Mexican marketplace created in 1930, is a favorite with tourists and locals who enjoy the gift shops, cafes, street vendors, and strolling mariachis. Old Los Angeles is recreated in the tree-shaded market, a great place to buy handcrafted items such as pottery, leather, and Mexican folk art. No visit to Olvera Street is complete without taquitos and avocado sauce from Cielito Lindo, serving them since 1934.
Just a few blocks away is historic Los Angeles eatery Philippe the Original, established in 1908 by Philippe Mathieu, who inadvertently created the first French Dipped Sandwich. The story goes that he dropped the roll into a juice-filled roasting pan by mistake when he was making a beef sandwich. The result turned out to be so popular that it became the specialty of the house. Still serving the iconic sandwiches and lots more, Philippe’s is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
While we’re on the subject of food, Clifton’s Republic (formerly Clifton's Cafeteria), established in 1932 with its kitschy décor, was recently restored to its original glory. Calling itself a piece of “living history,” there’s a tiki bar, giant redwood tree among a forested eating area, an enormous meteorite, a moose head looking down at diners, rock gardens, a speedboat, and much more. It’s the last restaurant of its kind, the only one remaining from “the Golden Age of cafeteria dining.”
Continue your historic evening at The Edison, a cocktail lounge, nightclub, and restaurant dedicated to Old World style. Located in the 1910 Higgins Building, downtown L. A.’s first private power plant, The Edison hosts burlesque shows, aerial acts, and music. The building retains its original Art Nouveau and Industrial Gothic styles, along with architectural and mechanical artifacts. Themed cocktails like The Mistress and The Algonquin and menu items like Deviled Eggs and Monte Cristo sandwiches fit the retro vibe.
Another option is Exchange, housed in the 1931 Stock Exchange Building, a popular dance club. A Historic Cultural Landmark, the Moderne-style building opened its doors in the midst of the Great Depression. The original Near East and Native American design influences were preserved during its 2008 renovation into a nightclub.
If a relaxing cocktail in a cozy setting is more to your liking after a busy day of exploring Los Angeles history, you might enjoy Library Bar. Surrounded by eclectic books, you can order a Hemingway Daiquiri or a Tequila Mockingbird with some crostini or other light appetizers.
Before you leave downtown Los Angeles, remember to pay a visit to Olivet and Sinai to take the short, scenic trip on Angels Flight. From now on, no visit to Los Angeles will be complete without a ride in one of the brightly repainted orange railcars.
If You Go
Freehand Los Angeles
Millennium Biltmore Hotel
506 Grand Ave.; millenniumhotels.com.
Intercontinental Los Angeles Downtown
900 Wilshire Blvd.; dtla.intercontinental.com.
L. A. Conservancy Walking Tours Program
Regularly scheduled walking tours, led by skilled volunteer docents with a focus on the architecture of L.A.’s historic downtown. laconservancy.org
Los Angeles Central Library
Daily walk-in tours leave from the front of the Library Store in the main lobby. lapl.org
Los Angeles Times Building
Free public tours of the Times Building and printing facility are available. Call 213 237-5757 for information.
Metro Art Moves is a free series of regularly scheduled and special tours of artwork in the Metro Rail system, including Union Station. metro.net
Handlebar Bike Tours
The bike tour begins at the Grand Central Market and takes in all the highlights of downtown Los Angeles. handlebarbiketours.com