If you only have one day in downtown Los Angeles and want to take a walking tour of DTLA’s best things to do, this is the step-by-step touring plan for you. This is full-day Los Angeles itinerary covers the city’s relatively compact downtown area, and does not require the use of a car or public transportation to accomplish.
Unlike our 1-Day Los Angeles Highlights Itinerary, which covered a ton of ground and required a good amount of driving, this itinerary focuses on a much smaller area and requires zero car use. That makes this the first in our series of more geographically-focused itineraries for Los Angeles in order to minimize (or in this case, eliminate) dealing with L.A. traffic. This downtown Los Angeles itinerary also includes multiple points of interest in Los Angeles that are free of charge, which is always a plus. Even though this Los Angeles itinerary does not require driving or public transit use, there is a lot of walking involved, but we’ve optimized the itinerary to avoid/minimize backtracking.
As compared to our “Highlights” itinerary, this one is fairly relaxed. It does not require getting up at the crack of dawn for sunrise nor does it include breakfast (although I’ll make recommendations in the comments if anyone is interested). Oddly enough, DTLA is often overlooked by visitors, likely the result of the continued perpetuation of now-inaccurate advice that there’s not much to do there.
In 2017 Los Angeles, downtown is thriving, with plenty to do, see, and eat. Hopefully with this itinerary, we can help bust that myth about DTLA. Let’s get started…
While we mentioned parking above, a great alternative to that is eliminating a car entirely if you take public transit from wherever you’re staying to Union Station. Contrary to (rightful) claims that Los Angeles public transit is lacking, it actually is usable for this itinerary because even with the fragmented mass transit in Southern California, it’s sort of an “all roads lead to Rome” scenario with Union Station.
Plus, if you’re going on a weekend, Metrolink offers a $10 Weekend Day Pass for unlimited use of the lines. While you only need to use the Metro to arrive and depart for this itinerary, it’s still a pretty big savings depending on your point of origin. (From Orange County, it’s less than half the cost of a normal roundtrip fare.)
Regardless of how you’re arriving, we’re starting the itinerary at Union Station. It’s a convenient location, and the combination of Spanish Colonial Revival and Art Deco architecture, plus use of indoor and outdoor spaces makes it distinctly Californian. SoCal’s public transit might be lacking, but Union Station is one of the greatest train stations in the world.
El Pueblo de Los Ángeles
Right across the street from Union Station is El Pueblo de Los Ángeles State Historic Park, or Los Angeles Historic District, or…it goes by many names. You’ll know it when you see it. The City of Los Angeles describes it as “a living museum that continues to fulfill its unique role as the historic and symbolic heart of the city, reflecting the Native American, African American, Spanish, Anglo, Mexican, Chinese, Italian and French cultures that contributed to its early history.”
El Pueblo is a basically a large plaza devoted to the city’s culture, past and present. While a number of cultures are listed as having influenced the area, the largest influence is unquestionably Spanish. There are exhibits, monuments, and small galleries (some of which have rotating exhibits and are not always open) here. It’s a great place to wander, and if you’re already hungry, grab a bit to eat.
Make sure to stroll the famous Olvera Street; morning is the perfect time to do this, before the crowds arrive and it becomes a challenge to navigate. If you’re hungry, we recommend the taquitos drenched in avocado sauce at Cielito Lindo, which is located on the far end of Olvera Street. Cielito Lindo’s taquitos were named one of the most iconic dishes in Los Angeles by EaterLA. If that isn’t enough to sell you, Anthony Bourdain is also a fan.
Angelenic Architecture: Part 1
From here, head back towards Los Angeles City Hall, unquestionably the most iconic building in downtown Los Angeles. It has been featured in an innumerable number of movies, probably most famously in Chinatown. This Art Deco tower is beautiful inside and out, and offers a public observation platform during business hours on weekdays. (Skip this if you’re going to do the Walt Disney Concert Hall Tour.)
After perusing City Hall, head down a block and enter the Globe Lobby of the Los Angeles Times. We covered this in our Touring the Los Angeles Times Building post, so we won’t rehash it here, but there is a guided tour you can do of the Editorial Department (reservations required). We’d recommend choosing either that or the Walt Disney Concert Hall self-guided tour (below).
After you’re done at the L.A. Times, head through Grand Park and north towards Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels. The angular, postmodern style of this might catch you off-guard, but it’s a pretty and interesting look at the best that megachurch money can buy.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
This gift to Los Angeles was made by Lillian Disney (and following her passing, Diane Disney Miller) in honor of Walt Disney. Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, Walt Disney Concert Hall is an iconic architectural landmark that arguably is what sparked the artistic revitalization of downtown Los Angeles and started the current construction boom. It’s also one of the city’s greatest gems.
Walt Disney Concert Hall offers free hour-long tours: guided tours on weekdays, and free self-guided audio tours anytime. The self-guided tour is narrated by John Lithgow, and is highly recommended. It covers a wealth of topics, from Lillian Disney’s interactions with Frank Gehry to the materials used in the construction, and much more. This tour ends at Walt Disney Concert Hall’s observation deck, which (in our opinion) is “good enough” as far as DTLA observation platforms go.
Honestly, I have a hard time in choosing between the WDCH tour and the L.A. Times tour. Both are exceptional. You might consider skipping one of the modern art museums below and doing both of these tours.
If you can somehow find the time and don’t mind walking, I’d highly recommend returning to see the Walt Disney Concert Hall lit up at night. The building is stunning when lit by the sun, and likewise beautiful under the glow of artificial lights.
While the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) houses the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in Los Angeles, we think the Broad and Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) museums feature better exhibitions of these types of art. Total value judgment and personal preference, but we prefer them–and also find both museums more approachable and better-presented.
The Broad is the newest addition to the art scene in Los Angeles, and it benefits from this fact…but more from the fact that it’s totally free. For anyone who is unfamiliar with modern art and might question whether it’s “for them,” this is a no-risk way to find out. If you don’t enjoy it, definitely skip the MOCA.
If you enjoy the Broad, continue on to the MOCA, which is a block down the street. MOCA’s admission fee is a bit hefty at $15 per adult, but think of it as $7.50 for each of these museums (they are essentially sister museums in terms of their benefactors, so this is a fair way to look at it).
Expect to spend a combined ~3 hours between these two museums. If you spend any less time at them than that, you might be arriving at our next destination a bit too early, so add something to this itinerary on the fly.
From here, walk down the Flight of Angels and you’ll stumble right upon one of Los Angeles’ foodie meccas…
Breakfast for Linner at Grand Central Market
If you’ve timed things correctly, you should be arriving at Grand Central Market sometime around 3 or 4 p.m. for a late lunch. If you’re visiting on a weekday, this timing is critical, as Grand Central is crowded for lunch. The restaurant we’re going to recommend in particular can have 45-minute lines (we know–we’ve waited that long!) at noon, but absolutely no wait the same day a few hours later.
While you really can’t go wrong with any of the eateries in Grand Central Market, the most iconic and popular is Eggslut. Although the restaurant might have a pearl-clutching name, it also has the most delicious breakfast sandwiches I’ve ever encountered. Actually, it’s more like a “burgfast” (if “linner” is a word, why not burgfast?) sandwich. Calling them breakfast sandwiches undersells the menu, which consists of familiar but inventive burger-like sandwiches that are so insanely good that they actually live up to the hype. Eggslut now has locations in Las Vegas, Venice Beach, and Glendale, but the DTLA location is the original and, I guess, most notorious.
After your breakfast sandwich for linner, consider grabbing a dessert at another Grand Central Market location. Some of our favorite ice cream in the world is at the nearby McConnell’s, which offers inventive ice cream flavors. Our favorite (without question) is their Banana & Salted Caramel, which might just be my favorite flavor of ice cream all-time. Be warned: as far as ‘fast food’ goes, most locations in Grand Central Market are on the pricey side. This is par for the course with the Los Angeles foodie scene, though.
Angelenic Architecture: Part 2
After linner (such a stupid word), head across the street to the Bradbury building. It’s fairly nondescript on the outside, but the inside is straight out of Bladerunner. Literally. Across the street from it is the Million Dollar Theater. From there, walk over to Perishing Square, for a nice park and more Art Deco beauty.
At this point, you need to determine whether you’re willing to backtrack a bit. Given that the burgfast sandwich was probably like 8,283 calories, we’d recommend it. If so, you’ll be rewarded when you visit the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, which is straight out of the Twilight Zone (Tower of Terror).
Then, head to the Art Deco Central Library. Be sure to check out the beautiful rotunda while there. After that, make the grueling hike up the Bunker Hill steps, passing by the Cal Edison Building as you do.
This is also where you’ll find the popular OUE Skyspace Los Angeles, and its 45-foot skyslide. The newly-completed Wilshire Grand is another option for an observation platform. Both are too pricey for us (and in any case, neither top the view from Griffith Observatory), but if you like flashy buildings and “cool” Instagram photo ops, have at it…
Speaking of cool Instagram photos, from here, head back south to the Last Bookstore. Even though this has become a huge tourist draw thanks to its slew of photo ops for Millennials to show their faux-contemplative side, it’s also a unique and quirky spot. Also, those photo ops are admittedly very cool.
No trip to downtown Los Angeles is complete for us without a visit to Little Tokyo. It’s fun to wander around, and there’s some interesting shopping. Where else can you blow your savings on a life-size Totoro plush?! (Blow is a harsh word–I prefer to think of it as an investment.)
In addition to shopping and dining, you’ll find the exceptional Japanese American National Museum, which contains a sobering exhibit about the forced removal and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. This exhibit has a depressing amount of relevance even today.
Also, there’s some great food. Since we already recommended Daikokuya in another itinerary (and because the lines at this location are asinine), we’re going to go a different direction here: Kula Revolving Sushi Bar. This is a great option because, well…because it’s great, but also in case you gorged yourself at Grand Central Market.
Here, you can have a smaller meal by only selecting a few items from the conveyor belt. If you’re not a sushi fan, other made-to-order menu items are available, also delivered via conveyor belt. (Pro tip: defeat two monsters by ‘throwing’ 15 sushi plates at them and win a prize!)
We are totally out of our element here, so if some Angelenos want to jump in with tips, that’d be helpful. There are a couple of spots that look cool and appealing to us, but the problem is that we are not cool. In particular, the Edison jumps out. This is a place that’s been on our radar for a while because a second location is coming to Walt Disney World (of all places), and we’ve pondered the idea of visiting the Los Angeles iteration to get a “scoop” on it.
Unfortunately, every time we’ve walked past the building (which is regularly, since it’s right by our “favorite” parking garage), we’ve chickened out. It looks too hip and chic, and those are terms that no one ever has used to describe us. If you’re into this sort of thing, the Edison is perfect for you.
Other popular nightlife in downtown Los Angeles includes Birds & Bees, Seven Grand, and the Varnish. We’ve never been to any of these spots, so YMMV. Here’s someone else’s recommendations for DTLA nightlife.
That’s it for your day in downtown LA! Above is a map showing the general path you’re taking (albeit with several locations omitted, as Google Maps caps me at 10 stops). Even though it was “relaxed” day (okay, not really), this itinerary amounted to over 4 miles, probably more like 5 once you factor in every stop.
However, exactly zero of those miles spent getting stressed out in traffic, so we’d consider that a win. Considering how many things you’ll see during this itinerary, I’d say that’s not too bad.
Be aware that this itinerary skips a lot. Chinatown didn’t make the cut, nor did L.A. Live (both of which are on the outskirts of DTLA and will be featured in a future itinerary). We also skipped a number of museums, theaters, and more. Heck, you didn’t even have time to go to Meatzilla to try the glorious pizza burger, which is basically a national treasure!
The point of all of this is that Los Angeles does have a “real” downtown, and it is very much worth visiting. There’s easily another full day of worthwhile things to do in DTLA, and you could even stretch this itinerary to multiple days to spend more time in each area, rather than glossing over them.
In any case, I hope this 1-day Downtown Los Angeles Itinerary convinces you to visit DTLA, and assists you in having an enjoyable day in the process. We’ll have plenty more itineraries for Los Angeles in the near future, so if you’re taking a Southern California vacation, stay tuned!
If you’re planning a California vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to do. For Los Angeles-centric trips, we’ve found the most useful guidebook to be The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas, which is written by locals (and we use it even as locals!). If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
What are your favorite things to do in downtown Los Angeles? If you’re an Angeleno, do you have any insights into hidden gems, nightlife, or spots you think we missed? Anything you think should not be on this list? Other suggestions for DTLA? Hearing from readers is both helpful and interesting, so if you have perspective from your own experiences, or questions, please share in the comments below!