photo of South Broadway in the Theater District of Los Angeles.

A Tour Of Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA)

A Tour Of Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA)

A Tour Of Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA)

A Day-Trip Through L.A. Will Help You Find New Places To Explore

The City of Angels, Los Angeles, is the second largest urban center in the United States and there are layers and layers of history and nuance around every corner. First-time tourists focus on Grauman’s Chinese Theater and Disneyland, but that’s not my Los Angeles. Every street, every storefront has stories, multiple stories. This assignment to write a little tour guide of DTLA is daunting; I can only suggest some clues. L.A. is ever-changing and deserves decades of exploration.

The LACar Routes are day-trip excursions in the Greater Los Angeles Area. When you head out on one of these trips, remember to obey all traffic laws - and use common sense... Have a designated map/route-reader and a designated driver.

Also, make sure to check availability and opening hours of any places you intend to check out - for your convenience we've tried to include links to everything.

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Los Angeles Plaza

Of course, you should start at Los Angeles’ non-Indigenous beginning. This is where 44 pobladores walked from la misión San Gabriel Arcángel to found El Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1781. To the west of the Plaza is Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church and the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. Then there’s the Pico House, the Chinese American Museum, and the Fire House. To the east is Union Station and the Twin Towers jail. Olvera Street has IAMLA (Italian American Museum of Los Angeles). Olvera Street has Chiguacle for pre-Columbian food and a line at Cielito Lindo for taquitos. But we’ve done a blind taste test, and we know where else we’d go. Even the churros and the chocolate taste delicioso at Olvera. Beautiful colors, lots of music, and a dozen languages in the air… We could just stay here all day.

an image of an empty L.A. Plaza in Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles Plaza - where L.A. started as El Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1781.

Full disclosure: Parking at Olvera Street, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and much of DTLA is a challenge. You really need the decades of experience to navigate this.The Metro is a wonderful alternative. Riding the Metro also exposes you to the people of Los Angeles. But then you can’t do the rest of this “driving” tour.

Los Angeles Chinatown

North of Olvera Street and just south of Dodger Stadium is Chinatown. One of my favorite restaurants in Chinatown is Philippes, for “original” French Dipped Sandwich with pickled eggs and rich vanilla ice cream. For Chinese food, I have favorites in suburban San Gabriel Valley, but that's a different "Discover L.A. route"...

philippe sandwich restaurant in Los Angeles, California
Philippe - a must when cruising through L.A.
Front of very asian-looking buildings in Chinatown, Los Angeles
Chinatown - Los Angeles

Chinatown has a wonderful vibe with people looking for ginseng, live poultry, and/or bitter melons. There are people here to play basketball, and people here to find gold jewelry. There are people coming to church, to the bank, and/or to a red egg banquet.

L.A. City Hall & Government Boxes

skid row in Los Angeles, with L.A. city hall in the background.
A "government box" and then Los Angeles City Hall in the background.

Let’s drive back towards City Hall. An early city ordinance mandated that the neoclassical City Hall be the tallest building. By 1964, that rule could not be sustained. The City Hall Observation Deck is still an experience. Around City Hall are the LAPD headquarters, courts, federal buildings, jails, and a super concentration of suits and attorneys. This corner of DTLA has been in a multiplicity of TV shows and movies.

Little Tokyo

A nudge south is Little Tokyo with its ramen, manga, and cultural happenings anchored at JANM and JACCC – Japanese American National Museum and Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. We come down especially for the Nisei Week Parade or a funeral at one of the Buddhist temples. One of my favorite places was the Los Angeles Times headquarters – but alas, publisher Patrick Soon-Shiong moved for efficiency.

A street in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles
Little Tokyo.

Fisherman’s Outlet

Just a little south of Little Tokyo is Fisherman’s Outlet. You stand in line for the bestest fish with judges and criminals. You bump into Latinx who know their mariscos, African Americans with roots in the Gulf, and Southeast Asians who bring their own ginger and soy sauce.

Skid Row

Skid Row deserves a drive-through. Here you see all that Los Angeles cannot hide: racism, homelessness, mental health epidemic, undocumented, child abuse, food insecurity, etc. Skid Row is a whole city in itself. Its vastness and permanence are shocking – even to us Angelinos. LAPD is so efficient at keeping the unkempt to their corner of DTLA.

a street corner in "Skid Row" in Los Angeles.
Skid Row

Wholesale Districts

Toys, produce, flowers, party goods, fabric, clothing, jewelry. Downtown Los Angeles is a commercial hub - each niche has its own area, generally a couple of blocks in all directions from its epicenter.

I kid you not - the wholesale flower bartering begins at 2 am. The fabric district has a niche of Persian Jews who left their homeland with the Shah. Ethnic niches are aplenty in this city of immigrants. Immigrant entrepreneurs have an earned reputation of being hard workers who globalize L.A.

street in the garment district in Los Angeles
The Garment District
street in the garment district in Los Angeles
Also known as the Fashion District

L.A. Convention Center, Staples Center, & L.A. Live

Moving west, I don’t even know where to begin. On game night or concert night, tens of thousands congregate to these hallowed grounds for Lakers or Beyonce or K-Pop. L.A. Auto Show – which started in 1907 with 99 vehicles – also shares space here now. I still reminisce about that time in 1996, when the Smithsonian Museum came to the L.A. Convention Center with Lincoln’s top hat, the Hope Diamond, and even Judy Garland’s red slippers.

entrance to Staples Center in Los Angeles
The entrance to Staples Center is impressive, but pales when compared to some of the other architectural wonders of Los Angeles.

Broadway & Theater District

Let’s move north on Broadway. Above the shops for quincenera dresses and cheap iPhones, you can see the ghosts of the glamour of ol’ Broadway. Yes, this street was named after the one in New York City, and it was L.A.’s entertainment center before the post-War burbs. Here were twelve “movie palaces” in six blocks during the Roaring Twenties, and the finest of the fine department stores. There are many attempts to bring all that enchantment back as exclusive housing lofts and chichi rendezvous bars.

A street in the Theater District in Los Angeles
Broadway Theater District

The Post-Modernism Tip

Newer developments have come to Los Angeles, especially in the northern tip of DTLA where the 110 Freeway meets the 101 Freeway. I remember when the four glass columns of the Bonaventure Hotel were all the rage in the 1970s, but now it is dwarfed by its neighbors: Disney Concert Hall, LA Music Center, MOCA, and the Broad Museum. Since 2002, stands yet another post-modern architectural wonder: COLA (Cathedral of Los Angeles).

Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles
The entrace to Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles

But inbetween, there are the historic Angel’s Flight, Central Market, the Bradbury Building, The Last Bookstore, L.A.’s Main Public Library, and the Anthony Quinn Mural. I can’t not mention them… Such sparkles in a city of gems.

The next concentric circle outside DTLA includes East LA, USC/Museums, Watts Tower, Koreatown, Historic Filipinotown, Angelino Heights, Echo Park… But that’s another story upon story. Admittedly, this really isn’t a “driving tour.” It is an experience like no other. No wonder migrants and immigrants keep moving to Los Angeles to settle – just like the pobladores did in 1781.

For other fun things to do in the Greater Los Angeles Area - be sure to check out our other Discover L.A. Routes and our calendar of car events and shows.

About The Author

Susie Ling's profile picture

Susie Ling

Susie Ling is an Associate Professor in the Social Sciences Division of Pasadena City College, where she teaches history. In addition to amassing hundreds of oral histories in the Southern California region, she's been a long-time contributor to LACar - with articles spanning from vehicle reviews to historical insights about Los Angeles.