Hollywood. Beverly Hills. Santa Monica. This is the traveler’s trifecta of Los Angeles tourism. No one ever comes to L.A. to visit downtown, unless they’re in on business and get “stuck” there. Some L.A. visitors choose to stay in a downtown hotel, thinking it’s the place to be — as would be the case in many great cities of the world. But they often go away disappointed, mistakenly sensing that they’ve missed something by not staying in one of the “hipper” sections. However, downtown L.A. actually has a lot to offer — you just need to know where to look. Here are eight fun and free (or nearly free) things to do.
1) The Los Angeles Flower Market
Start your day off early at the largest flower district in the United States. Open at the crack of dawn, the market sells pretty much every type of flower known to man, importing them from all over the world. Feast your eyes on blossoms of every color of the rainbow—from amaryllis to zinnia. And yes, stop and smell the roses. Open to the public 8 a.m.-noon Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 6 a.m.-noon Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Admission is only $2 ($1 on Saturday). 754 Wall St., between 7th and 8th streets, 213-622-1966, laflowerexchange.com/
2) The Walt Disney Concert Hall
Don’t have the resources to visit the graceful, curvy, metal-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain? Well then, check out the similarly constructed Walt Disney Concert Hall, also designed by world-class architect Frank Gehry. You don’t even need to hear the symphony to enjoy the building. They offer free docent-led tours or you can follow a self-guided audio tour in exchange for your ID. Don’t miss the garden out back for its stunning, rose-shaped fountain made of shattered Delftware. Free to the public. Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 135 N. Grand Ave., 213-972-4399, laphil.com
3) The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
We all visit the great cathedrals when traipsing around Europe, so why not check out LA’s version? Just up the street from the Disney Concert Hall is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, designed by renowned Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo. Completed in 2002, the exterior of this contemporary church is said to be reminiscent of sun-baked adobe. According to Moneo, as the cathedrals of Europe are built along rivers, his church would be built along the “river of transportation,” also known as the Hollywood Freeway. Free to the public. 555 W. Temple St. 213-680-5200, olacathedral.org
4) Angel’s Flight
The “world’s shortest railway” (technically a funicular) offers phenomenal views of downtown Los Angeles. Dating back to 1901, it recently reopened after being closed for nearly a decade. For a real sense of nostalgia, you can ride in the original restored cars up the 298-foot-long track to Bunker Hill for only a quarter. Open 6:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Connects 351 S. Hill St. with 350 S. Grand Ave.; board at either location. angelsflight.com/ * Angels Flight is closed for the month of July, 2011 for maintenance.
5) Olvera Street
Only a block away from LA’s iconic railway hub, Union Station, Olvera Street is the oldest part of Los Angeles. Immerse yourself in authentic Mexican culture by strolling down the two narrow blocks, shaded by trees and red tile roofs. The scent of freshly made tortillas and churros is hard to resist, and you can shop for traditional handicrafts, and enjoy the sounds of mariachi music and performances of folkloric dancing too. Top times to visit: Cinco de Mayo (May 5) and Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos (Nov. 2), where people honor the dead with colorful skeleton masks and shrines to their ancestors. Free. Located within El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Park, 845 N. Alameda St.
Only a two-block walk from Olvera Street (or easily reached by taking the Gold Line Metro one stop north of Union Station), L.A.’s Chinatown is a whole different world, evoking the exotic sights and smells of the Orient. Wander beneath red paper lanterns strung across narrow alleyways and admire a neighborhood steeped in culture and history. You can visit art galleries, pharmacies selling herbs and Eastern medicine, and authentic dim-sum restaurants amid pagodas and koi ponds. Free. The East Gate to Old Chinatown Plaza is at 945 N. Broadway.
7) The Bradbury Building
Located in the historic Theater District on Broadway and showcased in many movies (including Blade Runner), the Bradbury building is a Victorian architectural marvel. You might miss it from the outside, as the building is fairly nondescript. Inside, however, is a different story altogether—rich, golden wood, ornate black-iron railings and open-cage elevators surround a brightly lit, 50-foot-tall, glass-roofed atrium. You can go up as far as the mezzanine level (past that, you’d disturb the tenants.) Free. 305 S. Broadway.
In South Park, just below true downtown, L.A. Live is the newest attraction on this list. Home to the Nokia Theater, where A-list concerts, as well as the Emmy and Grammy Award ceremonies are held, the complex is chock-full of restaurants, nightclubs, bowling alleys, and movie theaters. It’s also a great place to just walk around and people-watch, especially at night. During the holiday season, they offer ice-skating in the central plaza. (Insider tip: For the most amazingly authentic espresso, check out Illy Espressamente in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Hotel–you’ll swear you’re in Italy!) Free. 800 W. Olympic Blvd. at Figueroa Street (take the Red Line south to Seventh Street/Metro Center and hop on the Blue Line for one stop. Exit at Pico and walk a block north.
* I originally wrote this article for The Denver Post, where it was published in April, 2011.