The Guardian, February 20, 2013
Even though this was where Spanish pobladores founded the city, Angelenos used to avoid downtown; to many it meant the grind of jury duty, going to court for speeding tickets or avoiding the homeless people in and around Skid Row. But over the past decade, large-scale renovation has transformed many of the beautiful old banks and hotels into apartments, the enormous $2.5bn LA Live complex has drawn huge crowds, and with an American football stadium due to open in late 2016 (team to be announced), the area has firmly established itself with a buzzing hive of galleries, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Today, the area confidently flaunts its own acronym: DTLA.
Walt Disney Concert Hall Community Park
Since Frank Geary's creation was revealed to the world in 2003, the wavy, dazzling stainless steel silver Disney Hall has become a landmark – and has appeared in plenty of television ads and films, including Iron Man. But if you go round the back and look about 30ft up, you'll see the trees of the Walt Disney Concert Hall Community Park. A tiny elevated public park, it has a performance amphitheatre and the Blue Ribbon Garden, home of the blue lotus flower fountain, another Geary creation made from hundreds of smashed porcelain vases and tiles. Barely publicised, this park offers great views across downtown and is a peaceful place to escape from the skyscrapers.
• 111 S Grand Ave, +1 323 850 2000, laphil.com, open 8am-11pm (unless there's a concert), free tours available
Just a few blocks away is the 12-acre Grand Park, another state-run public space that stretches four blocks and opened late last year. Carved out of the bureaucratic skyline, the park faces City Hall and is surrounded by the imposing County Courthouse and Hall of Administration, but it's cheering to see that the benches and seats are a gaudy pink and that there's a huge fountain and water spouts for kids (of all ages) to play in. Plants from all continents break up the concrete paths, and of course there are plenty of palm trees, a coffee shop, artworks, memorials and statues. You can take a free yoga class, and future plans include outdoor film screenings, concerts and a farmers' market.
• Grand Avenue to Hill Street and surrounds, +1 213 972 8080, grandpark.lacounty.gov
Electric Dusk Drive-In
Come downtown on a Sunday and you'll probably see a film crew on location. Nearly every US car advert is shot here, with the 2nd Street Tunnel a particular favourite (it featured in Blade Runner). You can also experience that most American of automobile delights: a drive-in movie. The Electric Dusk Drive-In runs twice a month, and is a "rooftop experience." You drive up to the first floor of the building, park at the back and turn on the radio to hear the soundtrack. Or, to enjoy the city lights, relax on the Astroturf mats at the front and watch the classic or cult film that's projected big and tall on the side of the building.
• 240 W. 4th Street, electricduskdrivein.com, times vary
Philippe The Original
Located near Union Station, Philippe The Original is one of the most famous restaurants in LA. Originally established more than 100 years ago, Philippe's claims to be the inventor of the French dipped sandwich – a split beef-filled French loaf dipped in roasting pan juices – and is an old-fashioned, sawdust-on-the-floor, jar-of-boiled-eggs-in-beet-juice kind of place. You're just as likely to end up next to a lawyer, construction worker, cop or Dodgers fan at the communal tables, and the friendly counter ladies in their 1950s uniforms and paper hats use plastic trays: it's cash only here, and lunch is the busiest time.
• 1001 N Alameda Street, +1 213 628 3781, philippes.com, open daily 6am-10pm
As other independent and secondhand bookshops bit the dust, the Last Bookstore moved into bigger premises (a former bank) and then decided to buy up the entire second floor to showcase their thousands of books – all of them costing just $1 each. Downstairs, there's a more organised and pricier selection plus a vinyl record store, a coffee bar, event space and puffy sofas to sit on, but upstairs is also home to a crochet store, art installations and endless winding corridors and corners that are filled with ceiling-high shelves of books. It's a no-lose pick 'n' mix, so go exploring and "fill a box".
• 453 S Spring Street, +1 213 488 0599, lastbookstorela.com, open Mon-Thu 10am-10pm, Fri-Sat to 11pm, Sun to 6pm
Carry your haul to one of the newest restaurants, Mo-Chica, a cantina that specialises in traditional Peruvian comfort food and may be the only place in LA to serve paiche, a huge freshwater fish found almost exclusively in the Amazon. Chef Ricardo Zarate spent 12 years working in London before he came to LA, and his lomo saltado (sautéed beef fillet with Roma tomatoes, red onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, Banyuls vinegar and chunky Kennebec fries) is recommended, while the cocktails – plenty of pisco and rum – are lip-smackingly fresh (try Tha Doggfather, which is pisco, egg white, fresh lime juice, fresh lemon juice, cane syrup, angostura bitter and cinnamon tincture). The lunch specials are great too, and come with two sides, rice and a dessert.
• 514 W 7th Street, +1 213 622 3744, mo-chica.com, open Mon-Sat 11.30am-3pm and 5pm-midnight, lunch specials $15, cocktails $11-12
St Vincent Court
A journey can also be taken in St Vincent Court, an unassuming alleyway off 7th Street in the Jewelry District. The Court is the entrance to the former St Vincent College for boys – it was later a department store and then today's jewellery centre. Seconds after entering past the mini Statue of Liberty, you seem to be transported to a European cul-de-sac; it's crowded with cafes and groups of men smoking outside (since 2011, you have to be 10ft from dining areas to light up), while above you are balconies with flower pots. Then there's some Roman gladiator décor, statues of fishes, bakers, knights and drummers, and a French tricolor, huge coffee cup and 1960s American fin car – with Marilyn Monroe driving – above a cafe. Looking closer, you find that this is in fact a Greek/Mediterranean oasis where delis and restaurants like the Sevan Garden offer you coffee, pastries, gyros and kebabs – and there's even somewhere you can have a haircut or get your shoes shined.
• Sevan Garden, 621 St's Vincent Court, +1 213 489 5626, open Mon-Sat 10am-4.30pm, kebabs $10.49-$12.49
Million Dollar Farmacia
More exotic still is the Million Dollar Farmacia. Named for the historic theatre next door, this pharmacy will sell you the basics, but its main trade is candles, potions, powders and trinkets – the traditional Mexican business of sex, luck and curses. Electric blue shampoo, aquas espirituales (holy waters), oils, herbs, soaps, unidentifiable goo and even bats' hearts, swallows' eyes and mini red or black voodoo dolls are here too. There are also some phallic candles, and all are decorated with retro/porn-chic drawings so you know what hex you're browsing for. The best thing is the beautiful – and slightly scary – altar dedicated to Holy Death (La Santisima Muerte), to which you can pay homage behind the curtain.
• 301 S Broadway, +1 213 687 3688, open daily 9am-6pm
To keep that Mexican vibe – and snag some great snacks and sweets – head for the Piñata District. It may seem like a drab street of warehouses, yet all of them have colourful delights inside, including endless styles of piñatas – everything from beer bottles and tractors to dragons and superheroes. There are also boxes of spicy Mexican candies, fragrant dried chillies and spices in big glass jars, nuts, fruit and, at the weekends, vendors selling pupusas (stuffed tortillas from El Salvador) plantains, coconut milk, churros and crackly pork rind (dipped in oil as you wait). Music blasts everywhere and, for an unsung part of LA, it's really party central.
• Area around Olympic/Central, hours vary
Where to stay: Bonaventure Hotel
With its five circular glass towers, the Bonaventure Hotel looks like a spaceship, and its external elevators inspired the futuristic look of Blade Runner. The TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was also filmed here, as was In the Line of Fire, True Lies and Strange Days – look for the plaques. Inside, the upscale decor is centred round a six-storey atrium that's also home to "pod" booths and a running track that's very 2001, while all the rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows offering amazing views of the city. Guest or not, at dusk take the red tower elevator up to the Bona Vista Lounge revolving restaurant. A revolution takes about 80 minutes, and in that time the setting sun will make way for streetlights and stars – and maybe even the odd helicopter, blimp or studio searchlight.
• 404 South Figueroa Street, +1 213 624 1000, thebonaventure.com, rates from $199
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk