1. Where to Stay
Check into the downtown boutique O Hotel (from $139; Metro: 7th Street/Metro Center), with 67 stylish rooms that pair dark leather furnishings with cherry-red walls. Cozy up to the bar for a Restoration Road (tequila blanco with lime juice and raspberries; $10), crafted by New York’s Death & Co., which took over the food and beverage programs here in November 2010.
Sleep on top at the Los Angeles Athletic Club (from $159; Metro: 7th Street/Metro Center), where the hotel rooms occupy the three highest floors. Opened in 1880 as the city’s first private club, its 72 spacious rooms underwent a handsome $2 million renovation in late 2009, but the real draw is free access to the club’s athletic facilities, as well as daily Pilates and “Dance Blast From the Past” classes.
Practice your breaststroke over the David Hockney pool mural and sip a Negroni ($15) under a palm tree at the historic Hollywood Roosevelt (from $189; Metro: Hollywood/Highland), which hosted the first Academy Awards in 1929. Part of the Thompson Hotels chain, the rooms are trendy, if a bit small, but it’s hard to beat the central location on the Walk of Fame.
2. Where to Eat
Wrap a juicy chunk of meat in a warm tortilla and dunk it into a lip-tingling, garlic-and-chile broth at Birrieria Jalisco (Metro: Mariachi Plaza), which serves a simple menu of five goat dishes. Choose a half ($8.25) or full order ($9.75) of birria de chivo, a stew from the central Mexican state of Jalisco, and don’t bother asking for rice and beans.
Stand in line with cops and City Hall lawyers outside of Al & Bea’s (2025 E. 1st St., 323-267-8810; Metro: Soto), which opened in 1966 and is famous for its classic burritos. Keep it simple with a bean-and-cheese burrito ($2.50), and bite into it at one of the sun-faded outdoor tables.
Sample authentic Mexico City street food at La Placita del DF (1859 East 1st St, 323-780-8232; Metro: Mariachi Plaza), where you can eat a cemita ($5), a deliciously sloppy sandwich of breaded steak on a sesame-sprinkled egg roll, or a huarache ($4.50), an oblong maize tortilla topped with peppery beef. Be sure to try the earthy-tasting delicacy huitlacoche (corn fungus), usually served from a can north of the border, but made fresh here and stuffed inside a quesadilla ($4.50).
3. What to Do
Skip touristy Olvera Street and soak up Mexican culture in Boyle Heights, with its smoky taquerias and street murals depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe and Aztec history. Ask for tortillas hecho de mano at one of the family-owned mercados, like the utilitarian Los Cinco Puntos (3300 E. César E. Chávez Ave.; 323-261-4084; Metro: Indiana), where a trio of elderly women hand-roll thick corn tortillas (twelve for $2.79) and serve up tender pork carnitas (7.99/lb) and thick guacamole ($3).
Visit a remnant of the area’s Jewish past and pay your respects to the Three Stooges at the Home of Peace Memorial Park (Metro: Maravilla), the oldest Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles. Curly and Shemp are both buried here, as are Louis B. Mayer of MGM and three of the Warner brothers. Though the cemetery doesn’t have a map of the graves, the front office will helpfully give you directions.
Squeeze into one of the last Japanese vestiges in the neighborhood at Otomisan (2506 E 1st St., 323-526-1150; Metro: Soto), a tiny restaurant opened in 1956 in what was once an ice cream parlor. Sit in one of the three booths, order a spicy tuna bowl ($8.45), and take in the mishmash décor of linoleum, pleather, and Kabuki masks.
4. Insider’s Tip
Mariachi Plaza looks forlorn and empty most days of the week, but pay a visit on early Saturday afternoons to see musicians, some decked out in snazzy, silver-studded charro suits, congregating here to find work. The plaza takes on a festive air as it fills up. You can hire mariachis for a special event (a fee of $45–$65 per hour, per musician is standard), or just watch them in action at La Perla Mariachi Restaurant, on the third floor of El Mercadito (Metro: Indiana), where Saturday and Sunday performances start at noon.
5. Oddball Day
Devote a day to exploring the arts scene along the Metro Gold Line, starting in the Arts District and Gallery Row, near the Little Tokyo/Arts District Metro station. Enjoy the Hello Kitty foam art topping your organic Spanish latte ($4) at the ecofriendly Urth Caffé, and fill up on breakfast bread pudding with caramelized bananas ($7.50). Then stroll through the neighborhood, which is filled with graffiti art and progressive galleries, making sure to stop into Hive Gallery to check out the selection of “neo-pop” art. From Gallery Row, walk 25 minutes northeast to the Geffen Contemporary, a branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Formerly a hardware store and police-car garage, the Frank Gehry–designed space features soaring wire-glass ceilings and large-scale artwork. Show your Metro ticket for that day and you’ll get a two-for-one discount at the museum. Ease into the afternoon over tea at the nearby Chado Tea Room in the Japanese American Museum’s Zen-like Terasaki Garden. Choose from over 335 varieties, including bourbon vanilla ($2.75), and nibble on a Punjab sandwich ($7.95), made with eggs marinated in lapsang souchong smoked tea. Top off the day by heading to Union Station, the nexus of the Metro system and a sight unto itself. The 1939 Spanish Colonial Revival structure houses inlaid marble floors and grand Art Deco chandeliers. Though the station has the requisite grime of an urban crossroads, it still manages to be charming. Relax in one of the thronelike chairs in the waiting room, which is dim and hushed, like an old California Mission, and then hop on the Metro back to your hotel.
The sleek, informative Downtown L.A. features detailed maps, dining, an events calendar, parking-lot locations, and the all-important Downtown Happy Hour Finder.
Dip into L.A. Weekly for excellent arts and music coverage, which is particularly helpful in navigating downtown’s after-dark scene.
L.A. Metro has train maps and timetables, planners that detail the most effective routes for your trip, special discounts at museums and restaurants, and a superb online guide to the art and architecture of each station.