1 - Union Station
For a City of Dreams, Los Angeles has had a lot of nightmares, most of them environmental.
Currently suffering a decade-long drought, floods and earthquakes have caused many problems during its relatively short history. This tour offers a whistle-stop guide to LA’s origins by the Los Angeles River in the late 18th century, through to the past decades’ rebuilding efforts.
Start at one of the last great railway stations built by the US government – LA Union. Opened in 1939 at 800 North Alameda Street, it is designed in the Mission and Dutch Revival style with arches, chandeliers and art deco touches.
Although it’s been on the National Register of Historic Places for more than 35 years, and has appeared in many TV series and films – including Blade Runner, The Dark Knight Rises and Pearl Harbour – it is still a working station, with more than 60,000 passengers a day.
Union Station, North Alameda St, Los Angeles
2 - Avila Adobe
Cross North Alameda Street to reach Los Angeles Plaza. The city’s centre for most of the 18th century, it later fell out of favour and was marked for demolition to make way for Union station.
In the event, the rail terminal was built across the road in the residential Chinatown area, while the Old Plaza, as it became known, became the centre of a heritage district (El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, to give its full name).
Chinatown was then moved to its present location northwest of the Plaza – old timers still think of it as New Chinatown as a result.
Just off the plaza, on Olvera Street – originally Wine Street, a clue to the former olive groves and wineries in the area, irrigated from the now cemented LA River – you’ll find plenty of shops to pick up souvenirs.
Also along this street is Avila Adobe. The oldest house in LA, it dates from 1818 and has been restored as an example of the Californian lifestyle of the 1840s.
Traditionally built from tar, wood and clay, the house is now open to visitors as a museum, with free entry and guided tours. elpueblo.lacity.org
3 - La Placita Church, 535 North Main Street, Los Angeles
On the plaza, at 535 North Main Street, is the pale yellow-and-red church of Our Lady Queen of Angels, more simply known as La Placita.
Older than Avila Adobe, it dates from 1781 – although was mostly rebuilt in 1861 – and was founded when the Los Angeles area was part of Mexico (under Spanish rule).
Today, it serves the local community with ceremonies in English and Spanish. The square features plaques and statues commemorating everyone from King Carlos III of Spain to Felipe de Neve, the Spanish governor of the Californias who laid out the town.
4 - Pico House
Just off the plaza, at 424 North Main Street, you’ll see an impressive Italianate building, the Pico House, which takes its name from Pío Pico, the last Mexican governor of Alta California, who wanted a luxury hotel for the developing city.
Designed by architect Ezra Kysor, the 80-room Courtyard (nothing to do with Courtyard by Marriott) operated from 1870 until the 1890s. After decades as a boarding house it was closed down, then, following flood damage, was bought by the city and turned into commercial space.
Continue along North Main Street and turn right on to West Temple Street and you’ll pass the 1925 Hall of Justice, where everyone from Bugsy Siegel to Charles Manson stood trial.
It was damaged in the 1994 earthquake and only reopened this year as offices for the district attorney and sheriff’s operations.
5 - Cathedral of our lady of the angels
The 1994 earthquake also damaged the city’s Catholic cathedral – St Vibiana’s, again designed by Kysor – to the point that it was condemned. Since it was too small for LA’s four million Catholics, and too expensive to repair, a land swap was organised.
he result was the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels at 555 West Temple Street, which opened in 2002, and features the old altar of St Vibiana’s and its stained-glass windows.
The 2.3-hectare site provides peace and calm, despite its location next to a freeway (which architect José Rafael Moneo viewed as the city’s “river of transportation”) in the middle of the downtown area.
Through striking bronze doors designed by Mexican-born Los Angeles sculptor Robert Graham, walk along to the end of the south ambulatory, where you’ll see a 17th-century, gilded, black walnut Spanish-Baroque retablo, purchased from Spain in the 1920s and installed in the cathedral with help from LA’s Getty Museum.
The cathedral is a wonderfully quiet, contemplative place to pause before exploring the rest of the rejuvenated downtown area. olacathedral.org