It’s raining, an oddity in Southern California – but so was the idea of spending a weekend in downtown Los Angeles, up until a few years ago. While I was growing up in the nearby San Fernando Valley, and even as a USC student four miles south of downtown, venturing there (except for the occasional taco run to Grand Central Market) was as rare as the water droplets bouncing off my umbrella. But time is a talented transformer: DTLA – the acronym is a sure sign of its it-ness and hashtagability – is now the city’s must-visit neighborhood, with new hotels, restaurants, bars, and arts venues, and more culture than is possible to absorb in one go.

LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes’ gift shop. (Natasha Lee)

Like the city that boomed around it, DTLA sprawls across one-way blocks and micro-hoods. I recall my obligatory elementary-school field trip to its Pueblo de Los Angeles, the city’s birthplace, settled in 1781. As an adult, I appreciate it as the cultural heart of L.A.’s Latinx community, with sites that include LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, an interactive museum of Mexican American history, and Olvera Street, an outdoor Mexican marketplace selling flower-painted acoustic guitars and leather huarache sandals.

The Manufactory food
Coffee and pastries at The Manufactory. (Natasha Lee)

Perhaps the most talked-about DTLA enclave, however, is the Arts District, about a mile south. An urban artists’ colony in the 1970s, the district’s creative ethos recently enticed Warner Brothers Music and Spotify to hang their shingles here, and some of the country’s best chefs are following suit, turning the area into a dining destination as hot as an L.A. August. Mei Lin, Top Chef’s season 12 winner, opened her first restaurant, Nightshade, last December, while James Beard Award-winning chefs Chad Robertson, Elisabeth Prueitt, and Chris Bianco brought The Manufactory, a 40,000-square-foot fantasyland for food and coffee lovers, to the fringes of the district in January.

Come fall, Mexico City chefs Enrique Olvera and Daniela Soto-Innes will open Damian, a Cal-Mex restaurant with a mezcal-focused bar, and Ditroit, a casual taqueria, both around the corner from the new Bon Temps brasserie, helmed by nationally renowned pastry chef Lincoln Carson. “There’s an industrial history to the neighborhood that has weight to it,” Carson says. “It’s a place that has substance and character” – which, let’s be honest, often feels missing in much of Greater L.A.

Giving Keys necklaces
Necklaces from The Giving Keys. (Natasha Lee)

The Arts District is an easy place to lollygag at galleries and sip suds at craft breweries rooted inside behemoth brick warehouses. Walls and sidewalks bear street artists’ colorful badges, and a sense of cooperative do-gooding thrives, especially at Art Share L.A., a live/work space for creatives, and in boutiques such as The Giving Keys, whose key jewelry helps combat homelessness around the city. “We wanted to be somewhere that had culture and community,” says Brit Gilmore, The Giving Keys president. “We’ve found that here.”

They’re all welcome additions, but you’d be remiss to skip Grand Central Market’s Tacos Tumbras a Tomas and queue for what many Angelenos claim is the city’s best carnitas. When I finally bite into the fatty, spiced pork, the familiar taste of home floods in. DTLA might have a flashy new face, but I’m heartened to find some things are exactly as I remember them.

Manuela’s garden
Manuela’s garden. (Natasha Lee)

Where to Eat and Drink in Downtown LA

  • Arts District Brewing Co.: Stop for a local brew, but also for darts and Skee-Ball (free on Mondays).
  • Bon Temps: The sleek and unfussy all-day brasserie has a raw bar, French market fare, and outdoor seating that dares you to linger.
  • The Edison: Industrial chic at its finest, this 1910 power plant turned atmospheric entertainment venue with lounges, live music, and game rooms is basically a theme park for grown-ups.
  • Grand Central Market: Come hungry to the market that’s been feeding Angelenos since 1917, and head straight to Tacos Tumbras a Tomas for the city’s best carnitas – at least according to those in its perpetual line.
  • Manuela: How cool is this spot serving brunch, lunch, and supper delights, such as chili-glazed soft-shell crab and wood-grilled sunchokes? So cool that the chickens in its backyard garden have their own Instagram account: @chicksofmanuela.
  • Nightshade: Make reservations for kusshi oysters with tiger’s milk and charred garlic oil, Sichuan hot quail with milk bread, and other unexpected Asian-Californian plates from chef Mei Lin, served down an Arts District alleyway.
Hauser & Wirth galler
Hauser & Wirth gallery. (Natasha Lee)

What to Visit and Where to Shop in Downtown LA:

  • Alchemy Works: When you don’t know exactly what you want, this half gallery and event space, half lifestyle boutique inspires with globally sourced apparel, gifts, and home decor.
  • The Giving Keys: Singer-songwriter and actress Caitlin Crosby founded her company, which sells inspirational key necklaces and other jewelry, to help combat homelessness.
  • Hauser & Wirth: Part of a global chain, this expansive gallery in a former flour mill displays international contemporary and modern art; stop by its shop for exclusive collections from L.A. artists and designers. 
  • House of Woo: Husband-and-wife team Mike Badt and Staci Woo design beachy, high-end, made-in-L.A. clothing for men, women, and children.
  • The Last Bookstore: Discover more than 250,000 new and used books, tens of thousands of records, and a rich calendar of literary events not far from Grand Central Market.

Where to Stay:

  • Inside the 1920s Bank of Italy building, the contemporary 241-room NoMad Los Angeles is perfectly positioned for exploring DTLA, with a rooftop pool and romantically lit lobby bar for soaking up the SoCal life. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 dining credit.

How to See Even More:

  • The Arts District is best explored on foot. Urban Adventures leads privately guided L.A. tours and can tailor tours of DTLA according to your interests – food and drink, museums and galleries, indie boutiques, culture, and more.

Top Photo: Dutcher Aerials/Getty Images

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