There is nowhere in LA that feels quite like Downtown. When you find yourself in one of the dozen or so neighbourhoods that make up this city-within-a-city – the elegant Historic Core, the gritty Arts District, the bustling Fashion District, up-all-night Little Tokyo – the glamour of Beverly Hills and the salt-tinged vibe of Venice Beach seem a world away. With a thriving food and bar scene, grand bank buildings reinvented as retail outlets and art galleries, and some of LA's best museums, Downtown LA is a don't-miss destination. Here are some of our favourite ways to spend a day there.
CATCH SOME ART
Downtown boasts not one but two of the city's best museums. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) displays works by the likes of Rothko, Twombly and Giacometti, while the collection at the new Broad (pronounced Brode) Museum includes works by Basquiat and Koons, as well as Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room. Admission to The Brode is free, but tickets must be reserved in advance. 250 S Grand Ave, moca.org; 221 S Grand Avenue, thebroad.org
With a growing number of gallerists choosing to set up shop in and around the Historic Core, DTLA's monthly Art Walk (second Thursday evening of every month) is becoming ever more enticing. Not in town then? You can still visit some of the more interesting venues, including the Los Angeles Centre for Digital Art and the cutting-edge Think Tank Gallery. 104 E 4th Street, lacda.com; 939 Maple Avenue, thinktankgallery.org
Here's a surprising thing: Downtown's Arts District actually has little in the way of art galleries. What it does have, however, is a rich collection of murals. While some of the street art has been created by locals such as Christina Angelina, you will also find pieces by international names such as D*Face, known for his Liechtenstein-style murals. Take a tour with LA Art Tours (laarttours.com).
INDULGE IN SOME RETAIL THERAPY
The Last Bookstore is a bibliophile's delight. Spread across two floors in a majestic old bank building in the Historic Core, its collection of new and used books is simply astonishing. Keep an eye out for the quirky artworks made of books, including a tunnel you can walk through. Upstairs you will also find studio space for young artists. 453 S Spring Street, lastbookstorela.com
The small shop at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) is the place to pick up one-off pieces by recent graduates. Look for handcrafted jewellery by MWM Designs, scarves by Carmen Reginato and leather handbags by Antonia Maituni, as well as home accessories and other items. 919 S Grand Avenue, fidm.edu
One of the first labels to stake a space in the Historic Core was Beautiful Ful, a menswear label from local designer Alejandro Rodriguez. Rodriguez channels diverse influences – previous seasons have been inspired by vintage military motifs, Italian beach style and Latin American traditional clothing – to produce clothes that are as stylish are they are wearable. 107 W 5th Street, beautifulful.com
GRAB SOME LUNCH
Grand Central Market is more than just your average food hall: the influential magazine Bon Appetit controversially included this selection of casual outlets in its 2014 Best New Restaurants list. Two years on, the crowds are still flocking to Eggslut (for egg sandwiches), Sticky Rice (Thai food) and Belcampo Meat Co (roasts). 317 S Broadway, grandcentralmarket.com
Fancy a moveable feast? Six Taste Food Tours' Arts District food tour includes light bites at five different outlets, from a wine bar to vegetarian restaurant to an al fresco cafe set up on a curving lane that was once a railway track. sixtaste.com
Josef Centeno has a clutch of venues in Downtown LA, but Baco Mercat is the place to try his signature snack. The baco resembles a super-size taco filled with tasty fillings such as Catalan pepper-almond sauce with beef. The homemade soft drinks are also worth trying. 408 S Main Street, bacomercat.com
TAKE A BREAK
The Springs is the Arts District's own urban oasis, with a juice bar, a cafe, a yoga room, and a relaxed vibe that has local creatives using it as an informal meeting space. Pick up a green juice and sit down for a cool break. 608 Mateo Street, thespringsla.com
The pocket-sized James Irvine Japanese Garden, tucked in behind the Japanese Cultural Centre, is a little treasure, with its flowering plants and trees, a trickling stream, handcrafted cedar bridges and stone lanterns. 244 S San Pedro Street.
Rise above it all at Perch, the art deco rooftop bar that is the perfect place for a late afternoon breather. Order a glass of wine and perhaps a bowl of French onion soup and enjoy the views that stretch across Bunker Hill and Pershing Square. 448 S Hill Street, perchla.com
There are plenty of great Mexican diners in Los Angeles, but nowhere quite like Broken Spanish. Chef Ray Garcia mixes it up with light bites such as grilled shrimp with pineapple and oxtail quesadillas. For something heartier, try the whole red snapper served with green sauce, clams, avocado and leeks. 1050 S. Flower Street, brokenspanish.com
Vegetarians beware: at Bestia, one of LA's favourite Italian restaurants, it's pretty much all meat, all the time. Can't choose from the tempting menu? The veal tartare, the grilled lamb meatballs and the fusilli with beef ragout are all standouts. 2121 7th Place, bestiala.com
There is a definite upstairs, downstairs vibe at Miro, the latest addition to the DTLA dining scene. Start the evening upstairs with housemade charcuterie, fresh pasta and something from the impressive (organic) wine list, before moving downstairs to lounge on one of the leather Chesterfields and a nurse a fine whiskey. 888 Wilshire Boulevard, mirorestaurant.com
To get to Seven Grand, one of LA's best whisky bars, head to Mas Malo Mexican restaurant, and follow the tartan carpet head up the stairs on the right-hand side. As well as drops from as far afield as Japan and Tasmania, you will find an impressive selection of serious scotches: 40-year old Glenfiddich, anyone? Happy hour runs until 8pm. 515 W 7th Street, facebook.com/sevengrandla
The Varnish has cosy booths, mood lighting, a jazzy soundtrack and some of the best cocktails in town – and yes, it's another bar tucked inside a restaurant. This time, step inside Cole's, known for its French dip sandwich, and look for the unlabelled door right at the back. 118 E 6th Street, facebook.com/thevarnish
Pattern Bar, a stylish place with large windows, is in the fashion district, which explains the names on its cocktail list, borrowed from a who's who of style gurus. Try the McQueen, gin mixed with elderflower and passionfruit. 100 W 9th Street, patternbar.com
The Omni Los Angeles has a prime position overlooking Bunker Hill, as well as an outdoor, heated lap pool. Rates from $US269. 251 South Olive Street, omnihotels.com
Ute Junker travelled courtesy of LA Tourism.