Los Angeles: Downtown | 1

Pershing Square, Los Angeles

Pershing Square and the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles

The casual visitor could be forgiven for assuming that Hollywood is the centre of LA. Downtown seems to be off the tourist trail, yet this is where the city began as a tiny settlement in 1781, as El Pueblo De Los Angeles, around what is now Olvera Street.

The colourful village area, just across Alameda Street from Union Station, consists of 27 historic buildings around a traditional Mexican style plaza (there are also free docent tours). Tacos, enchiladas and mole galore, of course, and – at weekends – bollero musicians, Mariachi bands and other outdoor entertainment. You can see the area in Lethal Weapon 3, as Riggs and Murtaugh (Mel Gibson and Danny Glover) are demoted to uniform patrol.

True, Downtown doesn’t carry the same brand recognition as Hollywood, and parking can be a bit of a nightmare (though there are now plenty of subway stops), but the area is extraordinarily film-friendly (as it would be), with countless notices warning that roads may be closed for filming. There’s hardly a street or building that hasn’t at some point been featured on screen.

The Downtown area itself is subdivided into distinct areas, including Chinatown, the Civic Centre, the Financial Centre and the old Entertainment district. To the south is Exposition Park with its museums, and the campus of the University of Southern California (USC).

Heart of the Civic Centre is LA City Hall, 200 North Spring Street, until 1964 the tallest building in what was then quite a low-rise city. Downtown boasts plenty of gleaming new highrises now, of course, but City Hall has a free observation deck on the 27th floor. The familiar pyramid-topped tower is featured on the LAPD badge and in the 50s was a regular feature of the TV series Dragnet, as well as standing in for the ‘Daily Planet’ building in the small-screen Adventures of Superman.

Los Angeles City Hall

The tower of Los Angeles City Hall

Back in 1945, Joan Crawford was hauled off to City Hall after the shooting in classic noir Mildred Pierce, and though seemingly destroyed by Martians in George Pal’s 1953 The War of the Worlds, it survived to appear in L.A. Confidential, Changeling, Liar, Liar, X-Men 2 and countless others.

But aliens are a notoriously fickle bunch, and easily impressed by size. When they came to attack the city in Roland Emmerich’s 1996 Independence Day, they chose the 75-storey First Interstate World Center, at Fifth Street and Grand Avenue, as the first LA structure to get zapped.

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Visit the locations

  • Los Angeles City Hall, 200 North Spring Street, CA 90012. The Observation Deck is on the 27th floor – the public entrance is at 201 Main Street. Admission is free, but you’ll need to get visitor ID from the Security Desk. Hours: 9.00am-5.00pm (Metro: Civic Center – Red Line)
  • El Pueblo De Los Angeles Historic Park (Olvera Street), 845 North Alameda Street, CA 90012 (Metro: Union Station – Red, Gold, Blue and Green Lines)