Downtown Days

L.A.’s city center finally comes of age

By: Steven Rosen

LOS ANGELES It’s official. The list of key Los Angeles-area tourist attractions Disneyland, the beaches, Hollywood has expanded to include long-overlooked downtown L.A. itself. Even more surprising, in a region known for its dependency on automobiles, downtown tourism is being driven by increasingly popular walking tours of new landmarks like the Walt Disney Concert Hall and old buildings like the preserved movie palaces of Broadway.

“What’s gaining momentum is cultural tourism in Los Angeles,” said Tony Hoover, owner of Red Line Tours, a commercial walking-tour operator. “Before, people came here to go to the theme parks.”

Red Line has been having success with its two daily tours of downtown, Inside Historic Downtown L.A. and Inside Contemporary Downtown L.A. Operating out of one of the city’s older architectural masterpieces, the Bradbury Building, it uses headset receivers to let customers clearly hear the guide’s live commentary. The cost is $20 per person for adults; $18 students and seniors; $15 for ages 9-15, and free for children under nine. Red Line works with agents and also offers various group packages and custom-designed tours.

Meanwhile, attendance on the historic walking tours given by Los Angeles Conservancy reached a 22-year high in January and February and the non-profit organization expects a record year.

“It’s a result of growth and all the articles about how great downtown is becoming,” said Anne Laskey, the Conservancy’s program coordinator. “There’s an accelerated sense of identity and change here.”

Among the 14 tours offered are three popular weekly ones Downtown’s Historic Core, Art Deco and the Broadway Historic Theater District. With 12 theaters preserved (and one, the Orpheum, recently renovated), Los Angeles has the nation’s largest historic-theater district. The cost is $8; $10 after July 1.

Downtown L.A.’s appeal rests in its mixture of the new and the old, the cutting-edge with the retro. The leading new attraction is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by architect Frank O. Gehry to resemble a steel-clad sailboat or bursting-into-bloom flower.

Primarily built for use by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale, the futuristic building has proven so popular in its own right that the Music Center of Los Angeles County has instituted a new self-guided audio walking tour narrated by actor John Lithgow.

Available daily except for holidays and special-event days, the timed-entry audio tours cost $10. For groups of 15 or more, tickets are $8 (advance reservations required). Guided group tours for $15 per person are available too.

Because of orchestra rehearsals, neither tour visits the actual performance hall, which requires concert tickets. (The Philharmonic performs at the outdoor Hollywood Bowl in summer.)

Another draw at the Walt Disney Concert Hall is restaurateur Joachim Splichal’s new, street-level Patina restaurant, which has won raves for its contemporary design and invigoratingly inventive menu. In its review, Los Angeles magazine placed it in the running as the city’s best restaurant. The Patina Group has six other upscale restaurants and cafes in downtown.

Tucked away in a corner of the Walt Disney Concert Hall is Los Angeles’ most experimental, avant-garde performance space, a separate entity called REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater). It features music, theater, dance and opera performances by international acts, plus film screenings and art shows. It also has a lounge and book boutique.

Through April 25, it will present the first event built and designed especially for its space a contemporary adaptation of a Chinese opera called “The Peach Blossom Fan.”

Not far from the Disney Hall is the Museum of Contemporary Art. Through Aug. 2, it features the groundbreaking exhibition “A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968.” It’s the first large-scale historical survey of minimalism, an artistic movement of enduring popularity, featuring 150 objects from 40 American artists.