Photos & article By: Scott S. Smith, Sandra Wells & Christian Smith

Between massive construction in downtown Los Angeles before the pandemic, huge numbers of employees in ever-rising offices, a flood of people moving there to live, acres of the unhoused, inadequate reasonably-priced parking, numerous one-way streets, several courts, sports arenas, and concert halls, and two entirely different levels, the area was something most residents knew better than to visit. But things have calmed down and if you get around by mass transit, you can now enjoy its unique attractions more than ever before.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles Residents of L.A. probably visited the Olvera Street Mexican Marketplace (founded in 1930), full of every kind of small business vendor, when we were in elementary school. Visitors can enjoy it and learn a lot from the history of the area, but most of us who live here are overdue to refresh our memory of the region’s roots. The best place is the El Pueblo Visitor’s Center and museum on the plaza where Olvera Street ends. It offers a free, hour-long, docent-guided tour Tue.-Sat. at 10, 11, and noon (assuming rain isn’t pouring; sign up in advance by emailing, call 213/6281274, or just show up). We were fortunate to be there on a Thu. at 10 when the guide was Richard E. Flores, a fountain of information, anecdotes, and enthusiasm. There is a Historic Monument on the plaza dedicated to the 44 who founded the city in 1781 (and were surprisingly diverse, including Blacks and Native Americans). We learned about the statues, art, buildings and other features, including Spain’s King Carlos III (who reigned 1759-88), a church that is the oldest continuously operating facility in L.A. (and has an Indian burial ground), a mural by the noted artist Leo Politi depicting the “Blessing of the Animals,” the home of Pio Pico (the last Mexican governor), and the U.S. Marines who hoisted the first U.S. flag during the War With Mexico. The highlight was the refurbished Avila Adobe (see photo), built in 1818 by the owner of a 4,400-acre ranchero. The area also features L.A.’s first firehouse, museums about the city’s Chinese and Italian American populations, an art gallery about African Americans in sports, and an interpretive center about a controversial mural, “America Tropical” by David Alfaro Siqueiros, that was whitewashed, but partially recovered.

Grammy Museum is on Olympic Blvd. near the 110 (Harbor) Freeway, with parking in the adjacent L.A. LIVE complex. Go to the fourth floor and spend some time watching the highlight reels from the Grammy Awards, which will remind you just how creative American musicians have been. Awards are given for brilliance, not sales or popularity. You will be able to watch clips of performances and acceptance speeches across the spectrum of genres, from Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Lopez to Kendrick Lamar and Chris Stapleton. The Songwriters Hall of Fame timeline highlights the great ones from the past two centuries. Through 2024, there is a space devoted to the career of Shakira, including a lengthy interview in Spanish (English subtitles) with photos from her early career. Whether your musical heroes are Taylor Swift or Gustavo Dudamel or you think your taste is pretty much confined to jazz or the American standards, you’ll find everything from instruments and costumes to concert videos and immersive experiences. Plan to spend several hours in ecstasy and education.

California Science Center IMAX is a great way for the whole family to understand the wonders of nature and the universe, both through the science museum and its 3D IMAX films, which are always extraordinary. We recently were at the debut of “Blue Whales” (having previously seen its “The Mystery of the Maya”; the other film running was “Journey to Space 3D”). No matter what your level of knowledge about whales in general and blue whales in particular, this spectacular presentation will blow you away. Unlike most local efforts to see any kind of whale off our coast, the Gulf of California (between Baja and mainland Mexico) is the best place in the world to witness blue whales (once almost extinct), the largest animals ever known to have existed (up to 98 feet long and weighing 219 tons, bigger than any dinosaur). The film has lots of spectacular images of leaping and spouting whales, but the most touching are of a newborn swimming by his mother (putting on as much 200 lbs. a day from her milk for as long as seven months). Mom is able to produce it because of the enormous amount of tiny krill she eats (the consequent poop fertilizes plant and animal life in the ocean). The sound of whales communicating across vast distances of the ocean shook the auditorium.

Broadway Theatre Walking Tour is one of a handful by the L.A. Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the historic buildings of downtown, guided by volunteer docents. Before there was a Hollywood where was a Broadway where theaters of all kinds flourished. Broadway and 7th St. was the busiest intersection in the city in the early decades of the 20th century (and is the largest historic district of its kind in the nation). Over a 10-block route leaving from Pershing Square, we learned from guides Tom and Jack about the background of major theaters, such as the Los Angeles Theater (see photo), a baroque wonder opened in 1931 at the start of the Great Depression, whose owner quickly went bankrupt. Before neon, many were lighted outside by massive numbers of bulbs, while before microphones they had to be carefully designed for optimum acoustics. Our guides had the keys to go inside the Orpheum, a lavishly decorated palace built in 1911, but which underwent significant renovations as audiences changed their entertainment preferences from vaudeville to movies. Others staged plays and evolved to show silent movies, then newsreels (before TV), and finally motion pictures. Near the end of the tour, we saw the stunning inside of the Tower Theatre, now owned by Apple, which restored it in line with the Conservancy’s policy of supporting preservation adapted to the needs of the business.

Broad Museum is across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall (home of the L.A. Philharmonic) on Upper Grand (parking is on Lower Grand), the hill that overlooks the rest of downtown. The Broad (pronounced like “road”) is considered by connoisseurs of contemporary art to have one of the best collections in SoCal (and free, but you have to sign up for general admission), with 2000 works by 200 artists at any given time. Many of them were donated by its founder, the late billionaire Eli Broad. There are extensive exhibits of the masters of the genre, such as Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Jeff Koons (whose background and techniques are particularly fascinating and take an incredible amount of work; we were wowed by “Bubbles,” his white-and-gold sculpture of Michael Jackson and his monkey). Two artists who were unfamiliar to us and whose work was especially striking were Mickalene Thomas (with her use of acrylics and rhinestones to depict women) and Kara Walker (black cut-outs arranged like something for kits to play with and pictures on the walls depicting burning and lynching of Africans). Best of all is the long-running Infinity Mirrored Room of Yayoi Kusama, which is free, but you have to book an entry in advance (reservations are often unavailable a month or more before a visit).