Your guide to the hidden, weird, and wonderful of DTLA.
Downtown Los Angeles is an ever-changing landscape that can amaze, shock, delight, and confound. Amidst the sparkling high-rises and award-winning restaurants is a hidden world with a crazy past and a weird and wonderful present. From prohibition-era bootleggers and serial killers to underground shows and tucked-away street art, every corner of this metropolis-within-a-metropolis has a story to tell. Here are some of LA’s best-kept secrets—so keep it to yourself…
It’s truly shocking when you realize that the Unites States had a prohibition on the sale, production, and transportation of alcohol from 1920-1933. Of course, that doesn’t mean people didn’t find a way to drink. Underneath the busy streets of Downtown LA are a series of tunnels and speakeasies where bootleggers skirted the law to get Tinseltown properly toasted. They’re not easy to get into or find, but there are tour groups that can bring you inside.
INSIDER TIPThere’s a hidden elevator entrance behind the Hall of Records on Temple Street that’s not technically open to the public.
LA shoe lovers have a lot of options with pop-ups and boutique stores all over the city. For the most fanatical shoe-heads, though, there’s a super-secret store called Bodega hidden in The Row, a newly constructed art, retail, and restaurant complex in the Arts District. To find this secluded spot, you’ll have to head toward 6th Street and Central Avenue where, tucked behind what appears to be an actual vegetable bodega, is the two-story monolith to streetwear.
The Last Bookstore
In what was once an abandoned bank built in the early 20th century, is an iconic book store with more than 250,000 new and used books that spans two floors. As you walk through the labyrinthine space, you’ll discover rare first editions, thousands of vinyl records, and shops full of art, yarn, and random curios. It’s truly one of the best-hidden gems in the city—especially for book lovers.
The Bradbury Building is one of the most iconic spaces in all of Los Angeles. The outside of the red brick building is fairly non-descript, but inside is an iron-work masterpiece that would make M.C. Escher jealous. The series of interlaced stairs and elevators has been featured in movies like 500 Days of Summer, Blade Runner, Chinatown. But what’s really interesting is the building’s occult origins. Though it’s probably an urban legend, it’s alleged that the architect George Wyman consulted his dead brother using a Ouija Board-like object to see whether he should take the job. Evidently his brother said, “Go for it!”
LA foodies will surely know about Cole’s. The longest continually operating restaurant in LA was opened in 1908 and claims to be the originator of the French Dip. What people may not know is that in the back of the restaurant is a secret cocktail bar that serves some of the most innovative drinks in the city. Head to the back of Cole’s and you’ll see a tiny picture of a drink on the back wall. Push on the door and you’ll be transported to a different time and place.
Velveteria: The Museum of Velvet Art
In a fairly barren stretch of Chinatown, wedged between a fish market and a Chinese restaurant resides one of the greatest collections of velvet art in the world. That’s right. Art. Made of velvet. Inside the gallery space, owner and curator Carl Baldwin regales guests with tales of art pieces that runs the gamut from politics and media to pop-culture and news events. Everywhere you look are velvet portraits that include near-nudes of Anderson Cooper and David Bowie to a rendering of Donald Trump with a horse’s body holding a gold brick and a shovel. Don’t forget to check out the back, which features a nude gallery and a black-light room filled with creepy velvet clowns.
This is actually a bar within a bar. Head over to Seven Grand, downtown’s premier whiskey den and make your way to the back where there is an unmarked door and a small button. If you’re lucky, and they’re not at capacity (18 people), you’ll be welcomed into a whiskey and cigar wonderland where the rarest of rare whiskies can be sipped under the soothing ambience of jazz music.
LA’s street art scene is currently having a renaissance with incredible pieces popping up on walls, in alleys, and atop buildings across the city. This awakening is due in part to big time artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey. And two of their most iconic works are hidden in plain sight, if you know where to look. For Banksy, you can see his famous girl swinging under a parking sign in the alleyway across the street from the Ace Hotel. For Fairey, head over to Indian Alley at the corner of Winston Street and Werdin Place, where you’ll find his “We Are Still Here” mural along with a bevy of Native American art plastered across the alley.
One of the most secretive things happening in Los Angeles are the underground shows by some of the top recording artists in the world. Everyone from Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa to Justin Bieber and The Shins have performed for this secluded sect. What started in Venice is now rumored to have moved to DTLA. You can sign up for the invite list on their website, but that won’t guarantee you’ll hear about the shows. Cross your fingers though, you might get lucky and see your favorite artist in a random warehouse downtown.
On Main Street, between 6th and 7th Street, is the Stay on Main Hotel. But don’t let that moniker fool you as it barely masks the distinctive marks of the most notorious hotel in Los Angeles. The Cecil was built in 1924 and has a reputation for all things illicit. The hotel was once home to two different serial killers, Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez and Jack Unterweger. It’s also the site of multiple suicides and unsolved deaths—the most recent being that of Canadian student Elisa Lam who was found in the water tower on the roof. Today, the building isn’t operating as a hotel, but you can still see residents coming in and out and someone manning the reception desk in front. Who lives there and why—no one knows.