It wasn’t that long ago that downtown Los Angeles was a pretty scary place to be outside of work hours, to be avoided at all costs. Now, it’s undergoing a renaissance and is one of the real hip areas to hang out at, with tons of great restaurants, bars, and activities.
Here is my personal list (in no particular order) of favorite things to do in downtown L.A. with someone special!
Perch is an amazing rooftop restaurant and lounge overlooking Pershing square. This place has a lot of buzz these days, but for good reason. The view is amazing and the food is good. Later at night the bar gets packed and is practically impossible to get into.
So, the first rule is to make reservations if you want to have dinner! Plan far in advance, as it gets booked up quickly.
Second, this place is best on a warm summer night. There is indoor seating, but much of the seating is outdoors (and that is where the view is best). There are covered areas and heat lamps, but you’re pretty high up. Bring a light jacket or sweater, regardless of the temperature during the day.
The cuisine is French-inspired. I had the scallops, which were great! There is live entertainment (usually jazz) on some nights.
There is no dedicated parking, so park at one of the pay lots nearby. The entrance on Hill Street is a bit hard to find, so look for the small sign.
2. The Cicada Club / Restaurant
Even if you haven’t heard of the Cicada, you’ve seen it in movies like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. Stepping inside this amazing art-deco space is like traveling in a time machine back to 1930. Formerly a men’s clothing store, it’s now a restaurant, featuring Italian and American dishes. On the top floor is a bar serving cool vintage drinks.
On certain nights (about once a week), the restaurant turns into “The Cicada Club”, featuring vintage 1920’s and 30’s bands with Swing dancing in the front floor. On these nights, there is a cover charge, but it’s waived if you have dinner there. There are also package prix fix deals that include dinner and admission. There is a dress code on these nights. Men must wear suit and tie. Women, cocktail dress or suit. There is no dance lesson, so brush up in your East Coast Swing beforehand.
Parking is valet. There are nearby underground parking garages, but for something this formal, you should probably utilize the valet.
LA Weekly named the Cicada Club one of the top ten places in Los Angeles for a first date. I don’t know if I would take a first date here, as it is super pricy, but it’s definitely a place to take someone special.
3. Walt Disney Concert Hall
It’s hard to think of a more classy date than to take in a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Home to the L.A. Philharmonic, they also have concerts from other performers and bands. I saw a great show there by Pink Martini (highly recommended!) on New Year’s Eve.
There’s convenient (and relatively inexpensive) underground parking off of Second Street. When the show ends though, there is a traffic jam to get out, just be aware.
One tip: on nights where its not reserved, you can go up to the outdoor courtyard on the upper level of the building. Take the stairs close to the Broad museum and explore!
4. The Broad Museum / MOCA
I was not crazy about the new Broad museum exterior (located next to the Walt Disney Concert Hall) when I first saw it; the walls reminded me of the back side of a cheese grater. But, I’m a big fan of the Broad now that I’ve visited. This unusual white building houses much of the modern art that was at LACMA plus more. The main collection is free, and well worth seeing, but I really like the special exhibits like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room and Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life.
For best results, get your tickets online in advance. Special exhibits might require going early and standing in line, or might not be free, but these are usually worth it.
I also like the Broad because it’s open relatively late – until 8PM on most nights, so you can still see it after work!
If you are really into modern art, check out the Museum of Contemporary Art, located across the street from the Broad, and the Geffen Contemporary, located in Little Tokyo. $12 admission gets you into both museums.
5. The Ace Hotel
The Ace Hotel is one of my favorite destinations for an evening out in downtown L.A. Start off with dinner at the hotel’s restaurant on the first floor, L.A. Chapter, a New-York style eatery serving mostly European-inspired dishes at reasonable prices. It can be a bit crowded and a bit noisy on weekends, but you’ll have no problem having intimate conversation nonetheless. Be sure to make reservations though.
After dinner, take the elevator to the rooftop bar, Upstairs, which features amazing views of L.A. a large jacuzzi, and a towering cathedral-like structure above you. On weekends they sometimes have bands or a DJ. There’s always a good crowd, so go before 9PM or so, or else there will be a line.
6. Clifton’s Cabinet of Curiosities
You’ve probably heard about the re-opening of Clifton’s Cabinet of Curiosities. In one sentence, I would describe Clifton’s as vintage cafeteria and bar crossed with a museum of natural history, complete with real taxidermied animals like a bison and lion! I wouldn’t make Clifton’s a formal dinner destination – the food is just a tad better than cafeteria-quality. But, it’s a great place to go for drinks or Swing dancing (on Friday and Saturday nights on the third floor).
For a great make-out spot, check out the Stone Chapel on the second floor – an intimate cave-like space with a forest diorama in front of you. Knock before entering!
There’s affordable parking at the converted office-building parking garage across the street, above the Burlington Coat Factory.
7. The Edison
Located in a former electrical generator station built circa 1910, the Edison is LA’s steampunk heaven. Much of the original heavy generator equipment remains. Silent movies play on the walls, and most nights they have a live band or performance of some kind. The menu is small but what they do offer is good (tomato soup and cheese sandwiches, yum!)
The entrance is located on an alley off of 2nd street called Harlem Place, but it is practically impossible to identify from the street, so look at a map beforehand. There is a convenient parking garage across the alley with an entrance on South Spring Street, but, like many downtown parking garages, it’s pretty dingy. Just warning you.
During the week, there is no cover, but they started having a $10 cover on Fridays and Saturdays. If you go early or on an off-night, there is usually no line to get in. But later in the evening, especially on weekends, there might be a line.
Refreshingly, there is very little attitude at the door, but there is a mild dress code: no athletic wear of any kind including sneakers. Men must wear dress shoes and collared shirts. But, you’ll have the best time if you dress up even more and go full vintage or formal – that’s part of the fun!
8. The Bona Vista Lounge at the Bonaventure Hotel
You can’t miss the distinctive glass cylindrical buildings in the heart of downtown LA that are the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. Admittedly, the style is very 80’s, and arguably past its prime, but don’t dismiss it just yet.
The Bona Vista Lounge at the 34th floor of the center “cylinder” is a rotating bar that gives you an unparalleled panoramic view of the city. Because this place is somewhat “un-hip”, it’s unusually not that crowded and you can get a booth or table with no problem. Get past the 80’s décor and it can be very romantic. It is quiet and good for deep conversation while slowly rotating in the middle of the city.
Yes, the novelty drinks are expensive, but the view makes up for it.
If you want dinner, go to the LA Prime steakhouse, one floor up. It doesn’t rotate, but you can always go to the Bona Vista lounge afterwards. The food is top-notch.
There is valet parking inside the hotel and a parking garage across the street. These are rather pricey parking options, but kind of worth it to not have to walk around in this particular area of downtown, which is abandoned and a bit spooky at night.
9. Grand Central Market / Angels Flight Railway
Grand Central Market is a really cool indoor farmer’s market-type of area with lots of great ethnic food options. It opened in 1917 and has been in continuous operation since. The selection ranges from a Jewish deli to kickass Mexican food to sticky rice. It’s a great place to stop for a meal, coffee, or beer while in downtown during the day.
After your meal, spend a dollar to ride Angels Flight – the worlds’ shortest train ride. Opening in 1901 to transport rich shoppers from their mansions to the stores in downtown LA, this railway has been meticulously restored to its former glory. Cost is only a dollar (fifty cents if you show your Tap or Metro card). I like riding it in the evening when it’s all lit up. Or, recreate the scene from La La Land. Afterwards, you can easily walk down the stairs if you want to save a few bucks.
The Grand Central Market parking structure costs $5 for the first 90 minutes and $2 for each 15 minutes afterwards. For longer stays, park in the outdoor lot across the street to the east. It has some of the lowest parking rates that I’ve found in downtown LA. This is a great launch point for further adventures in downtown L.A!
10. The Standard
The Rooftop at the Standard is a hot hangout for hipsters in their 20’s and 30’s and features an amazing view of the city. In addition to a bar, there is a swimming pool and nightly DJ’d music or live music on occasion.
Also on the roof is the Standard Biergarten, featuring German classics like weiners, pretzels and strudels, and of course, beer.
In addition these attractions, there is also a ping pong club called “Spin Standard” on the mezzanine level. There are players of all levels, so don’t be afraid to try.
For all of these, go early in the evening or on a non-weekend night to be guaranteed entry. Otherwise, you risk not being able to get in. This place is very popular on weekend nights.
11. Staples Center and LA Live
I am not a huge sports fan, but was impressed by the amenities of the Staples Center when I went to see the L.A. Kings play there recently. The food was a bit better than what you’d expect at a sports stadium, and even the nosebleed seats had a pretty good view:
Next door, LA Live offers lots of great restaurant options, perfect for grabbing a bite before a game or before a concert at Nokia Theater. One of my favorite things to do is to go ice skating there during the winter.
12. The Downtown Central Library
Okay, going to a library on a date may seem kind of geeky, but I know a lot of book lovers who would be into this. The Downtown Central Library is great place to relax and check out some books for free. But first, you should explore the wonderful interiors and grounds. They also have a good gift shop with gifts for book-lovers.
Afterwards, walk to the nearby Millennium Biltmore Hotel (down 5th Street, across Grand Ave.) and see what downtown L.A. was like in its prime, when this place hosted the Academy Awards (see if you can find Walt Disney in the old photo).
13. The Music Center
If you want to catch a play or other type of performance, the rest of the Music Center is next door (technically , these are all part of the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County). The venues there include the Ahmanson Theatre which often features Broadway plays, The Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, which hosts the L.A. Opera, and the Mark Taper Forum which features plays and other performances.
On a budget? Look for free and low-cost events in the Music Center Plaza like A Taste of Dance, where you can get super low-cost dance lessons in a variety of styles. During the summer, there are free dance concerts here on Friday evenings called Dance Downtown.
14. Little Tokyo
Little Tokyo is a charming area on the outskirts of downtown LA which includes a small outdoor mall and surrounding Japanese-themed restaurants and stores. It is a small but worthy date destination. It’s quite lively on the weekend (there was outdoor karaoke in the courtyard on the Saturday we went), but more reserved during the week.
If you are into ramen or sushi, there are plenty of options. There is always an insane line to get into Sushi Gen, but locals swear by it (call ahead to get on the list). After dinner, walk around and get tea or dessert in one of the many shops. If you want more excitement, walk on over to The Edison a few blocks north for drinks and live music (but beware the dress code).
15. The Orpheum Theater
The Orpheum Theater is an amazing venue to see a concert or show. The 1926 interior has been faithfully preserved and is quite breathtaking. But, it’s also a great concert venue because the seating area is very steeply angled – nearly every seat has a good view of the stage.
After the show, go across the street to the Ace Hotel, or down Broadway to Clifton’s.
16. Night on Broadway
This event happens only once a year in January, but it’s worth planning to go to. Night on Broadway, is a massive street fair where you can check out all of the once-great but still grand theaters on Broadway, which is on the verge of a rebirth. There are live performances, food trucks, live bands, and even a Ferris wheel.
Parking and traffic can be difficult, so try taking the Metro.
17. Downtown Arts District
Just a little further out from Downtown past Little Tokyo is an area known as the Downtown Arts District. It might look rather quiet on the outside, but there are many cool restaurants there. One of my personal favorites is Wurstküche, featuring German and Belgian food. Their website describes Wurstküche as “A modern beer hall, serving exotic sausage sandwiches, Belgian fries with homemade dipping sauces, twenty four imported biers on top, and a gourmet collection of sodas”. Sounds good, huh?
Another favorite of mine in the Arts District is Angel City Brewery. This is a real craft beer brewery located in a former cable factory (they made the cable for the Golden Gate Bridge, they say). It’s a huge two-level vintage industrial space. They’ve got beanbag toss games and free board games for you and your friends to play while you’re there. They also have a gift shop, and food trucks outside if you get hungry.
For dessert in the Arts District, it’s hard to beat Pie Hole, which actually features both sweet and savory pies. They also pride themselves on their coffee. It can get very crowded with a line, so be patient.
For more ideas, check out my article on the Downtown LA Arts District!
18. Walking Tour of LA
Downtown L.A. has some of the best architecture in Southern California. Going on a walking tour is a great way to see it and a great date idea. Here are a few options:
Art Deco Walking Tour
This popular tour by the Los Angeles Conservancy has been going on every Saturday morning as long as I can remember. Cost is $15.
Downtown L.A. Walking Tour
This tour offers a variety of tours including LA’s Beginnings, Old and New, and Haunted Tales. Cost is $17.
Free LA Tour
The Free LA Tour offers daytime and evening tours of downtown. Although you don’t have to pay, a $15 donation is requested at the end.
I did the Free LA Tour. This is a daytime walking tour that starts at Grand Central Station and ends at Pershing Square. It focuses on the history of downtown LA, which is actually pretty interesting and it covers many historic buildings such as city hall and the Bradbury Building (featured in the classic sci-fi classic, “Blade Runner”). Much of the focus is on art-deco design. You’ll also pass Grand Central Market, worthy of stopping by on your own. You’ll learn the back story behind the richest men who built LA and find out why the Angels Flight was built.
Although the tour is billed as “free”, they do request a $15 donation at the end if you’ve enjoyed the tour, and tips are welcome.
After the tour, I would recommend having lunch at Baco Mercat, often noted as one of the top restaurants in downtown LA. Just make a reservation beforehand though, even for lunch.
19. The Last Bookstore
If you’re into books, The Last Bookstore is an awesome place, but even if you’re not, it’s worth a stop if you’re nearby.
The bottom floor looks like a regular book store with a pretty good selection of vinyl.
But, venture to the top floor to see a cool maze of book shelves, a “book tunnel” and a Horror Vault.
The Last Bookstore has a quirky vibe that is so rare these days. It’s an ideal place to stop by for an after-dinner stroll. Checking out books just might spur some interesting conversation.
20. 71 Above
I have not been here yet, but it’s on my “to do” list. 71 Above is located on the 71st floor of the First Interstate building. It has a dining room featuring modern American cuisine, and the Sky Lounge for drinks. Of course, the views will be spectacular from up there. I can’t wait to try this out!
For all of these activities, consider taking one of the LA Metro trains to get into downtown. I’ve taken it from Culver City and it beats rush hour traffic hands down. Cost is just $1.75 each way plus a one time fee of $1 for the Tap card. Subway coverage in downtown L.A. is pretty good, and it will save you the considerable hassle of fighting insane traffic, searching for parking, paying exorbitant rates, and navigating the confusing downtown L.A. streets.
Unless it’s a first date, anniversary, or other special occasion, I think the train is a fun way to get around when on a more casual date. Uber is another good option.
Downtown L.A. itself is very walkable. It would be easy to go to many of the locations on this list in one evening without having to set foot in a car! For example, you can easily walk from the Edison to Little Tokyo to the Arts District. Or, you can walk from the library to Perch. I highly encourage combining these ideas into a grand date itinerary!
What are your favorite hangouts in downtown LA? Please comment below! – Brian