The rooftop pool at the Freehand

    Exploring walkable LA

    29 November 2017

    ‘You’re going where? Why? No. No you’re not! On your own?’

    This was not the response I’d hoped for when I mentioned to my friend and colleague Mary Wakefield where I planned to go on holiday.

    ‘What’s wrong with downtown LA?’ I asked.

    She said: ‘Last time I was there I saw a man stabbed in the public loo.’

    I’m no snowflake, but as I touched down in LAX I had visions of corpses piled up on the sidewalk. I needn’t have worried. Mary was last here more than a decade ago and, as I discovered from the moment I left the airport, modern technology has transformed the tourist experience of LA. Before I left, everyone told me I’d be crazy not to hire a car to navigate the sprawling city. But they’d forgotten about Uber. Car-sharing apps are cheap, convenient and you don’t have to face the impossible hunt for a parking space.

    In Downtown LA, the streets are empty of pedestrians. The art deco buildings are lit by their original neon lights but they’re mostly occupied by new owners. You cross the street to see what’s playing at the Rialto Theatre and find yourself shopping in Urban Outfitters.

    The Orpheum Theater on Broadway
    The Orpheum Theater on Broadway

    My hotel’s building has undergone the same treatment. The enormous neon sign for the Commercial Exchange Building (LA’s largest) runs almost the length of the building but it’s the small sign just above the door that tells you you’ve arrived at the Freehand. This hostel-come-hotel caters for every budget: dorm rooms for backpackers, private suites for those who fancy it. I opted for a private room — my backpacking days are over.

    A short walk away is the 100-year-old food hall Grand Central Market, where you can pick up $2 tacos, cheap wine or join the queue for the award-winning and outrageously named Eggslut. I swapped $10 for a very posh egg McMuffin and didn’t regret it.

    Eggslut from the Grand Central Market and Unicorn tears (birthday cake flavour) ice cream from Little Damage

    Opposite the market is Angels Flight, the 116-year-old funicular railway, and for a tenth of the price of the muffin it whisked me from the historic district to the top of Bunker Hill and Downtown’s cultural district, home of the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art and a new kid on the block, the Broad, a contemporary art museum. Book ahead as tickets are snapped up quickly.

    The Kings (ice hockey), the Rams (football) and the Lakers (basketball) are all here. The Dodgers (baseball) were playing at home so I booked a last-minute ticket on StubHub: $11 for an incredible seat.

    I arrived at Union Station to wait for the police-escorted shuttle bus to the stadium and was swept away in a sea of blue and white. Something felt wrong. I was wearing the opposing team’s colours. Growing up just a stone’s throw from the Den, the home of Millwall, I thought this could be a major faux pas so I headed straight for the team shop and a change of top. I should have saved my $50 for hotdogs. In LA that simply doesn’t matter. Fans from both teams mix happily: children, parents, grandparents all in it together, all standing for the national anthem, waiting for the first pitch.

    Next up, the Arts District, where entire buildings are engulfed in murals, quotes are stencilled on the floor, tyres and glass bottles are woven together around lampposts to resemble gargoyles and cars covered in graffiti stand proudly in car parks.

    Ice cold Butterbeer and the original Commercial Exchange sign

    I downloaded the walking tour app Detour and it zigzagged me around narrow streets and around the backs of warehouses, through what used to be a gritty part of LA but is now home to Sir Paul McCartney, hippy art galleries and some of LA’s coolest restaurants.

    A man on a bike rolled up quietly alongside me. Was this what Mary had warned me about? He tipped his head in my direction, smiled and pedalled on. Across the back of his T-shirt were the words ‘Safety Team’. I later found out that these teams patrol the districts of DTLA, each alternately coloured T-shirt signifying a different district.

    Eating biscuits and gravy at Poppy + Rose in the fashion district, I saw the yellow safety team help a drunk man around the corner and into a waiting car. The purple team of the business district whizzed past me while I was busy Instagramming my unicorn tears ice cream with black charcoal cone from Little Damage.

    The beach at Santa Monica, just an hour out of Downtown LA

    Development here isn’t showing any sign of slowing down and the new Metrolink may well win Downtown its title back as the beating heart of the city. In just 20 minutes you can be swigging a Butterbeer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios. In 15 minutes, you can be snapping yourself giving the finger to Trump’s star on Hollywood Boulevard. In just over an hour you could be dodging the rollerbladers at the beach of Santa Monica. In a couple of years, new lines will take you, and your credit card, to the shops of Beverly Hills.

    The second half of my trip began in West Hollywood. This was La La Land. The buildings are bright and shiny, lined with palm trees. It doesn’t feel real. I checked into the Mondrian where everything is white and clinical, and famous rappers lean over the counter with their waistbands somewhere around their knees. Clothes racks are wheeled across the lobby for a photo-shoot. I hastily made my way up to my room, pulled back the curtains and adjusted my eyes to the California sun.

    There in the distance was the Downtown skyline and I longed to be back.


    Fly to Los Angeles with Virgin Atlantic from £420 return (Tip: sign up to Virgin Red to choose your seats for free, three days before your flight)

    Best Apps to download before you go:

    1. Discover LA – The best places to eat and drink, plus things to see and do based on your current location.
    2. Detour – Audio walking tours from the locals who know it best.
    3. Google Maps – Plan your route around ‘walkable LA’.
    4. Universal Studios – Avoid long queues and keep an eye on those wait times.