Best things to do in Chinatown
When Chinatown relocated to its current location in the 1930s, the Central Plaza was to be the neighborhood’s vibrant hub of activity. The neon-drenched square still attracts tourists and locals alike with its shops, restaurants and events such as Summer Nights and Chinatown After Dark. Local lore often traces the look of the area back to Cecil B. DeMille, but it was in fact designed by the local Chinese community. There was, however, a Hollywood-backed (and highly orientalist) competitor named China City that burned down in the ’40s.
Far East Plaza looks unassuming from the outside, but step into the corridor of this pioneering ethnic shopping mall to find a mart overflowing with local character. It wasn’t so long ago that the most notable spot here was a two-story supermarket. These days, though, it’s all about the amazing food: Roy Choi’s rice bowl spot Chego, Filipino takeout window LASA, ice cream parlor Scoops and hot chicken legend Howlin’ Ray’s.
With 32 acres of open space directly adjacent to Chinatown, L.A. State Historic Park boasts an amazing view of Downtown. The park was once home to major events like FYF, Renegade Craft Fair and Hard Summer, but all went quiet with a major multi-year renovation that started in 2014. Upon its completion in spring 2017, the park redesign added drought tolerant landscaping, a scenic overlook bridge and an orange grove.
In business since 1908, Philippe the Original is one of two local spots that claims to have invented the French dip sandwich. Savvy customers select the traditional lamb or lighter turkey filling, then ask the server to double-dip the bread in the meaty juice; a French-dip sandwich is also incomplete without some of the sinus-clearing house mustard. The wines by the glass aren’t bad, a concession to the lunch trade from nearby City Hall.
While CAM’s address in El Pueblo might seem a little incongruous, its location is actually very appropriate. This was L.A.’s original Chinatown, and the Garnier building, in which part of the museum sits, is the most historic Chinese structure in the area: Built in 1890, when Chinese immigrants dominated in this part of town. It’s been home to a number of community organizations. Exhibits spotlight the history of L.A.’s Chinatown and the more general experience of Chinese Americans in the U.S.
Union Station may sit just on the outskirts of Chinatown today, but this plot of land was once the heart of Old Chinatown. In fact, the original neighborhood was demolished to make room for the station. Opened in 1939, it was the last of the great American rail stations to be built, at a cost of $11 million at the time. By 1971, just seven passenger trains were running here a day. Today, it’s a bit busier: the Mission-style exterior, marble floors, high ceilings and decorative tiles make it a handsome place for over 60,000 travelers each day. However, don’t confuse it with the Spanish colonial post office that stands next to it.
The hip-and-gable roof and meticulously crafted columns of the Thien Hau Temple stand out amidst the neighboring boxy condos and apartment complexes. You’ll find the Taoist temple at the center of activity with dance performances and firecracker displays around Chinese New Year. And though you’d never know it from the architecture, the building reopened in 2005 after it had been used as a Christian church in L.A.’s now-defunct Little Italy.
Discover Chinatown’s hidden spots—from a temple and herbal shop to an art gallery, antique stores and bargain shops—on this once a month, 2.5-hour guided, walking tour. Learn about the area’s rich history while navigating through vibrant courtyards, alleyways and plazas.
Across the street from the neon glow of Chinatown Central Plaza, the neglected Hollywood backlot-esque appearance of Chung King Road belies the cultural hipness of the pedestrian alleyway. Some of L.A.’s best art gallery spaces have set up shop behind the worn facades, and the area transforms into a frenzy of activity during Saturday night gallery openings. Don’t get too attached to any particular gallery, though; the area’s tenants constantly change as cutting-edge artists come and go.
Before the construction of Union Station, the area that’s now Chinatown was home to L.A.’s Little Italy—this museum has taken up the mantle of recognizing that forgotten past. The Olvera Street-adjacent museum takes up residence in the restored Italian Hall, once a focal point of the Italian-American community from its construction in 1908 until the early 1950s. The collection includes some 6,000 artifacts, photos and documents that examine the history and contributions of Italian Americans in L.A.—including Captain America’s shield, donated by directing duo the Russo Brothers.
Starline Tours essentially operates an entire network of double-decker bus circuits across the city, from Downtown and the Valley to Santa Monica and LAX. Unlike most full-day tours, you’re never held hostage to a particular itinerary. The Purple Route includes three stops in Chinatown, from the Central Plaza to Union Station, and continues on into Downtown with connections to the rest of the city. Promotional wraps on the bus obscure the view from the interior, lower level, but the view from the open-air, upper level is unexpectedly fantastic. Even for locals, it provides a fresh vantage point that really highlights the natural and architectural beauty of some of L.A.’s more attractive areas.