Though small in terms of area, the list of things to do in Chinatown runs long enough to fill an afternoon. While the neighborhood has the assortment of mom-and-pop markets and dim sum restaurants that you would expect, it packs surpises with historic dive bars and some of LA's most stylish galleries. So, take a tour of the area's attractions and discover some of the best activities, both inside and outside of the Central Plaza, with our guide to Chinatown.
RECOMMENDED: Chinatown neighborhood guide
When Chinatown relocated to its current location in the 1930s, the Central Plaza was to be the neighborhood's vibrant hub of activity. And while the neighborhood isn't quite as bustling as it once was, the neon-drenched square still attracts tourists and locals alike with its shops, restaurants and events such as Summer Nights. 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 Fun fact: There was, however, a Hollywood-backed (and highly orientalist) competitor named China City that burned down in the '40s.
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 LA'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.
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 LA's now-defunct Little Italy.
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. What it lacks in lively atmosphere it makes up for in notable tenants: Wing Hop Fung Ginseng & China Products Center, a two-story supermarket with a huge selection of herbs and teas, as well as food destinations such as Scoops, Ramen Champ, Pok Pok Phat Thai and the Eastside location of Chego, rockstar chef Roy Choi's rice bowl outpost.
While CAM's address in El Pueblo might seem a little incongruous, its location is actually very appropriate. This was LA'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 LA's Chinatown and the more general experience of Chinese Americans in the US.
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.
With 32 acres of open space directly adjacent to Chinatown, LA State Historic Park boasts an amazing view of Downtown. Currently, you won't find much more than a pit of dirt there as the park undergoes a major renovation. Aside from picnicking, frisbee and general park frolicking, LASHP has also been home to some of the city's best events, including the yearly FYF, Renegade Craft Fair and Hard Summer.
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.
At first glance, the monumental pagoda facade doesn't betray much revelry, but once inside, namely in the downstairs dive bar, it's a different story. Chinese lanterns and a lacquered bar give way to the old school charm of the oldies-playing jukebox and cheap drinks. Take a trip back to Chinatown's inception in the '30s, along with the accumulated décor of each successive decade. It might not be worth it to stop by for the food alone, but it's hard to find a better way to pass the time inside of a living piece of Chinatown history.
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 LA’s more attractive areas.