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Content accurate at time of publication

01 Mar 2012

There’s a whole world of arts, culture and interesting experiences to be had in Los Angeles’ many enclaves. ANDREW BENDER explores a few.

What’s not to like about Los Angeles, or LA as it is fondly known? The city is epitomised by glitz, glam, the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, haute hotels and luxe nightlife on the Sunset Strip, sizzling shopping on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and the fabulous sunset over the multi-million-dollar beach houses of Malibu. But in this county of nearly 10 million people – it’s America’s largest – there’s a whole other world of eclectic neighbourhoods worth exploring.

Some are so authentically ethnic they feel like a trip to another country. Others are the symbol of LA’s global reputation as one of the capitals of creativity. Here are three clustered in downtown LA, and two others outside of the city centre. Most are reachable by the city’s new light rail system, helping you avoid something else LA is famous for: traffic.

Olvera Street

LA started on Olvera Street, and so shall we. The oldest continuously occupied street in the city, it dates back to 1781 – when settlers first came from what’s now Mexico.

Ignore the distant skyscrapers, and you might mistake this cobblestone stretch for a south-of-the-border village. It’s car-free – you probably couldn’t fit a car around the stalls lining the centre, and drivers would have to avoid mariachis (Mexican folk music performers) and street entertainers strolling among its low-slung terracotta roofs balanced on antique wood beams and century-old bricks. Pick up a mask for lucha libre (Mexican pro-wrestling), tableware in tropical colours, candies made from tamarind or chillies and tiny skeleton figurines evoking Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. Sure, it is kitsch but it’s so fun that it’s hard to complain.

Make time for Avila Adobe, LA’s oldest building, constructed in 1818 by Don Francisco Avila. It was once the home of a ranching family and now, a museum filled with rustic wooden furniture and furnishings of that bygone era, amid half-metre-thick stucco walls.

Food-wise, head to restaurants like Casa La Golondrina (17 Olvera Street, Tel: 1 213 628 4349) – it does brisk tourist business but also nails standards like burritos made with house-made tortillas and chicken enchiladas in mole (spicy sauce made with chocolate). Regional dishes like cochinita pibil or steamed pork marinated in achiote (a natural red colourant) are also available.

Nearby is the Iglesia Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles or Our Lady Queen of Angels Church, founded in 1822 and affectionately known as La Placita or “little plaza”, and the adjoining La Plaza de Cultura y Artes or Cultural Museum. The latter opened in April 2011 and charts the Mexican-American experience complete with a recreated city block circa the 1920s. Explore an old-style pharmacy and grocer, and dress the kids up in period costumes.

The hulking, Mission Revival-style building across N Alameda Street is Union Station, the railway terminal dating from 1939. If all rail stations were as magnificent as this – its soaring ceilings suspended by intricately painted beams while gorgeous chandeliers rise above the marble floors – more people would probably take the train.