Meet at the bottom of the Angels Flight funicular railway in the center of the Historic Bunker Hill District. This famous funicular, declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1962, was designed and financed by Americans but was largely built by the city’s Asian immigrants. It opened in 1901 to take people up the short but steep slope.
The first settlers in the area were of course Native Americans, but Europeans founded a mission here in the late 1700s, and the first Mexican immigrants arrived soon after. By the 1850s, the area included French, freed African-American slaves, Germans and Chinese, among others. The Bunker Hill area was where the bankers lived, building grand Victorian houses from fortunes made in gold or oil. In 1917, the Grand Central Market opened, in part to serve this community. Today, with over 90 vendors, it offers a mix of traditional and new vendors who sell foodstuffs from bulk chiles and dried beans to smoked fish. Hear the personal stories from some of the people behind the produce. Explore the market, seeking new sights and tastes.
The Grand Central Market is on Broadway, a section of the world-famous Route 66. On the way to the Metro Red Line, pass several murals that offer a glimpse into the creativity of the city’s residents and reflect their deep connection with cultures from all over the world. Murals have sprung up all over the city, reflecting the local people and their cultures.
Jump on the Metro Red Line to Union Station. Once the largest rail station in the West, this Art Deco gem with Spanish Colonial accents has been transformed into a shopping, eating and cultural center. Cross the street to the Plaza de Cultura y Artes and Olvera Street and head down to the Avila Adobe, the oldest adobe building in Los Angeles, built in 1818 by a successful rancher. The first families of pobladores, or settlers, arrived in 1781 from the Gulf of California to establish the pueblo that was to become the City of Los Angeles in this area, founding what became Olvera Street. Explore this historic house before continuing to a special viewing platform for a recently restored mural, “América Tropical.” Painted in 1932 on the side of the Italian Hall by David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of Mexico’s most prominent muralists, it is his only mural left in its original location and is available only for limited viewing hours. Its political theme, the imperialistic oppression of Native Americans and Latin Americans, was so upsetting that it was soon whitewashed (literally) and was restored only recently.
Take a break at a family-owned modern Mexican restaurant, a recent addition to the Olvera Street plaza after its previous location (listed on Jonathan Gold’s Top 100 places to eat in L.A. for four years) burned down. The family’s new concept focuses on food, art and culture, and they call themselves “interpreters of recipes created hundreds of years ago.”
Tour the restaurant and learn the origin and traditions of mole, a ubiquitous Mexican sauce that can be based on fruit, spices, chocolate or all of the above. Alonso, the owner, will share the techniques on how to make their signature mole, a family tradition for generations. Taste several different versions with homemade tortillas and learn to pick out and appreciate the different ingredients. Then build your own enchiladas to enjoy with your favorite sauce. Get one of the family’s mole recipes to take home so you can prepare this delicious sauce at home.
In the early 1860s, thousands of Chinese men, most from Guangdong province in southern China, were hired by the Central Pacific Railroad Company to work on the western portion of the first Transcontinental Railroad. Many of them settled in Los Angeles. The original Chinatown, developed in the late 19th century, was demolished to make room for Union Station, replaced by New Chinatown, which opened in 1938. Even today, new immigrants from China (and other Asian nations) often arrive first in Chinatown, and it remains a closed and authentic community, bound by traditions of language, food and culture. Walk through Chinatown, stopping at the Chinatown Central Plaza to experience an immigrant neighborhood in the midst of a renaissance. Learn about its history as a Chinese community as well as a haven for artists and galleries. Meet a local Chinese guide who will translate your local conversations and take you behind the scenes in Chinatown. Visit the Thien Hau Temple, a Taoist temple serving the Vietnamese. Learn about the ancient Chinese practice of Kau Chim, a fortune-telling ritual involving praying to a god and then casting a fortune with bamboo sticks. After weaving through the backstreets of Chinatown with your neighborhood guide, take a tea break at an authentic Chinatown tea house; your guide can teach you a few words of Mandarin so you can order a cookie and tea on your own.
End the tour at Chinatown’s Seven Star Cavern Wishing Well, where generations of immigrants and their families have asked for health, wealth and other blessings. Built in 1938, this is not a traditional hole in the ground: It’s a multicolored, kitschy piece of street art with target areas labeled “Lotto,” “Beauty,” “Vacation” and the like, so you can aim your coins for your desires. If you want to continue exploring the neighborhood, breweries, restaurants, bars and shops abound nearby and your guides can point you in the right direction.
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