10 fascinating buildings in L.A. that you can actually tour
There’s a particular memory that floats into my head whenever I have a doughnut, which is to say fairly often. It’s of visiting the Helms Bakery building in Culver City on an elementary school field trip. I distinctly remember the cavernous factory, the noisy, metal machines and the strong smell of yeast. Even though I had always watched the pale yellow Helms Bakery trucks drive down the streets of L.A., delivering fresh baked goods to people’s doorsteps, being in the room where they were made was a thrill. At the end of the tour when we were each handed our own warm glazed doughnut that had come from the conveyor belts, my 6-year-old self was certain there was no greater joy.
I can’t revisit that experience — the Helms Bakery is long gone, replaced by a complex filled with retail stores, furniture showrooms and restaurants — but there are many other buildings around Los Angeles you can tour. Over the past weeks, I took both guided and self-guided tours through L.A. landmarks, entering hidden areas and seeing fascinating details I’d never know about by simply driving by.
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Here are nine buildings worth an up-and-close look. Some evoke nostalgia, others offer sensory experiences. On all of these trips, you’re bound to learn something new and, as was the case with my bakery adventure, be left hungry for more. For guided tours, as schedules often change, be sure to call ahead.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Although the tour doesn’t give you access to the main concert hall, you will be guided to my second-favorite part of the building: the rooftop Blue Ribbon Garden. Many concertgoers don’t know about this tranquil, tree-shaded space that features a meditation labyrinth, a lush variety of plants and flowers and an outdoor children’s theater. At its center is a fountain, A Rose for Lily, that was a collaboration between Gehry and Lillian Disney, who was a major benefactor of the Walt Disney Concert Hall project. The charming story of how the fountain came about is one of the tales that Lithgow shares. After the hourlong tour, relax on one of the many benches scattered in the garden, cue up some L.A. Phil on your phone and enjoy the gorgeous views of downtown L.A.
Tours are free and self-guided via your smartphone, and run daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. No reservations required. lf you don’t have access to a smartphone, you can check out a Podcatcher in the lobby. Dates and times may vary — check the schedule for blackout dates.
Los Angeles Central Library
Along the way, she shared stories about the building’s original architect, Bertram Goodhue, details about the catastrophic fire in 1986 that destroyed much of the library, and the drama behind the murals in the library’s famous rotunda by renowned illustrator Dean Cornwell. She informed us that the rotunda once housed all of the library’s card catalogs — remember those? — and asked us to imagine the room filled with the sounds of people shuffling through those cards in search of their next read. I did, and it brought on a wave of appreciation for all those who have kept this building alive all these years. “Touring the library is an inspiring experience for anyone who loves great architecture and wants to know more about the fascinating history of downtown Los Angeles,“ Breazeale said. I couldn’t agree more. On the way out, I got myself a new library card.
Tours are free and are offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Times vary, so check the schedule. No reservations required, but groups of eight or more need to make arrangements at least four weeks in advance. Virtual tours are also offered.
The 30-minute walking tour whisks you through different areas of the theater, starting with the Dolby Lounge, the VIP room where celebrities can relax and grab a drink during shows (and where regular people can take a picture with a real Oscar). There are stops to view and take photos of the main lobby and the main stage in the iconic, European opera house-inspired theater. (This is also your chance to take a selfie in the same bathroom as your favorite Academy Awards-attending star.)
The tour guide shares some Oscar night insider info, like how the “backstage” press room speeches aren’t actually backstage at all (you’ll have to take the tour to find out where it really takes place), and you get to ride the same elevator that the celebrities take on awards night. When you hit the button for your floor, imagine that it’s the same one that Michelle Yeoh may have pressed with one of her hot dog fingers after her lead actress win.
Tours generally run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.. Standard tickets are $25, $19 for youth and seniors. Tickets are available online, or at the Dolby Theatre box office. Dates and times vary depending on performance schedules; check the schedule here for available times and to purchase tickets.
Along the way, the tour guide drops some interesting bits of knowledge: The entire stadium is 100 feet underground. Magic Johnson always requests chicken fingers when he’s dining there. The enormous video screen contraption weighs 2.2 million pounds. And my favorite tidbit: The birds are kept away from the stadium by hawks that are wrangled by a bird handler named Tango, who lives on the premises. There are three price levels of tours — we opted for the mid-priced version that offered the field experience as well as access to the beautifully curated Kinsey African American Art & History Collection, which was well worth the upsell.
Tours are offered daily and are priced at $39, $49 and $59 depending on the level of access. Dates and times vary depending on games and events taking place; check the schedule here for available times and to purchase tickets.
The Los Angeles Times Printing Plant
My recent tour was tinged with a bit of melancholy as the plant is set to cease operations in 2024. (When that happens, The Times will work with Southern California News Group to produce its print editions.) The changes sparked a conversation about the takeover of digital media.
Kunitomi has a wealth of stories from decades of hosting press tours, school field trips, curious tourists and anyone else wanting a glimpse into how the 142-year-old newspaper makes it from journalists’ fingers to newsstands. From the lobby, where the earliest printing press is displayed, to the massive space where hundreds of rolls of paper are lined up for the day’s printing, the tour is a fascinating look at a process.
The printing plant tours were suspended during the pandemic, and will resume in the near future. Check this page for tour updates, or email Darrell Kunitomi at email@example.com for more information.
Once we finally made it inside, we got an overview of all that the company offers and were fortunate to meet many of the individuals keeping it running. Homeboy Industries was started in 1988 by Father Gregory Boyle to help former gang members and previously incarcerated youth with employment and educational opportunities. Today, the lively, positive atmosphere of the space and the people inhabiting it reflects its mission. The location offers a long list of resources that include mental health services, legal services, vocational training and tattoo removal, while also housing the Homegirl Cafe and Homeboy Bakery (where you can pick up boxes of pastries and cookies in the likeness of Father Boyle). It’s a tour that not only informs, but inspires.
Tours are free and are offered weekdays at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m. Request a tour by filling out an email form here and they will contact you to confirm a date and time.
Point Fermin Lighthouse
The tour takes you through the carefully re-created residences of the lighthouse keepers that lived there, eventually winding up a steep, narrow staircase to the lighthouse tower, where you get a stunning view of the ocean, the cliffs below and Catalina Island in the distance. (Warning: The staircase is a little harrowing on the way down, as I found myself mumbling lyrics from the Talking Heads song: “How Did I Get Here?”) My tour guide that day, Jeanette Rodriguez, shared this interesting item that gave a glimpse into the solitary life of a lighthouse keeper over a century ago. Back in 1901, Los Angeles Times reporter Grace Hortense Tower interviewed an old sea captain by the name of George N. Shawn about living in the lighthouse alone. In her story, she wrote: “The house, with its twelve great rooms, must seem lonely to the genial old sea captain who is at present its sole occupant. In fact, he confesses as much to us, and added, with a knowing wink: ‘And I’m not going to stand it much longer, either. I tell you. I’m going to get someone to stay with me. I’ll not put in another lonely six months as I have the last’ and he laughed jovially; but behind the laugh there was just a touch of pathos, after all.”
Tours are offered Tuesday through Sunday at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Reservations are not required. Tours are free, but a cash donation is requested. Large groups or tours should make additional arrangements.
Los Angeles Distillery
The distillery produces not just whiskey but a variety of luxury brand spirits including rum and gin. When I visited, our group enjoyed an informal tasting of said beverages in a cozy room nestled between rows of aged wooden barrels. These were very generous pours — a vessel is on each table for any remaining portions, post-sip. (If you don’t use it, make sure to ride-share or bring along a designated driver.) Fun fact: During the pandemic, the distillery took thousands of bottles of wine off the hands of wineries that had closed, and turned them into hand sanitizer.
Tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. Advance reservations are required; cost is $50 per person, including the tasting. Check the schedule here for available dates and times and to purchase tickets.
Los Angeles City Hall Observation Deck
I first made my way up there after getting excused from jury duty — a fellow prospective juror couldn’t believe that I, a native Angeleno, had never been, and urged me to experience the feeling of being “on top of the world.” I took her advice, and it didn’t disappoint. The City Hall building has an impressive pedigree: built in 1925, it was a collaboration between three of Los Angeles’ leading architects, John Parkinson, Albert C. Martin and John C. Austin. Parkinson also designed the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Union Station, and Austin was part of the design team responsible for the Griffith Observatory and the Shrine Auditorium..
To begin your journey to the top of the building, check in at the lobby with security, who will direct you upstairs. After two elevator rides, you’ll arrive on the 26th floor, where you’ll find a room with paintings of Los Angeles mayors, starting with John G. Nichols, L.A.’s second mayor in 1852. Former Mayor Eric Garcetti’s portrait, created by artist Shepard Fairey, was installed this year. From there, take a staircase to the 27th floor, where you’ll be able to step out onto the narrow deck, walk around and get a 360-degree view of the city. Los Angeles Explorers Guild has a guide to what you’re seeing in every direction. For a few exhilarating moments, you really do feel like you’re on top of the world.
The building is open on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on weekends. Admission is free and no reservations are needed. You will be required to show an ID and go through a security check. Parking can be a challenge, as visitors are no longer allowed to park underneath City Hall East. Find street parking, or there is a public lot on Judge John Aiso Street, which is around a 7-minute walk.
That space is where the tour, brought to you by a $1 brochure, begins. The design tidbits are worth geeking out over (Did you know Lloyd Wright used 30- and 60-degree angles because they naturally occur in snowflakes, crystals and tree branches?) From the chapel, you’ll amble to the front lawn with views of Abalone Cove, the reflection pool, the floodlit tower that sailors once dubbed “God’s candle,” the rose garden, amphitheater and a hillside stream. The spots throughout the lush, tranquil grounds are not destinations you need to “get to” but rather meander through, meditate on and enjoy.
The chapel and grounds are open daily from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. The sanctuary is closed to the public during weddings and other private ceremonies.
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