The second part of our train trip begins on Day 4 as we arrive at Union Station in Los Angeles. In case you missed the first part, you can hop aboard with us from the start in Hail to the Southwest Chief: All Aboard for Los Angeles.
Day 4: Los Angeles, CA
Arriving at 7:30am (early!), we grabbed our packs and took a few minutes to wander wide-eyed through the lobby and experience the Art Deco awesomeness that is Union Station. Opened in 1939, the station is considered by many to be the “last of the great train stations”. A collaborative project of the AT&SF, Union Pacific, and Southern Pacific, it was designed to bring all of the railroads to one central location in town. Since its opening, it has gone from operating 24/7 for troops during World War II to seeing its number decline as travelers took to the road; however, despite the decrease in travelers passing through, it remains vibrant and welcoming to passengers.
In keeping with our no car experience, we began to explore Downtown Los Angeles as we walked from Union Station to the Hotel Figueroa, where we would be staying for the night. We don’t consider ourselves city people and didn’t expect too much from a day spent in the City of Angels, but we ended up visiting some historic and interesting places and loved every minute. We explored Calle Olvera, the oldest street in Los Angeles; the Bradbury Building, perhaps most recognizable from the movie, Blade Runner; Angels Flight, a 298-foot long funicular railway that has provided over 100 million rides since 1901; and the super funky The Last Bookstore.
Downtown Los Angeles
Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) is a residential and commercial neighborhood within the City of Los Angeles with more than 50,000 residents and 500,000 jobs. In the early 20th Century, DTLA had more rail lines than New York City, enough banking institutions to earn the name of “Wall Street of the West”, and was home to some of the most famous hotels and department stores in the country before suffering through decades of decline and a hearty amount of historical building demolition. In recent years, DTLA has undergone a revitalization and become a popular neighborhood once again with cultural attractions, trendy restaurants, and hip hotels.
Just across the street from the station is the oldest section of Los Angeles. A 44-acre park, the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District (also called El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument), is centered around a plaza built in the 1820s and dedicated to the original 11 families that settled first in the area. Walking through the park takes you by a number of historic buildings; including the Pico House, a luxury hotel built in 1870 that was once the most elegant hotel in Southern California, and the Brunswig Building, one of the first five-story buildings in LA built in 1888.
After crossing over the 101 (and through a few sizable homeless camps), we headed south on Main to 1st Street, passing some of DTLA’s most recognizable buildings, including City Hall, the Times Building, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Frank Gehry-designed, super funky Walt Disney Concert Hall.
As we walked and enjoyed the architecture, we were amazed by the lack of traffic. We traveled entire blocks without seeing a single car- something we couldn’t imagine ever happening anywhere in LA, regardless of the day or time (though it probably didn’t hurt that we were there on a Sunday morning).
After an hour or so of meandering through the quiet streets, we arrived at the hotel to store our bags while we explored for the day. After taking a few minutes to rest, we called an Uber (the only time we were in a car for the entire trip) to take us back to Union Station to begin our real sightseeing.
Philippe The Original
One of the things we were most excited about on our train trip was the short walk from Union Station to Philippe The Original. Creator of the “French Dipped Sandwich”, Philippe’s has been serving the classic sandwich since it was accidentally created when a sandwich was dropped into roasting pan filled with juices in 1918. Despite it being before 11am, we enjoyed what is definitely the tastiest French Dip either of us had ever had, as well as some of the copious side options (big thumbs up for the coleslaw). In its present location since 1951, the experience is just as neat as the food, with seating at long communal tables, the floor covered in sawdust, and the counter looking as though it hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. If you’re in Downtown L.A., don’t pass up this experience.
Just beyond Philippes and that tasty French Dip sandwich is Chinatown. Home to restaurants, shops, galleries, and approximately 20,000 residents, the current location of Chinatown is actually its second. The original Chinatown neighborhood was razed for the construction of Union Station and the “New Chinatown” across the street was opened in 1938.
As we strolled up and down some of the blooming cherry tree-lined blocks, we poked into a few specialty grocery stores and imagined the tasty meals we could make if only we had a way to get the ingredients home, and wandered through the Far East Plaza Food Mall, with ramen and dim sum restaurants, Taiwanese street food and Nashville hot chicken, wishing we had saved just a little room to taste more.
Calle Olvera & Avila Adobe
Just a short stroll from Philippes and Chinatown is the oldest part of the city and Calle Olvera. Originally known as Wine Street, but renamed in 1877, Calle Olvera is located within El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. Since its opening in 1930 as a Mexican marketplace designed to preserve California’s heritage, brick-lined and vibrant Calle Olvera is brimming with stalls of colorful handcrafted items, outdoor cafes, and gift shops. In fact, some of the current vendors are descendants of the original artisans.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973, the district and Calle Olvera are also home to the Avila Adobe, the oldest surviving residence in LA. Built by a cattle rancher in 1818, the walls are constructed with adobe blocks that are 2.5 to 3 feet thick. The roof is held up by cottonwoods originally taken from the banks of the Los Angeles River, and sealed with a mixture of tar, rocks, and horsehair, with the tar originally coming from the La Brea Tar Pits. After some years of neglect, vacancy, and a number of damaging earthquakes, the house was condemned in the mid-1920s. Thankfully, local resident Christine Sterling, set out to save the home in 1926 and revived a previously unsavory area into a prosperous cultural center, even offering tours while she lived in the home. Since her passing and subsequent repair from a 1971 earthquake, the adobe has been open for public tours since 1976. Open daily from 9am to 4pm, tours are free, and the adobe is definitely worth a visit.
The Bradbury Building
Walking into the lobby of the Bradbury Building is a bit like stepping into a sci-fi movie, which is appropriate as it had a key role in the movie, Blade Runner. Or, if you’re more of a vintage film buff, it also was the home of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company in the film noir classic, Double Indemnity. Built in 1893 by a millionaire who had made his fortune in gold mining, the five-story Bradbury Building is unassuming from the outside. Inside, however, is a Steampunk masterpiece of ornate wrought iron railings and a glass roof so grand that at the time of its opening, the Bradbury had the largest plate glass windows in Los Angeles.
Now home to offices and stores on the ground floor, visitors can check out the lobby and go up one staircase. While the views are not as grand as we can only imagine they are from the top floor, it’s still worth making a stop to check out this movie star edifice.
Art Deco Architecture
Though it is home to a mix of architectural styles, there are a large number of Art Deco style buildings in DTLA. From the late 1920s until the 1940s, Art Deco was quite popular and produced some beautiful and recognizable buildings. On our walk, we managed to catch a glimpse of just a few, including City Hall, the Oviatt Building, the Los Angeles Central Library, and the recently renovated Title Insurance and Trust Building; however, there are so many others that we missed that we’ve already decided that we have go back to visit and find them!
Built in 1928, the Los Angeles City Hall is one of the city’s most recognizable buildings, primarily (at least to us non-Californians) due to its appearance in numerous shows and movies. Its distinctive tower was constructed with concrete made of sand from all California’s 58 counties and water from its 21 missions and until 1964 was the tallest building in Los Angeles. Atop its 458-foot tall Art Deco tower in the peak of the pyramid is the Lindbergh Beacon. Originally operated nightly from the time of the building’s opening until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the aircraft beacon was dark for many decades until it was restored in 2001 and is now used occasionally for special events.
Angels Flight Railway
Opened in 1901 in the Bunker Hill district of Downtown Los Angeles, Angels Flight is a funicular railway, which uses a cable and a pair of counterbalanced cars- named Olivet and Sinai, to provide movement up and down its very steep rails. At 298 feet, it’s the world’s shortest railway, transporting passengers up and down the steep hill between Hill Street and California Plaza. Originally, the railway was located between Hill and Olive Streets, one half block north of the current location, until 1969 when its location was set to be redeveloped, the tracks were dismantled, and Olivet and Sinai put into storage in a warehouse for nearly three decades, before eventually reopening in 1996.
Delightfully anachronistic in a neighborhood surrounded by modern high rises, Angels Flight has provided more than 100 million rides in its 118-year history. Fare is $1 each way and the ride lasts maybe a minute in each direction, but it’s a ton of fun and perhaps our favorite part of our day in DTLA.
The Last Bookstore
With bookstores becoming fewer and farther between, it was a treat to discover The Last Bookstore on the corner of Spring and 5th Streets. Located in an old bank building, the store is 22,000 square feet crammed (and we mean crammed) full of every genre of book you can imagine. It’s easy to imagine spending a few hours just browsing the titles. In addition to the thousands and thousands of books, there are quirky art displays, galleries, small shops, and even a book tunnel.
Since we were traveling with just backpacks, we weren’t looking to purchase anything. However, we happened to run across a 1964 copy of Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, which we couldn’t pass up. Why, you ask? The book, which inspired the 1971 movie of the same name (and also Sean Connery’s last as 007), includes a character named Bert Saxby, for which our little red rascal was named.
Walking back to the hotel from the Last Bookstore, we were treated to more beautiful buildings; including the Beaux Arts-style Millennium Biltmore, once the largest hotel west of Chicago, and the Palace Theatre, the oldest Orpheum theater still in existence in the country and one of the oldest in L.A.
Originally opened in 1926 by the YWCA as a place where women traveling alone could stay the night, as many hotels at the time required them to have a male chaperone, the Hotel Figueroa is a funky and welcoming Spanish Mediterranean-style hotel and one of the longest standing in Downtown LA.
We can’t say enough great things about the service we received. Arriving at 8:30am on the day we were scheduled to stay, we’d planned to just store our packs, but the wonderful front desk staff gave us a room (#308) and welcomed us to enjoy the expansive breakfast buffet (which we’re still kicking ourselves for not taking a picture of…). Everything was great, but the coffee cake is not to be missed.
After a day of exploring downtown, we made our way back to the hotel in the afternoon and enjoyed some chips, salsa, and a Bloody Maria while sitting poolside. A bit too cold for us to swim, we enjoyed the hipster vibe with the DJ and the fabulously painted back side of the hotel.
Having walked almost eight miles throughout the day, we opted to stay and eat dinner in the hotel at Veranda. Located next to the pool area, the restaurant was a touch on the loud side, but the food more than made up for it. We enjoyed the ceviche (yum), Arrachera tacos (good), Pollo Adobo tacos (great), and fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth churros (amazing). After stuffing ourselves, we retired to our room and very comfortable bed to rest up for our next train ride on the Coast Starlight to San Francisco.
Day 5: Coast Starlight
Los Angeles, CA to Emeryville, CA
Traveling from Los Angeles to Seattle, the Coast Starlight runs through some of the most beautiful scenery along the West Coast. With long stretches of tracks situated between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean, the views are even better than those seen by car (hard to believe!) along one of the country’s most beautiful highways.
From Union Station, the train heads towards the coast and those gorgeous ocean views, hugging the coast until it heads inland to stop in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. From there, the views turn to vineyards and rolling verdant valleys. The scenery was so spectacular for the entire trip that it was difficult to step away from our seats in the Observation Car, even to eat lunch and dinner, as we didn’t want to miss any of the views.
Probably the best views of any meal we had on any train were during our lunch on the Coast Starlight. We were so enthralled by the views that we forgot to take any pictures of our lunch, but we both enjoyed a Black Bean and Corn Veggie Burger – which was the best thing we ate on any train – along with a small bottle of wine.
After an afternoon of taking in the amazing views on both sides of the train (which makes it very hard to choose a side in the observation car), we headed off to dinner. We both started with a house salad and roll, and then had the Thyme Roasted Chicken Breast with mashed potatoes and green beans (Jay) and Rigatoni Pasta (Jen). Neither were amazing, but we were really there more for the experience than the food.
For the remainder of the ride, we traveled through Salinas, San Jose, and Oakland, while once again being treated to a spectacular sunset. Due to an accident on the tracks ahead of us, we were delayed about two hours getting in to Emeryville; but the staff took good care of us, providing us with bottles of water and keeping us informed of our progress. We eventually arrived in Emeryville at 12:25 am and headed to our hotel.
Due to scheduling, we had already planned to spend the night in Emeryville so that we could catch the California Zephyr the next morning. As we were on foot, we chose the Hyatt House hotel, located just across the tracks from the station. With our late arrival, we were thankful for the short walk and roomy bed, and the views of the Bay Bridge weren’t so bad either.
After a very brief, but restful stay in our room, complete with kitchen, large bedroom, and patio overlooking the bay, early the next morning we grabbed our packs and headed back across the tracks to catch the #6 Eastbound California Zephyr.
The last two days of our trip were aboard the one time “most talked about train in the country”, the California Zephyr. To continue following our adventure, check back soon for the final part of our journey, “Ride Like the Wind: On the California Zephyr to Denver“.