The Old West, from colonial Alta California to cinematic singing cowboys, is alive and kickin’ in the city of Los Angeles. You just have to know where to look. Follow this itinerary of the can't-miss historic spots in LA.
Start your journey back in time at the original Spanish mission that gave its name to the historic San Fernando Valley. Located in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Mission Hills lies Mission San Fernando Rey de España. Here, between the hustle and bustle of two major Los Angeles freeways, is a sanctuary of historical significance.
Founded in 1797, the Mission is one of the 21 Spanish missions built along El Camino Real (The Royal Road). It is the largest of the missions, and the only one named for a king rather than a saint — which may suggest its importance to the Spanish crown. An hour-long self-guided tour of the grounds introduces you to the various gardens, the museum, the church and other buildings and gives you a feel for 18th-century life in California.
Be sure not to miss is the famous Madonna Room, which holds one of the world’s largest collections of statues and images of the Virgin Mary. In this small room that was probably once a prison cell, you will find a myriad of Madonna statuettes and other small dedications. On the other side of the property, inside the church, you will find magnificent gold-leafed reredos (the ornamental architectural screen that frames the altar), a sharp contrast with the rest of the modest architecture in the Mission.
After the mission, drive southeast for about 25 minutes to Griffith Park, one of the largest urban parks in North America. Within this vast public space of hiking trails, golf courses and the LA Zoo is the Autry National Center (as in Gene Autry, the singing cowboy). The Autry is arguably one of the nation’s leading research and museum facilities dedicated to chronicling the myth and reality of the American West. History buffs should take note: you may want to stay here all day.
Divided into two floors, this family-friendly museum is split into two general categories: how the West was interpreted (fictional), and how the West really was (historical). Make sure you get a taste of both, including the plethora of beautiful paintings in the Romance Gallery on the main level and the obsessive Colt Firearms Collection on the lower level.
The fascinating museum store offers an excellent array of artwork, posters, music, books and authentic western wear. Head to the Golden Spur Café for lunch, where you will find many menu options fit for child and adult, carnivore and vegetarian. Meals are cooked fresh to order, but service is fast to accommodate for busy visitors.
From the Autry, continue driving southeast to downtown LA. Here, in the oldest section of Los Angeles, tucked beneath skyscrapers and between Union Station and Chinatown, are 27 historic buildings comprising the pedestrian-only El Pueblo Historical Monument, the 1781 birthplace of Los Angeles. The festive atmosphere of a Mexican marketplace along the central Olvera Street complements an array of historic sites: the Avila Adobe (oldest residential building in LA), the city’s oldest fire station, the world-famous 18x80-foot 1932 mural American Tropical by legendary Mexican muralist David Alfara Siqueiros and many more architectural features that make this landmark rich in historical life.
In fact, El Pueblo is so picturesque, it is very frequently used as a filming location for movies, television and commercials.
For souvenirs, head to Olverita's Village, where a collection of unique Chicano and Angeleno graphic t-shirts make excellent gifts. A few shops over, find some of the best chocolate in Los Angeles at Casa de Sousa, a vegetarian Mexican café.
Dinner choices are abundant. You will find savory carnitas, fresh salsa and other traditional favorites on Olvera Street. Full-service restaurants range from the traditional (El Paseo Inn) to the contemporary (La Golondrina Cafe).
El Pueblo is no stranger to special events. Festivals are regularly open to the public — check the El Pueblo Web site for upcoming events.