As a major city, L.A. isn’t necessarily known for its skyline. At least… not yet.
Given height restrictions that kept our City Hall looming above the rest of downtown L.A. for years, we’ve been slow to build upwards – and that’s always been part of our charm. When your view is this good, why block it?
But times change, towers arise, and L.A.’s vast horizontal sprawl changes direction, heading into the vertical space above.
With so many new projects on tap and under construction, this may seem like a drastic, modern change – but the sea change has actually been underway for the last 50 years.
Fortunately, that gives us enough time to climb our industrial monoliths of concrete and steel to get the view from above – a postcard view of L.A. that's about to go extinct and a snapshot in time that future architectural historians will talk about but may have never seen themselves.
When you live in a city that's always changing, the time to appreciate it is always now. So, here are the five best places to elevate to new heights and get a scenic view overlooking what’s below from some of the tallest points around – without climbing a mountain.
1. Los Angeles City Hall
It’s no longer L.A.’s tallest building, and it hasn’t been since 1966. But prior to that, City Hall was the skyline of downtown L.A. – and for four decades. That’s thanks to a key city ordinance in 1905 that prohibited any new buildings above 150 feet high (hence the low profile you’ll still find throughout much of the city) – just a third of the height of the 450-foot tower of City Hall, the sole exception to the edict.
But everything changed when a voter referendum repealed the height limit restriction in 1957. And so, our city center began to rise, as Bunker Hill was razed and flattened in the 1960s, and new bank towers were built in its place as part of the area’s redevelopment. Now, City Hall is #29 on the list of tallest buildings in L.A. and #60 among the tallest buildings in the state of California – but it does hold the distinction of being the tallest structure in the world to ever be base-isolated. (In 2001, 526 isolators and sliders were installed under the building as part of a seismic retrofit and renovation, which rendered it able to survive an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.2.)
Municipal structures don't always receive a lot of attention when it comes to preservation and restoration – but we’ve done a pretty good job so far of saving our 1928 L.A. City headquarters, whose Art Deco-style ziggurat tower still rises high above downtown L.A.’s Civic Center. (That may be because it’s beloved by viewers all over the world who know it as The Daily Planet from the "Superman" TV show.) Designed by the architectural “supergroup” of John Parkinson, A. C. Martin, and John C. Austin, City Hall's grandiose hallways – including the rotunda with its ornate ceiling and tremendous chandelier – are in great condition, and they are awe-inspiring. Its Grecian and Romanesque design elements will keep you gazing upwards until your neck gets a crick.
To get a closer view of this architectural crown jewel of historic downtown L.A., you can walk to the upstairs balcony – but only during the week and during regular business hours. While you’re there, grab a snack at Homeboy Diner on the second floor, and check with security to see if they’ll give you a visitor pass through security and up to the 26th and 27th floors for the Mayor Tom Bradley Room and the observation deck. Up there, which is as close to the Lindbergh Beacon as you can get, view various interpretive displays (including an annotated map of the skyline so you know what you’re looking at), touch the Gladding McBean terracotta tiles, and ring the bell. For a special “golden hour” experience, join the Los Angeles Conservancy on one of its weekly "sunset" tours of City Hall and its observation deck, available during the summer only.
2. Wilshire Grand Center
Topped by a stainless steel spire, the Wilshire Grand Center’s 1,100-foot glass skyscraper is not only the tallest building in L.A. (beating out the U.S. Bank Tower, though just barely), but also the tallest west of the Mississippi. Rising up just 73 floors, it hasn't got the most floors of any of its peer towers – but each of its floors are pretty tall. (The fitness center alone features 11-foot glass windows!) Appropriately, the architectural design firm behind the project is AC Martin – also responsible for L.A.'s first "skyscraper," our current City Hall (see #1 above). And the new Wilshire Grand certainly stands out among its neighbors at Figueroa and 7th Streets – though not just because of its height. Using a mixture of classic design elements like glazed terra-cotta tiles and marble alongside modern and technologically-advanced uses of concrete and steel (including elevators that supposedly can be used during a fire evacuation), it's almost retro-futuristic. The shape of the high-rise evokes a very shiny wing of a commercial jet, which comes as no surprise since its owner is Korean Air (whose logo adorns the top of the tower).
The $1.2 billion project replaced the former Hotel Statler from 1950 (which later became the Statler Hilton, then the Omni Hotel, then the Wilshire Grand), which was, ahem, “deconstructed” in 2012. Currently, the “new” Wilshire Grand houses an outpost of the Intercontinental luxury hotel chain, with nearly 900 rooms. However, you don’t have to stay at the hotel to enjoy the tower – because the skyscraper features a number of public spaces from which you can take in the view of the surrounding flat-roofed buildings that are downright dwarfed by this new behemoth. In addition to the hotel's "sky lobby" on the 70th floor (accessible by a high-speed elevator), also open to the public are multiple restaurants, the Lobby Lounge, a heated outdoor bar called Spire 73 (the tallest open-air bar in the Western Hemisphere), and a poolside bar on the 7th floor.
3. U.S. Bank Tower and OUE Skyspace
Until the new Wilshire Grand opened a year ago, the U.S. Bank Tower (a.k.a. the Library Tower) was the tallest building west of the Mississippi – at least, since it was built in 1989. And it was only since spires and other pointy architectural elements were allowed for the first time that the Wilshire Grand Tower was able to dethrone the U.S. Bank Tower as tallest building when it was completed in 2017. Now, although only the second-tallest building in L.A., the U.S. Bank Tower is still kind of our Empire State Building, with crown lights that change depending on which significant event might require a special color scheme. And since the OUE Skyspace observation deck opened two years ago (as the tallest open-air observation deck in California), it's even more like the skyscrapers you might find in other major cities like New York and Chicago. This observation deck isn't quite at the top of the building, but it's pretty close to that lighted crown and the helipad on the roof. And the 360-degree, unobstructed view from up there – gasp!
With the scenery we've got – ranging from cityscape to mountainscape -- it's hard to believe that the only other observation deck of its kind prior to its opening had been the small, little-known one at City Hall. But what those other towers don’t have is a glass slide that wraps around the outside of the building and allows visitors to plummet to the floor below rather than taking the stairs. Just pull a flimsy magic carpet over your feet... and slide your way into oblivion. (Pro tip: If you don't hold the loops tight, you’ll end up banking on the glass sides of the slide and having a really raucous ride.) The slide itself takes just a few seconds, but you can linger on the deck, visit the very good gift shop, or head back down and view the interpretive displays you may have skipped on the way up. Or, you can slide again… and again… and again… with special packages offered (including combos with sunrise yoga) and discounts for SoCal residents.
4. Aon Center
Completed in 1973, the Aon Center (a.k.a. United California Bank Building and the First Interstate Tower) is one of L.A.’s most misunderstood and underappreciated structures – falling just short of the 50-year period of significance and representing a “lost” part of L.A. that many preservationists still mourn.
But despite its unfortunate location on the flattened Bunker Hill in what’s now known as the Financial District, its architectural pedigree is undeniable – designed by Charles Luckman, a former partner of William Pereira, with whom he helped create CBS Television City and the Theme Building at LAX. And at the time it was built, it was the tallest building in the world outside of New York and Chicago. With 62 stories above ground, it remained the tallest building west of the Mississippi until 1982 and the tallest building in L.A. until 1989 with the completion of the U.S. Bank Tower.
As it’s an office building – whose largest tenant is the insurance company Aon, which lends its name to the building -- the Aon Center can be tricky to get into and explore if you’re not currently leasing or potentially looking to become a tenant. However, once a year, you can experience the entire steel tower in a way that only a couple hundred other people ever do: by participating in the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air Climb, which occurs every April. It’s a fundraising opportunity as well as your chance to ascend 1,393 stairs as a personal challenge or just to “bag” another architectural peak.
The Bonaventure Hotel is a thrilling part of the L.A. skyline and an adventure to explore, as you try to navigate your way through the six-story atrium and, eventually, its glassy cylinders to the upper floors. Is its futurism outdated? Maybe. It certainly has its critics. But there’s been nothing else like it in L.A. since it opened in 1976, and I would challenge you to find any other hotel (especially a Westin) that’s been favored by more photographers and location scouts. A postmodern icon just over 40 years into its L.A. tenure, we’re not supposed to understand it yet. Of course it’s weird and perhaps even awkward. But it sure is a sight to see, and it provides a scenic view of all the surrounding L.A. sights as well.
The Bonaventure has never been the tallest building anywhere in its history, but you can’t talk about 360-degree views of downtown Los Angeles without mentioning this landmark, with its peekaboo elevators and its revolving cocktail lounge on the 34th floor, the Bona Vista. Designed by “neofuturistic” architect John C. Portman, Jr., the Bonaventure is where you can get a snack or a drink in one of the last such rotating lounges still operational in the country. Be prepared to stay about an hour and a half to get a full rotation in. And if motion sickness and vertigo haven’t done you in at that point, head down to the 4th floor pool deck for a beer at Bonaventure Brewing Company.