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Five Ways LAX Has Become Its Own Travel Destination


Sometime between now and the end of the year, you’re probably going to find yourself at LAX.

You may have held out this long, but at some point, you’ve got to be home for Christmas – and if not for Christmas, then by New Year’s night.

Even if you’re not dreaming of a “White Christmas” – even if you refuse to travel for the holidays – it can be difficult to stay away from the L.A. area’s largest (though not oldest) airport.

Family members may choose to escape their cold weather climes to spend a little quality time with you here on the Best Coast – so of course you want to greet them and help them with their luggage (which hopefully includes some gifts for you).

Your L.A. area significant others, best friends, roommates, cousins, and neighbors who are homeward bound would rather ride with you than brave an Uber or a Lyft – so they need to be dropped off and picked up.

Eventually, some kind of public transportation (a subway, a lightrail, a people mover, something) is going to get us to LAX, but in the meantime, the Los Angeles International Airport has become more than just means to an end. In many ways, LAX has become its own destination – with the best of the best L.A. cuisine, mid-century architecture, artwork, and a good dose of aviation history.

So, if you miss your flight and are stuck waiting hours for the next one out… or inclement weather back east has delayed your flight… don’t despair. There’s plenty to keep you occupied – and fill your belly – at LAX.

Here are five highlights of what you can expect now – but since many of them are inside the security lines, you may as well just book your trip home so you can visit them.

Tom Bradley International Terminal: LAX
Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT). | Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

1. The Food

LAX is in the middle of a veritable revolution when it comes to places to grab a bite to eat before your flight. Seriously, you’ll want to actually show up and check in two or three hours before your departure time, just so you can fit in a good meal. It all started with the grand reopening of the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) back in 2013 – and, with it, came the promise of a selection of L.A.’s best dining together in one food court. No longer is your only recourse to find something to “grab and go” from the quick serve chains, the coffee place, or the fake Irish pub. Now, you can partake in bona fide gourmet meals at L.A. favorites like Border Grill, The Larder at Tavern, and CHAYA Sushi, as well as more causal options like Umami Burger, 800 Degrees, and Michael Voltaggio’s ink.sack. The reinvention is now underway at the other terminals as well – with LaBrea Bakery in T1 and T3, Gladstone’s in T3, Ford’s Filling Station and Lemonade in Delta Terminal 5, Loteria Grill in T5 and T7, BLD (for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) in T7, and Engine Co. No. 28 (whose original location is in an actual old fire station in DTLA) in T8. American Airlines’ Terminal 4 in particular is busting with options, from versions of local favorites like Homeboy Café (for home-grown comforts), Real Food Daily (for vegan delights), and Cole’s (for French dip) to a resurrected Campanile, which closed its beloved La Brea location back in 2012.

2. The Drink

Since craft beer has been popping up all over the L.A. basin for the last five years or so (giving San Diego, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties a real run for their money), it stands to reason that you’d find some delicious local suds being served on the departure levels of LAX as well. Terminal 3 is home to Angel City Brewery, and in T6 you can find Golden Road Brewing’s Point the Way Café – both of which serve food as well as brews, since you really shouldn’t fly on an empty stomach. The California-born (though now expanded) Gordon Biersch Brewery is also represented in Southwest T1, as is the South Bay favorite Rock & Brews, which serves a wide variety of craft beer (also found in Delta T5). If you’re feeling fancy, visit Wolfgang Puck’s The Wine Bar (which also serves beer and cocktails) in T6 or the Petrossian Champagne and Caviar Bar (which also has a selection of 20 different vodkas) in TBIT. Just don’t enjoy imbibing too much, or you’ll miss your flight.

Angel City Brewery: LAX
Terminal 3 is home to Angel City Brewery. | Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

3. The Shopping

It’s no surprise that the new concessionaire in charge of a lot of these changes to LAX is none other than Westfield, the company behind our shopping centers in Century City, Culver City, the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, and so on. Thanks to Westfield, LAX has a couple of ways to shop local as you’re headed out of town: a mini marketplace version of the Original Farmers Market and an outpost of the French gourmet store Monsieur Marcel in Delta T5, as well as Fred Segal and The Sunset Strip’s Book Soup in TBIT. You can also indulge in some luxury purchases at fashion retailers like Bvlgari, Coach, Emporio Armani, Hugo Boss, and Michael Kors – that is, if you haven’t spent all of your money on your airfare and your to-go caviar.

Shopping: LAX
Shopping at LAX. | Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

4. The Architecture

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of LAX may not be its architecture – but, actually, it should be. From the 1960s to today, art like the mosaic tile tunnels by Pasadena-born graphic and interior designer Charles D. Kratka have made traveling through LAX a real journey. Although there were originally seven of those tiled tunnels, only three of them – at T3, American T4 (along the moving sidewalk), and T6 – still exist. Before you even get through security, though, make a stop at the “Theme Building,” which has become a symbolic icon not only for LAX but for the L.A. area in general. Dedicated in 1961, the Theme Building was the result of the joint efforts of an all-star team of architects and engineers that included William Pereira, Charles Luckman, Paul Revere Williams, and Welton Becket – all of whom, in their own individual ways, transformed the streetscapes of L.A. The Los Angeles Conservancy calls the Theme Building “a true Modern icon” and “a space-age landmark,” which is maybe why it’s underappreciated. The Star Trekian “Encounter” restaurant that once occupied it closed in 2014, and its vacancy has yet to be filled. The “best kept secret” City Deli (a cafeteria once reserved exclusively for airport workers) is no longer operational on its ground level. However, the Theme Building is still worth a visit, despite the dearth of eating options – if only to see the exterior of the UFO structure and catch a glimpse of the permanent 9/11 memorial art exhibit. While you await some new dining option to open up upstairs, you can still visit the Observation Deck and view the entire airport from the Central Terminal Area – but only on the second weekend of the month, Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Theme Building. | Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

5. The History

Let’s say, for whatever reason, you’ve got a little more than a little time to kill, but you need to stay close to LAX. The answer lies in a place called Flight Path Learning Center & Museum, which took over the LAX Imperial Terminal in 2002. Located just off Imperial Highway at the southern perimeter of the airport (by the cargo and charter planes), The Learning Center itself features lots of model airplanes (including some unique biplanes), memorabilia, and artifacts that, together, tell the history of the airlines, aircraft manufacturers, aerospace companies, and inflight staff that have contributed to the last 100-plus years of flight. Highlights include real flight attendant and pilot uniforms that clocked plenty of miles up in the sky, as well as some futuristic fashion designs that attempted to predict what air travel will look like in the year 2095. It’s free to visit and open every day Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. – but if you’re interested in exploring aviation history outside of those hours and have a little extra time, visit the actual “Flight Path,” the walk of fame that’s been installed along Sepulveda Boulevard in the L.A. neighborhood of Westchester. You’ll find dozens of historic plaques – paying tribute to Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes, the Wright Brothers, Sally Ride, Rosie the Riveter, Donald W. Douglas, and even JPL – between the border of LAX at 92nd Street and Manchester Avenue.

Flight Path Learning Center & Museum: LAX
Flight Path Learning Center & Museum took over the LAX Imperial Terminal in 2002. |  Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

Bonus: The Art

While you’re snacking and shopping in the international terminal, look up and you’ll see a permanent video installation called “See Change,” which features enough hours of programming to keep you entertained even during the longest of layovers (and only gets turned off for four hours in the middle of the night). There are also 11 temporary exhibition sites featuring rotating displays of art and installations – many of which are open to the public and not just to ticketed passengers.

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