Title

The Best Places to See Neon in Los Angeles

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

I find this to be the most depressing time of year. The nights still feel longer than ever -- and, now that all the holiday decorations have been taken down, they're darker than ever, too.

But there are some areas in L.A. that are all lit up like a Christmas tree all year long, thanks to the city's healthy neon culture. I always love it when some new bar or restaurant opens up on La Cienega or Fairfax with a bright and shiny neon sign, and when some old rooftop sign or marquee that hasn't been turned on in years suddenly gets relit.

There's just nothing like the glow of those luminous tubes and noble gasses -- except, perhaps, the glow of those strings of C6 and C9 light bulbs. And don't even get me started on the magic of bubble lights.

Here are five great places for L.A.'s sign geeks to spot lots of stellar neon signage and art, both old and new:

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Museum of Neon Art: The anticipated grand reopening of L.A.'s Museum of Neon Art is upon us -- with a soft opening group show and a few pieces from their permanent collection on display in the gift shop and lobby, which are currently open on weekends. A big shebang is planned for 2016, and the pomp and circumstance is well-deserved, seeing as the museum shuttered its downtown L.A. location back in 2011. But MONA never entirely went dark over the last five years.

They've continued running their fun Neon Cruise, which takes you through much of the neon that L.A. has to offer -- on the top of a double-decker bus -- from the Old Bank District to Hollywood, West Hollywood, and back. Over the last couple of years, you could also take a peek at their collection in storage at the Pomona Packing Plant during their 2nd Saturday Art Walks. The new location is in Glendale across from the Americana at Brand -- and those who follow the museum's comings and goings across various parts of L.A. will be relieved to know that this will now be MONA's permanent home. Look for the neon diver on the roof.

 

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Universal Citywalk: Even if you've been trained to dismiss Universal Studios as a tourist trap (though you'll still brave the lines at Six Flags), its Citywalk is worth a closer look. This place is absolutely bedazzled in neon -- and much of it is thanks to the Museum of Neon Art, which restored several of them and placed them at the nightlife complex all the way back in 1993. Here, you can see the neon "Indians" from Holmes Tuttle Pontiac on La Brea, which hang above a Guess store. There's the famous neon sign from the facade of the Earl Carroll Theatre on Sunset in Hollywood (now the Nickelodeon on Sunset stage facility), the 20-foot Steele's Motel sign from Van Nuys from the 1950s, and the vintage sign from the former Condes' Restaurant in Gardena, built in 1960.

If you love neon, you'll also get a kick out of seeing the national chains get in on the action -- from the Flame Broiler to Panda Express, KFC, and Subway. Those glass tubes have been bent into the shape of ice cream cones, cinnamon buns, and even a burger and fries! Ignore how you've been programmed to hate it, and just give yourself over to all the pretty lights. And while you're there, you might as well take advantage of the cosmic bowling at Jillian's (which has a cool animated neon sign of its own).

Hollywood: This is the stuff that postcards are made of. There's a reason why people all over the world dream about coming to Hollywood: the main drag of Hollywood Boulevard between Vine Street and La Brea Avenue is dazzling at night. From the Pantages Theatre marquee and the fabulous Frolic Room signage next door to the restored, landmark blade sign of the Taft Building, the iconic "Hollywood at Vine" sign across the street, past Musso & Frank, the Hollywood Wax Museum, the Guinness World Records Museum (a.k.a. the former Hollywood Theatre), and all the way down to the restored marquee of the El Capitan -- is one huge stretch of neon.

But you don't have to stay on Hollywood Boulevard to get your neon fix -- you can venture off onto Highland to witness the glow of the American Legion Hollywood Post 43, onto Selma to be mesmerized by the Crossroads of the World, or to Sunset to admire one of those vintage Arby's neon hat signs -- the last of a dying breed.

 

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Broadway Historic Theatre District: Broadway in downtown L.A. is an embarrassment of riches in terms of façade lighting -- and that's even without some of the neon signs that still hang unlit! If you're lucky enough to walk or drive down Broadway when all these historic theaters and other commercial businesses are all lit up at the same time (like, say, during Bringing Back Broadway's annual Night on Broadway event), you're in for a real treat.

Start at 3rd Street and grab a snack at Grand Central Market (where Eggslut has a cool contemporary neon calling card). Then, head south, strolling past the Los Angeles Theatre, the Downtown Palace, Clifton's (where you can go inside and view a neon light that has been burning for 80 years), the Globe, Urban Outfitters (the former Rialto Theatre), Broadway Bar, the Orpheum Theatre, and finally, the Theatre at Ace Hotel (the former United Artists Theatre). Several of these have only recently been repainted and relit, and with the Cameo, Arcade, and Roxie theatres also needing a bit of TLC, hopefully we'll see more in the future.

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

If you want to take a jaunt off of Broadway, stop into the Pershing Square Metro Station where 12 custom neon sculptures were installed in 1993 and still hang from the ceiling. And while you're already downtown, swing by the Old Chinatown Plaza between North Broadway and N. Hill Street, and walk through the neon-lined pagodas to bask in the glow of local establishments like Sincere Gifts, K.G. Louie, and Hop Louie (where you can grab a meal and a dance partner).

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Valley Relics: The San Fernando Valley has some really iconic neon signs -- the Pink Motel, Circus Liquors, Phil's Diner -- but the sad truth is that it used to have a lot more. At least, there used to be a lot more in situ. However, thanks to obsessive collector Tommy Gelinas, many of those old neon cast-offs have found a new home in his Valley Relics Museum. It's not a sign museum per se, considering all the vintage menus, matchbooks, BMX bikes, cars, and other memorabilia he's also got in there. And it's not 100% devoted to the San Fernando Valley, either, though that's where Gelinas was raised and calls home. Still, local old-timers and visiting looky-loos alike will enjoy the salvaged vestiges of defunct businesses like Outrigger, the Palomino, and Drexlers Kosher Deli. There's both a Bob's Big Boy sign (from the Toluca Lake location which is fortunately still open) and an actual Big Boy. And you can even watch a neon blue windmill from Van de Kamp's Bakery spin around any Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free.

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Bonus: If you want to turn your adventure into a full-blown road trip, keep following the former path of Route 66 from Downtown to Arcadia for The Derby Restaurant, Glendora for the Golden Spur (a restaurant on a rare patch of Route 66 actually still called Route 66), and all the way out to Rancho Cucamonga, where you can spot some great throwback signage at The Magic Lamp, Vince's Spaghetti, and the Sycamore Inn. And if you just can't get enough, pop on over to the Sand and Sage Motel in Fontana, get a good night's sleep, and make the three-hour drive to Vegas the next morning. A daytime or nighttime visit to the boneyard at the Neon Museum alone is worth the trip there and back.