Before It Was Famous: The Origin and History of Los Angeles

Curious to learn more about the history of Los Angeles, California? Here’s a guide of everything to know when exploring the history of City of Angels.

Share article:

Like a portrait from a movie star’s high school yearbook, Los Angeles was once a little-known speck on the map. Fast forward to today, and El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula — what a long-winded mouthful from 1781! — is widely recognized as the brightest star on the biggest stage. In fact, it’s so famous now all you have to say is two little initials — L.A.

When you glance up at the towering skyscrapers, it’s tough to imagine this place was ever a tiny village. That’s one of the reasons so many people ask, “What is the history of Los Angeles?” Curious? Learn more about the humble beginnings of this anything-but-humble city by visiting some of the spots where it all began more than 200 years ago.

An aerial view of the city of Los Angeles, California, showing skyscrapers getting hit with the last rays of sunlight against a dark purple sky at sunset.

The Earliest Days

We recommend starting with a visit to Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in the San Gabriel area just east of downtown. It was one of the first buildings built in what is now the greater Los Angeles area, and it’s been through some rough times over the years. Founded in 1771 by Spanish Franciscans, it was rebuilt once after a flood destroyed it and again after a nasty earthquake wrecked it in 1812.

You can learn a lot about the earliest days of the city by checking out the main adobe building — now a museum. You even get to see the original sleeping quarters of the Spanish missionaries, but the best part may be the grounds, where mission workers — mostly local Indians — made soap and candles, tanned hides, prepared food in indoor and outdoor kitchens, and made wine. Stop at the Chapel of the Annunciation — still used today for services — to scope out the 300-year-old painting of Our Lady of Sorrows.

L.A. Rising

From the mission, take a quick drive to see where the city was born. Head about 8 miles southwest to downtown Los Angeles along Mission Road, Alhambra Avenue, and Valley Boulevard. Once you cross the Los Angeles River, head to Olvera Street and the surrounding plaza to stand in the spot where the original 44 founders of the city — known as Los Pobladores — gave the town its official start in 1781.

At Olvera and Paseo de la Plaza, check out the historical monument of El Pueblo de Los Angeles at the birthplace of L.A. Grab a quick selfie or a family photo with the symbolic heart of the city behind you. Once you’re finished, we dare you to try to imagine the cityscape as cattle ranches, farms, and vineyards — wild, right? In the early days, deer, antelope, and bears (even some grizzlies) roamed the heavily wooded floodplain, and the wetlands, swamps, and rivers overflowed with salmon and steelhead trout.

Get 10% Off The Base Rate*

A blue fountain sits along a street of vendors selling handmade goods at the historic Olvera Street Mexican marketplace in Los Angeles.

Historic Marketplace

Having a tough time picturing grazing cows in downtown L.A.? Understandable, but as you stroll past the shops and stalls along the bustling Olvera Street Mexican Marketplace — which has changed very little since it first opened in 1930 — to shop for huarache sandals, hand-crafted leather goods, traditional clothing, and ceramic handicrafts, it gets easier and easier to picture it as the popular trading post it once was. Don’t leave without digging into some taquitos, tamales, or burritos at one of several popular restaurants, including the landmark El Paseo Inn, established in 1930. The eye-catching mural that Rubén Lara Campos painted back in 1946 is a sight to see.

La Placita

It didn’t take long for the early community to start booming. By 1800, there were 29 thatched roof adobe buildings surrounding the plaza, and by 1821, the farm town had grown into the largest community in Southern California, with more than 650 residents. Learn more about this period with a visit to La Placita (Our Lady Queen of Angels Church), a quick walk from the marketplace. The church was originally built in the early 1800s and is a historical monument.

Wanna see the oldest standing residence in L.A.? Avila Adobe was built in 1818 on Olvera Street and is a traditional adobe home that speaks volumes about the construction methods of the time. The compacted dirt floors are topped off with fine furnishings the wealthy owner, Francisco Avila, shipped from the East Coast.

Los Angeles' historic Union Station combines Art Deco, Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne architecture among tall palm trees and a blue sky with wispy white clouds on a sunny day.

Union Station

From Avila Adobe, take a quick walk east across Alameda Street. It’s like moving in a time warp or hitting the fast forward button more than 100 years to 1939, when Union Station first opened. It’s an impressive structure, and many experts can tell you the grand building and gardens are among the most architecturally significant features in the city. It blends styles of Art Deco, Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne for a unique look that you really have to see. You’ll feel like you’re apart of Old Hollywood as you stroll the terra cotta floors — check out the inlaid marble! — through the cavernous waiting room and original ticket lobby.

You don’t have to be an archaeologist to uncover the interesting history behind your favorite cities. To dig into more fun details about L.A. and other destinations, check out our Instagram feed for more travel inspo!

Share article: