As a sophomore, I was thinking about spending a semester “abroad” in LA, but my employer at the time and good friend Scott told me that this place wasn’t for me. He told me that it was dirty, overcrowded, superficial, drained your energy, and invariably enticed you to dye your hair blond and fill your lips with collagen. I ended up studying abroad in London instead, but I always remained curious about this strange place called Los Angeles.

Olvera Street is the oldest part of LA and testifies of the city’s Hispanic heritage

Scott was right. The City of Angels is one of those places in the US that I very much enjoy visiting but where I don’t see myself staying. Like New York, LA offers more than you could take in just a few days:

The Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard is as crowded and touristy as Times Square. Rodeo Drive is as jaw-dropping glamorous as Fifth Avenue. The Walt Disney Concert Hall is as impressive as the Guggenheim. Beverly Hills, with its multi-million dollar houses and palm-lined boulevards, is exactly what you see on TV.

The Mexican marketplace at Olvera Street offers souvenirs and sweets

When I imagined LA, I used to think about the movie industry, the music industry, the fashion industry, and the luxurious houses of America’s highlife. I used to think of starving artists struggling to make their breakthrough and rich businessmen living a thrilling life. But in fact, there is a whole other LA that I saw. I saw what seemed to be two distinct cities: an American and a Mexican city.

To my surprise, Los Angeles carries very old Hispanic heritage. It’s history began with the establishment of a Spanish mission in 1782 – El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles. From 1821 to 1848, the town was under Mexican rule. The influx of English and continental Europeans came in the 1880s and to a great extent changed the face of the city. More recently since the 1920s, the immigration of Mexicans and other Hispanics to the States has been steadily increasing, and data shows that LA receives the most such immigrants out of any city in the West. Therefore, LA is being increasingly influenced by the Latino culture anew.

Pico House is the oldest hotel in LA, constructed by the last governor of Alta California, Pío Pico in 1870

It was very interesting to see the old part of LA: El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, only a short walk from Downtown.  My friend Irinka and I visited Olvera Street, which is painfully cheesy but still cute with its colorful souvenir shops and stands with mouth-watering sweets. We saw the oldest house in LA, Avila Adobe, and the city’s first grand hotel, Pico House.

Built in 1818, the historic house museum Avila Adobe is the oldest residence in LA

Later, though, we had an even more authentic contemporary experience.  We took a 50 minute trip by public transport from Downtown LA to Citadel Outlets in East LA. Now this was very different from the city we had seen earlier: many of the signs were in Spanish; the cafes offered Mexican food; many of the girls were dressed as latino divas. East LA clearly carried a Hispanic vibe.

We didn’t have much time to explore that part of town because it was getting late and dark, but I wish someone had told me that East and West LA are so different – I would have probably spent less time in Hollywood!