Twin dragons welcome visitors to Chinatown. In the background is Los Angeles' iconic City Hall. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / March 23, 2012)

The tourists think big. Arriving in Southern California, they expect to conquer Disneyland and Hollywood, perhaps on the same day, in between the surfing and snowboarding. Then they get stuck in traffic. Then come the recriminations, the tears, the vows to visit an island next time.

The locals think small. Tracing tight little loops between home and work, they dodge freeways and alien neighborhoods. There are Los Feliz people who haven't set foot in Venice since the latter Bush administration (I'm one), and there are Santa Monica people who have never stood at Griffith Observatory, watching the glittering grid of the city spread before them at dusk. (It's free, people.) Downtown sits in the middle of all of this, but to thousands of Angelenos, it's more remote than Manhattan, never mind Manhattan Beach.

What we have here, whether you're a tourist or a local, is a failure to fully appreciate the wonders and weirdness of Southern California. So we've come up with a monthly series of close-ups, beginning with downtown Los Angeles.

They're brisk, because you've got ground to cover. They cover kid stuff, adult stuff, food, lodging, roller derby, historic architecture and what to sniff when you're in the Central Library. They may be a tad more opinionated and intimate than your average guidebook, because this is our backyard and because you want to make human connections, not just check off a bucket list. We'll count on you to suggest your own favorite places, beginning with Los Angeles and Orange counties, by responding to us at

Now, your 11 downtown close-ups. Most are micro-itineraries, bringing together two or three neighboring destinations to make a single adventure. Others stand alone, like those odd, irresistible Joshua Trees out in the desert. Try a few, and maybe you'll see L.A. anew.

1. Where T-rex roars

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

You can spend hours meandering Exposition Park near USC — the California Science Center, the California African American Museum, the Rose Garden. But not today. Today, you and your child are heading straight to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and you'll start by browsing the long hallways filled with old-school dioramas and a newfangled Age of Mammals exhibit that opened last year. Then you head upstairs to the second North American Mammal area, where, since 2008, museum performance artists have been staging Dinosaur Encounters and Ice Age Encounters. It's only a 15- or 20-minute show, but the star is a living, breathing, life-sized animal puppet — a 15-foot baby Tyrannosaurus rex. "Who thinks he eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?" asks Carissa Barnett, as the dinosaur (inhabited by another performer) snarls and snaps. Half-smitten and half-scared, the children hang on Barnett's every word about the food chain and extinction. Shows are offered two or three times daily (check for times), and the museum's Ice Age Encounters (with a sabre-toothed cat mother and child) are comparable. Don't be surprised if other parts of the museum are closed for renovation; a new Dinosaur Hall is due in July.

2. Quiet and cool smells, then din and dining

Los Angeles Public Library (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Shhh. You're going to the library. The big one on 5th Street, with the strange pyramid on top that deserves a role in the next overwrought Nicolas Cage conspiracy movie. Don't be put off by the street people at the entrance or the low ceilings on the ground floor. Climb one level and behold the soaring rotunda, full of spectacular murals painted in 1933 — conquistadors, friars, Native Americans and European settlers, not to mention the globe chandelier that throws light on them. Then step into the Children's Literature room next door, where (above the low-hanging fluorescent lights) you'll find another set of California historic scenes. Now follow the advice of Monica May, chef at the Nickel Diner and a downtown veteran, who takes visiting friends here and orders them to sniff the books. Why? "You're smelling your childhood," she says. After those acres of quiet, expect a blow to the head when you step through the glass doors of Bottega Louie Restaurant and Gourmet Market at Grand Avenue and 7th Street. That's how it feels the first time you confront the restaurant's signature din, the roar of a few hundred diners and a revved-up sound system, all bouncing off marble floors and empty whitewashed walls, echoing under 40-foot-high ceilings. But give it a minute, and notice the gleaming green éclairs for $3, the gluten-free macarons for $1.75, the legions of chefs in the wide-open kitchen. Since opening in 2009, this eatery has won a reputation for genial service, good Italian food and reasonable prices. It's so noisy that no one will notice a garrulous child. And if you don't want a meal, there's always the bar in front or the desserts in the bakery. No reservations are accepted, so arrive early or expect to wait.

3. The Tarzan factor

L.A. Live (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

You're all about sports, and you've scored tickets to see the Clippers or Kings or Lakers at Staples Center, next to the L.A. Live entertainment complex near the southern end of downtown. Congratulations, especially if those are Laker seats. Now, there are more than a dozen restaurants and bars in L.A. Live, not to mention the Grammy Museum, a JW Marriott Hotel and a Ritz-Carlton, both of which opened in 2010. But that's not where you're sleeping. You're heading eight blocks northeast to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which has 72 hotel rooms that many people have never heard about. From the outside, the LAAC is a humdrum hulk among the gem merchants that make up downtown's Jewelry District, but inside, it's a piece of sweat-soaked L.A. history, with two restaurants and bars, pools, weights, squash courts, basketball courts and walls crowded with fascinating old artworks and photos. Book a room and you get the same access that the club's members do. (Yes, male and female, adults and children.) The hotel rooms, upgraded from 2007-2009, are dark, woodsy and clubby. For less than the cost of a room at the Marriott or Ritz, you can walk and run in the footsteps of Esther Williams, and Johnny Weissmuller and dozens of less-celebrated Olympic medalists. ( Charlie Chaplin spent a lot of time here too.) Alas, the indoor pool's high dive is no more, but you can still peek through the underwater window that diving coaches used to watch their protégés splash down.

4. Astroturf, movie memories and vistas

Gallery Bar (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Next stop: the top of the Standard Hotel on Flower Street, where you'll find a pool (guests only), fireplace, Astroturf deck, goofy topiary and a trendy open-air bar with skyscraper views on all sides. Scan the horizon, quaff a beer ($8) or cocktail, then descend and head two blocks west to the Millennium Biltmore Hotel on Grand. Stroll down the broad corridors of this grand old pile (where many early Oscar ceremonies were staged, beginning in the '30s) and imagine the whole place upside-down and wet. Yes, parts of "The Poseidon Adventure" (the 1972 movie) were shot in this lobby. Down the hall you'll find the hotel's stately Gallery Bar, where most nights, 26-year-veteran bartender Greg Guzelian will be pleased to assess your demeanor and pour you, as seems appropriate, a French Kiss or a Black Dahlia. These $16 drinks are his own creations. If '70s nostalgia takes hold, somebody may suggest an elevator ride to the revolving Bona Vista cocktail lounge on the 34th floor of the tired but striking Westin Bonaventure Hotel (built in 1976) at 4th and Figueroa. Choose the future instead: the WP24 Lounge on the 24th floor of the Ritz-Carlton at L.A. Live. (But bear in mind that it closes early — 10 p.m. most nights, 11 on Fridays and Saturdays.)

5. Street food and"Blade Runner"

Grand Central Market (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)