Southern California's beaches, movie studios and amusement parks have always been major lures for out-of-towners, but now there is an added attraction -- downtown Los Angeles, of all places.

The central city, not so long ago an uninviting expanse of faded hotels, deserted department stores, taco stands and smog, has been so thoroughly revitalized in recent years that all of Los Angeles has begun to feel like a real metropolis instead of just a large place.

A thicket of glass-walled office buildings -- the skyline showcased in the opening credits of NBC's "L.A. Law" -- has been erected in the past decade as banks, securities firms and oil companies from all over the Pacific Rim have created a new financial district on the western edge of downtown, near the Harbor Freeway.

The commercial growth has inspired the construction of first-class hotels -- the Westin Bonaventure, with its five mirrored towers, the Sheraton Grande, the Hyatt Regency -- and the renovation of several stately older hotels, including the Biltmore and the Figueroa, to house a flood of business visitors.

Restaurateurs, retailers and nightclub owners also have been willing to take a chance on the new downtown, signing up for space in all those office towers and hotels. Two cultural landmarks, the dazzling Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Los Angeles Theatre Center, have opened in the past two years. The renaissance has begun to spread beyond the financial district into the rest of the city's core, reinvigorating three ethnic enclaves -- Little Tokyo, Chinatown and the strip of Latino-owned shops along Broadway.

The result is that business travelers, when they're not occupied with meetings, will find plenty of diversions downtown: restaurants that serve everything from haute California cuisine to kosher burritos; opera, ballet and the symphony at the venerable Music Center; experimental theater on a street reclaimed from Skid Row; shopping at bargain prices in the garment district; and smoky dance and music clubs where the action begins at midnight and the required dress is black.

The best news, for visitors weary of freeways, is that they can park their cars and explore nearly all of downtown -- the area bounded by the Harbor Freeway, the Hollywood Freeway, the Los Angeles River and Olympic Boulevard -- on foot or by shuttle bus.

Those daunted by the hike up Bunker Hill, home of the Music Center and the MOCA, can take DASH (Downtown Area Short Hop), the city-operated buses that thread their way from the garment district at the southern end of downtown, past City Hall and the county courthouses, to Chinatown on the north. The route is prominently posted on street signs and the fare is only 25 cents.

The trip up Bunker Hill is worth it; the Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened just a year ago, is downtown's crown jewel. Drivers on Grand Avenue still slow down to gawk at the pyramid-shaped skylights and the Romanesque barrel vault of the main building, all sheathed in rust-colored sandstone with contrasting walls of green paneling that look like quilted leatherette. One local art critic admiringly described the style of Japanese architect Arata Isozaki's building as Egypto-Romanesque-hot rod.

Even after Angelenos accepted the fact that, miraculously, a genuinely exciting and witty new museum building was rising on the hill, some worried that MOCA might turn out to be an empty shell, that the museum's permanent collection might not be worthy of its home. Didn't the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Guggenheim already own everything worth owning?

Not to worry. Fortunately, MOCA acquired (for $11 million) from the Italian collector Count Giuseppe Panza di Biuomo 80 pieces that cover the era from abstract expressionism to pop art. In addition, the late television executive Barry Lowen left his collection of works by Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and other artists of the 1970s and 1980s to the museum.

So large is the permanent collection that the new building can't contain it all. About two-thirds of it is housed eight blocks down the hill, in Little Tokyo, in an old warehouse called the Temporary Contemporary that was intended only as interim quarters while Isozaki's building was under construction, but has now become a permanent fixture. A ticket to MOCA admits visitors to both buildings.

Some artworks currently on exhibit do not move me -- Dan Flavin's fluorescent tubes look exactly like the ugly old lights I removed from my kitchen last year -- but the collection also includes some of the most intriguing work of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and Louise Nevelson. And Richard Serra's gigantic sculpture of two steel walls that curve away from one another but tilt together, threatening to crush bystanders, thoroughly unnerves most visitors.

Nearly 1,000 artists have found homes and studios in the lofts of the warehouses just east of Little Tokyo, so that part of downtown has taken on some of the flavor of New York's SoHo. Anyone still eager for art after leaving the Temporary Contemporary can visit the even more avant-garde Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions Inc. (LACE) on Industrial Street, a huge gallery for emerging and experimental artists; smaller galleries can be found south of Little Tokyo, on Omar Street.

Before the current revival got under way, the undisputed center of Los Angeles' cultural life was the 23-year-old Music Center, just north of MOCA on Grand Avenue. Its three theaters -- the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Ahmanson Theater and the Mark Taper Forum -- are still booked nearly every day of the year, offering a rich variety of music, dance and drama. And last May, Walt Disney's widow gave the Music Center $50 million for a new concert hall to be built across First Street from the present theaters.

Visitors will find that performances of the bicoastal Joffrey Ballet (Los Angeles shares the company with New York) and the year-old Music Center Opera are normally sold out. But it is possible to buy tickets at the last minute to the splendid Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Center Theatre Group; the latter's two companies, performing at the Ahmanson and the Mark Taper Forum, have increasingly had trouble finding plays and attracting audiences.

While the Ahmanson, in particular, struggles to fill its 2,071 seats and meet its huge production costs, a smaller theater complex on the other side of downtown is thriving.

Even the most enthusiastic Los Angeles boosters were initially skeptical about whether the Los Angeles Theatre Center could survive on forlorn Spring Street, on the edges of Skid Row. But the neighborhood seems perfectly safe, and the four theaters in the complex continue to stage poetry readings, an annual festival of new plays and some startling adaptations of the classics. Scheduled for the 1987-88 season, for example, are an updated version of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" and the American premiere of "Sarcophagus," the play about the Chernobyl nuclear accident by Pravda science writer Vladimir Gubaryev.

If that seems too heavy for a balmy California evening, consider the fun at the Itchey Foot Ristorante, a cabaret that mixes Italian food with improvisational comedy and other pleasant fare. Mondays (except the first Monday of the month) are given over to "Monday Night Feetball," improvisational routines by the Itchey Foot's resident company. "Marxism," a play about a young writer obsessed with Groucho Marx, takes the stage Friday and Saturday nights. Sunday afternoon programs are also available, starting in October, the offerings subject to the mood of the resident company.

Downtown Los Angeles music isn't all serious, either. Jazz is available almost nightly at the Biltmore's Grand Avenue Bar, at the Tango bar of the Sheraton Grande, and at the Bourbon Street Grotto on South Figueroa. A funkier crowd gathers after midnight at Al's Bar, in the loft district, and at trendy dance clubs like Vertigo (a hangout favored by Monaco's Princess Stephanie), Mecca (above a Chinatown restaurant), Performance (on the roof garden of the Variety Arts Theater) and Helena's, a place on Temple Street popular with movie types and bikers. Wear your most outlandish clothes, expect music at ear-blasting decibel levels and remain blase' if the lead act turns out to be a snake charmer, as it was the other night at Mecca.

None of these hangouts is suitable for children, but there are places downtown that are. The Los Angeles Children's Museum, atop City Hall Mall, offers hands-on exhibits, arts and crafts workshops, face-painting for the youngest kids and a real TV news studio where older kids can practice becoming the next Tom Brokaw or Diane Sawyer. A five-minute drive from downtown (this is worth hauling out the car) is the Mitsubishi IMAX Theater at the Museum of Science and Industry in Exposition Park, where kids can watch three different movies on screens that are six stories wide and almost as high.

Children also seem drawn to Olvera Street, where the little pueblo of Los Angeles was founded 200 years ago. Now restored as a Mexican village, Olvera Street is a trifle touristy, but children will enjoy watching the glassblowers and the pinåata makers and eating lunch at the open-air cafe's, where all meals begin with salsa and tortilla chips.

Anyone looking for a more authentic Latino neighborhood need only stroll along Broadway between Third and Eighth streets. Once the most fashionable thoroughfare in all Los Angeles, still the route for ticker-tape parades, Broadway now looks like a street lifted out of Central America. Spanish-language ballads boom from the stereo shops, the store windows are full of lacy little christening gowns and first communion outfits, and the groceries cater to the Mexicans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Guatemalans who give Los Angeles its strong Latin flavor. The daring might stop around the corner, at the Kosher Burrito stand on First Street, for the pie`ce de re'sistance -- pastrami, swathed in chili, inside a flour tortilla.

At the the block-wide Grand Central Market, a mecca for bargain-minded shoppers, dozens of independently operated stalls sell everything from the freshest produce in town to exotic cuts of meat such as tripe and pig's heads. Ana Maria's, a lunch stand, serves tacos made of homemade tortillas and carnitas for $1 each. Standard beers and soft drinks are available, too, but a few yards away you can instead sample the zestier drinks concocted at LaHood's Natural Juices, where office workers stop by for carrot juice pick-me-ups or the Vitamin C special (orange, pineapple and pomegranate juices, blended with banana).

For some travelers, no trip would be complete without a little shopping. Downtown Los Angeles isn't going to impress shoppers accustomed to Madison or Fifth avenues. But the big department stores here have either built new downtown outlets or spruced up the old ones. The most interesting may be Bullock's and the May Co., both at the new Seventh Market Place, at Seventh Street and Figueroa, an inviting open-air plaza with elaborate wrought-iron decor and the feel of a European village; Benetton, Ann Taylor and other vendors of career clothing for the upwardly mobile have stores at the Seventh Market Place, too.

Paradise for the bargain-minded is the garment district. Discount designer clothing outlets are stacked on top of each other at the 11-story Cooper Building and the sprawling California Mart; nearly all floors are open to the public, and the savings can be staggering. At the I. Magnin outlet at the Cooper Building, Adrienne Vittadini sweaters cost less than $50 and Liz Claiborne gabardine slacks are about $15. The baggy sportsclothes favored by teen-agers are priced at half their retail price at Maui and Sons. Les Kids offers Oshkosh shirts for toddlers for as little as $3, Polly Flinders school dresses for $13. Acid-washed jeans and miniskirts sell for about a third off their department store prices, at a number of outlets.

Architecture buffs will find much to appreciate downtown, too. Most of the new skyscrapers look like Darth Vader's helmet, but the older stretches of the city's core are like outdoor museums of early 20th-century architecture; parts of Spring Street and Broadway are listed as historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places. The grandiose old movie houses along Broadway, built when everyone in Los Angeles went downtown to the movies, are worth a look, inside and out; they are full of Mayan, Spanish and Gothic conceits. The Eastern Columbia Building on Ninth Street, encased in blue-green tile banded in gold, is an art deco showcase. The Bradbury Building, opposite Grand Central Market, is unimpressive on the outside, but step inside and revel in the skylit interior, five stories high and bounded by cast-iron balconies and curlicued elevator cages.

The Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation organization, offers walking tours of downtown buildings every Saturday; the guides are knowledgeable and point out structures and details one might not notice on one's own.

Walkers may wonder whatever happened to that notorious Los Angeles smog. Like downtown itself, the air is cleaner now than it has been in years. Southern California still doesn't meet Environmental Protection Agency standards, but strict pollution controls meant that, last year, the Los Angeles basin reported the fewest smog alerts of the 1980s.

Linda Mathews is an editor at The Los Angeles Times.