Thanks to a community of neon artists and a museum dedicated to the preservation of the art, an electric glow still illuminates many vintage landmarks on Los Angeles’ urban landscape.

“If Paris is the City of Lights, LA is the City of Neon,” wrote American historian Kevin Starr in the Los Angeles Times in 1999.

Indeed, while neon enthusiasts might expect to get their fluorescent fix in New York or Las Vegas, neither city rivals Los Angeles with respect to historic signage -- most neon signs in the Big Apple, only meant to be temporary advertisements, were gone by the 1970s, while in Sin City  most of the surviving historic neon signs have been transplanted to the Neon Museum’s downtown galleries and are no longer on display in their original locations on the Strip. But thanks to a forward-thinking community of neon artists and a museum dedicated to the preservation of historic neon signs, an electric glow still illuminates countless vintage landmarks in Los Angeles’ urban landscape, from decorative antique theatres and old-fashioned apartment buildings to traditional mom-and-pop delicatessens and gloriously seedy cocktail bars.

However, many neon monuments are tucked out of the way while others have a fascinating back story you would be sorry to miss. So the best way to bask in the technicolour blaze is aboard an open-air, double-decker bus on the Museum of Neon Art’s Neon Cruise. The exuberant tour features an expert guide, free-flowing drinks, a driver who knows his way around the city’s notorious traffic jams -- and best of all, you are sitting high above street level with nothing but the night sky between you and the neon signs.

Taking in dozens of neon sights in three hours, the tour kicks off in Chinatown at dusk, just as the neon lights outlining the historic Chinese gate flicker on. The bus then barrels on past the elegant architecture of downtown and into the bright lights lining the jam-packed arteries of Hollywood.

Narrating the journey with a megaphone is the museum’s longtime guide, the witty and deeply knowledgeable Eric Lynxwiler, an urban anthropologist and author of Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles. According to Lynxwiler, Los Angeles became the birthplace of American neon in 1923 when car dealer Earl C Anthony imported a pair of neon signs from Paris, France to his downtown Packard dealership. “As the saying goes”, Lynxwiler explained, “their crisp bright light literally stopped traffic. In jazz-age America, the neon sign took off, and every business that wanted to prove itself modern had to invest in a neon sign to keep up with the competition.” Blackouts and material shortages turned the lights off during World War II, but afterwards, neon was ablaze again in Los Angeles as contemporary companies employed eye-catching designs and illumination to sell their products. But then again, neon fell out of use by the 1970s, unable to compete with the bargain prices of backlit plastic signs.   

Thankfully, by the early 1980s, shop owners on Melrose Avenue,  in an effort to stand out from retail competitors elsewhere in the city, were bringing neon back to Los Angeles by employing traditional neon signmakers to enliven their storefronts. Recognizing the importance of neon art in the city’s history, artists Lili Lakich and Richard Jenkins founded the Museum of Neon Art in 1981 to promote the preservation of historic signage and to advance the art form.

So what are some of LA’s stand-out neon landmarks? Lynxwiler weighs in:

The laughing Buddha, Chinatown
Topping the list is the animated Buddha atop Chinatown's KG Louie Co, a traditional shop on Central Plaza that has been selling jade, wood carvings and paintbrushes since 1938. "That little, blue, laughing deity slapping his thighs each night can always make me smile. He's among the oldest figural neon signs left in place in the city," Lynxwiler said.

The Frolic Room cocktail bar, Hollywood
Featured in the film LA Confidential, the Frolic Room (6245 Hollywood Boulevard) is a dive bar with an old-fashioned neon sign spelling out its name above the doorway. "It’s among the best examples to prove that text can be art. The combined F and R is a beautiful piece of typography," Lynxwiler said.  

Circus Liquor, North Hollywood
Remember the abandoned parking lot where Alicia Silverstone’s character, Cher, was robbed and forced to lay down on the pavement in the movie Clueless? It was filmed outside Circus Liquor, an infamous wine and spirits superstore located on the corner of Burbank Boulevard and Vineland Avenue, and advertised by a giant vintage-style neon clown. "The massive Circus Liquor store can seem like a nightmare," Lynxwiler said. "But I adore the sign for its scale and its combo of plastic and neon signage."

 Helms Bakery Complex, Culver City
The onetime home of Helms Bakery, an industrial bakery established in 1931 and located on the corner of Helms Avenue and Washington Boulevard, is now a fashionable furniture and home design shopping complex. Though the bakery closed in 1969, the landmark building and its animated neon sign remain. The red, white and blue sign reads “Helms Olympic Bread, Choice of Olympic Champions”, a nod to the bakery’s designation as the Official Bread of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. "It's not just a sign, it's a spectacular," said Lynxwiler. (Notably, Helms also claimed to have the first bread on the moon -- the bakery supplied bread to the astronauts of Apollo 11 shortly before its closing.

 Canter's Deli, Hollywood
Serving pastrami sandwiches around the clock, the Jewish-style Canter’s Deli is a Los Angeles institution. The Art Deco neon sign above the entrance spells out “Open All Night, Canter’s Restaurant Bakery Delicatessen” in glowing green and yellow letters. "The signage on that building represents its eras," Lynxwiler said. "And it's got a long tale to tell." The story starts with three Canter brothers -- poor New Jersey boys -- moving to California and starting a modest delicatessen in 1931. By the 1950s, Canter’s was serving late-night sandwiches to the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.  

The Neon Cruise runs on Saturday evenings from June through September. The tour continues even as the Museum of Neon Art itself -- the only museum in the world dedicated to both historic neon signs and modern neon art -- is closed while moving to a much larger (and permanent) space in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. The museum’s executive director, Kim Koga, said that future visitors to the museum can expect to see a neon fabricating facility, a glass furnace that shows how neon tubes were originally made by hand, exhibits of vintage neon signs, themed light art exhibits and interactive displays covering the early era of electricity. The Neon Cruise will continue to operate from downtown Los Angeles even after the new museum opens.