Set at the base of the towering San Gabriel Mountains, Pasadena is best known as the home of the annual Tournament of Roses Parade and the Rose Bowl football matchup. But this appealing city some 10 miles north of Downtown Los Angeles has secret charms that go well beyond the marching bands, flower-covered floats, and touchdowns on New Year’s Day. With architectural gems and world-class museums, stylish shopping and red-hot restaurants and hotels, Pasadena has plenty of ways to fill a half- or full-day break from big-city bustle.
In Old Pasadena, a 22-block national historic district, discover restored buildings housing hip boutiques and buzz-worthy restaurants.
Start with a guided tour of the Gamble House, built as a private home in 1908 by celebrated architects Charles and Henry Greene. Now a National Historic Landmark and open for public tours, the spectacular structure is considered one of the finest examples of American Arts and Crafts architecture. Take a tour to see elegant interior details that include exquisite woodwork and luminous stained-glass entry doors depicting a coast live oak.
Five blocks away on Colorado Boulevard, stroll the galleries of the Norton Simon Museum to see more than 100 works by Degas, as well as paintings by Van Gogh and Renoir. There’s also an extensive collection of Asian sculptures and paintings.
For a hands-on art fix for families with little ones, head to the lively Kidspace Children’s Museum, across from the Rose Bowl. Creative exhibits include plenty of arts and crafts supplies and other fun techniques to help kids learn. And good luck trying to pry your pint-size scramblers away from two soaring climbing towers.
Now head to Old Pasadena, a 22-block national historic district filled with restored buildings housing hip boutiques, buzz-worthy restaurants, and a beloved cinema. Try Northern Italian dishes with California influences at the intimate Union restaurant (save room for delectable olive-oil cake for dessert). Or sample Southeast Asian cuisine at Bone Kettle, where Erwin Tjahyadi, who apprenticed under Wolfgang Puck and Trey Foshee, serves up an array of intriguing Indonesian-inspired small plates and such main dishes as Singapore-style chili-fried lobster. Old Pasadena is also home to the ArcLight Pasadena, a movie theater that has earned a devoted following.
Cross into the adjacent community of San Marino to see impressive collections at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, then relax in the lovely Chinese-style Garden of Flowing Fragrance, with ornate bridges and a shimmering lake.
A few dozen miles northeast of Pasadena is the Mount Wilson Observatory, which was home to the world’s largest telescopes for most of the first half of the 20th century. Today, with its CHARA (Center for High Angular Resolutions Astronomy) facility, it’s still at the cutting edge of astrophysics, and offers variety of tours, a full schedule of events, and a place to recharge with the Cosmic Café.
Finish your visit back in Pasadena with afternoon tea—served on signature Wedgwood tea sets—at one of California’s grand-dame hotels, The Langham Huntington Hotel.
Useful info: Before you go, check out a calendar of events for all the goings-on in Pasadena.