Pasadena museums to visit
The Norton Simon’s Gehry-helmed makeover in the late 1990s raised the museum’s profile, but it also helped to expand the range of the museum’s collection, giving it more space and creating a calm, simple environment. The museum is still best known for its impressive collection of Old Masters, notably pieces by 17th-century Dutch painters such as Rembrandt, Brueghel and Frans Hals. The French impressionists are represented by, among others, Monet, Manet and Renoir. After you’ve checked out the temporary shows, head into the excellent sculpture garden.
An open-air staircase beautified by moody lightplay from an oculus above it creates a striking entrance into this three-story facility. The museum is dedicated to California art and design from the last 150 years, and often runs several temporary exhibitions simultaneously in its straightforward gallery spaces: you might find a collection of paintings by Pasadena Impressionist Benjamin Chambers Brown alongside a show devoted to toy culture.
The bequest of entrepreneur Henry E. Huntington is now one of the most enjoyable attractions in the Los Angeles region. Though technically it’s just across the border in San Marino, we think of the Huntington as a Pasadena must-do. It’s also not a destination that you should attempt to explore in full during a single day: between the art, the library holdings and the spreadeagled outdoor spaces, there’s plenty to see, and most of it is best enjoyed at lingering leisure rather than as part of a mad day-long dash. From a Gutenberg Bible to an exquisitely landscaped Japanese garden, nearly every inch of the estate’s ever-growing grounds and collection is essential.
This graceful house originally built for one of the heirs of the Procter & Gamble fortune remains one of the best examples of both the Arts and Crafts movement and Charles and Henry Greene’s masterful handiwork. Programming at the Gamble House is exceptional; there are tours that focus on things like the art glass or the details and joinery in the house, as well as more casual events like Brown Bag Tuesday, when visitors bring their own picnic lunch to eat on the grounds, followed by a 20-minute tour.
Art and artifacts from Asia and the Pacific Rim are displayed in the historic Grace Nicholson Building, a recreation of a northern Chinese palace with a charming Chinese Garden Court to match. Taken from the museum’s collection of 14,000 items, the permanent displays include both contemporary and traditional Asian arts; they’re supplemented by temporary shows, which tend to run for roughly four months at a time.
Though some exhibitions at this history museum can feel a bit folksy, the institution draws on an impressive archive of photographs, fashion and paintings of early life in Southern California. The biggest attraction here is the docent-led tour ($15) of the “Millionaire’s Row” Fenyes Mansion, which also includes access to the Finnish Folk Art Museum: a sauna and guesthouse turned farmhouse museum.
Housed for two decades in a school gym, this popular interactive children’s museum moved to a new site in 2004 after an $18-million funding drive. There’s a wide variety of exhibits and entertainment, from the Kaleidoscope entrance to the educational gardens and the Splash Dance water feature in the central courtyard, the perfect way to cool down on a baking valley afternoon. Pasadena’s young ’uns are lucky to have it on their doorsteps.
A giant topiary bunny announces your arrival at one of L.A.’s truly nutty institutions. This private museum—the lovechild of Pasadena couple Candace Frazee and Steve Lubanski—is perhaps the greatest example of cutesy gift-giving run amuck. Starting with the first present of a stuffed bunny, the couple made a tradition of exchanging hare-themed tokens, which have multiplied in a completely crammed house filled with more than 28,000 rabbit items—including several freeze-dried pet bunnies! Yes, there are live ones, too, that visitors can hold.