Pasadena will never be as bustling as Hollywood or as painfully trendy as the Eastside, but that’s exactly what makes this city in the San Gabriel Valley so enjoyable. Set against the San Gabriel Mountains, the town packs in enough things to do without feeling either hectic or sleepy. You can go shopping along Colorado Boulevard, tour turn-of-the-century mansions and hike Echo Mountain, all within the space of an afternoon. Whether you’re spending a day or an entire weekend here, you can’t go wrong with these 21 essential things to do in Pasadena.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to Pasadena, Los Angeles
The best things to do in Pasadena
Also known as Old Town, this classic downtown district is among Southern California’s most walkable. Stroll along Colorado Boulevard—historic Route 66 and home of the Rose Parade—where you’ll find shops, restaurants and bars housed in turn-of-the-century brick buildings. Duck into Miller Alley to explore the lovely courtyard at One Colorado and pop into Indiana Colony for a treat from Coolhaus or the Pie Hole. You can take the Gold Line to Memorial Park or Del Mar Station, where you can grab pizza and a drink at the Luggage Room.
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.
This 90,000-seat stadium has been used for college football playoffs, the World Cup final, Olympic cycling, Jay-Z and Beyoncé tours, and a yearly fireworks show every Fourth of July. It is also, of course, home to the UCLA Bruins football team and the annual New Year’s Day Rose Bowl Game. On the second Sunday of each month, the bowl hosts a stadium-sized flea market with a staggering selection of vintage clothing, antique furniture and bespoke wares of all sorts.
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.
The massive circular tower at the front of Pasadena City Hall sets the tone for what to expect from the rest of the city: wealth, beauty and an atypically (for SoCal, at least) well-preserved architectural history. You can spot its 206-foot-tall centerpiece, a series of arches and domes, from all over town but it’s best appreciated up close. Walk through the rose-filled courtyard (where you’ll surely come across a wedding photo shoot) to admire the Renaissance-inspired details on John Bakewell and Arthur Brown’s 1927 construction. Most importantly: The building doubled as Pawnee City Hall in Parks and Recreation.
The Pasadena-area nature park is one of the most accessible (particularly on weekdays) and easygoing trails where you’ll truly feel like you’ve slipped into the wilderness. This waterfall hike isn’t without its faults: crushing weekend crowds, defaced rocks, occasional litter. That said, it’s one of the few spots in L.A. where you can follow the sound of running water through a forest.
The Norton Simon’s Frank 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.
Robots in space—that’s enough to sell us on this hillside NASA facility. It’s the home of the Voyager probes and Mars rovers; you can catch scientists steering the Curiosity rover during the high in demand public tours. You’ll also have a chance to see Voyager Space Flight Operations Facility and the Spacecraft Assembly Facility. If you can’t find a tour reservation, be on the lookout for JPL’s annual open house.
Built in the ’20s and revived in the ’80s, this gracious 672-seat venue anchors the Playhouse District. The main space offers mostly new plays and musicals, while its Spanish Colonial courtyard hosts all sorts of neighborhood events, including food trucks and live music with its neighbor Zona Rosa Caffe.
This century-old span across the Arroyo Seco is known for its Beaux Arts arches as well as its dreamy light posts—which were the backdrop for a sunset stroll in La La Land. A quick aside: The landmark has also earned the unfortunate nickname “Suicide Bridge” due to its role in untimely deaths dating back to the Great Depression.
You’re not alone. If you need someone to talk to, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline operates a 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Just south of the Arroyo Seco’s most famous tenant—the Rose Bowl—this 62-acre park (which also includes Kidspace Children’s Museum) provides a scenic green space for locals and out-of-towners alike. Set against the stunning San Gabriel Mountains, you’ll find plenty of open space to run and play among the multipurpose sports fields, along with some shade near the pirate ship-themed playground. There’s a proper fitness trail around the park, but you’ll find many active visitors running and biking along a trail that flanks the entire east side of the park.
Follow Lake Avenue into neighboring Altadena and to the street’s northernmost end to reach the Sam Merrill Trail, which traces the ruins of the ill-fated Mount Lowe Railway. If you’re feeling ambitious—like five-plus miles and a 1,500-foot elevation gain ambitious—you can hike all the way up Echo Mountain. Make it about halfway up and you’ll still be able to encounter the railway ruins. Make it no farther than the flat trailhead and you’ll still be rewarded with a peaceful patch of nature.
Heavy steam engines used to roll through Pasadena’s Santa Fe Depot. Though today Metro’s Gold Line stops in front of the station, you won’t find luggage-toting rail passengers anymore. But you will find hungry dinners stopping in for California fare at La Grande Orange Café, which serves deviled eggs by the dozen and white sangria best ordered by the pitcher. Wait for a table—no reservations here—over a drink at the Otis Bar, or pop into the attached Luggage Room for pizza. Make sure to grab a few free cookie crumbles by the front door.
The largest independent bookshop in Southern California was founded over a century ago and continues to be a worthwhile destination for its helpful staff, design-minded objects and excellent stock of books (we particularly love its collection of all things California). Keep an eye out for the regular readings and the book signings.
There are plenty of buildings that evoke old Hollywood glamor, but nothing conjures an air of Gilded Age mystery and elegance quite like this former hotel in Pasadena. The original building in the three-part complex was demolished in the ‘30s, but the more impressive Moorish-meets-Victorian central annex still stands behind a curtain of lush gardens. The building offers two interior tours a year, but it’s still worth walking by just to see its striking exterior.
This 210-adjacent rock in Pasadena is known for its craggy profile of Satan, naturally chiseled into an outcropping on the Arroyo Seco. Here are the only facts you need to know: Devil’s Gate lent its name to a nearby dam and gated channel. But fall down the rabbit hole of paranormal enthusiast websites and you’ll find a few common threads involving Aleister Crowley (infamous occultist), L. Ron Hubbard (infamous Scientologist) and Jack Parsons (infamous JPL co-founder), as well as mentions of Native American lore, “moonchild” rituals and the Seven Gates of Hell.