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Photograph: Carodean Road Designs/Flickr

23 essential things to do in Pasadena

Whether you're looking to dine in Old Town or tour the Gamble House, you’ll want to make a stop at all of these things to do in Pasadena

Michael Juliano
Written by
Michael Juliano
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Pasadena will never be as bustling as Hollywood or as painfully trendy as Highland Park, 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 veering into territory that’s either too hectic or too 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 essential things to do in Pasadena.

RECOMMENDED: Our guide to full guide to Pasadena

The best things to do in Pasadena

Walk around beautiful Old Pasadena
Photograph: Michael Juliano

1. Walk around beautiful Old 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 Wanderlust or the Pie Hole. You can take the L (Gold) Line to either the Memorial Park or Del Mar Stations, or get 90 minutes of free parking in a trio of garages.

  • Things to do
  • Cultural centers
  • Pasadena
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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 broadly on the house and its gardens or specifically on its details and joinery.

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  • Things to do
  • Event spaces
  • Pasadena
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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. (If the dates don’t quite work out for you, Pasadena City College also hosts a great—and free—flea market on the first Sunday of the month.)

  • Things to do
  • Event spaces
  • San Marino
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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 a destination that demands an entire day should you attempt to explore it in full: 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 The Blue Boy to an exquisitely designed Chinese garden, nearly every inch of the estate’s grounds and collection is essential.

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  • Things to do
  • Pasadena

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.

  • Things to do
  • Pasadena

The Pasadena-area nature park is one of the most accessible (particularly on weekdays, when you can park near a shortcut of sorts) 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.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Pasadena
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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.

  • Things to do
  • Cultural centers
  • La Cañada

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, and you can catch scientists remotely steering the latest-generation 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.

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  • Shopping
  • Bookstores
  • Pasadena Playhouse District
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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, or stay a while with a few sips at 1894, the on-site wine bar.

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  • Attractions
  • Bridges
  • Pasadena

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).

  • Things to do
  • Altadena

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.

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  • Museums
  • History
  • Pasadena Playhouse District
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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 a few months at a time.

  • Things to do
  • Pasadena

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.

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Dine in an old train depot at La Grande Orange
  • Restaurants
  • American
  • Old Pasadena

Heavy steam engines used to roll through Pasadena’s Santa Fe Depot. Though today Metro’s L 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.

  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Old Pasadena

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 typically offers two interior tours a year, but it’s still worth walking by just to see its striking exterior (perhaps best admired over a cup of coffee at Copa Vida).

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  • Things to do
  • Pasadena

This 210-adjacent rock in Pasadena is known for resembling a craggy profile of Satan, naturally chiseled into an outcropping on the Arroyo Seco. The only fact we can really offer: 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 cofounder), as well as mentions of Native American lore, “moonchild” rituals and the Seven Gates of Hell.

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  • Things to do
  • Schools and universities
  • Pasadena

The California Institute of Technology, one of the world’s preeminent science and engineering universities, sits on a picturesque 124-acre campus in Pasadena. In addition to housing some of the generation’s finest minds, Caltech also offers the chance for laymen to attend musical performances and to stroll the historic grounds, laid out with the sort of obsessive organization you would expect from a bunch of rocket scientists.

  • Things to do
  • Angeles National Forest

The radio towers atop Mt. Wilson are visible from just about anywhere in Pasadena. But even though the peak sits right in the city’s backyard, getting there isn’t a simple straight climb. By car, you’ll want to follow the 210 up to Angeles Crest Highway, which winds through the rugged national forest with plenty of scenic viewpoints and trailheads along the way. Turn off at the Red Box Picnic Area and you’ll find the narrow road to the top of Mt. Wilson, home to an observatory with a 100-inch telescope that was the largest in the world for much of the first half of the 20th century.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Pasadena
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This nearly two-acre private Japanese garden and traditional teahouse opens its doors to the public on weekends. First constructed in the late 1930s, the garden features two ponds, four bridges and a cascading waterfall, all centered around a Japanese tea house. The current structure was painstakingly restored after a fire in 1981; the original was created in Japan by landscape designer and craftsman Kinzuchi Fujii.

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Search for your dream home in Bungalow Heaven
Photograph: Kirsten/Flickr

23. Search for your dream home in Bungalow Heaven

This singular, leafy and quiet neighborhood contains over 800 homes from the Arts and Crafts movement. Bordered by Orange Grove and Washington Boulevards and Lake and Hill Streets, the mostly intact bungalows are a showcase of the handmade craftsmanship that swept Pasadena in the early 20th century. Once a year, the district holds tours with docents set up throughout the neighborhood.

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