5 Things to Do in Pasadena, CA

Norton Simon Museum Garden PondNorton Simon Museum Garden Pond
Maya Stanton

Escape from L.A. with a weekend in this rose-loving city, a destination in its own right.

Long overshadowed by the big-city sprawl of Los Angeles and known primarily for the Tournament of Roses, Pasadena is finally coming into its own. With world-class arts institutions, an array of delicious places to eat and drink, and a splash of Hollywood-adjacent glamour, it's an ideal urban escape for Angelenos—and everyone else, too. Here's how to make the most of your time on the ground. 

1. GET OUTSIDE

Huntington-Library-Couple.jpg?mtime=20180823164559#asset:103040An arbor-covered path leads from the Huntington's Japanese garden to its rose garden, where more than 1,200 cultivars of the petaled plants are on display. (Maya Stanton)

It’s rare to find something that appeals to indoor and outdoor types alike, but thanks to an extensive collection of European and American art, a research library filled with treasures, and lush botanical gardens spanning 120-some acres, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (huntington.org) does just that. Get here early to explore the premises, from the Garden of Flowering Fragrance, an oasis in the tradition of Suzhou, China’s scholar gardens, to a walled Zen garden to one of the world’s largest collections of mature cacti and succulents. Then check out the library: Book lovers will drool over a handwritten draft of Jack London’s White Fang, a breathtakingly illustrated Canterbury Tales manuscript, and a vellum copy of the Gutenberg bible, just one of 12 known copies in existence. At $29 for adults, $24 for seniors and full-time students, and $13 for kids ages 4-11, weekend tickets are on the pricey side, but you'll need a solid amount of time here to take it all in anyway, so you'll easily get your money’s worth. Or you can just book in advance for free entry on the first Thursday of the month.

2. ABSORB SOME ART

Norton-Simon-museum-statue-garden.jpg?mtime=20180823164608#asset:103043From Rodin's The Thinker to Aristide Maillol's Mountain (above) to a circa-1100 Buddha from India's Tamil Nadu state, the Norton Simon Museum's sculpture garden features work from a variety of artists. (Maya Stanton)

With a lush sculpture garden, an impressive selection of 19th and 20th-century art, and a deep array of paintings, bronzes, woodblock prints, and stone sculpture from South and Southeast Asia, the Norton Simon Museum (nortonsimon.org) is as refreshing as a blast of cool air on a hot summer day. Situated on almost eight acres of land in the center of town, this jewel of an institution was renovated in 1999 by Frank Gehry and landscape architect Nancy Goslee Power, and its tranquil grounds draw inspiration from Monet’s Impressionist gardens, while its galleries provide a respite from the California sun. Come for classic work from Renoir, Degas, and Van Gogh, stay for pieces by modern masters like Picasso, Rivera, and Kandinsky, and don't miss the huge, eye-catching murals by northern California native Sam Francis. Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, and free for kids under 18 and students and military personnel with a valid ID, but those on a budget should drop by on the first Friday of the month, when it’s a free-for-all from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. 

3. EAT YOUR HEART OUT

Sage-vegan-restaurant-food.jpg?mtime=20180823164701#asset:103048For plant-based fare, the Pasadena branch of local mini-chain Sage Vegan Bistro is where it's at. (Maya Stanton)

Boasting 500 restaurants within its city limits, Pasadena offers no shortage of dining options—and, from the birthplace of culinary legend Julia Child, you’d expect nothing less. Hit Lunasia Dim Sum House (lunasiadimsumhouse.com) for extra-large, translucent har gow, baby bok choy simmered in fish broth, or scallop-topped squid-ink-skinned dumplings. In Old Pasadena, Café Santorini (cafesantorini.com) draws crowds for its stellar Mediterranean fare, from overflowing mezze plates and pastas to and oversized salads topped with generous portions of chicken milanese or lemony sautéed seafood. Just across the alley, the plant-based Sage Vegan Bistro (sageveganbistro.com) makes comfort food feel virtuous. Go light with a green juice, or all-out with avocado toast, polenta tots, or a colorful, hearty breakfast bowl. For a real knockout, splurge at Union Restaurant (unionpasadena.com), an intimate neighborhood spot that puts a California spin on northern Italian cuisine. You could make a meal out of the appetizers—a simple arugula salad showered with Pecorino pairs well with rich chunks of charred avocado, and the grilled octopus is the stuff of dreams, a crispy, tender tentacle plated with burnt eggplant, sweet-pepper puree, and Fresno chiles—but then you’d miss out on the rest of the outstanding seasonal menu. The key is to pace yourself: Order a glass of bubbly rosé and a snack to start, choose from plates like pappardelle with peppers and pork sugo or squid-ink pasta with lobster, Meyer lemon, and truffle butter, and settle in for the long haul. 

4. GO BEHIND THE SCENES

Downtown-Pasedena-town-hall.jpg?mtime=20180823164557#asset:103039Pasadena's City Hall has made frequent appearances on screens small and large, standing in, with equal aplomb, for the police station in Beverly Hills Cop II and an American embassy in Mexico in The Net. Fans of Parks and Recreation might also recognize it as small-town Pawnee’s city hall. (Maya Stanton) 

A go-to filming location for the likes of Rob Reiner and Quentin Tarantino, Pasadena is basically Hollywood East, and you can follow in your favorite directors’ footsteps, courtesy of a Pasadena Film Tour ($50; myvalleypass.com). The three-hour bus excursion is led by the enthusiastic Jared Cowan, a writer, production buff, and Philly transplant who’s scouted some of the city’s most noteworthy locations, from the famous facade of Doc Brown’s house in Back to the Future (a National Historic Landmark that's now owned by the city and operated by the USC School of Architecture for docent-led tours and events) to the historic Raymond Theatre, which served as the backdrop for talents as diametrically opposed as Whitney Houston and Spinal Tap, as well as less-recognizable spots like the narrow alley through which Bruce Willis escapes after his ill-fated boxing match in Pulp Fiction. You’ll never watch your favorite flicks the same way again.

5. SMELL THE ROSES

Perhaps Pasadena’s best-known draw, the Rose Bowl is one of the country’s preeminent venues, and if you have a chance to attend an event here, go! Since its first college football game kicked off in 1923, the historic blue-grass field has hosted everything from Olympic events to LA Galaxy soccer games to artists like Pink Floyd and Beyoncé, not to mention 90-plus years of college football games. It more than lives up to its reputation as a great place to see a show. 

THE DETAILS

East of Los Angeles, some 30 miles from the airport, Pasadena is easily accessible from LAX by cab, shuttle bus, or metro. The city is highly walkable, but it also has a strong public transit system and a plethora of Uber and Lyft drivers on call at any given time. The Hilton Pasadena (hilton.com) is centrally located, just steps from Colorado Boulevard’s shops and restaurants, a 20-minute walk to Old Pasadena, and less than 10 minutes by car to the Huntington Library and the Norton Simon Museum. And, with minimal rainfall and average temperatures hovering anywhere between the low 90s in August and the high 60s in winter, there’s never a bad time to visit.

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