You’ve already seen Pasadena and may not know it. Once a wealthy enclave northeast of Los Angeles, Pasadena is so full of big houses and trees that it’s a favored filming location. Wayne Manor in the old Batman TV series is a hilltop mansion in the city’s San Rafael neighborhood, and the stately house across the street from my school regularly pops up in random movies like Starsky & Hutch. This list goes on: The home of Mad Men’s Don Draper is across the street from the Father of the Bride house. You could go to Pasadena just to admire the photogenic residence and leafy streets — so verdant the Arbor Day Foundation cites Pasadena as a top US “Tree City.”
But it also turns out that a few of Pasadena’s rich residents of a century or more ago also collected art — a lot of art — and commissioned spectacular homes — a few of which are now museums. Add in one of the world’s top science universities, a major NASA facility, and a world-famous observatory and you may wonder why you haven’t yet been to this little nook at the foot of the San Gabriel mountains. Here are the best things to do in Pasadena.
- Where is Pasadena? How do I get there?
- How do I get around Pasadena?
- The best times to go to Pasadena
- Things to do in Pasadena
- Where to eat and drink in Pasadena
- Where to stay in Pasadena
Where is Pasadena? How do I get there?
Pasadena is part of Los Angeles County, but is an independent city with its own mayor. It’s 10 miles northwest of Downtown LA along the twisty Pasadena Freeway, the West’s first highway.
The nearest airport to Pasadena is the John Wayne Burbank Airport, although Pasadena is not too far from Ontario International Airport due east. The 30-mile drive to LAX can take 45 minutes or twice that time, depending on LA’s notorious freeway traffic. If you are in Downtown LA, you can take the Metro Gold Line light rail to Pasadena.
How do I get around Pasadena?
Pasadena has walkable sections — like Old Town Pasadena or the Lake Street area, but it’s mostly a typical SoCal city that requires you to traverse big stretches in a car. You’re best off having a rental car or planning on taking Ubers or Lyfts.
The best times to go to Pasadena
Fall and spring are all great months to visit Pasadena, with cool mornings and moderate daytime temperatures. Winter is especially nice, as the sky tends to be less hazy, so you can see every crag in the always lovely and occasionally snow-capped mountains. Summer, on the other hand, can be too hot — with temperatures regularly topping 100 degrees. If you do go then, be sure you have easy access to a swimming pool.
Things to do in Pasadena
Norton Simon Museum
Name the best known European artists from the 15th to the 19th centuries — such as Boticelli, Rembrandt, or Goya — and their works likely grace the walls of the Norton Simon Museum. The Norton Simon also has the fullest collection of 20th century Impressionists and post-Impressionists west of the Mississippi. Degas paintings and sculptures abound, alongside works by Picasso, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and so on. Downstairs is a spectacular selection of art from 12 South and Southeast Asian countries spanning India to Indonesia.
After marveling at works from the world’s most influential artists inside the museum, head out back for a cup of tea, a grilled cheese sandwich, and yet more art. The outdoor cafe next to the lilypad-dotted pond leads to a planted garden holding sculptures by Rodin, Renoir, Henry Moore, Gwynn Murrill, and many others.
Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors. Students, military, and kids under 18 are all free.
Where: 411 West Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, California 91105
Until very recently, this must-see spot in Pasadena still went by the mouthful “The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.” Considering that everyone in Pasadena just calls it “The Huntington,” it’s a relief they finally adopted the more concise label. They probably held onto the longer name because most locals visit The Huntington for its botanical gardens alone — and neglect its world-class art collection and prestigious research library.
That’s understandable: The gardens are so beautiful they were used as the site of Heaven in the NBC series The Good Place. The 130 acres hold 16 themed gardens representing different locations, ecosystems, and even types of plants. The Chinese Garden, created in collaboration with designers in China, is always a favorite, while the rose garden vies with the herb garden as the most fragrant. You can admire orchid and bonsai collections, amble through the California and Australia Gardens, or gape at 90 distinct palm tree species in the Palm Garden.
If you have the stamina for it, the Huntington’s art collection — housed in the former mansion of Henry and Arabella Huntington — is worth it. Its wealth of British art, among the largest outside the UK, is matched by an abundance of American works from John Singleton Copely to Andy Warhol, including noted female artists like Miki Hayakawi. Even the library has over a thousand years of research materials. Its maps; Medieval manuscripts; ancient scientific treatises; rare photographs; and literary works in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and English draw scholars from dozens of countries every year.
Advance reservations are required to access The Huntington. Prices are $25 for adults; $21 for seniors, students, military; $13 for kids aged four to 11; free for those three and under.
Where: 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, CA 91108
The California Institute of Technology
This compact university campus is home to fewer than 2500 undergraduates and graduates. But this institution, its faculty, and many of its students are involved with some of the most significant astronomy and aerospace endeavors in the world — whether at the NASA Jet Propulsion Library or via astronomical observatories in Hawaii, California, Chile, and elsewhere. Most who tour CalTech are prospective students, but the reflecting pools, palm trees, and low-water gardens are a nice counterpoint to the cutting edge science occurring within its austere, modern buildings. The Caltech Women’s Club also hosts free two-hour architecture tours focusing on the historic portions of the campus built over 90 years ago; those tours occur on the fourth Thursday of each month at 10:30 AM. You could also check out the interactive map and design your own tour.
Where: 1200 E California Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91125
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Although owned by NASA, JPL is managed by Caltech, so you might want to visit after your morning stroll through Caltech — if you reserve it well ahead. JPL opens up tours two months in advance — so check the JPL tour reservation page. Tours typically start with a presentation on JPL’s many exploits, which include building and operating the Mars Curiosity and Perseverance rovers and Ingenuity helicopter, which flew on the red planet. The tour also takes you to the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, where these pioneering robotic space vehicles are created, and the Space Flight Operations Facility. That’s the dark, auditorium-like room you see in the movies, where everyone is nervously monitoring their screens during take-off. This very cool room is also a National Historic Landmark.
4800 Oak Grove Dr, La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91109
The Mount Wilson Observatory
Technically, the Mount Wilson Observatory is in Los Angeles — but its mailing Where is in Pasadena and anyway it’s just twenty miles from JPL up Highway 2. The uphill drive is a lovely activity on its own, as you’ll get to explore the soaring Sierra Madre range that serves as such a striking backdrop to leafy Pasadena. If it’s particularly hot in town, the cool temperature among the pine trees at 5,715 feet will be quite welcome, as will the sweeping views of Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles.
The Mount Wilson Observatory is on Matador’s list of the best US observatories to visit, not just for the mountain-top setting, but because it was once the most important observatory in the world. Over a century ago it housed the world’s largest operational telescope and later its first 100-inch telescope, used regularly by Edwin Hubble himself. The observatory contains a total of four groundbreaking telescopes, which you can learn about at its Astronomical Museum. The Visitors’ Gallery is open daily from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. To see the 100-inch telescope up close, reserve tickets for two-hour guided tours — offered weekends at 11:30 AM and 1:00 PM. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors and kids 12 and under.
The Rose Bowl
The century-old football stadium and National Historic Landmark is still worth a visit, even if the UCLA Bruins aren’t your team. Its location in the Pasadena Arroyo, or canyon, with the Sierra Madre mountains behind it, coupled with its historic architecture, explain why it’s the site of the first major college football game every year on January 1 (January 2nd, if the first is a Monday). It just looks good on TV — and of course it’s not freezing in SoCal.
You can admire the stadium from outside, especially if you are there for the massive Rose Bowl Flea Market on the second Sunday of each month, or if you opt to join the many Pasadena locals who walk or jog around the stadium — seeing as its flanked by wooded hillsides. Sports fans can join a $20 tour ($17 for kids from age five to 12 and seniors), which include a look at the preserved 1922 locker room, the currently used locker rooms, the press box, and some luxury suites.
Where: 1001 Rose Bowl Drive, Pasadena, CA 91103
The Gamble House
Better known in Pasadena as the Greene & Greene House, this wooden house is one of the most interesting examples of Craftsman architecture you can find. You can only enter The Gamble House on a one-hour guided tour ($15 for adults: $12.50 for teens, students, and seniors; free 12 and under). Buy your tickets in the Carriage House, which was Doc’s garage in Back to the Future. The docents are very knowledgeable and will point out multiple fascinating details. Among the minutiae are subtle artistic touches in every bedroom, including in their walls, handmade bed frames, and bespoke furnishings. Designed by brothers Charles and Henry Greene, who studied woodworking and metalworking before attending MIT’s School of Architecture, the many details explain why this house is considered such a work of art. Indeed, there’s no space to hang art on the intricately paneled walls themselves — and none is needed.
Where: 4 Westmoreland Place, Pasadena, CA 91103
Where to eat and drink in Pasadena
Despite being the birthplace of famed cookbook author Julia Child, Pasadena isn’t bursting with inventive cuisine — but you will find high-quality ingredients here. The Arbour sources its produce from local farms for starters like Shaved brussel sprouts or its red beet salad. The lobster risotto is hard to resist, as is the dark chocolate mousse for dessert. One of the best things about The Arbour is the wood and concrete interior, softened with hanging plants — sleek, but also welcoming.
Where: 527 South Lake Avenue, suite 120, Pasadena, California 91101
The Parkway Grill
The Parkway Grill is a special night out kind of place, where families might dine with their CalTech students to celebrate graduation. It’s upscale, but you can find reasonably priced items as well. The whole ginger fried catfish is an eye-watering $56, but there are excellent wood fired pizzas and pastas on the menu for half that price. Note also that portion sizes are generous; you could easily share that tasty catfish. And while it does have white tablecloths, the brick walls and steel-beamed ceiling give it a more relaxed vibe.
Where: 510 South Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena, CA 91105
This Asian-fusion restaurant is not for everyone, but those who love it keep coming back. As the name suggests, bone broth is big here — but the Indonesia inspired cuisine also offers vegan options. Small plates could include clams with Chinese donuts or fried oxtail tips with Thai chili, or stay veggie-forward with citrus soy shishito peppers or roasted Bali-style eggplants. It’s definitely a boisterous, sharing dishes kind of place — but luckily the wood-paneled space is too small to get loud.
Where: 67 N Raymond Ave, Pasadena, CA 91103
Where to stay in Pasadena
We hope you love the hotels we recommend in Pasadena! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.
The Langham Huntington
When it opened in 1914, this grand hotel was a weekend escape from Los Angeles, offering views of the Sierra Madre mountains from its upper rooms and everything from expansive gardens to swimming pools across its 23 acres. Today the public areas are still impressive and it’s understandable why plenty of outdoor weddings take place on the hotel grounds. Rack rates are $350 per night, which are understandable given the upkeep of the grounds and historic spaces. If you prefer firm mattresses, ask them to remove the too-soft pillow top.
Where: 1401 South Oak Knoll Avenue, Pasadena, California 91106
Hyatt Place Pasadena
Pasadena doesn’t really have a cache of boutique hotels, but it does get a lot of business visitors to places like CalTech, JPL, and corporations like Parsons — meaning you’ll find your Hilton, Sheraton, Westin, and the like here. Of the major chains, our vote goes with the Hyatt Place for its updated, off-white interiors, larger swimming pool, and central location between Old Town Pasadena and the Lake Street area.
Where: 399 E Green Street, Pasadena, California 91101