Pasadena is a city of more than 140,000 residents located about ten miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
It may be most well-known for its annual Tournament of Roses parade and the Rose Bowl football game that features high-profile Midwest and West Coast teams, but it’s also a center for technology, industry, and the arts.
Pasadena is chock-full of significant historical and cultural attractions. It’s close to a number of undisturbed natural areas that offer visitors easy access to a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking, climbing, and wildlife photography.
Below are 15 things to do in Pasadena, California.
1. The Rose Bowl
Since it was built in the early 1920s, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena has been one of the country’s most iconic college sports venues.
Though it retains much of its original architecture, the stadium has undergone massive renovations in recent years, costing more than 150 million dollars.
Most of the Rose Bowl’s sporting activities take place during the fall and winter when the football season is in full swing, but the stadium is also a popular venue for other activities, like live entertainment, fairs and festivals, and guided tours.
It’s aptly located on Rose Bowl Drive in Pasadena and is conveniently close to other city attractions.
2. Historic Old Pasadena
More than a century ago, when Los Angeles wasn’t the sprawling metropolis it is today, Pasadena was a relatively quiet desert town.
Now, it’s one of LA’s most modern and bustling municipalities. But if you know where to look, it’s still possible to see it the way it was in decades long past.
Old Pasadena features a distinctly historic feel. It’s full of galleries, museums, and a number of entertainment options, including dining, shopping, and sightseeing.
The area also hosts a variety of annual events that draw lovers of music, food, wine, and arts and crafts from all over the country.
3. Tournament House and Wrigley Gardens
Though he was born in Pennsylvania in the 1860s, William Wrigley Jr. was so successful in the gum business that he was able to buy opulent homes in several states, including Arizona and California.
The Tournament House in Pasadena was one such residence, but now it’s the official home of the city’s Tournament of Roses Association.
A historic attraction that’s open to the public, it is particularly well-known for its impressive Italian Renaissance architecture and opulent appointments.
The home also features exhibits relating to Rose Bowl football games in years past, and impressive gardens with more than 1,000 varieties of roses and other flowers.
4. Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
Since it was founded in 1936, Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been at the forefront of technological developments in the space and aviation fields.
The world-renowned laboratory is a partnership between NASA and Caltech and now works in other areas, including astronomy and robotics.
JPL is open to visitors for regularly scheduled tours, but guests will need to sign up in advance of their visit.
Tours include engaging and educational narration from a knowledgeable local guide and trips through the visitor and flight operations centers and the usually off-limits spacecraft assembly plant.
JPL is located on Oak Grove Drive in Pasadena just a few minutes from the downtown area.
5. The Pasadena Museum of History
The history of Pasadena dates all the way back to the mid-1870s, when the area was first settled by out-of-state pioneers looking to start anew on the West Coast.
But it wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that a group of civic-minded locals established a historical society to preserve the city’s heritage.
Now, the Pasadena Museum of History is the area’s premier historical preservation institution. It’s a popular destination for locals and visitors alike.
It’s located in town on the idyllic grounds of an estate that was originally built more than a century ago. There are a variety of activities available, including guided tours, lectures, and workshops, in addition to its permanent exhibits.
6. The Fork in the Road
Venturing off the well-worn path is a great way to distance yourself from the crowds and see unique and eclectic attractions that often get overlooked.
Located at the surprisingly nondescript intersection of Pasadena and St. John avenues in town, the city’s ‘Fork in the Road’ is a big hit with foodies, amateur photographers, and all-around lovers of quirky Americana.
At nearly 20 feet tall, the fork was the brainchild of two local men brimming with creativity and free time.
Though the fork’s deeper meaning is still up for debate, it’s free to visit, open around-the-clock, and is a worthwhile stop between other nearby attractions.
7. Gamble House
California has always been a big magnet for wealthy families from all over the country. People come to enjoy its unbeatable weather, wide-open spaces, and stunning natural beauty.
In the early years of the 20th century, Gamble House was designed and built by famous architects for heirs of the Proctor & Gamble fortune.
Many visitors are surprised when they see the home for the first time; its dark wood façade and brooding ski lodge-like appearance seem strangely out of place in its desert surroundings.
The home is frequently open to docent-led tours and is considered one of the state’s premier examples of arts and crafts-style American architecture.
8. The Gold Bug
Located on a quiet side street in Pasadena’s Old Town, the Gold Bug is a truly unique shop catering to those who shun mass-produced items lacking originality and character.
It’s been described as a bohemian hodge-podge that’s full of eclectic treasures; they run the gamut from locally made jewelry crafted with all-natural items found in the desert to trendy casual wear and cool art.
Inventive local craftsmen and women created much of what you’ll find inside. There aren’t many places nearby where you’re as likely to find one-of-a-kind items that make great gifts and keepsakes.
9. Eaton Canyon Nature Center
Spread across nearly 2,000 acres along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Eaton Canyon Nature Center is a must-visit attraction for those interested in spending time in the great outdoors without driving halfway across the state.
The facility includes a visitor’s center that features interactive exhibits and live animals, as well as a variety of natural habitats that are home to a diverse array of native plant and wild animal species.
The center’s grounds are crisscrossed by a network of well-marked trails, most of which are relatively flat and appropriate for visitors of most ages.
Picnics and guided walking tours are popular activities as well.
10. The Pasadena Symphony
Local symphony orchestras often get overlooked by travelers intent on hitting more traditional attractions with their limited vacation time.
For music lovers, however, they’re wonderful community resources that regularly offer free and inexpensive performances, making them great bangs for those hard-earned vacation dollars.
The Pasadena Symphony is conveniently located near the downtown area. It hosts a variety of annual shows in conjunction with other civic organizations.
Tickets tend to go quickly for popular performances, so if you’re interested in taking in a show or two, it’s wise to check the calendar of events on their website and purchase your tickets in advance.
11. Norton Simon Museum
The Norton Simon Museum is home to one of the Golden State’s most impressive private collections of priceless art.
The collection features more than 10,000 individual works spanning more than a century. It was gathered over a lifetime by the wealthy industrialist after whom the museum is now named.
In addition to its permanent and rotating exhibits, the museum’s staff hosts a variety of classes, workshops, lectures, and guided tours on a regular basis.
Works include original paintings by Rembrandt and van Gogh, among others. The museum is located just a few minutes from downtown Pasadena on West Colorado Boulevard.
12. Lucky Baldwin’s Pub
Though craft brewing and small-batch whiskey distilling have been all the rage for the last few years, back in the late ‘90s, the movement toward high-quality, locally and regionally produced beers and spirits was just getting started.
Lucky Baldwin’s Pub is named after an interesting local character who founded the famous horse track in nearby Santa Anita. It features more than 50 beers on tap.
The pub sports a traditional English motif. It is well-known for its tasty fish and chips and abundance of European beers that are darker and more flavorful than many of their American counterparts.
Lucky Baldwin’s offers both indoor and outdoor seating, but it tends to fill up quickly during peak times.
13. USC Pacific Asia Museum
Ever since the gold rush and railroad days of the 1800s, California has experienced a steady wave of immigrants from various Asian countries.
Located on North Los Robles Avenue in Pasadena, the USC Pacific Asia Museum was founded nearly five decades ago to preserve the state’s Asian cultures and their art.
The museum is a worthwhile historical attraction and primarily focuses on works created by Asian immigrants, but many of the more than 10,000 individual pieces were created thousands of years ago—long before the mass migration began.
Throughout the year, the museum’s staff offer a variety of exhibitions, performances, workshops, and festivals.
14. Mount Wilson Observatory
Mount Wilson is one of the highest peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains that ring much of Pasadena.
More than 100 years ago, when LA didn’t produce as much light as it does now, a massive observatory was built, and it’s still in use today.
The observatory was originally manned by famous astronomer and inventor Edwin Hubble, who made a number of significant discoveries while working onsite.
Though it’s not open year-round, the Mount Wilson Observatory does offer evening stargazing sessions with trained professionals during the season.
The observatory is located about ten kilometers from downtown Pasadena on Audio Road.
15. The Church of St. Andrew
For most visitors with limited vacation resources, heading to Europe to see great works of art from the Renaissance masters is about as likely as a trip to the moon.
Thankfully, for visitors to Pasadena, there’s a more convenient and inexpensive way to do that.
Featuring a towering Romanesque spire, impressive old-world architecture, and a mural of the Madonna rivaling those in Italy, the Church of St. Andrew has been a Pasadena icon since it was built more than a century ago.
It’s still a functioning church, so it’s not always open to visitors, so give them a call or ask around town before making a special trip to check it out.