PASADENA, Calif. >> Most visitors to Los Angeles head to Hollywood, Venice Beach or Santa Monica. But if you’re in the mood for stunning gardens, first-class art and historic architecture without the crowds and traffic, consider Pasadena.
Pasadena is 15 miles northwest of Los Angeles, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. Incorporated in 1886, this city of 140,000 retains much of its 19th-century charm. But as home to the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s unmanned space effort, it’s no stranger to modernity. Whether you have a day or more to spend, here are a few destinations to consider visiting that will give you a taste of the past, present and future within a compact 23-mile radius.
Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
The Huntington is considered one of the top cultural attractions in the greater Los Angeles area and is home to one of the finest collections of British portraiture in the world. Its collection includes Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” a 1455 copy of the Gutenberg Bible, a rare manuscript of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and a signed letter from Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant. The complex has 12 gardens featuring 15,000 plants and flowers displayed in ecosystems ranging from deserts to jungles. There also is a children’s garden and one showcasing the work of master craftsmen from Suzhou, China. Open daily 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays.
Norton Simon Museum
This private museum was founded in 1922 as the Pasadena Art Institute, later becoming the Pasadena Art Museum. Industrialist Norton Simon, who collected European masterpieces from the Renaissance to the 20th century, as well as Asian art spanning 2,000 years, took it over in 1974. It is considered one of the world’s finest small art museums, gaining praise for its renovations by famed architect Frank Gehry. Among the 12,000 pieces in the collection are works by Rembrandt, Rodin, van Gogh, Degas, Picasso and Matisse. Open daily except Tuesdays, with evening hours Fridays-Sundays.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
You don’t have to be a fan of “The Big Bang Theory” to take a tour of this NASA center. Operated by the California Institute of Technology (where the TV show’s Sheldon and Leonard are physicists), the lab manages 19 spacecraft, including the Curiosity rover on Mars. Public tours, featuring the flight mission control room, are available twice weekly at 1 p.m. The tours fill up months in advance, so book online at jpl.nasa.gov as soon as you know your visit dates.
One of three main shopping and entertainment districts in Pasadena, this 22-block historical area retains much of its 19th-century roots, thanks to historic preservation. It was designated a National Register Historic District in 1983, and remains full of Victorian, Mission Revival and art deco buildings that give off a European vibe with its pedestrian-friendly streets and historic alleys. The 200 shops house retail chains like the Gap, Anthropologie and Forever 21; art galleries; boutiques; and antique stores. There are 100 restaurants, diners, coffee shops and bars. Travel just 2 miles to South Pasadena and grab a shake or malt at the Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain, built in 1915 along the westernmost stop of Route 66.
The Langham Huntington
This historic hotel originally opened in 1907 and was redesigned seven years later by Rose Bowl architect Myron Hunt. It added the first Olympic-size swimming pool in Southern California in the mid-1920s and is now famous for its lovely wooden Picture Bridge, used as a backdrop in movies and TV shows including “90210” and “Scandal.” Nonguests can take the daily historical tour at 2 p.m., stroll among the 23 acres of landscaping or partake in a traditional British tea served on Wedgwood china. Tea service starts at $42.
The Gamble House
The Gamble House was designed as a winter residence in 1908 by architects Greene & Greene for David Berry Gamble, a second-generation member of the Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co. family, and his wife Mary. It is renowned as an outstanding example of American Arts and Crafts style architecture. The house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978 and is now owned by the City of Pasadena and operated by the University of Southern California. One-hour docent-led tours are held Thursdays-Sundays.
The Rose Bowl
This landmark is home to the UCLA Bruins football team and the annual Rose Bowl Game and Parade, which draws 700,000 spectators along its 5.5-mile route every January. Free public tours of the Rose Bowl are available on Thursdays, February-August. It also hosts the Rose Bowl Flea Market, now in its 45th year. It features 2,500 vendors and draws 20,000 visitors, including celebrities. The flea market is held the second Sunday of every month.