The 14 Best Things to Do in Pasadena
The Rose Parade and Rose Bowl are great, but here’s all the wine, food, hiking, and history for the other 364 days
For 51 weeks of the year, Pasadena is a quiet city attached to the northeast side of LA, with old money institutions and also more diversity than many people assume. But for one week, the last gasp of every calendar year, the town explodes—Pasadena is the New Year’s Day capital of Southern California.
The main event is the Rose Bowl game, a college football spectacle known as “the granddaddy of them all” traditionally played on New Year’s Day (except when January 1 is a Sunday, like this year, it’s played on the second instead) between the champions of the Pac-12 and the Big 10 conferences. That brings some hundred-thousand or so eager folks from places like Michigan, Ohio, Utah, and Oregon out to the Pasadena area in the week leading up to the game. They come fleeing polar vortices and bomb cyclones, descending on Old Town Pasadena in a desperate hunt for SoCal sun and holiday partying.
The Rose Parade is the other piece of the festivities, a New Year’s Day tradition since 1902 that was actually the impetus for the creation of the football game—the Rose Bowl was born as a fundraiser for the Rose Parade. Depending on your interests (and who’s playing), it may well be more fun than the game. The Parade brings people from all over the region to the sidewalks of Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Eve, where parade fans camp out overnight along the route to catch a glimpse of the themed flower-covered floats, marching bands, equestrian groups, and more on New Year’s morning.
But there’s more to Pasadena than just the game and the parade. Whether you’re in town for the week or headed to Pasadena for an afternoon, these are some of our favorite things to do in the Crown City.
See a Monet in person
The Norton Simon Museum has been hailed as one of the greatest private art collections on display, and with pieces by Rembrandt, Goya, Degas, Monet, van Gogh, and Picasso, it's easy to see why. Wander through this tiny-but-mighty museum before heading outside, where a sculpture garden and pond modeled after Monet's favorite await.
Taste through Pasadena’s growing wine scene
You would expect a restrained, mature city like Pasadena to have a solid wine culture, and it does, but the real thrills of Pasadena’s wine scene are to be found in the relative newcomers. Vin de California and Good Luck Wine Shop are twin pillars of the community, two attached storefronts run by the husband-and-wife team Kate and Adam Vourvoulis. Good Luck is an adorable natural wine retail shop that opened in 2020 and Vin de California is the winery arm of the operation, which opened a tasting room for their punchy, fun, slightly eccentric natural wines in 2022. You should also stop by the Pasadena area’s other wine stalwarts for bottles and tastings at spots like Pasadena Wine Shop, Everson Royce, Monopole, and perhaps most fun of all, the literary wine bar 1894, tucked inside legendary Vroman’s Bookstore.
Get some fresh air on a hiking trail
The San Gabriel mountains loom large over Pasadena, a hulking and picturesque presence to the city’s immediate north. But you don’t have to resign yourself to gazing at them from a distance—hiking those mountains is one of the great joys of the Pasadena area. Trek through Eaton Canyon, hike up to the ruins of the old Echo Mountain Resort, or stroll the Arroyo Seco from the Rose Bowl down to the San Pascual Stables.
Take a walking tour of Pasadena’s architectural landmarks
If human design is more your speed, Pasadena is also one of the best parts of town for a neighborhood architecture walk. It is largely flat and full of quiet streets, sprawling estates, and historic buildings perfect for admiring from the sidewalk. You can walk by Doc Brown’s house from Back to the Future (also known as The Gamble House), check out the serene Pegfair Estates on the West side of the Arroyo, cruise past the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home La Miniatura, or walk through the gorgeous campus of CalTech, where Einstein, Hawking, and Oppenheimer all spent time.
Have dinner in a classic Craftsman cottage
You don’t have to settle for looking at all of those beautiful homes from afar—at The Raymond restaurant and the attached 1886 bar, you can spend a long evening eating and drinking in a historic Craftsman cottage. The Raymond Hotel was built twice and demolished twice by 1931, razed once by fire and once by The Great Depression, but the former groundskeeper’s cottage still stands on the south end of Pasadena, and it’s grand enough to house both the lovely restaurant and its spectacular bar. The restaurant has a menu of well-executed American classics, and the bar is the building’s pearl, a cozy room tucked around back with historic charm, the kind of place that almost demands you order an immaculately mixed vintage cocktail.
Tour a garden in the City of Roses
As you might expect from a city known for roses, there are plenty of gorgeous gardens tucked into the quiet streets of Pasadena. Explore the meandering, hidden paths of Arlington Garden, a serene three-acre parcel of water-wise, climate-appropriate landscape built on California Department of Transportation-owned land that was originally intended to be part of the long-desired 710 freeway extension, which was officially killed earlier this year. Just across the street, check out the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden, a pre-WWII garden with a formal teahouse and a 15-foot waterfall on two acres of land that used to be the private home of the Storrier Stearns family and is now open to the public on weekends and for events. There is also, of course, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which is one of Southern California’s true gems, and feels like a Pasadena institution though it is technically over the line into nearby San Marino.
Explore the diversity of North Pasadena with a food crawl
There are two things about Pasadena that are often overlooked, its diversity and its excellent food scene; investigate both at once on the north side of the 210 freeway. Start with lamb barbacoa from Mendez Restaurant inside Super Liquor Market, then walk a couple doors down to Pasadena Fish Market for curried goat and other Jamaican specialties. Head up Lake Ave. to Rodney’s Ribs and then Seed Bakery for a one-two punch of meat and bread. Celebrate the area’s strong Armenian community at Old Sasoon, Armen Market, or Monta Factory. Pick up a pie at the exuberantly multicultural pizzeria 786 Degrees, then head over to The George for an elevated New American nightcap, or pop in to The 1881 for live music and to bask in TV history—it was the bar in the truly sublime “Smokers Allowed” episode of Nathan For You.
Explore Old Town
Since walking is free (and so are the first 90 minutes in the parking structure), a stroll through bustling Old Town Pasadena might just be the best deal in town. All 22 square blocks of the city's revitalized business district are on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning there are plenty of vintage Art Deco buildings and brick-lined alleys to take in along the way.
Eat "The Sandwich"
In Pasadena, there is only one sandwich worth eating, and only one man who can make it: 78-year-old Rosario Mazzeo, who still sits behind the meat and cheese counter at his Italian deli and grocery, Roma Market. "The Sandwich," the only go-to item on offer, might seem like just a simple pile of mortadella, capicola, salami, and provolone, but it's so much more than the sum of its parts -- you'll just have to find out why for yourself.
Hit up one of the best flea markets in the country
Need a pair of vintage sunglasses? How about a bike? Or an entire set of living room furniture? If you can dream it (and it was made before 1990), it's probably for sale at the monthly Rose Bowl Flea Market, arguably one of the best of its kind in the country. With hundreds of vendors selling everything from shoes to stoves, you're guaranteed to go home with something new to love/ask yourself why you bought it six months later.
Give a hoot, read a book
Remember those glue-bound pages with words printed on them called books? At 122 years old, Vroman's Bookstore knows a thing or two about selling them, even in the digital age. Still in its original spot on Colorado Blvd, this two-story wonderland for all things textual hosts famous authors, book-related events, and continually proves why it's still SoCal's oldest and largest independent bookstore.
Get your giggles back when The Ice House re-opens
After three long years of renovation and improvement, Pasadena’s legendary comedy club The Ice House is poised to come back to life in February. The club originally opened in 1960 as a folk music venue, and since then the 200-seat space has hosted comedy legends like George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, Jerry Seinfeld, and a whole host of up-and-coming comedians. New owner Johnny Buss (yes that Buss family) has renovated the club, upgraded the kitchen, enlarged the patio, and plans to keep the club vibrant in its next phase.
Explore where space robots are made
Interested in how scientists cull data from the vast nothingness of outer space? Head to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, the leading US center for robotic exploration of the solar system, to witness how the magic happens for yourself. Nearly 30 spacecraft and instruments from JPL are currently carrying out missions, which you'll learn more about if you score a spot on one of the public weekday lab tours or show up for one of the monthly public lectures.
Drink a perfect pint
It's a Pasadena tradition to catch a game of footie (soccer) and a right proper pour of Guinness at Lucky Baldwins, one of LA's oldest British pubs. You're coming here for more than just nostalgia, though -- for over two decades, the expat owners have been importing hard-to-find European beer, making a name for their bar as somewhere to not only get the best fish and chips around, but a great pint of craft beer as well.
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