In 1890, a local hunting club in Pasadena held the first Rose Parade, followed by community games. Rose-festooned horses and buggies passed through town and men competed in footraces and tug-of-war. Today, more than 500,000 flowers carpet lavish parade floats, and the contests have morphed into a renowned college football game, the Rose Bowl. Typically, the game takes place on New Year's Day, but this year Pasadena hosts the National Championship Game on January 3. If you haven't already made arrangements for this sweet-smelling party, you can catch the action on television—but you should also consider visiting Pasadena at a later date.
You'll find much more here than roses. A sophisticated playground equipped with a myriad of things to do, the city knows how to keep visitors entertained. Old Pasadena is a Southern Cali-fornia hot spot for shopping and dining. In the surrounding neighborhoods, culture, history, and memorable architecture abound.
Located in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains nine miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena spills out over 23 square miles of the San Gabriel Valley. Orange growers first settled this fertile vale, but it wasn't until the late 1880s that Pasadena experienced a boom. Midwesterners seeking relief from harsh winters flocked to the sunny paradise and built grand homes along the city's tree-trimmed boulevards.
In the early 20th century, arts and crafts became the architectural style of choice; today, Pasadena's neighborhoods boast more examples of this American craftsman architecture than anywhere else in the nation. At the Convention & Visitors Bureau, you'll find maps for self-guided tours. The Greene & Greene and Friends Tour, for example, features the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Millard House, which is constructed of concrete blocks. The Bungalow Heaven Tour spotlights lovely middle-class craftsman houses—some built from kit homes produced by Sears, Roebuck and Co.
The crowning glory of Pasadena's neighborhoods is the unique Gamble House, built by architects Charles and Henry Greene for David and Mary Gamble (heirs to the Procter & Gamble fortune) in 1908. Designed to embrace nature, the home epitomizes the craftsman movement. Its shake-sided exterior blends into the garden. The interior gleams with 17 different hand-rubbed, richly colored types of wood.
Your explorations should include San Marino, an upscale town bordering Pasadena, and the area's main attraction, the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Southern Pacific Railroad tycoon and avid collector Henry Huntington originally owned the estate.
Wear comfortable shoes to make a trek through the 150 acres of themed gardens, the most unusual of which is the desert garden. The bizarre succulents reaching for the sky and tangled on the ground create a landscape fit for a Dr. Seuss book. "A lot of people think they don't like cactus until they see this," says guide Lisa Blackburn.
Among the art collections, the most notable is the Huntington Gallery's assemblage of late-18th- and early-19th-century British masterworks. Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy, a portrait of a confident young man in a satiny blue suit, steals the show. Across the way, Pinkie, Thomas Lawrence's portrait of a young girl, practically looks into The Blue Boy's eyes.
The Huntington's largest collection, the library, contains more than 4 million books and manuscripts; 200 of them are on view, including a Gutenberg Bible (circa 1455), an illuminated Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (circa 1410), and early editions of Shakespeare.
The Norton Simon Museum, located at the west end of Old Pasadena, is the legacy of another famous local collector. Norton Simon made a fortune as a corporate entrepreneur from the 1940s to the 1960s and led the reorganization of the foundering Pasadena Art Museum (renaming it after himself) to house his vast art collection. Today, the museum's modern two-story building has space to display 10 percent of Simon's 12,000 pieces. Upstairs, seven centuries of fine European art includes van Goghs, Rembrandts, Monets, Watteaus, and Picassos. Ancient ivory, bronze, and stone sculptures from India and Southeast Asia fill the downstairs gallery.
A few blocks from old town, the Pacific Asia Museum displays its treasures in a Chinese palace, the replica of a building in Beijing's Forbidden City. Spanning 5,000 years, this collection includes 14th-century Asian ceramics; wood-block prints and paintings by Hokusai, a master of Japan's ukiyo-e school of printmaking; and Buddhas from Asian locales such as Bali, Laos, and Java.
Early evening is the best time to visit Old Pasadena. Extending along Colorado Boulevard, the 20-square-block neighborhood underwent a major revitalization project in the 1980s; after evicting the pawnshops and adult entertainment venues, the city restored buildings and ushered in boutiques and restaurants.
Trendsetters pour into Old Pasadena at night. Popular hangouts like Sushi Roku, which dishes out acid jazz along with exquisite raw fish, and Xiomara, serving nuevo Latino cuisine, hop on weekends.
For a quieter night, head to the Playhouse District. For dinner, try Maison Akira, where the cuisine is Asian-French fusion. Afterward, mosey across the street to the Pasadena Playhouse, where plays, such as Neil Simon's Tony Award-winning Biloxi Blues, take center stage.
Around the corner, Cliff's Books stays open until midnight seven days a week.
"A customer once told me, 'My three favorite book-stores are the Strand in New York, Powell's in Portland, and Cliff's,' " says Jerry Lang, an employee.
After scouring the aisles of Cliff's, you step out into sleeping Pasadena. The promise of charming bungalows on tree-lined boulevards, of world-class museums, and of see-and-be-seen nighttime spots shows why Pasadena is the rose of Southern California every day of the year.
Planning Your Trip
All phone numbers are in area code 626 unless noted. Pick up AAA's San Gabriel Valley and Southern California maps. For a free copy of the Pasadena Official Visitors Guide, stop by the Convention & Visitors Bureau, 171 S. Los Robles Ave., 795-9311, www.pasadenacal.com.
Courtyard by Marriott, 180 N. Fair Oaks Ave., 403-7600. Arts and crafts decor; walk to Old Pasadena.
Doubletree, 191 N. Los Robles Ave., 792-2727. Contemporary, airy rooms; walk to Old Pasadena.
Hilton, 168 S. Los Robles Ave., 577-1000. Near Old Pasadena.
Pasadena Inn, 400 S. Arroyo Pkwy., (800) 577-5690. Basic motel with pool.
Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa, 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., 568-3900. If you can't afford a room, visit for Sunday brunch.
Boba World, 24 W. Colorado Blvd., 585-5885. Asian tea bar.
Cafe Bizou, 91 N. Raymond Ave., 792-9923. California-French cuisine with a dash of Pacific Rim. Unbeatable bargains: the $2 corkage fee and the $1 soup or salad.
Maison Akira, 713 E. Green St., 796-9501.
Sushi Roku, 33 Miller Alley at One Colorado, 683-3000. This hot spot rolls out sushi, acid jazz, and cocktails.
Trattoria Farfalla, 43 E. Colorado Blvd., 564-8696. Grab a sidewalk table and order one of the pasta dishes made with fresh noodles.
Xiomara, 69 N. Raymond Ave., 796-2520. Menu musts: the seviche and the mambo, which is a tasty mojito made with freshly squeezed sugarcane juice.
Things to do
Cliff's Books, 630 E. Colorado Blvd., 449-9541.
Gamble House, 4 Westmoreland Place, 793-3334.
Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, 405-2100.
Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., 449-6840.
Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., 449-2742.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., 792-8672.
Rose Parade and Bowl, 449-7673, www.tournamentofroses.com.
Photography courtesy of Pasadena Convention & Visitors Bureau
This article was first published in January 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.