Our 1-day Pasadena, California itinerary covers the most popular things to do in the City of Roses. It provides an efficient yet leisurely walking tour through Pasadena’s Old Town, past its most iconic homes and buildings. In so doing, we’ll take you to the highlights of Pasadena, including gardens, museums, and architecture, all in (under) a single day.
Visitors to California flock to Los Angeles, Disneyland, the beach cities, and even the nearby Hollywood studios in Burbank. However, Pasadena seems to get lost in the shuffle. This is unfortunate, as Pasadena is a charming community with a vibrant small town atmosphere, unique businesses, and distinct residential architecture.
We happen to love Pasadena. Like Laguna Beach or Palm Springs, it’s a nice and quiet alternative to busier, trendier spots in and around Los Angeles. It’s difficult to say Pasadena is “underrated” given that it’s well-known thanks to the Rose Bowl, but as a tourist destination, Pasadena is underrated. It’s also a surprisingly short drive from Downtown Los Angeles, making it an easy option of a day or half-day outside the city…
With this itinerary, you can explore Pasadena, strolling past its lovely residential architecture and stopping at its best points of interest, all in a relatively efficient manner! Let’s get started…
Parade of Homes – Our favorite way to spend a morning in Pasadena is taking a self-guided architecture. The city has several neighborhoods with a high concentration of landmark homes and buildings, most notably exemplars of the American Arts & Crafts Movement by Pasadena architects Charles and Henry Greene.
If you’re into residential architecture, we highly recommend using the Explore Pasadena Architecture brochure for a self-guided tour. Our favorite of these, by far, is #3. Not only does this cover a few blocks that include many Greene & Greene highlights, but it also passes Frank Lloyd Wright’s Millard House or “La Miniatura” (pictured above), and also offers some stunning views of the Rose Bowl.
Morning Gamble – Along the way, you’ll encounter the most famous home in Pasadena: the Gamble House, which was built in 1908 for David and Mary Gamble (of Procter & Gamble fame) and also designed by Greene & Greene. Southern California has no shortage of homes to tour, with a variety of mid-century modern and case study homes dotting Los Angeles. Pasadena is renowned as being the pinnacle of the Arts and Crafts movement, and nowhere is the American Craftsman architecture better represented than in the iconic Gamble House.
The Gamble House offers a variety of different tours on different days, but its most common offerings are one-hour tours held from mid-morning until early-afternoon. We’d recommend booking the first tour of the day, which is usually at 10 a.m. The reason for this is that the sun is still low enough in the sky for natural light to shine through the house’s stained glass, which produces an ethereal, glowing beauty. Read our full Gamble House Tour Review for more photos & thoughts.
Simon Says – If you want to continue walking, you’re only about 10 minutes from the Norton Simon Museum, which is one of the top art museums in California. The museum is home to the private art collection of industrialist Norton Simon, who amassed thousands of pieces over the course of three decades.
Today, the Norton Simon Museum’s collection contains over 12,000 pieces, including European masterworks from the Renaissance to the 20th century, South and Southeast Asian art spanning 2,000 years, and a serene sculpture garden. The collection includes works by prominent artists such as Rembrandt, Fragonard, Goya, Degas, Vuillard, and Picasso. It’s all beautifully-presented in a stunning setting, both inside and out.
Old Pasadena – We like to continue this tour by foot heading towards Old Pasadena by walking down Colorado Blvd towards Pasadena Playhouse, and then heading back towards City Hall. After that, you’ll head up towards the Pasadena Library and down Walnut towards where you started the morning.
If you want to get a bit more aggressive with this and see more along the way, check out #6 on the “Explore Pasadena Architecture” walking tour maps we linked to above. Alternatively, you can drive this, with the key stops being the Pasadena Playhouse and City Hall.
Gardens Galore – You’ll find a lot of gardens in the Pasadena area. In fact, the whole city has a strong garden vibe (perhaps that’s why the Tournament of Roses is held in Pasadena?), and in addition to being the City of Roses is also known as the City of Trees.
Near Pasadena, you’ll find Arlington Gardens, the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and Descanso Gardens. We’d recommend choosing between the last two. The Huntington is a grand place–a cultural destination and stately estate.
Descanso Gardens is more laid back and chill, with some rugged natural beauty, internationally-renowned botanical collections, and stunning seasonal horticultural displays. Which you should choose is totally a matter of personal preference; after everything else you’ve done in Pasadena, Descanso Gardens might provide a nice contrast.
Evening in Griffith Park – Even if you take your time, you’ll probably finish up your day in and around Pasadena before sunset. Regardless of whether you finish at Descano Gardens or the Huntington, you’re under 20 minutes from the north side of Griffith Park.
There are a variety of things to do here, and you could truly spend a full day just in Griffith Park. Depending upon when you arrive, you could start at the (underrated) Los Angeles Zoo, or just head directly to the Observatory. Our go-to is the latter: Griffith Observatory, which is one of our favorite things to do in all of Southern California. It’s a great spot for watching the sunset, and evening fall over Los Angeles.
If you’re planning a trip, check out our Ultimate Guide to Los Angeles or our California category of posts. For even more things to do, The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas is an exceptional resource, which is written by other locals. If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
Have you spent a day in Pasadena? If so, what did you think of experience? Any additional tips or stops to add that we didn’t cover? Do you agree that Pasadena is underrated as a tourist destination, or do you think there’s not enough excitement here? Would you visit Pasadena again, or do you think it was a ‘one and done’? Was it worth your time and money? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!