Just 10 miles outside downtown Los Angeles, the city of Pasadena somehow manages to exude a small-town vibe — never mind that it’s world-famous for hosting a New Year’s celebration since 1890, complete with a college football-showdown and decadent Parade of Roses.
Perhaps it’s the walkable downtown, better known as Old Pasadena, that has helped preserve the charm here, with friendly shop owners who proudly support local artisans. Or maybe it’s the easy-on-the-eyes surroundings, including myriad examples of interesting architecture, well-manicured public spaces, and parks adorned with sculptures. The San Gabriel Mountains tightly hug the city, lending even more to its cozy appeal, with the added bonus of large trees nearly everywhere you look.
So, what are you waiting for?
To kick off your day of exploration, it’s worth taking a drive over the gorgeous, 103-year-old Colorado Street Bridge to the west edge of town, where neighborhood favorite Little Flower Candy Co. awaits. This charming bakery and café is known for its robust coffee drinks (try the not-too-sweet lavender latte) and sinful candies, such as fluffy, cinnamon sugar-covered marshmallows, and various caramels. The otherworldly, toasty scones win our vote for a hearty breakfast, although you’d be foolish not to grab a bag of candy for later. 1422 W. Colorado Blvd., littleflowercandyco.com
Whatever you do, visit Pasadena midweek so that your cultural plans aren’t thwarted by museum closures. If you have to pick just one, go for the Norton Simon Museum, which has a world-class collection of European art, including several Picasso and Van Gogh works. It’s all housed in a sprawling two-story, midcentury modern building, the lower level of which is dedicated to rotating exhibitions; outside, there’s a magnificent sculpture garden where you can grab a bite at the café and chill with works by Henry Moore, among others, in view. 411 W. Colorado Blvd., nortonsimon.org
If you have time, check out the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA). Although it’s small in comparison to the Norton Simon, the exhibitions at this museum each offer a powerful narrative about what makes California culture so unique. Visit its website for program details. 490 E. Union St., pmcaonline.org
From PMCA, it’s only a half-mile jaunt to the quaint Shops on Holly Street; and while you’re at it, take a detour through the iconic City Hall and admire its Italian Renaissance-inspired architecture.
Once on Holly Street, shop at adorable boutiques such as Lula Mae Gifts of Wit & Whimsy (lulamae.com), a stationery store on sentimental steroids that overflows with quirky greeting cards and nostalgic gifts; don’t miss Homage Inspired Gifts & Jewelry(homagepasadena.com), either, with its solid selection of locally made, wearable art and creative home décor.
Union Street is another shopping hub where it’s nearly impossible not to get sucked into Gold Bug, with its artfully preserved, ornate insects — ranging from exotic beetles to butterflies — occupying decorative glass terrariums. In addition to its modern take on taxidermy, the shop is loaded with the nature-themed works of contemporary artists; it also offers a wild collection of dark, yet elegant jewelry. 22 E. Union St., goldbugpasadena.com
Although Old Pasadena isn’t known for its stellar dining, nearby Union is an exception. Open for dinner only, chef Bruce Kalman’s fresh take on Italian cuisine translates to pasta dishes and tantalizing charcuterie that change with the seasons. 37 E. Union St., unionpasadena.com
If you want to hike like a local — and it’s even better with a picnic in tow — there’s Eaton Canyon Natural Area, part of the Angeles National Forest. Known for its dramatic gorges, stream and a waterfall located at the end of a moderately strenuous, 3.5-mile hike on Eaton Canyon Trail, it’s no wonder that lovers of the great outdoors flock here. 1750 N. Altadena Drive, ecnca.org
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.