There's more to Pasadena, Calif., than its Rose Parade

From Old Town to museums, city is a garden of delights

Contributing Travel WriterJanuary 11, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    Pasadena, Calif.

    Where to stay: The Westin Pasadena. The 345-room hotel, on North Los Robles, on the edge of Old Town, is within easy walking distance of many of the city's attractions. Should you choose not to walk, the hotel provides a complimentary shuttle to anywhere within a 5-mile radius. The lovely gardens make a great place to relax, and the friendly staff is eager to meet your every need. Starwoodhotels.com.

    Where to eat: Pasadena's reputation for fine food is on the rise with some 500 restaurants from which to choose.

    ■ In Old Town, try Café Santorini for a taste of the Mediterranean (grilled meats, seafood dishes and pastas). The dining room is cozy and intimate, but many prefer the rooftop patio. Cafesantorini.com.

    ■ La Grand Orange Café, in what was the historic Del Mar Train Station (the kitchen was once the ticket booth), is known for its weekend brunch. Order a pitcher of sangria and soak up the atmosphere. Lgostationcafe.com.

    ■ Mi Piace translated means "I like it," and if patrons who pack the café/bakery/bar every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner are any indication, Pasadena residents and visitors alike love it. The cuisine is all Italian, but the décor has a Manhattan flair. Mipiace.com.

    Learn more: Visitpasadena.com

PASADENA, Calif. — There was an unseasonable early morning nip in the air as I took my seat in the bleachers at Orange Grove and Colorado boulevards, but if my toes were chilly, my heart was warm in anticipation of what lay ahead.

When I was a child, I started every New Year's Day in front of the TV watching the Tournament of Roses Parade. It was a tradition that continued throughout my adult years — my escorts for New Year's Eve changed over the years, but I had a standing date with the parade on Jan. 1.

Now, I was here in Pasadena and could hardly wait for the floats to roll. Roll they did, in all their flowery splendor. Forty of them, each more spectacular than the next, every square inch of their surfaces covered with living materials — flowers, seeds, grasses and pods — painstakingly pressed and glued over several days.

There was an octopus covered with 30,000 lavender cushion mums, whose moving tentacles had suction cups made of portobello mushrooms and lotus pods; cascading waterfalls sculpted from orchids, ferns and plumeria; a Spanish galleon covered in Gerbera daisies, tulips, hydrangea and iris; and a 17-foot tall AIDS ribbon fashioned out of 30,000 blood-red roses.

Honestly, the floats would have been more than enough. But my front-row seat also afforded me the chance to see an actual bride and groom exchanging wedding vows inside a floral Fabergé egg; a young child getting a surprise reunion with his father, a float rider just back from Afghanistan; and the Lafayette High School marching band from Lexington, which did Kentucky proud.

Later that afternoon, I had seats on the 50-yard line for the 99th Rose Bowl Game between Stanford and Wisconsin. As the shadows began to lengthen over the San Gabriel Mountains, turning the sky cerulean and lilac, I decided this was the best New Year's ever.

The parade and football game were brilliant marketing ploys developed more than a century ago to entice snowbound Northerners and Midwesterners to trade in their shovels and layers of winter clothing for the scent of orange blossoms and shorts and T-shirts (average temperatures this time of year range from the high 60s to the mid-70s in Pasadena).

January is a perfect time for the winter-weary to consider a visit to Southern California, although Pasadena is a great destination any time of year. Just 25 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, it is often referred to as the "most all-American" of L.A.'s satellite cities. You're not likely to find the Kardashian clan and the paparazzi here, or Hollywood A-listers competing for top tables at trendy bistros and ink in the entertainment press.

That doesn't mean Pasadena doesn't have celebrities, even if they are fictional. Fans of the popular television show The Big Bang Theory know that the city is home to the lovably annoying Sheldon Cooper, his brainiac buddies at Cal Tech, and their waitress/aspiring actress neighbor Penny.

In fact, according to the Pasadena Convention and Visitors Bureau, the most frequently asked question from potential visitors is, "Can you arrange for me to meet Sheldon?" The show's popularity has forced The Cheesecake Factory restaurant to put a sign in the window proclaiming "Penny and Bernadette aren't working tonight."

Even without The Big Bang Theory bunch, Pasadena has a lot to offer, not the least of which is its striking architecture. Its gems range from the Spanish Colonial City Hall to the Wrigley Mansion, once home to William Wrigley Jr. of chewing gum fame. But the city's crown jewel is its Old Town.

Covering 22 blocks, Old Town is one of the best examples of downtown revitalization in America. The colorful buildings, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, have been rehabbed and are home to shops and boutiques, entertainment venues and some 80 restaurants — many of them tucked away in tiny mews and alleyways off the main drags.

At times, the entire area has the feel of an outdoor festival, with a number of free activities, including Art Nights in March and October and summer concerts in Memorial Park.

For some culture, visit Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The former was a labor of love for businessman and philanthropist Norton Simon (his empire ranged from Max Factor cosmetics to Avis Rental Car), who over 30 years amassed a private collection virtually unequaled in this country.

From a vast store of 12,000 objects, some 1,000 are on display at any given time, primarily European masters (Raphael, Botticelli and El Greco) and contemporary artists (Picasso, Matisse and Diego Rivera).

However, after his marriage to actress Jennifer Jones and their honeymoon in India, Simon began a love affair with Asian art that resulted in his acquiring works as diverse as Chola bronzes from southern India to Japanese woodblocks, many of which had been owned by Frank Lloyd Wright.

I enjoyed the museum collection, but I was especially enamored of the beautiful, serene Huntington sculpture garden, where pieces by British sculptor Henry Moore are set in a landscape of winding streams and flowering trees.

The latter, endowed by railroad magnate Henry Huntington, might take the better part of a day if you choose to visit the Georgian mansion housing the museum's world-famous collection of British paintings (most notably, Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy) and the library that contains the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, and an unsurpassed collection of the early editions of Shakespeare's works.

Make that a whole day if you include the extensive botanical gardens — a dozen specialty gardens covering 120 acres and 14,000 plant varieties. Huntington was nothing if not eclectic. The lushness of the Japanese and Chinese gardens contrasts with the Desert Garden, showcasing the native vegetation of the California and Arizona deserts. The famous Rose Garden is equaled by the camellia collection, one of the largest in the United States.

Even if you can't make it to the Tournament of Roses Parade and the Rose Bowl, and even if you have virtually no chance of meeting Sheldon Cooper, Pasadena offers much for anyone looking for a vibrant, sophisticated yet relaxing destination.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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