1. It’s so easy to get there.
From Union Station in LA, follow the signs to the Gold Line, which is one of the metro lines. You’ll need to buy a TAP card, which is the newish plastic metro card. The DC equivalent is the SmarTrip card, and it costs $5. In LA, the TAP is just $1. At the same time as you buy from the card from the machine, you also need to add $1.50 for a single journey or $3 if you’re going there and back. So it cost me a grand total of $2.50 to get to Pasadena from Union Station. The metro cars are clean and feel safe, and there’s even network coverage, so you can follow along on your Google map as to where you are. Easy peasy.
2. It has a soul.
One of the things I find sad about American towns is that so many of them don’t really have a soul. Somewhere like Fort Collins, Colorado, may have something of a town centre, with a cute café/bookstore or two, a Ben and Jerry’s store, and a fountain, but that’s it – if you want to buy anything else, you have to get in your car and drive to the mall. Not so in Pasadena – the area known as Old Town, on East Colorado Blvd (the main artery through the town), has everything you could ever need, from an Apple Store to a Barnes and Noble to a Starbucks that opens till midnight to independent coffee shops and a ton of restaurants, and even, a car-free square or two where you can enjoy the sunshine and perhaps an ice cream, set back from the noise and pollution of traffic.
3. Barnes and Noble
Right in the heart of Old Town is a bookstore that I love far too much considering it’s not an independent. But, these days, it seems as if all bricks-and-mortar bookshops are under threat, so I don’t feel too bad about declaring my enthusiasm for it. I love this store, in part for its extensive magazine selection. It had every single writing magazine I am ever interested in buying, including the current Writer’s Digest special issue and the British Writers’ Forum. And it’s open till 11 pm, and I think what I love most about it is how full it is on a Saturday night at 10.30 pm.
4. Al fresco dining
Just east of Barnes and Noble, straight after De Lacey Avenue, turn down Miller Alley and you’ll find yourself in the kind of little square that looks like it belongs in Europe. All around this square are various restaurants, and on Saturdays in August they are taking turns to provide extra, pop-up al fresco dining in the square, with live music. The weekend I was there, it was magical – I hadn’t meant to eat there, but Wangari Fahari’s voice had me mesmerised, to the extent I didn’t even realise that I’d accidentally sat myself down in a sushi restaurant. (Its name was Sushi Ruku, which probably should have been my first clue.) I ended up having salmon with sea weed and it was delicious, as was the atmosphere in the square.
5. Free jazz
And while we’re on the subject of free music, perfect for enjoying the summer sunshine: about 20 mins’ walk east on E Colorado Blvd, you’ll find Vroman’s Bookstore. (More on that in a moment.) In their courtyard, the Pasadena Jazz Institute presents free concerts every Sunday in the cooling afternoon, 5 – 7 pm. Again, great music, great atmosphere.
6. One day I will…
And if the music inspires you to think deep thoughts (What? That can’t be just me…), there’s a chalkboard provided. “One day I will…” it says, and it’s up to us to fill it in. Needless to say, I added a few resolutions/dreams of my own, and enjoyed reading others’.
Then, when the jazz is over, you’ve still got time to pop into Vroman’s, SoCal’s biggest and oldest independent bookstore, named Bookseller of the Year by Publishers Weekly in 2008. It’s basically the West Coast’s answer to DC’s Politics and Prose, complete with events like book signings, a second floor, stationery, and Pasadena-themed goodies.
I’m not one to get overly excited about gardens, but this place is wonderful. Super-extensive grounds to get lost in, read in, slow down and appreciate natural (if landscaped) beauty and also enjoy some pretty good food. And there’s plenty of culture, too. $20 entrance or $12 for students (yay!), and worth every cent. You can easily spend the whole day there, especially if you bring a book.
On your way back from the Huntington, stop off at Lemonade on South Lake Avenue (between Colorado and Cordova) for some super-healthy, super-delicious food and an exotic flavour of, well, lemonade. It’s self-service, so no one is going to pressure you to leave your table, and you can pick and choose from several salady or hot options, even – get this – picking your portion size, and add some bread if you like – my olive roll was delicious. This place alone is enough to tempt me to move to California.
10. Pretty buildings
All Saints Church and City Hall, within a stone’s throw of each other, are both beautiful buildings. (Also, if you’re the Church-going type, you might want to check out the various events All Saints put on, as well as their Sunday morning service, which, when I went was a traditional Anglican/Episcopal service, with a “very LA” sermon: this church leans heavily towards social justice and speaking out against societal ills. I really liked it.)
11. The farmer’s market
After Church at All Saints, I recommend walking to City Hall to take some nice pictures, and then keep going, and you’ll find the brand new Farmer’s Market there. You can stop at Market on the Holly for a spot of lunch (yummy bacon, if not quite enough of it) and browse Lula Mae, a cute gift shop with something for everyone, including magnets for those of us whose trust issues come from raisin cookies masquerading as chocolate chips. (Yes, I bought one.)
12. Book Alley
Yes, yes, more books: look, you knew what you were getting into reading this blog. This is a pretty amazing used bookstore, amazing in its scope, capacity and organisation. Plus you can even get vinyl records there.
Those aren’t the only reasons to love Pasadena, of course. I didn’t, for example, begin to scratch the surface of the independent coffee shops and restaurants, or go and see a performance at the Pasadena Playhouse, the local theatre of which its residents are rightly proud. Nor did I drive round San Marino looking at all the beautiful houses on the grid-pattern-eschewing streets, which could be quite fun. You could do worse than living here, but, for now at least, I’ll have to content myself with the occasional visit.