Oppenheimer's Pasadena: A Curious Itinerary

July 25, 2023 | Posted in Trip Ideas

The "father of the atomic bomb” in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer biopic was a tortured, brilliant man who was an assistant professor at Caltech at a mere 26 years old. The character portrayed by Cillian Murphy lived on and off in Pasadena for 12 years. Visitors curious about "Oppenheimer" can visit Pasadena to further explore the science, as well as the life he lived while roaming Pasadena in his powder-blue Cadillac convertible.

Tour the California Institute of Technology: Caltech Campus

Located in the heart of Pasadena, the Caltech campus is a lush respite with a turtle pond, fountains, historic buildings, and beautiful trees that hang overhead. Here, where interesting buildings and small gardens are tucked around campus, lies a hub for the great theoretical physicists, chemists, and mathematicians of their time.

Since 1891, Caltech has been responsible for many modern scientific advancements. In the early 1930s, Albert Einstein taught as a visiting professor and lived in Pasadena. This was around the time when Oppenheimer’s association with Caltech began, though they likely did not become good friends until the last decade of their lives. Oppenheimer taught statistical mechanics, quantum theory and the quantum theory of radiation.

Enjoy strolling through the campus, revisiting Einstein, Oppenheimer, and other marquee names in physics, chemistry and mathematics. Visitors can take a self-guided walking tour, created by Caltech, to explore the Institute that has advanced understanding of the earth, the universe, and the human mind for more than a century. Seasonally, Caltech offers a History & Architectural Tour which begins at the entrance to the Atheneum. Oppenheimer lived in the Atheneum on campus during his time at Caltech.

Visit the gardens at The Huntington

It was at a 1939 garden party at Caltech that Oppenheimer met his future wife, Kitty, played by Emily Blunt in the movie. It’s no wonder, as botanical gardens and garden parties are synonymous with Pasadena. Nearby, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens is one of the world’s great research libraries that is also home to more than 45,000 world renowned art pieces, and more than a dozen botanical gardens.

Enjoy visiting The Huntington Library on Wednesdays in the Chinese Garden, where a different solo musician performs each week. During the summer, visitors can enjoy the gardens after hours for Twilight Garden Strolls.

Visit the Tolman-Bacher House

While Oppenheimer lived at the Atheneum on the Caltech campus, he also spent some time in Richard and Ruth Tolman’s home, in a study that was added to the south wing of the house, located near campus. Richard Tolman, played by Tom Jenkins, was a mathematician and dean at Caltech who also served as an advisor to the secret war project. Hidden in plain sight is a Spanish revival home where the Tolmans lived and hosted. The couple eventually passed the home to Robert Bacher, who was also an instrumental scientist at Los Alamos.

Visit the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

It was also in the 1930s in Pasadena when Caltech’s graduate students began experimenting with blowing stuff up in the name of science. In 1936, the first set of rocket experiments were conducted in the Arroyo Seco, north of the Rose Bowl and away from campus, giving birth to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The group was infamously known as the Suicide Club, long before DC Comics were in the picture, for their rocket tests that often go awry.

Visitors can visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory through free public tours, however there is a limited number of availability and must be booked on an advance reservation basis. Visitor parking is free of charge, and the tour even provides visitors with the opportunity to see an actual spacecraft getting built.

Visit Old Pasadena

The Historic Old Pasadena district dates back to the late 19th century and first decades of the 20th century, when the city really expanded to national attention. Here, visitors can immerse themselves in the architectural delights of yesteryear, roam through the brick-lined alleyways, and experience the Old Pasadena as it intertwines with modern shopping, dining, and nightlife experiences.

Visitors can take a walking food tour with Melting Pot Food Tours through Old Pasadena, stopping into some legacy restaurants while uncovering the history of the region. For those looking for something a little more eerie, Pasadena Walking Tours offers a Haunted Pasadena Tour that explores the castles, courtyards, mortuaries, theatres, darkened alleyways and the sordid side of the City of Roses.

Visit the Pasadena Civic Auditorium

While the producers did try to film on the Caltech campus, it just didn’t work out logistically. Afterall, very important business happens there around the clock. However, a key scene in “Oppenheimer” was filmed in Pasadena at the historic Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Inside, the Gold Room has been the site of receptions, dinner parties, and banquets since 1932.

The Pasadena Civic Auditorium has a rotating calendar of performances and live shows, including the upcoming America’s Got Talent Season 18 Live, which is taped in front of a live audience. Visitors can also take a Pasadena Walking Film Tour with My Valley Pass, which starts at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

Stay in Pasadena

For those looking for a lavish stay near Caltech, look no further than Langham Huntington, Pasadena, which first opened in 1907 during Pasadena’s resort town era. The Forbes 4-Star Hotel is tucked away in the beautiful residential knolls of Pasadena.

If you want to stay closer to the downtown areas, the Pasadena Hotel & Pool offers a historic hotel experience that highlights the luxuries of the Golden Age. Located along Colorado Boulevard, the 1926 built hotel offers a marble lobby bar with brushed oak wood, a foosball table, a grand piano, checkers and chess boards, and a showstopping pool with backdrops of the San Gabriel Mountains.

With a touch of retro and a lot of creativity, consider staying at the Hotel Dena, Pasadena Los Angeles, for your Oppenheimer adventure. The 311 room hotel offers unique elements such as a retro-inspired screening room, dynamic murals, and an optimal location in the Pasadena Civic Center district.