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How to Experience Pasadena on a Budget

September 19, 2018

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You don’t have to break the bank to have an incredible time in Pasadena. A little strategy and know-how will help you stretch your budget without skimping on substance or forfeiting an ounce of fun. Think free access to premier museums and cultural attractions, flavorful cheap eats and complimentary architectural tours. From free events and low-cost activities to affordable accommodations, this comprehensive round-up will help you plan a wallet-friendly immersion in and around the action-packed 23 square miles that is our “Crown of the Valley.”

Enjoy Arts & Entertainment

The can’t-miss cultural extravaganza that won’t cost you a dime is ArtNight Pasadena. The free citywide evening of art, music and entertainment takes place on a Friday evening twice a year with a spring and fall edition. The popular biannual event attracts thousands of locals and visitors, who come out to take advantage of the unique opportunity to hop between 18 venues via a network of free shuttles. Special exhibitions, interactive installations and musical performances are open to the public at institutions and attractions like Gamble House, ArtCenter College of Design and the Pasadena Conservatory of Music.

If you can’t make ArtNight Pasadena, many major museums and cultural attractions offer free admission on specific days and nights year round. KidSpace Children’s Museum hosts a free family night on the first Tuesday of every month (except September) from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m., when kids and their parents can get hands on enjoying educational exhibits like the Galvin Physics Forest and creating in the Imagination Workshop. The Huntington Library & Botanic Garden is free the first Thursday of every month. Tickets are required and they get scooped up fast. Online ticket bookings open up at 9:00 a.m. on the first day of the month before the month in question—for example, go online July 1 to score tickets for the first day in August. If you’re successful, you’ll save $25 per person and have a choice of two entry times: 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.

The Norton Simon Museum is free the first Friday of every month from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m., which is the perfect amount of time to explore the galleries and sculpture garden and sit for refreshments at the café. The third Tuesday of every month is for green thumbs and admirers of the botanical world who want to see what’s in bloom—both Descanso Gardens and the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden grant complimentary admission on this day.

Pasadena offers a robust collection of public art, and public art tour maps are available at the Pasadena Visitors Center. In summer, there’s no shortage of free events and festivals, including the free outdoor concerts at Levitt Pavilion Pasadena hosted June through September (Thursday through Sunday evenings). Old Town Pasadena hosts a month-long Summer Cinema Series with outdoor screenings held in a variety of venues. Check our calendar of events for dozens more free events and festivals well worth planning a visit around.

Admire Architecture

The Old Mill is a 200-plus year old historic adobe in San Marino that houses the California Art Club Gallery. Also known as El Molino Viejo, it was the original 1816 gristmill for Mission San Gabriel and its open free-of-charge Tuesdays through Sundays from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. In the summer, they host a Magical Music at the Mill Summer outdoor summer concert series on the patio.

The 21-room Italian-Renaissance-style mansion that once belonged to the Wrigley gum magnate, William Wrigley Jr., is open to the public for free tours February through August. Now known as Tournament House, it’s the operating headquarters for the Tournament of Roses Association, which puts on the Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl Game. Informative guided tours take visitors through the home designed by G. Lawrence Stimson and his father George W. Stimson. Fans of the Rose Bowl will enjoy the displays on Rose Bowl Games, Rose Queens and Royal Courts, Grand Marshals and Tournament Presidents intermixed with the décor.

The Gamble House is a pristine example of the American Arts and Crafts style of architecture that Pasadena is renowned for. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the home was designed and decorated by Charles and Henry Greene in 1908 for David and Mary Gamble of the Procter & Gamble Company. Hour-long docent-led tours are offered to the public Thursdays through Sundays. Pre-bookable tickets are priced at an affordable $12.50 for seniors and $15 for regular admission. More in-depth tours as well as a neighborhood walking tour are also available through Gamble House.

Caltech Architectural Tour Services offers in-depth, complimentary two-hour tours of the California Institute of Technology campus on the first Thursday of most months (except July, August and December) at 10:30 a.m. starting at the Athenaeum. Reservations are required and you’ll need to be up for walking 1.5 miles, which is definitely worth the effort to gain an insider’s perspective of one of the world’s foremost institutions of science and engineering. It also happens to be a deliberately planned microcosm of architectural styles, from Mediterranean to Brutalism.

Continuing on the higher education theme, the ArtCenter College of Design has two campuses in Pasadena and the public is welcome explore the grounds, public art and galleries during operating hours. The Hillside Campus is noted for its striking modernist steel and glass main structure, which was designated a Pasadena Historic Landmark.

Explore Higher Realms

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory offers free tours by appointment with reservations made at least one month in advance. Individual and family tours are available on Mondays and Wednesdays and start off with “Journey to the Planets and Beyond,” a multimedia presentation that provides an overview of the Laboratory’s activities and accomplishments in planetary exploration and Earth science. Other tour highlights include the Space Flight Operations Facility and the Spacecraft Assembly Facility. JPL also hosts a free lecture series that sheds light on their missions, tools and technologies.

You can also explore the cosmos at the Mount Wilson Observatory, perched more than 5,700 feet above Pasadena. For the nominal price of $15, a two-hour docent-led walking tour (available Saturdays and Sundays from late March through early December) will get you inside both the 60-inch and 100-inch telescope domes. Public ticket nights are the prime opportunity to star gaze through the historic big telescopes, which are the largest in the world available for public use.  The Observatory is also open to the public daily for self guided tours.

Active Pursuits

There are countless ways to be active on a budget. Stay cool gliding on the ice at the Pasadena Ice Skating Center located in the Pasadena Convention Center. The Cheap Skate rate will run you $12 for admission and skate rental during public skate periods. You can also cool off while channeling your inner Olympian swimming at the world class Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in Brookside Park by the Rose Bowl Stadium. Check the website for current recreational swimming hours and daily lap swimming times. Day passes range from $10 to $13.

Hiking will only cost you sweat equity. The most popular hiking spots include Eaton Canyon (nature preserve and waterfall), Mount Wilson (for intermediate and advance hikers) and Hermit Falls Trail in the Arcadia Wilderness Park (family friendly).

Pasadena is also a very walkable city, so you can log lots of steps meandering around pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods like Old Town, the Playhouse District, the Civic Center District and South Lake Avenue. And if you want to get around on two wheels, Pasadena Cyclery offers premium day-long bike rentals starting at $45.

Cheap Eats

When it comes to where to eat when you’re being cost-conscious or simply seeking good value, you’ll be spoilt for choice here. Russells is an all-day classic that serves a mean American-style breakfast that won’t break the bank. Green Street Restaurant is another locals’ go-to for quality fare in an inviting setting at reasonable prices.

Lavender & Honey is a stylish spot to start the day, pop in for an artisan coffee or linger over lunch. Family-friendly Le Grande Orange Café has Neighborhood Nights Mondays and Tuesdays when you buy one entrée, the second is only $5. And bottles of wine are 25% off on Wine Wednesdays. Pie n’ Burger is a Pasadena institution beloved for its cheeseburgers, which made the Food Network’s list of the top 5 in the nation.

Celebrity chef Mark Peel brought his fast casual fare to his hometown with Prawn Coastal. The counter service restaurant specializes in sophisticated seafood dishes at very reasonable prices. For internationally inspired flavors, Trejos Cantina, Ramen Tatsunoya and Lunasia Dim Sum House are all very tasty options.

This is just a sampler to whet your palate. Additional inexpensive eats can be found in our dining guide.

Affordable Accommodations

Pasadena hotels come at a variety of price points. Some of the most budget-friendly that offer convenient locations and a welcoming atmosphere include the newly renovated GreenTree Inn and Vagabond Inn Executive. Boutique-y Hotel La Reve in East Pasadena includes breakfast daily. And the Astro is a fun and funky motel with a hip vibe.

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