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HomeGuidesThe Eclectic European and Californian Mash-Up of Old Town Pasadena

The Eclectic European and Californian Mash-Up of Old Town Pasadena

35 So Raymond
Early 20th century brick and neo-gothic architecture mash up with modern storefronts on Raymond Avenue in Old Town Pasadena // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser

Pasadena is a city on the cusp of Los Angeles proper, just a 20-minute Metro ride from DTLA on what’s now the longest light rail line in the world. Where LA is a land of contrasts and dualities, a city where dreams are made and crushed daily amid boutique gyms and wheatgrass bars located in the same strip mall as 24-hour donut shops, Pasadena is its gentler and more consistent counterpart.

But it’s not without its share of distinctive neighborhoods complete with a large patch of nightlife in the Old Town area. The area is quintessentially SoCal, but something about the streets feels more like Dublin or Barcelona if it weren’t for that telltale American wideness peppered with parking spaces.

Colorado Alley
Legge Alley near the Memorial Park Metro is completely walkable with an area inaccessible to cars, numerous other alleys in the neighborhood are home to restaurants and quieter entrances to apartment buildings. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser
Union Street
Union Street isn’t as wide as the main thoroughfares like Colorado Boulevard and Raymond Avenue, so it could almost pass for a street in Montreal at least, if not a western European city. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser

Americans have a penchant for likening any remotely walkable block to Europe. But make no mistake: Old Town Pasadena genuinely has this placid, semi-otherworldly feeling one rarely picks up on in the US, combined with that “we built whatever we could next to this” vibe unique to Los Angeles and environs.

Independent restaurants, bakeries, and bars boldly stand out on the main thoroughfares or shyly invite you in from tiny doorways near the walkable alleys. Local and national chains, like Barney’s Beanery and Cheesecake Factory respectively, are present, but they don’t loudly demand your attention like they would in The Grove or in Hollywood proper (aka the Times Square of LA). Tables and chairs dot sidewalks and alleys, designed for patrons to laconically savor a latte and watch the world go by instead of rushing out of a drive-through.

Stopping in at the former site of the Union Sandwich Shop, a literal French cafe has taken residence there. You’ll wait a while for an authentic crepe, and it will be worth the wait though it may come as a culture shock if you’re used to the alacrity of Westside joints. It compounds the feeling with genuity that Old Town is an oddly European microcosm, similar to yet drastically unlike the rest of the greater Los Angeles area.

French Cafe
Union Street French Cafe amid a narrow street and walkable alleys may not feel like a 1:1 replica of Paris, but it definitely feels like a side street in a city along the north coast like Rouen. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser
Copa Vida
Spanish coffee abounds further south on Raymond Avenue near historic Castle Green // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser
An Italian name for a Mexican restaurant, but with European-style streets and alleys that are so clean, you can practically eat off them. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser

This may be because of how much the area embraces its history. According to the official Pasadena visitors’ bureau, “Old Pas” has 22 blocks on the National Register as a historic district, with some of the open-air plazas and architecture dating back to the late 19th century. The district was founded in 1874 as an orange growers’ cooperative, predating the City of Pasadena which became official in 1886.

Architecture styles spanning multiple centuries can be found on the main drags, and the neighborhood is one of the most, if not the most, walkable areas in the city. In the decades spanning the Gilded Age and Roaring Twenties, Pasadena became an enclave for wealthy snowbirds. Bungalow Heaven was in its infancy and grand hotels, like the Hotel Green which was turned into a condo association, sprung up to accommodate affluent tourists and the growing film industry.

Under the original studio system, movie stars were under contract to live near Los Angeles. New York movie stars who made the westward jump, a move many of us from more humble beginnings still make, gravitated to burgeoning bungalow communities throughout Pasadena and eastern LA as Old Town’s middle class swelled well into the postwar era. This definitely explains why that classic Hollywood charm is still felt in Pasadena and the area remains a haven for artists and other creatives to this day: close enough to the heart of Hollywood, but with enough distance and unique identity to be its own entity.

The Mission Revival style quintessential to SoCal can certainly be found in Old Town, but Moorish and Victorian architecture is what makes the area seem starkly European in comparison to the rest of the region.

Att Neogothic
An AT&T store now occupies this building on Raymond and Colorado adorned with a well-preserved Moorish Revival facade and Art Deco-era ironwork. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser
Exchange Block
Exchange Alley dates back to Old Town’s early days in the 1880s, when it was a collection of small storefronts at the base of the upscale Carlton Hotel. It became an indoor mall of sorts with this building in 1929 // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser

Old Town is extremely walkable. Colorado Boulevard is the chief main drag redolent with bars, shops, and restaurants of all types, with many modern facades jutting out of well-preserved historic buildings. Numerous Foothill Transit and Metro lines can be picked up on or near Colorado Boulevard, with their infrequency belying the otherwise European milieu.

The Memorial Park station containing the Metro A line to Azusa and Long Beach is artfully built into the eponymous Memorial Park along Holly Street and Holly Village Apartments. You can reach Union Station in 20-25 minutes, although wait times for the A line can get incredibly long on weekends.

Memorial Park Metro
The looming facade covered in ivy and placed on a walkable street feels more like the Metro stations in Sweden and the UK than what you typically see in America. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser
Baldwin Mercantile
Lucky Baldwin’s, a British pub complete with imported beers and London-style pub fare, sits on walkable Mercantile Alley off the main drag next to buildings that have been restored from the late 1800s. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser
Shaving Company
Several decades’ worth of preservation and renovation are evident in The Old Town Shaving Company building, purported to be at least 100 years old. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser
Open Arcade
The old juxtaposed to the new in a pedestrian-friendly open arcade between a parking garage and a walkable alley connecting two arterial streets near bars, restaurants, shops, and more. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser

The sheer walkability of the area didn’t go unnoticed by artisans and event promoters. The medium-sized vacant lot on Colorado Boulevard beckoning pedestrians to Old Town has parking nearby in addition to being just two blocks from the Metro, making it appealing for community events like the Old Town Flea.

Open Arcade
The old juxtaposed to the new in a pedestrian-friendly open arcade between a parking garage and a walkable alley connecting two arterial streets near bars, restaurants, shops, and more. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser

Old Town Flea adds to the pleasant retro feel of the area, being a much smaller market than the comparatively huge Los Feliz Flea and other notable markets and swap meets of LA. It gives the vendors a better chance to more closely connect with attendees, who don’t feel as rushed to see every booth.

Some notable booths include Orange County-based Novisade, a jewelry designer specializing in unique upcycled, vintage, and repurposed jewelry using items from estate sales, junk drawers, and broken pieces most people would throw out. Glendale-based Bob’s Beans sells coffee that can be traced directly to the origin and is roasted right here in LA County.

It’s an empty lot most of the week, but home to Old Town Flea, 1042 Market, and various pop-ups on the weekends. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser
Bobs Beans
The purveyor of local java also offered local honey, coffee-based confections, plus art and gifts for the coffee lover in your life. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser
Otf Crystals
At the back of the lot, a vendor sells giant crystals, stones, and other mystical pieces. // Photo Credit: Rachel Presser

Swap meet and community market culture is an intractable part of living in LA, and a smaller market in a walkable area is just as appealing to vendors as it is to attendees. Whether you’re stopping in for an impulse crystal purchase or a fresh crepe, Old Town is the surprising getaway to another country that you didn’t realize was in your backyard all this time.

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