The Huntington Library is the jewel in Pasadena's crown. The 207-acre hilltop estate was once home to industrialist and railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927), who bought books on the same massive scale on which he acquired land. The continually expanding collection includes dozens of Shakespeare's first editions, Benjamin Franklin's handwritten autobiography, a Gutenberg Bible from the 1450s, and the earliest known manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Although some rare works are available only to visiting scholars, the library has a regularly changing (and always excellent) exhibit showcasing hundreds of different items in the collection.
If you prefer canvas to parchment, Huntington also put together a terrific 18th-century and 19-century British and French art collection. The most celebrated paintings are Gainsborough's The Blue Boy and Sir Thomas Lawrence's Pinkie, depicting the youthful aunt of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. These and other works of Renaissance paintings and bronzes are displayed in the stately Italianate mansion on the crest of this hillside estate, so you can also get a glimpse of its splendid furnishings. American art is exhibited in additional galleries and includes work ranging from Edward Hopper to Andy Warhol.
But it's the vast botanical gardens featuring more than 14,000 different species of plants that draw most locals to the Huntington. The Japanese Garden comes complete with a traditional open-air Japanese house, koi-filled stream, and serene Zen garden. There's also an exotic Desert Garden, intriguing Jungle Garden, Bing Children's Garden (designed specifically for kids 2-7), and the glass-and-steel Conservatory for Botanical Science, where visitors learn some of the fundamentals of botany via state-of-the-art science stations. The latest addition is a new 4.5-acre Chinese Garden, one of the largest of the Huntington's 14 specialized gardens. Highlights include a lake, teahouse, pavilions, and bridges within a landscape of plants native to China.
Because the Huntington surprises many with its size and wealth of activities to choose from, first-timers might want to start with a tour. One-hour garden tours are offered daily, subject to volunteer availability; no reservations or additional fees are required. Times vary, so check at the information desk upon arrival. I also recommend that you tailor your visit to include the popular English tea, served Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from noon to 4:30pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 10:45am to 4:30pm (last seating at 3:30pm). The tearoom overlooks the Rose Garden (home to 1,000 varieties displayed in chronological order of their breeding), and since the finger sandwiches and desserts are served buffet-style, it's a genteel bargain, even for hearty appetites, at $28 per person (please note that museum admission is a separate required cost). Call tel. 626/683-8131 for tearoom reservations, which are required and should be made at least 2 weeks in advance.