With 34 Nobel laureates among its faculty and alumni (not to mention that it's the fictional setting of TV's The Big Bang Theory), it’s no surprise that Caltech is regarded with awe in academic circles. Earthquake studies were essentially pioneered here in the 1920s with the inventions of the seismograph and the Richter scale, and to this day Caltech scientists are usually the first experts to be consulted whenever a shaker strikes.

For less earthbound pursuits, Caltech also operates the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s main center for robotic exploration of the solar system, about 7 miles north of the main campus. It’s possible to visit JPL during public lectures in the annual open house (usually in May), or by requesting a free tour well in advance.

The hallowed main campus is dotted with century-old stone buildings and shady old oaks mixed in with new mind-bending steel and glass structures such as the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Free student-led tours depart from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Alternatively, pick up a self-guided tour booklet at the office, or download one from the website.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby attractions

2. Pasadena City Hall


Pasadena's 1927 city hall is on the National Register of Historic Places and a prime example of California Mediterranean-style architecture.

3. El Molino Viejo


While in the Huntington Library area, make a quick detour to this transporting brick-and-adobe structure with creaky wooden floors and exposed timbers in…

4. Mack & Jackie Robinson Memorial

1.34 MILES

This pair of giant heads depicts the Robinson brothers, groundbreaking athletes who spent their formative years here in Pasadena. Jackie (1919–72) gained…

5. Tournament House & Wrigley Gardens

2.07 MILES

Chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley spent his winters in the elegant Italian Renaissance–style mansion where the Tournament of Roses Association now…

6. Norton Simon Museum

2.08 MILES

Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais standing guard by the entrance is only a mind-teasing overture to the full symphony of art in store at this exquisite…

7. Pasadena Museum of History

2.16 MILES

On the grounds of a palatial beaux-arts mansion that once housed the Finnish consulate, this interesting museum now presents changing exhibits on some…

8. Richard H Chambers Courthouse

2.24 MILES

On the National Register of Historic Places, this Spanish Colonial Revival–style tower was built during the 1920s and '30s as a resort hotel, sat…