A foray into the heart of a city can be made all the more memorable and enjoyable with a visit to a public park. In addition to providing restful green spaces for a picnic or a stroll, most of the nation’s metropolitan parks offer an extraordinary array of recreational opportunities and cultural sites. In many instances, they stand out among the city’s top attractions.
Here’s 10 U.S. urban sanctuaries that are well worth a visit next time you’re in town.
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Often cited as the Central Park of the West, Golden Gate is considerably larger than its Big Apple counterpart. Straddling 1,017 acres, it is one of the world’s largest man-made public parks — and with 13 million visitors a year, it ranks among the most visited public parks in America. Carved from a windswept expanse of sand dunes in the 1870s, Golden Gate Park is heralded today as an urban oasis, a verdant, horticulturally diverse and picturesque public space where visitors can relax, play and reconnect with the natural world. Among its many features are gardens, lakes, picnic groves, playgrounds, multi-use trails, sporting facilities and monuments, plus an array of cultural venues, events and activities. Museums here include the de Young Museum with its fine arts collections, and the California Academy of Sciences, one of the largest natural history museums in the world. Best of the many gardens are the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Gardens & Arboretum — showcasing more than 8,000 plants from around the world — and the Japanese Tea Garden with its classic pagodas and koi ponds. Recent celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love remind us that Golden Gate Park was the setting for the 1967 Human Be-In that kick-started one of the most momentous cultural movements of our time.
Balboa Park, San Diego
San Diego’s tourism officials say that Balboa Park is where culture and nature meet — and with 17 museums and 17 gardens, it is an outstanding park by either measure. Named for Spanish maritime explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the park hosted the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition and both of these world fairs left behind a treasure trove of architectural landmarks. It is these flamboyant Spanish-Renaissance and Pueblo Revival-style buildings that today house the many museums lining the park’s famous El Prado pedestrian walkway. Among them are the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the Fleet Science Center and the internationally acclaimed Tony Award-winning theater, the Old Globe. In addition to its museums and gardens, the 1,200-acre park is home to the world famous San Diego Zoo.
Boston Common, Boston
Be it for protesting or picnicking, Boston Common has been an important gathering spot throughout the nation’s history. Founded in 1634, it is the oldest city park in the United States. Revolutionary War and Civil War troops paraded on its grounds and Pope John Paul II and Martin Luther King Jr. delivered speeches there. The shining gem in the “Emerald Necklace” — a network of parks and parkways that string through many of Boston’s neighborhoods — the Common features monuments, bandstands, sports fields, fountains and the Frog Pond that hosts ice skating during the winter.
Central Park, New York City
Designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and English architect Calvert Vaux in 1858, sprawling 843-acre Central Park was the first landscaped public park in America. Boasting more than 40 million visitors a year, it is the most visited urban park in the nation. With its rich history, beautiful nature and virtually endless opportunities for recreation, entertainment, culture and relaxation, it is in a class by itself. The park’s features are far too numerous to list, but highlights include the Central Park Zoo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Conservatory Gardens, an ice-skating rink, a 57-horse carousel, 26,000 trees, 21 playgrounds, 50 fountains, 51 sculptures, 58 miles of pedestrian paths and 9,000 benches. There’s so much to see and do here that the park has its own app to help visitors navigate its many sites and activities.
National Mall & Memorial Park, Washington, D.C.
Nicknamed “America’s Front Yard,” the National Mall and Memorial Park is the epicenter of the nation’s capital city — and one of the most historically, culturally and politically relevant spaces in the world. It is the most visited national park in the United States, hosting more than 25 million visitors annually. The most familiar portion of the mall stretches some two miles between the U.S. Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial. Its most visible feature is the Washington Monument, a towering 555-foot high marble obelisk that reopened in 2014 following a three-year hiatus to repair damage incurred in an earthquake. Other important memorials occupying the park include the World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and memorials honoring Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. Cultural attractions include the National Gallery of Art and 11 of the 19 Smithsonian Museums.
Audubon Park, New Orleans
A couple of famous names are associated with this beautiful urban oasis of 350 acres nestled along the Mississippi River in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. It was named after the 19th century artist and naturalist John James Audubon, who lived in the city during the 1820s, and the park’s plan was drafted by Frederick Law Olmstead’s nephew and adopted son, John Charles Olmstead. Audubon Park greets visitors with a lush expanse of lawns, gardens, stately oak trees, lagoons, sports fields, picnic areas, the Audubon Zoo, and an exquisitely landscaped 18-hole, 4,220-yard golf course.
Forest Park, St. Louis
Named the nation’s Best City Park in USA Today’s 2016 Reader’s Choice poll, Forest Park is known as the “Heart of St. Louis.” The park opened in 1876 and it has hosted some significant events such as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 and the 1904 Summer Olympics. Covering an enormous expanse of 1,371 acres, it features a variety of attractions, including the highly regarded St. Louis Zoo, Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Center and St. Louis Science Center. Recreational features include a skating rink, a pair of tennis centers and three golf courses. Forest Park ranks as one of the city’s leading visitor attractions, drawing some 12 million visitors a year.
Myriad Botanical Gardens, Oklahoma City
In spite of its diminutive size — just 17 acres — Myriad Botanical Gardens is a huge civic asset as Oklahoma City’s most beautiful and vibrant urban park space. An outgrowth of a downtown revitalization plan by renowned architect I.M. Pei, Myriad’s centerpiece is the Crystal Bridge Conservatory, a striking 13,000-square-foot cylindrical glass greenhouse, home to more than a thousand species of tropical and desert plants from six different continents. Outdoor features include ornamental gardens, a six-acre children’s garden and playground, various water features, an off-leash dog park and the Grand Event Lawn — a large festival space that hosts a year-round schedule of special events and horticultural programs.
Klyde Warren Park, Dallas
This unique public park creates a three-block long, 5.2-acre urban green space bridging a below-grade section of the Woodall Rogers Freeway in downtown Dallas. It connects the city’s flourishing Arts District with other neighborhoods, bringing together cultural events and recreational activities around a sweeping pedestrian promenade. The park offers a mix of active and passive spaces, including a restaurant and performance stage, a children’s park and playground, jogging trails, reading room, games area, dog park, fountain plaza and botanical garden. Although it is open to the public (from 6 a.m. to 11p.m.) at no charge, it is not a city park but is operated by the private Woodall Rogers Park Foundation.
Grant Park, Chicago
Named for the nation’s 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant, this 319-acre expanse on the western shore of Lake Michigan in the heart of the Windy City is one of America’s most recognized green spaces. It is home to numerous walking paths, including the 18-mile-long Chicago Lakefront Trail, sports fields, museums, and one of the world’s largest fountains, the iconic rococo-style Buckingham Fountain. Major attractions include the Field Museum of Natural History, the Art Institute and Shedd Aquarium. Another important feature came about in 2004 with the conversion of rail yards and parking lots in the northern section of the park into an expansive network of gardens, pavilions and fountains known as Millennium Park. Grant Park hosts many events and festivals, the biggest being the annual Lollapalooza Music Festival, one of the nation’s top summer concerts.