FTiare/shutterstock
Dolores Park in San Francisco | FTiare/shutterstock
Dolores Park in San Francisco | FTiare/shutterstock

America’s Most Loved City Parks

For sun, space, trails, and picnics, these urban gems are all worth a visit.

CENTRAL PARK IS NOT ON THIS LIST. To include Central Park on a list of best urban parks is like putting Harry Potter on a list of best boy wizards: pretty friggin’ obvious. Central Park is the standard against which we measure all others: 843 acres smack dab in the middle of the Manhattan grid, lush with meadows and lakes, fountains and sculptures, hotdog vendors, and the pigeon lady from Home Alone 2. There’s a zoo and a castle and an open-air theater and so, so much more.

Back in the day, when city folks wanted a quiet place to sit outside and just be, they’d head to the nearest cemetery. So next time you’re sprawled out on your picnic blanket sipping rosé in the sunshine, pour one out for Frederick Law Olmsted—designer of Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, among many others—for having the radical notion that a pleasant, public green space should not in any way involve dead people.

There are whole courses and careers devoted to the planning of parks—they’re kind of a big deal, providing a literal breath of fresh air from traffic, sprawl, and, at the moment, a pandemic that has put a premium on wide open spaces. And for so many communities, they are a great equalizer, bringing people from all walks of life together to rest, mingle, and play. Here are 20 favorites.

Griffith Observatory, Mount Hollywood, Los Angeles
Griffith Observatory, Mount Hollywood, Los Angeles | dszc/E+/Getty Images

Griffith Park

Los Angeles, California
Just north of Los Feliz (one of our favorite LA neighborhoods), Griffith Park is basically the Central Park of LA. It’s much more rugged—mountain lions and coyotes roam here—but just as versatile, with some of LA’s most prized local institutions packed into one place. There’s the iconic Griffith Observatory for the stargazers among us, as well as the Greek Theatre, which attracts touring artists (including Al Green, Imogen Heap, and Jimmy Eat World in coming months). The Los Angeles Zoo and the Autry Museum of the American West sit right across the street from each other. Bronson Canyon offers a bit of movie magic—it’s been a go-to shooting location in B Movies for the last hundred years. And after you’ve hiked some of the park’s 53 miles of trails (including several routes up to Mt. Lee behind the Hollywood Sign), stop by critically-acclaimed Golden Road Brewing for some thirst-quenching, post-hike brews at the ready. —Michelle Rae Uy

Fairmount Park section of Philadelphia
Fairmount Park, Philadelphia | NurPhoto/Getty Images

Fairmount Park

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
With over 2,000 acres of green space, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park offers miles of forested hiking trails, lush meadows, dreamy wedding venues, and riverside views for hoagie picnics. Yet Fairmount Park also preserves much of the art and history that makes Philly unique, with notable landmarks like the Philadelphia Zoo (America’s first!), the world-renowned Philadelphia Art Museum (where Rocky ended his famous workout montage), and the Fairmount Water Works, a national historic landmark along the shore of the Schuylkill River. In West Fairmount Park, you’ll find the Shofuso Japanese Garden, which hosts cultural events including the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, one of the best places to spot sakura trees in the US. The Horticulture Center’s expansive greenhouse is free to visitors, and nearby, the Pavilion in the Trees, a part of Philly’s Museum Without Walls public arts program, takes guests 24-feet above the ground in an immersive art installation inspired by the childhood longing for a treehouse. —Kae Lani Kennedy

alls Park in downtown Sioux Falls South Dakota
Falls Park in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota. | Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Falls Park

Sioux Falls, South Dakota
South Dakota is more than just national parks and monuments: Sioux Falls is a legit fun city, with legit fun places to eat, drink, be merry. But the city's showpiece is centrally-located Falls Park, a 123-acre city park full of waterfalls cascading 100 feet over the same black rock that makes up the rest of the state's dramatic formations. Most city parks are just lucky to have a swing set. Not Falls Park: There's a café, a greenway, a dozen permanent outdoor sculptures (outdoor sculpture is kind of a thing in Sioux Falls), and a seasonal farmers market. Finally, check out the historic seven-story Queen Bee Mill built in 1881, known as "the most ambitious attempt ever made to use waterpower west of the Mississippi River." Free and open to the public, head there to walk around or read a book or, much more likely, take 1,000 selfies and then stand in other people's way as you edit and post to Instagram. —Nicole Rupersburg

Old Industral Plant
Old Gasworks at Gas Works Park by Lake Union, Seattle. | Albert Pego/shutterstock

Gas Works Park

Seattle, Washington
Ever since landscape architect Richard Haag transformed this toxic wasteland into a public green space in the mid-'70s, sun-deprived Seattleites have been flocking to its 20 acres of grassy knolls to toss Frisbees, protest wars, celebrate the 4th of July, and soak up some vitamin D. Rising from the north shore of Lake Union, Gas Works serves up panoramic views of the city’s ever-expanding skyline and the hard-to-miss Space Needle. First, hit the Fremont neighborhood to pick up crunchy sourdough baguettes from Sea Wolf Bakery or let the budtenders at Hashtag Cannabis select the perfect strain to set your afternoon adrift. Then, throw down a blanket on any of the slopes facing the water and watch the endless regatta of sailboats, kayakers, seaplanes, and flocks of geese go by. You can also wander around the structures that remain from the original gasification plant that give off an eerie, Mad-Max-ian vibe. —Ryan MacDonald

atlanta botanical garden
The Atlanta Botanical Garden | Conchi Martinez/Shutterstock

Piedmont Park

Atlanta, Georgia
In the Atlanta metro area, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to green space (so long as you have a car)—but 180-acre Piedmont Park stands out for wide open spaces at the Meadow, perfect for picnicking (and eating popsicles from Atlanta staple King of Pops), and the amazing view of the city from Lake Clara Meer. Spread across the grounds, there’s a greenmarket, a community garden, a dog park, and the Atlanta Botanical Garden; from here, it’s also a hop, skip, and a jump to the heart of Midtown. In non-’rona times, fall in Piedmont also brings the weekend music festival Music Midtown and Atlanta Pride, one of the oldest and largest pride events in the US. While you’re in town, you might also hit the BeltLine and Freedom Park. The latter is adjacent to one of ATL’s coolest neighborhoods, Little Five Points, where you’ll find healing gems at Crystal Blue, nightlife at Variety Playhouse and The Vortex (look for the giant skull), good eats at Thai 5, and vintage shopping throughout.—Tiana Attride

Old Stone Bridge, City Park, New Orleans
Old Stone Bridge, City Park, New Orleans. | John Coletti/Photolibrary/Getty Images

City Park

New Orleans, Louisiana
Once a spot for dueling Creole gentlemen to settle the score, City Park is a sprawling 1,300 acres full of lagoons, gardens, and majestic live oaks ranging between 750 and 900 years old—the oldest collection of live oaks in the world. Nestled amongst their burly limbs are a number of cool attractions worth putting down your Sazerac and leaving the French Quarter: Storyland, a whimsical kids’ park with life-sized storybook exhibits created by parade float builders; Carousel Gardens, an amusement park with an antique wooden carousel; the Art Deco-influenced Botanical Gardens, which opened in 1936; the New Orleans Museum of Art, which boasts a gorgeous Beaux-Arts interior along with nearly 40,000 objects; and the untouched woodlands, wildlife, and waterways of the 60-acre Couturie Forest. And don’t forget to visit the NOMA Sculpture Garden (admission is always free) and Louisiana Children’s Museum, both recently renovated. —Missy Wilkinson

Zilker Park, Austin.
Zilker Park, Austin. | Photo by Thomas Allison for Thrillist

Zilker Park

Austin, Texas
If Austin was a solar system, Zilker Park would be its sun. The hiking and biking trails around Lady Bird Lake snake towards Zilker and lead to Barton Springs, a 70-degree natural swimming pool and excellent people-watching spot. Barton Springs Road is littered with post-swim food options—the patio at Shady Grove is usually a good move. Meanwhile, the Great Lawn serves as a hub for pick-up soccer players, slackliners, off-leash dogs, and students cautiously sipping beer against a downtown backdrop. Zilker is also home to a number of big events year-round, including summer concert series Blues on the Green, Austin City Limits, and the Trail of Lights during the holidays. Beyond that, you’ll find miles of greenbelt hiking, sculpture and botanical gardens, a theater stage, kayak and paddleboarding, and even a miniature train that traverses the grounds. —Dan Gentile

Boston Common

Boston, Massachusetts
Say what you want about Boston (shoutout to Massholes), but the city itself is beautiful. Case in point, Boston Common, the oldest public park in the US. During the summer, the Frog Pond offers a wading pool for the kiddos (and a picnic spot for grown-ups); in winter, it transforms into a skating rink. The adjoining Boston Public Garden on the west side of the park—designed by Frederick Law Olmsted—was America’s first public garden, and features historical monuments, over 600 varieties of trees, and the original swan boats, which have been around for over 140 years. Strolling along the paved paths, weeping willows, and elegant bridges will transport you to an idyllic painting. Being in one of the best walking cities in the US also means Boston’s best attractions are literally minutes away on foot: grab a bite in Chinatown, shop on Newbury Street, browse through rows of well-loved reads at open-air Brattle Book Shop, or steep yourself in history on the Freedom Trail. (Also, the original Cheers bar is there.) —Tiana Attride

Dolores Park, San Francisco
Dolores Park, San Francisco | Katherine Papera/EyeEm/Getty Images

Dolores Park

San Francisco, California
Mission Dolores Park is perhaps SF’s most interesting public space. Practically any sunny day will see the park’s grassy hillsides packed with a checkerboard of picnic blankets and sun-starved bodies. Vendors pick their way between the groups selling paletas, cold beer, cold water, and edibles. The park’s steep slopes boast an unparalleled view of the skyline, with the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, and Oakland visible in the distance. Check out areas like Hipster Hill, where the sweet smell of legal marijuana wafts from groups of bearded thirtysomethings drinking IPAs, or Gay Beach, with its miniature dogs and rows of thong-clad buttcheeks shining in the California sun. The park also hosts holiday events, such as an Easter Celebration hosted by titans of SF culture Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, featuring the iconic Hunky Jesus drag show (which includes an in-costume 100m dash—heels and all). —Conor O’Rourke

Theodore Wirth Regional Park Minneapolis
Minneapolis. | Photo courtesy of Theodore Wirth Regional Park

Theodore Wirth Regional Park

Minneapolis, Minnesota
When it comes to surviving notoriously heinous winters, Twin Cities residents have a secret weapon: Theodore Wirth Regional Park. The largest park in Minneapolis, Wirth is pretty good in the summer, with a lake, golf courses, nature sanctuaries, and miles of dirt trails. But it’s snow and ice that lures Smartwool-clad Minnesotans from their warm homes. With snowshoeing, fat-tire biking, tubing, skijoring, and 20 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, the park is a training ground for everyone from toddlers to Olympic athletes like Minnesotan Jessie Diggins. The new Trailhead building provides an on-site restaurant, while outside, the 612 Sauna Society’s mobile sauna lets you BYO food and drinks and kick back in front of a roaring fire between sweat sessions. When it's time to leave the park, keep the Minnesota pride going with a visit to the nearby Utepils Brewing for a pint of the aptly named Totally Wirth It Irish stout. —Molly Each

Belle Isle Aerial Detroit
Belle Isle, Detroit | pawel.gaul/E+/getty

Belle Isle

Detroit, Michigan
The Belle Isle is, as its name would suggest, a really, really pretty island. Wedged in the Detroit River abutting the Canadian border, the island rocks incredible views of both the Motor City and Windsor, Ontario, with landscape design by Frederick Law Olmsted. A city park for 169 years, locals love its paved paths, canals, and mountain bike trails that lead to a “secret” beach which this writer is not authorized to expose. There’s a lake for kayaking or ice skating, a prime swimming beach, a functioning plant conservatory, an aquarium, and a yacht club (yeah you know, we fly). All in all, there are worse places to hang out. The island hosts concerts (Metallica took over the island for a weekend in 2013) and the annual Grand Prix three-day race car extravaganza, and is home to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. On your way in, grab shawarma from Bucharest Grill or a pie from Belle Isle Pizza. On your way out, check out nearby Atwater Brewery and Tap House for a taste of some of Detroit's best beer. —Megan Frye

Forest Park

St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis’ 143-year-old Forest Park has got hundreds of acres on Central Park, countless recreation options, and a truly astounding variety of natural and built environments to explore—nearly all of which are free. In a city grappling with longstanding disparities and divides, this vast rectangle of green knows no barriers; it’s a place that belongs to everyone and sparks deep pride. Even though it’s enormous, Forest Park rarely feels overwhelming. If the six-mile bike ride around the perimeter seems a bit much, head for the paddle boats and leisurely pilot one toward the Grand Basin. Ponder the masterpieces inside the galleries of the Saint Louis Art Museum, then take in the sky and everything below from a picnic perch on the expansive lawn of Art Hill. The 1904 World’s Fair drew about 20 million people to this place, and the park still draws 13 million visitors a year. It’s also home to 17,000 animals and all sorts of wild creatures at the Saint Louis Zoo. —Evie Hemphill

National Zoo in Washington, DC
Rock Creek Park, National Zoo in Washington, DC | KAREN BLEIER/AFP/getty images

Rock Creek Park

Washington, DC
An urban oasis in our nation’s capital, Rock Creek Park spans some 2,000 acres and is actually managed by the National Park Service. It’s less stately than, say, San Diego’s Balboa Park or NYC’s Central Park, but its more rugged vibe is as Mother Nature intended. DC residents love it for its tree canopies, jogger- and biker-friendly trails, plus off-the-beaten hikes that take you deep into the woods, including a path that leads to a graveyard of stones torn off the U.S. Capitol decades ago. It also just so happens Rock Creek Park is home to three adorable pandas—Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Bei Bei—that live at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. (And admission is free!) If you’re on the west side of the park and need to refuel, check out Duke’s Counter, a specialty sando shop. Or if you’re on the park’s east side, seek out a frosty beer at Roofers Union, where the craft cocktails and suds are as enjoyable as the rooftop views. —Tim Ebner

Tulsa USA
The Gatherning Place, Tulsa | Svineyard/shutterstock

The Gathering Place

Tulsa, Oklahoma
Unveiled in 2018 to the tune of $465 million, this park was spearheaded, majority funded, and endowed with $100 million for upkeep by local philanthropist billionaire George Kaiser and his family foundation. But its mission as “A Park For All” is rooted in ideals of diversity and equality. Every child—of any size or ability—should be able to find a spot on Swing Hill, slide down some giant blue herons, or crawl through paddlefish or life-size blades of grass, and every adult should be able to paddle a canoe through the pond or enjoy a meal in Picnic Grove. It’s as if someone dropped a theme park down in the middle of the city, except it’s entirely free, even the luxury seating in a ski-cabin-esque lodge overlooking the 100-acre park on the banks of the Arkansas River. For visitors, it’s a place to spend time outside, enjoy “Green Country,” and spend time among the people of Tulsa—all of them. —Naomi Tomky

Chicago skyline aerial drone
Lincoln Park, Illinois. | Jaysi/shutterstock

Lincoln Park

Chicago, Illinois
1200-acre Lincoln Park encompasses a sizeable stretch of Chicago, bordered entirely by Lake Michigan to the east. The 18-mile-long Lakefront Trail starts at the northernmost tip of the park and continues all the way through to Chicago’s South Side. During warm months, you’ll find people descending on the smattering of beaches here. Northern Kathy Osterman Beach is a favorite for LGBTQ locals, while downtown’s Oak Street Beach draws out-of-towners, who flock for the cool waters and even cooler skyline-meets-shoreline photo op. You can take in the full length of Lincoln Park in a day, but a number of nearby stops beckon for a detour, like the free Lincoln Park Zoo, Conservatory, and Nature Boardwalk, an outdoor urban conservation project housing Illinois-native flora and fauna. Feeling famished? Hit up the tavern at Theatre on the Lake, a 1920s-era Prairie-style structure that’s also a new home to local theaters and festivals. —Joseph Hernandez

south Mountain Park, Phoenix
South Mountain Park, Phoenix. | Pat Canova/Photolibrary/getty

South Mountain Park Preserve

Phoenix, Arizona
At 51 square miles, South Mountain Park Preserve is the largest municipal park in the country. This space was once inhabited by the Hohokam and prehistoric tribes, but the folks of the Civilian Conservation Corps—who constructed the park during the Depression Era—eventually turned it into a space for today’s hikers, mountain bikers, and adventure types. The rocky Sonoran landscape consists of three mountain ranges—the Ma Ha Tauk, Gila, and Guadalupe—brimming with nature and wildlife, which can be accessed for free via a series of entry points. (Keep an eye out for chuckwallas and jumping cholla.) Drive up to Dobbins Lookout for incredible scenic views of the city, or join in on moonlight walks, the Phoenix Summit Challenge and UROCK Festival, ranger-led discovery hikes, art in the park activities, and stargazing sessions. It’s designation as a Phoenix Point of Pride is undeniable, and it’s all just minutes away from the best beer, bagels, and farm-to-table dining in The Valley. —Lauren Topor

Dancestrokes/shutterstock
Balboa Park's Casa de Balboa Building, San Diego. | Dancestrokes/shutterstock

Balboa Park

San Diego, California
Beyond the San Diego Zoo, 1,200-acre Balboa Park boasts 19 gardens (including a spectacular cactus garden and a Japanese garden), 17 museums, 14 restaurants, the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world (alright), an off-Broadway theater, an off-leash dog park, a golf course, stunning Spanish-style architectural landmarks, and 65 miles of hiking trails through multiple canyons. There’s a lot to do here, but don’t forget to pause for those little magic moments, like watching the sunset over downtown San Diego and the Pacific Ocean, best viewed from the viaduct connecting the nearby Bankers Hill neighborhood with the rest of the park. —Jackie Bryant

Dee Browning/shutterstock
Forest Park, Portland. | Dee Browning/shutterstock

Forest Park

Portland, Oregon
At a staggering 5,200 acres, the aptly-named Forest Park is one of the largest urban forests in the country—and it’s only 3 miles from downtown Portland, easily reached by public transportation. There are many entry points, but to experience the Pacific Northwest’s famously lush, frequently damp greenery, head to the Lower Macleay Trail, one of the best hikes in the Portland area. (Pack a sandwich from the NW Thurman Street branch of French bakery St. Honoré, conveniently located near the Macleay entrance.) Keep an eye out for both huckleberry bushes and banana slugs along the banks of Balch Creek, and if you visit in the fall, check out the deciduous Maple Trail’s fiery, colorful canopy. About a mile into the hike, towering fir trees lead to the remains of the lichen-covered Stone House, a graffitied structure that has since hosted many a high school kegger. End your hike at the beautiful, historic Pittock Mansion for some rewarding city views. —Melissa Locker

Autumn in Prospect Park
Prospect Park, Brooklyn | girlseeingworld/shutterstock

Prospect Park

Brooklyn, New York
Central Park's funkier (and arguably better, and designed by the same folks) counterpart in Brooklyn, Prospect Park is the ultimate play space for Brooklynites of all stripes. On Saturdays, it hosts Smorgasburg, the largest weekly open-air food market in America with 100+ food trucks (although it’s currently on hold.) At open-air Celebrate Brooklyn!, the park’s (sometimes free) summer concert series, you can catch touring acts like Patti LaBelle, The National, and Iron & Wine—if you’re not keen on forking up the entrance fee, know that you can pack a picnic and hang around the gates and still hear the performances. Budding birdwatchers can meet with like-minded birders to peep nearly 250 different species, while the nearby Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a quieter, more polished escape. There’s also a zoo, an ice rink, and the first urban-area Audubon Center, which offers free programs year-round. —Joseph Hernandez

Apostolis Giontzis/shutterstock
Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco | Apostolis Giontzis/shutterstock

Golden Gate Park

San Francisco, CA
Bigger than New York City’s Central Park and free of the smog that besets Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, there’s a very, very strong case to be made that Golden Gate Park is the best urban park in America. The cultural attractions are unparalleled: the de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the Conservatory of Flowers, the Botanical Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden (the oldest of its kind in the US). The activities are eclectic: not just the usual hiking and biking, but soccer, tennis, handball, disc golf, even archery. There are giant windmills flanked by thousands of colorful tulips and places for reflection, like the National AIDS Memorial Grove. Head to the top of Strawberry Hill for an iconic view of the skyline and Golden Gate Bridge, rent a rowboat at Stow Lake, or dream of attending beloved music festival Outside Lands or the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass fest, which is free. Oh, and there are even bison. —Kastalia Medrano

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