The 18 Best City Parks in America
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 arguably the standard against which we measure all others: a tidy rectangle smack dab in the middle of the Manhattan grid, 843 lush acres teeming with life -- gardens and meadows and forests, fountains and lakes, bridges and boulders for climbing, sculptures for also climbing, horse-drawn carriages, hotdog vendors, the pigeon lady from Home Alone, a zoo, a boat house, and a castle.
Back in the day, when big 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 in the sunshine, sipping rosé out of a thermos and watching doggos run amok, pour one out for Frederick Law Olmsted -- designer of Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, among so 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 the gridlock traffic and monotonous sprawl of America’s cities. For so many communities they are an essential gathering space and great equalizer, bringing people from all walks of life together to rest, mingle, and play. Here are 18 of our favorites.
Los Angeles, California
Just north of Los Feliz (one of our favorite LA neighborhoods) Griffith Park is basically the Central Park of LA. Though it’s much more rugged -- mountain lions and coyotes roam here -- it’s just as versatile, even hiding some of LA’s most prized local institutions. The Griffith Observatory might be the most iconic, offering sweeping downtown views, regular planetarium shows, and monthly star parties for the amateur astronomer/astrologer in all of us. Near the base of the park, the historic Greek Theatre attracts touring artists (Al Green, Imogen Heap, and Jimmy Eat World in coming months) to the isolated, tree-lined alfresco venue. For culture vultures with kids in tow, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Autry Museum of the American West also make their home here, sitting right across the street from each other.
Off the beaten path, you’ll find some of LA’s history. The remains of the Griffith Park Zoo provide a primo picnic spot, while Bronson Canyon offers a bit of movie magic -- it’s been a go-to shooting location in B Movies for the last hundred years. There’s also a train museum and working miniature trains, horseback riding, and even golf. If all you want to do is hike, there’s 53 miles of trails, including several routes up to Mt. Lee behind the Hollywood Sign. Nearby, critically-acclaimed Golden Road Brewing will have some chilly, thirst-quenching, post-hike brews at the ready. -- Michelle Rae Uy
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 and drink and be merry. But the city's showpiece is its centrally-located Falls Park, a city park full of waterfalls cascading 100 feet over the same black rock that make 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."
And this 123-acre park is just, like, there, NBD. It's the kind of place that could charge a hefty admission fee and still be swarming with tourists, but it's not. It's free and open to the public -- you can just walk around or read a book or meditate or, much more likely, take a 1,000 selfies and then stand there in other people's way as you edit and post to Instagram. -- Nicole Rupersburg
Clocking in at over 2,000 acres of greenspace, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park grants locals miles upon miles of forested hiking trails, lush meadows for ultimate frisbee games, dreamy wedding venues, and riverside views for hoagie picnics. Yet Fairmount Park also preserves much of the art and history that makes Philadelphia 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 celebrates traditional Japanese landscaping and architecture and hosts cultural events including the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. The Horticulture Center is free to visitors who are welcome to explore the expansive greenhouse. Nearby, the Pavilion in the Trees, part of the self-guided audio tour of Philadelphia’s public arts Museum Without Walls program, takes guests 24-feet above the ground in an immersive art installation inspired by the childhood longing for a treehouse. -- Kae Lani Kennedy
Gas Works Park
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. On any of the slopes facing the water, throw down a blanket and watch the endless regatta of sailboats, kayakers, seaplanes, and flocks of geese -- or wander around the structures that remain from the original gasification plant. There’s an old boiler house and several generator towers that give off an eerie, Mad-Max-ian vibe.
Plan ahead with a stop at Sea Wolf Bakery in Fremont for crunchy sourdough baguettes and chocolate croissants that will up your picnic game, while across the street, the budtenders at Hashtag Cannabis can select the perfect strain to set your afternoon adrift.When happy hour calls, wander down the Burke-Gilman Trail, a 27-mile path that connects Gas Works to Fremont, Lake Union, and the U-District neighborhoods. Along the way you’ll stumble upon Fremont Brewing Company, Add-A-Ball Arcade, and Ivar’s. By the end of the night, if you’re not a local you will strongly consider becoming one. -- Ryan MacDonald
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. Many of these trees are between 750 and 900 years old, comprising the oldest collection of live oaks in the world. Nestled amongst their burly limbs are a number of cool attractions: There’s Storyland, a whimsical kids’ park with life-sized storybook exhibits created by parade float builders; Carousel Gardens, an amusement park that houses an antique wooden carousel; the Botanical Gardens, an Art Deco-influenced garden that opened in 1936; and the New Orleans Museum of Art, which boasts a gorgeous Beaux-Arts interior along with nearly 40,000 objects.
Starting this summer, City Park offers two more compelling reasons to actually put down your Sazerac and leave the French Quarter: NOMA’s Sculpture Garden reveals its six-acre expansion (admission is always free) and the Louisiana Children’s Museum opens a sleek new $47.5 million campus there. But if you go to the park to look at, you know, nature, you’ll find plenty of untouched woodlands, wildlife, and waterways in its 60-acre Couturie Forest. -- Missy Wilkinson
If Austin was a solar system, Zilker Park would be its sun. The hike and bike trails around Lady Bird Lake snake towards Zilker and lead to Barton Springs, a 70-degree natural swimming pool that’s the obvious solution to triple digit summer heat -- and the best people-watching spot in the city. (Pro-tip: It’s a 5 buck entry fee for the pool, which can close at odd hours for cleaning. Right next door there’s a “free side” for a more natural creek experience, plus doggos). Barton Springs Road is littered with post-swim food options -- the patio at Shady Grove is usually a good move.
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. In October, nearly half a million people descend on this lawn for the multi-stage, multi-weekend Austin City Limits fest; come December, millions of Christmas lights and holiday exhibits set the park aglow for the Trail of Lights. The beloved summer concert series Blues on the Green boasts classic Austin rockers and upstart indie acts, while niche events like the Zilker Kite Fest are a reminder of Austin’s good ‘ol days. Beyond the revolving door of festivals, Zilker also features 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
San Francisco, California
Neatly wedged between San Francisco’s Castro and Mission districts, 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.
Dolores has several distinct areas, each sporting their own names and casts of characters. There’s Hipster Hill, on the Mission side of the park, where the sweet smell of legal marijuana wafts from groups of bearded thirtysomethings drinking IPAs -- an activity that, in contrast with the weed smoking, remains technically illegal. Or check out Gay Beach, along the top of the hill on the Castro side, with its miniature dogs and rows of thong-clad buttcheeks shining in the California sun. The park also hosts holiday celebrations, 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
When it comes to surviving its notoriously heinous winters, Twin Cities residents have a secret weapon: Theodore Wirth Regional Park. The largest park in Minneapolis is an ode to outdoor recreation in a city that lives for it, no matter the temperature. Like most parks, Wirth is pretty good in the summer, with a lake, golf courses, nature sanctuaries, and miles of dirt trails. But it’s the snow and ice that lures Smartwool-clad Minnesotans from their warm homes.
With 20 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails -- many boasting snow-making machines, climate change be damned -- the park is training ground for everyone from toddlers to Olympic athletes like Minnesotan Jessie Diggins. You’ll spot people of all levels savoring the elements by snowshoeing, fat-tire biking, tubing, or skijoring. 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 the nearby Utepils Brewing for a pint of the aptly named Totally Wirth It Irish stout. -- Molly Each
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 (best known for his work on Central Park). A city park for 169 years, Belle Isle became a Michigan State Park in 2014 as a cost-cutting measure for the City of Detroit. Locals still love it for the paved trails, though there are excellent (albeit flat) mountain bike trails leading to a “secret” beach which this writer is not authorized to expose. There are canals and 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), hosts the annual Grand Prix three-day race-car extravaganza, and is home to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. On your way in, grab a 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
St. Louis, Missouri
It’s got hundreds of acres on Central Park, countless recreation options and a truly astounding variety of natural and built environments to explore. But St. Louis’ 143-year-old Forest Park is more than a breathtaking destination, and is greater than the sum of its attractions -- nearly all of which are free. In a city grappling with longstanding disparities and divides, this vast rectangle of green knows no barriers. Parkgoers find their way in from its four different sides to a shared civic treasure, a place that belongs to everyone and sparks deep pride.
And even though it’s enormous, Forest Park doesn’t feel overwhelming. It lends itself to the wanderings of a dabbler. If the six-mile bike ride around the perimeter seems a bit much, head for the paddleboats 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 at the Saint Louis Zoo and all sorts of wild creatures. -- Evie Hemphill
Rock Creek Park
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, like a path that leads to a graveyard of stones torn off the U.S. Capitol decades ago.
It just so happens Rock Creek Park is home of three adorable pandas -- Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Bei Bei -- that live at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. And unlike other city zoos, the Smithsonian is taxpayer-funded, which means admission is free! After a long hike or tour of the zoo, you can head to two of DC’s most thriving neighborhoods, Woodley Park and Adams Morgan. If you’re on the west side of the park and need to refuel, check out Duke’s Counter, a specialty sando shop across the street from the zoo’s main entrance. 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
The Gathering Place
Don’t Google the chairs at Tulsa’s Gathering Place -- it’s disjointing to realize that at this park, your seat cost $5,500. Unveiled just last September 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.
For locals, there’s little to complain about now that the park and major roadway that runs through it are open. 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
1200-acre Lincoln Park encompasses a sizeable stretch of Chicago, bordered entirely by Lake Michigan to the east and neighborhoods Edgewater, Uptown, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Gold Coast, and Streeterville up until hitting downtown. 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, a winding thread of biking and running paths teeming with outdoorsy types, camera-happy tourists, and speeding cyclists.
During warm months (or as soon as the temps begin to hint at something more liveable than an arctic wasteland), 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 sees the greatest concentration of out-of-towners, who flock for the cool waters and even cooler skyline-meets-shoreline photo op. Pro-tip: Get you a friend with a boat and set sail from the calm waters of Belmont Harbor, for the most enviable skyline views and calm lilting of the lake.
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 Preserve
South Mountain Park Preserve is the largest municipal park in the country, comprised of 51 miles of sprawling, safe, and well-maintained urban trails across thousands of acres. At one time this space was inhabited by the Hohokam and prehistoric tribes, but we can thank the folks of Civilian Conservation Corps -- who constructed the park during the Depression Era -- for creating 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 and eye out for chuckwallas and jumping cholla.) There’s plenty of turf to check out on foot, bike, or horseback that is suitable for all abilities. Some are even accessible by car, like Dobbins Lookout, which gives visitors and locals incredible scenic views of the city. The park hosts events and group activities including moonlight walks, the Phoenix Summit Challenge and UROCK Festival, ranger-led discovery hikes, art in the park activities, and stargazing sessions, to name a few. 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
San Diego, California
Beyond the San Diego Zoo, which is world famous and cool enough on its own, this 1,200-acre park boasts an additional 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 its multiple canyons. Meanwhile, several museums display some of the city’s best art and historical exhibits, in addition to being true works of art themselves. There’s a lot to see and 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 the viaduct connecting the nearby Bankers Hill neighborhood with the rest of the park.
Bonus: Chicano Park in the SD’s Barrio Logan neighborhood is the heart of Chicano and Mexican immigrant culture in Southern California. The park sits under two freeway overpasses; the pillars supporting them are adorned with colorful murals from prominent Chicano artists, detailing the struggles of Mexican-Americans throughout history, while also displaying prominent Mexican and Chicano cultural and historical symbols. -- Jackie Bryant
At a staggering 5,200 acres, the aptly-named Forest Park is one of the largest urban forests in the country -- and it’s literally only 3 miles from downtown Portland, easily reached by public transportation. There are many entry points to the park, but for visitors eager to experience the Pacific Northwest’s famously lush, frequently damp greenery without getting decked out in full hiking gear, 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.
Wander a fern-lined path along the banks of Balch Creek, keeping an eye out for both huckleberry bushes and banana slugs. While Oregon is known for its Douglas firs, if you’re visiting in the fall, the park’s deciduous Maple Trail shows off a fiery, colorful canopy. About a mile into the hike, the towering fir trees lead to the remains of the lichen-covered Stone House, a graittied 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
Brooklyn, New York
Central Park's funkier (and arguably better, and designed the same folks) counterpart in Brooklyn, Prospect Park is the ultimate play space for Brooklynites of all stripes. 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 nearby Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a quieter, more polished escape, with multiple environments and habitats to take your attention. Families are more than welcome at Prospect Park, which features a zoo, an ice rink, the first urban-area Audubon Center, which offers free programs year-round. Bordered by Prospect Heights, Park Slope, South Slope and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens with multiple access points to nearby subway stops and plenty of restaurants and bars, the park is a nature-loving urbanite’s best bet for an inner-city escape. -- Joseph Hernandez
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, CA
There’s a very, very strong case to be made that Golden Gate Park is the best urban park in America. Bigger than New York City’s Central Park and free of the smog that besets Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, there is no finer way for locals to spend a day off in San Francisco, and no better way for tourists to get to know the city, than to pack up a picnic and wander here. The cultural attractions are unparallelled: 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 there are places for reflection, like the National AIDS Memorial Grove (the first of its kind in the US).
Head to the top of Strawberry Hill for an iconic view of the skyline and Golden Gate Bridge. Each summer, the park hosts beloved music festival Outside Lands. Each fall, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass -- which is free. You can take the kids to the carousel at Koret Children’s Quarter, or rent a classic row boat (or its kitchier sibling, the pedal boat) at Stow Lake. Oh, there are even bison. -- Kastalia Medrano