Although it’s in the heart of California’s most productive agricultural region, Fresno is also a sophisticated city of gorgeous gardens and parks, with a vibrant creative community and one unforgettable (and underground) attraction you won’t find anywhere else.
Visit the Central Valley’s largest city and discover the exciting Tower District neighbourhood, with shopping, dining, and a nightlife hotspot named for its centrepiece—a landmark, neon-lit Art Deco theater that opened in 1939. Catch the cultural scene at its most dynamic during the twice-monthly open-art program, ArtHop, held in studio and gallery spaces downtown and in other parts of the city. The Fresno Art Museum is also a must, both for its beautifully displayed permanent collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and also its innovative exhibitions showcasing everything from children’s book illustrations to contemporary works from Mexico.
Along the San Joaquin River, 300-acre Woodward Park, the biggest in the city, truly has something for everyone: five miles of trails, an authentic Japanese garden, and three playgrounds. Speaking of the kids, across town they’ll also love the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, where they can watch marine mammals frolic in Sea Lion Cove and see elephants, lions, and giraffes in the recently opened African Adventure exhibit.
For an unforgettable only-in-Fresno experience, explore a subterranean living space at Forestiere Underground Gardens, a labyrinth of stone walls, tunnels, and courtyards hand-dug by an Italian immigrant, who had decided that living underground was the best way to keep cool during the Central Valley’s hot summers.
For sports fans, there’s Pacific Coast League baseball at Chukchansi Stadium, home of the Fresno Grizzlies. Meanwhile, the teams at Fresno State University have earned one of the most avid followings of any college in the country (Bulldog alum Aaron Judge is a rising star with the New York Yankees).
At some point, be sure to get out into the farmland surrounding Fresno. In spring, drive or bike the 100-kilometre Blossom Trail, a loop lined by brilliantly blooming fruit and nut trees. During summer, the drive morphs into the Fresno County Fruit Trail, with produce stands overflowing with ripe seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Spring tends to kick off early in Fresno County with a fast-and-frenzied spectacle of blooming fruit and nut trees. Starting in mid-February and lasting only about three weeks, the Fresno County Blossom Trail, made up of the county’s orchards, is festooned in rosy sprays of peach and nectarine petals, pink bouquets of apricot blossoms, and white blazes of almonds, plums, and apples. Drivers, bicyclists, and photographers can revel in the flowery glory on this colourful 100 kilometre loop southeast of Fresno.
Start your trip at Simonian Farms, a 1901 fruit stand run by the Simonian family for four generations. Its massive red barn encloses a model Western town complete with saloon, church, barber shop, and schoolhouse. Wander among their collection of vintage tractors, restored gasoline pumps, and antique balloon-tire bikes. (Look overhead—they’re suspended from the ceiling.) Before you leave, pick up a Blossom Trail driving map plus a few bags of French burnt peanuts and dried nectarines.
Driving clockwise, you’ll soon reach the Blossom Trail Cafe, where diners in cozy booths feast on pancakes and huevos rancheros. In tiny Centerville, stop at the Fruit Station for local honey and preserves. Or just keep heading east: The farther you go, the more vivid the scenery. When the photo gods are smiling, the snow-clad Sierra Nevada glows white in the background as golden yellow mustard blooms beneath the fruit tree canopy. (While searching for the perfect photo op, remember to park safely off the road and respect private property.)
Just beyond the tiny hamlet of Minkler, make a choice: Turn right on Frankwood Avenue or extend your loop through Orange Cove, following the neighboring Orange Blossom Trail to white-flowered lemon and orange groves. (Roll down your car windows to sniff the unforgettable aroma of citrus flowers.) Heading south on Frankwood Avenue, stop at Cedar View Winery, an ideal photo stop with acres of almond, nectarine, and peach blossoms. While there, sample the vineyard’s tempranillo and learn about the rare Alicante Bouschet grape.
Either road will eventually lead you to Reedley, where your kids can ride a miniature steam train (yes, it’s real steam) around Hillcrest Farm’s peach and plum orchards. The owners design and build their own fanciful locomotives, train cars, and track.
Perfect timing is key to the Blossom Trail’s best petal-viewing, so check its website for daily updates. Wait too long and the trees’ flowers will have fluttered to the ground, soon to be replaced by a bounty of summer fruit. Indeed, if you miss the spring blossom season, try driving the same exact route from May to September, when it morphs into the Fresno County Fruit Trail. You’ll be able to stop at dozens of seasonal produce stands along the route.
Built up in the ‘30s as a suburb accessible by Fresno’s (now retired) street cars, the neon-bright Tower District is now nightlife central in this part of the valley. Dozens of restaurants, bars, theatres, record shops, art galleries, vintage-clothing shops, and cafés attract locals and visitors alike, with pavements buzzing after dark. The 761-seat Art Deco-era Tower Theatre. Look for an eclectic line up of local and national rock, jazz, and comedy acts, as well as art film. For more live theatre, book a table at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre, or see a performance by Good Company Players, both based in the Tower District. Sequoia Brewing Company, founded in 2000, makes a great place to lounge pre- or post-show. Try a China Peak Pilsner or a Sequoia Pale Ale. For more craft beer and arcade games, head over to the bicycle-themed Spokeasy Public House. Live music of all kinds, and, for the brave, karaoke, is on tap at Strummer’s (named in honour of the Clash’s late lead singer and guitarist Joe Strummer) and at Fulton 55.
Several times a year, the entire Tower District turns into a party, with special events bringing music and more to assorted venues. These include the celebrated Rogue Festival of the Arts, the Fresno Film Festival, and an annual Mardi Gras parade.
Grand movie theatres have always been gathering places, and that’s certainly true at the spectacular Warnors Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Fresno. Originally a Pantages Theatre, this 1928 Spanish Colonial Revival landmark (it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places) now hosts an eclectic assortment of performances and community events, all housed on one of the most visually stunning spaces throughout the Central Valley.
Events include a classic film series, some including performances on the centre’s enormous, booming pipe organ, as well as interior light shows that paint the elaborate interior with colour. Concerts are also regularly scheduled; past performers have included shows by Fresno’s own Tony-award winner, Audra McDonald. Even if you can’t catch a show, swing by to check out local art and books at the All Things Fresno shop, on the centre’s street level.
Insider’s tip: Take a free theatre tour during ArtHop events in downtown Fresno, the first and third Thursday each month.
Beneath the surface of the Central Valley, a staggering network of subterranean tunnels, chambers, and grottos meanders for some four hectares, hidden just beneath the surface. This underground maze is the handiwork of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere. From 1906 to 1946, the visionary builder, using only shovels, picks, and other hand tools, created this catacomb-like compound, allegedly as a cool subterranean retreat from the region’s soaring summer temperatures.
“He just kind of wanted to get out of the Fresno heat,” says Lyn Forestiere Kosewski, great niece of Baldassare and now owner of Forestiere Underground Gardens, which is open for fascinating tours nearly year-round. “He understood that it was cooler underground (from) the cellars back in Sicily.”
Far from a grim underground chamber, this is a subterranean home, with sky-lit rooms, a chapel, and even a fishing pond.
But this is no somber collection of barren caves. Forestiere was building a home, and the hand-chiseled underground complex includes such seemingly incongruous touches as an underground fishing pond and a chapel. There are also open-air skylights, so that Forestiere’s collection of fruit trees and grape vines could thrive and bear fruit, even underground. It’s an ironic achievement, given that the young immigrant originally bought the parcel where the tunnels now hide as potential land to start a citrus empire, yet it proved to be all wrong for growing the lush groves Forestiere originally envisioned. So, with otherwise worthless land, he went down, using no plans other than the ideas in his head.
“Baldassare had to physically dig through this—three to five feet [0.9 - 1.5m] of sedimentary rock—not an easy task,” says Lyn Forestiere. “He got a lot of negativity from people who didn’t understand what he was doing.” According to historic reports, Forestiere once said that the visions he had for building his underground wonderland overwhelmed him. Seeing the results on a guided tour, you can’t help but be moved by the seemingly Herculean achievement of this humble Sicilian immigrant.
Insider tip: Forestiere Underground Gardens are closed December through February, and Monday and Tuesday of every week.
If Paris is “The City of Light” then Fresno is the city of Christmas lights in December, thanks to the three-and-a-half kilometres of holiday decorations between Shields and Shaw Avenues along Van Ness Boulevard—better known as Christmas Tree Lane.
Every year, millions of bulbs glisten from 300 trees and 140 lavishly decorated homes in the Fig Garden neighbourhood. One of the country’s longest-running holiday spectaculars, the big light show at Christmas Tree Lane has been a Fresno tradition for more than 90 years. Other than a few notable times—during wartime restrictions in 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the energy crisis of 1973—Christmas Tree Lane has glowed brightly every year since 1920. But the tradition had a somber beginning when a single tree was illuminated as a tribute to a child who had passed away.
While everyone dreams of a white Christmas, Christmas Tree Lane has gotten much greener in recent years. Yes, it takes a lot of electricity to illuminate all of those lights but thanks to improved efficiency and wiring, power use has plunged by nearly 50 percent in the last decade. More than 100,000 people come out to Christmas Tree Lane annually to marvel at the displays during a roughly three-week run that concludes on Christmas night.
Insider Tip: Check the website schedule for Walk Nights, when Van Ness Boulevard is closed to traffic.
With new naturalistic enclosures and roughly 200 species of animals, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo gives visitors up-close looks at wildlife from around the globe.
Spreading over five hectares designed to re-create the plains and savannah landscape of Africa, the beautiful African Adventure is the Central Valley’s answer to a wildlife safari. Opened in 2015, the exhibit is like the continent in miniature.
Upon entering, you’ll see grazing wildebeests, with majestic elephants moving across the expanses in the distance. Two trails explore the exhibit: Take the Twiga Trail to not only see but also feed reticulated giraffes, the world’s tallest mammal. The second trail leads past a pride of lions lounging and playing atop boulders before it reaches an overlook for a closer view of elephants wallowing in a mud hole. And there are always surprises: You might spot cheetahs scrambling up their climbing tree, then gazing down at passers-by.
Once you’re out of Africa, travel to the land Down Under at the Roo Walkabout, another new environment that debuted in 2016. The exhibit is home to red kangaroos, emus (a flightless bird that stands more than two metres tall), and kookaburras, whose laughing calls inspired the song that kids have been singing around campfires for generations.
California gets plenty of love at the zoo too. Fresno may be more than 240 kilometres from Monterey County but Sea Lion Cove—inspired by the incomparable marine environment at Point Lobos, south of Carmel—is the next best thing to a day along the coast. As you watch the sea lions and harbour seals playing in the water (be sure to go nose-to-nose with them at Pacific Point View, an 11 metre subsurface window), you’ll catch whiffs of salt air and also see brown pelicans, a once endangered bird whose populations are recovering. Honoured with the Associations of Zoos & Aquariums’ prestigious Top Honor Exhibit Award in 2014, Sea Lion Cove also offers two Keeper Chats each day.
The zoo has even more animals, exhibits, and kids’ play areas on the way for 2018–2019. A new African River exhibit will feature hippos—including an underwater viewing area—guenons (an African primate), and African birds.
Insider Tip: Starting in May, the zoo hosts Evenings on the Savannah, a series of summer events at African Adventure, with live music and special dinner entrées.
Fresno’s Woodward Park is a classic, great city park, providing Fresno residents and visitors with a beautiful destination for exercise, cultural events, and ways to reconnect with nature.
With a large lake, ponds, and forested areas, including a redwood glen, this 120 hectare urban oasis along the south bank of the San Joaquin River is the largest of Fresno’s 80 parks. Much of the parkland is the onetime estate of Ralph Woodward, the son of early Fresno civic leader and banker Oscar James Woodward.
The park is a place to be as active or relaxed as you want to be. Many families come out to Woodward Park for picnics and barbecues. There are two cross-country courses, one 5,000 metres and the other 10,000 metres, and trails at the park connect to the Lewis S. Eaton Trail System along the San Joaquin River Parkway. Woodward Park is also a birding hotspot thanks to its many species, including colourful wood ducks and even the occasional bald eagle.
Daredevil riders love to catch air and take on the banked corners at the Woodward Park BMX course, while mountain bikers of all levels can challenge themselves along the downhill and jumps at the Woodward Mountain Bike Skills Progression Park. Others come to Woodward for the more mellow pleasures of a round of 18 holes at the wooded and hilly Woodward Legacy Disc Golf Course.
Many locals also head to the park for concerts and performances at the 3,500-seat Rotary Amphitheater, an intimate, open-air venue with both covered seating and lawn areas. The eclectic lineup of performers ranges from country to jazz to Latin.
Woodward Park’s most exotic destination is the tranquil Shinzen Japanese Garden. Retreat into a serene world that changes with the seasons, as camellias and ume trees (Japanese apricot) bloom in spring and the red leaves of maples put on a brilliant display during autumn. The authentically designed garden includes a teahouse made of Japanese red cedar and gorgeous spots to take in the Zen environment, such as the stone Double Moon Bridge, which looks out over a pond filled with brilliantly hued koi.