While you might think of a city park as an appealing splash of green amidst the asphalt jungle, California’s urban parks stand out as cultural hubs, with outstanding and innovative museums sprinkled among beautiful gardens, forests, and inviting green lawns. Come to learn, be entertained, and, of course, get in a good leg stretch or two in these standout parks, offering California’s signature blend of indoor/outdoor fun.
The largest municipal park in Los Angeles, Griffith Park protects 4,210 acres/1,704 hectares of mountains and canyons at the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s a remarkable stretch of rough, hilly wilderness in the heart of such an enormous urban area. Choose from more than 80 kilometres of trails lacing the chaparral-studded slopes, including one to the top of 1,625-foot/495-metre Mount Hollywood, the park’s highest point. Unpaved roads also provide access for mountain bikers and trail rides; guided rides out of Sunset Ranch include great views of the Hollywood sign.Griffith Park has a more refined side, too. Learn about the American West at the Autry National Center. Leading musicians love to play at the open-air Greek Theatre. Kids can get close-up looks at koalas and Komodo dragons at Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens. And high on a slope overlooking Los Angeles, the landmark Art Deco-era Griffith Observatory presents mind-expanding planetarium shows throughout the year, plus films and special events in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater and hosted telescope parties (check the calendar for details).
From pandas and koala bears at its iconic zoo, to a remarkable collection of museums and gardens, this oasis in the heart of the city has been a vibrant part of San Diego culture for a hundred years. First and foremost, Balboa Park is a horticultural marvel: the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden alone has more than 130 varieties of roses (learn more about it and the rest of the park’s greenery on free, 1-hour Offshoot Tours, offered on Saturday morning).
Museums abound; local favourites include the Museum of Man, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Centre, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Culture reigns supreme too: The Old Globe Theatre hosts its famed Shakespeare Festival each summer; live bands and outdoor film screenings abound.
All this, plus one of the world’s finest zoos. Over 3,700 animals from 650 species—many of them extremely rare— are showcased at the San Diego Zoo, with naturalised exhibits covered roughly 100 acres/40 hectares. Get a special look at the zoo’s three giant pandas by signing up for “Early Morning with Pandas,” visiting the panda viewing area before it officially opens for the day. Check the Balboa Park website for special events, and for ticketing deals bundling zoo and museum visits.
Mission Bay and San Diego Bay adorn the edge of the city like sparkling gems, and the 1860-hectare Mission Bay Aquatic Park is the centrepiece of it all. Regardless of your experience level, there’s some kind of water activity at this sprawling aquatic wonderland that will fit the bill. Dozens of outfitters such as those at the Aquatic Center at Santa Clara Point can get you out on the blue via every imaginable conveyance; kayak, stand-up paddleboard, motorised watercraft, yacht or kite board. For a more novel approach, board the Bahia Belle, a Mississippi River–style paddleboat, snuggle aboard a romantic Venetian gondola, or try jet-packing to skim across the water like James Bond.
If you prefer a cruise experience, Hornblower and Flagship Cruises let you get a millionaire’s view of the bay on scenic tours, as well as offering dinner and brunch cruises and whale-watching tours. If you're in the area over the 4th of July, you’re in for a treat, as San Diego Bay hosts Big Bay Boom, the largest fireworks display in the county. In winter, it hosts the Parade of Lights, which begins at Shelter Island and finishes at the Coronado ferry landing. The free parade features about 80 seriously elaborately adorned boats and draws huge crowds along the shoreline.
Mission Beach, the narrow strip of land between Mission Bay and the Pacific, is chock-a-block with surfing shops, t-shirt stores and funky beach bars, and there’s a 6.5-kilometre oceanfront boardwalk that rivals Venice Beach for people watching. At Belmont Park, classic amusement rides include the Giant Dipper wooden rollercoaster and FlowRider Wave House, as well as rock climbing, bumper cars, miniature golf and arcade games. Mission Bay also has 43 kilometres of water’s-edge pathways, perfect for walking and cycling, and at the end of South Mission Beach Park you can cast a line from the Mission Beach jetty and maybe catch some dinner. While in the area, set aside a day or two to experience SeaWorld San Diego, the largest aquatic park of its kind.
Insider tip: dogs are only allowed on Fiesta Island, which closes at 10 pm.
Turning former military land into a roughly 1,300-acre/526-hectare green space, this Irvine park is as ambitious as it is beautiful. Though it is still a work in progress, there’s already plenty to see and do here. Soar up in the park’s tethered helium balloon where you can see up to 40 miles/64 kilometres on a clear day. Ride a carousel adorned with illustrations inspired by vintage citrus crates that serve as a nod to the region’s agricultural heritage. On Sundays, mingle with locals at the certified farmers market, and visit artists’ workshops at the Palm Court Arts Complex.
Wrapping around the north end of San Francisco, the Presidio, a 5864-hectare park that’s part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is an outstanding destination for families, adventure seekers, history enthusiasts and anyone else who likes to relax on the edge of one of the most beautiful bays in the world. First, there are the beaches (and how many major cities have several beaches?).
South-west of the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s Baker Beach, which has a wild feel and amazing views. Be warned, though: clothing is optional, particularly on its north end. Crissy Field, the sandy stretch on the Presidio’s north-east corner, attracts families, water-loving dogs (they’re okay off-lead here), and kite-boarders and wind-surfers. Golfers can hit the links at one of the oldest courses on the West Coast, the Presidio Golf Course. Splurge on a stay at one of the two historic hotels on-site, the Inn at the Presidio, or the Lodge at the Presidio. And just inland from Crissy Field is the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts, originally built for the 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo and now home to an intimate theatre.
Walking and mountain-biking trails loop through the heavily wooded park, and are a wonderful way to see evidence of the Presidio’s past life: from 1846, before California was even a state, until 1994, it was an active US Army base. Today, the more than 790 buildings that once housed personnel and fulfilled other needs of the Army serve as excellent examples of military architecture through the years. Thanks to preservation efforts, many of them have been handsomely converted into open-to-the-public destinations, including justly popular restaurants such as Sessions at the Presidio, the Presidio Social Club and The Commissary. Also taking up residence is the Walt Disney Family Museum, which focuses on the personal history and brilliance of the man behind the mouse. It’s definitely not Disneyland (don't let the children get overly excited), but more for grown ups.
Another notable site is the Letterman Digital Arts Center, which is part of the Lucasfilm empire. Though the buildings are generally closed to the public, you can give your regards to the Yoda statue, in the campus’s main courtyard.
Gardens, glades, quiet lakes—Golden Gate Park is the emerald heart of San Francisco, a classic city park where everyone, from first-time visitors to go-every-weekend locals, can find something amazing to see or do. The park’s cultural hub is in its northeast corner, surrounding a broad concourse featuring fountains and a band stand. On the north side is the de Young Museum, showcasing a world-class collection of classical art from around the world. Take the lift to the top of the museum’s eye-catching, asymmetric tower (admission to the tower is free) for a spectacular view of the whole park, as well as the city, the bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Opposite the de Young is the equally impressive California Academy of Sciences, home to a planetarium, aquarium, living four-storey rainforest and natural history museum, all under an undulating living roof. From here, it’s a quick stroll to the Japanese Tea Garden, which is always lovely but is especially breathtaking in spring when the cherry trees and azaleas are in bloom. Other treasures abound, easily discovered by bike (rentals are available along Stanyan and Haight Streets on the east side of the park; make sure you get a lock too). Wander among the colourful flower beds fronting the giant glasshouse that’s home to the Conservatory of Flowers, explore the botanical gardens (great for birds as well as plants) and look for the surprising herd of American bison at the park’s north-west end.
If you don't fancy cycling or walking, there’s a free shuttle bus at weekends and on major holidays, with stops throughout the park; if you are visiting by car, there are several parking areas. However you travel, you’ll see locals everywhere—playing tennis, picnicking, jogging, rowing across little Stow Lake and horse riding on broad paths. San Franciscans seriously love their park.
Insider tip: going to the park with a particular activity in mind? The park’s collection of maps can show you where is best to picnic, enjoy the flowers or play with your dog.
With its noble columns and snappy cupola, all painted wedding-cake white, California’s State Capitol building looks like a mini replica of U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Take a free tour to learn about the 1869 building’s architecture and history, and to appreciate extensive restorations in the offices of the Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Governor. This is very much a working capitol building, and, if legislators are in session, ask about access to public galleries to watch bills being debated or votes being cast. Outside, stroll through the adjacent 40-acre Capitol Park, where you can admire trees from around the world, and visit the sweetly scented International World Peace Rose Garden. Take note of the Civil War Memorial Grove—in 1897, saplings from famous Civil War battlefields were planted here.
Be sure to bring your swimming costume when you visit Bidwell Park, a surprising find in the inviting university town of Chico in the north-eastern part of the state. At an impressive 1,485 hectares, Bidwell is one of the largest city parks in the United States. Much of Upper Bidwell (west of Manzanita Avenue) is hilly, rugged and wild, while Lower Bidwell (east of Manzanita) tends to be flatter. Stop by for an overview of the park and a visit to the Chico Creek Nature Center, where you can learn about native plants and wildlife and also check out the Janeece Webb Living Animal Museum, which is located inside.
Now that you’ve got your bearings, hire some wheels at Campus Bicycles and head for the Annie Bidwell Trail, a moderate 7.6-kilometre circuit that hugs the southern bank of Big Chico Creek in a quiet section of Upper Bidwell. Nearby is Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, where you can take a first-come, first-served tour of the 19th-century, 26-room Italian Villa-style home. As the residence of city founders Annie and John Bidwell, the ornate structure saw visits from guests such as President Rutherford B. Hayes, General William T. Sherman, Susan B. Anthony and John Muir. After your ride—if the weather is warm enough—take a leap into Sycamore Pool, a gargantuan concrete-lined 1.2-hectare pool that was formed from Big Chico Creek in the 1930s. Located in the centre of the town, the pool is shaded by its namesake sycamores and has five lifeguard stations and a roped-off section for children. Admission is free.
With green spaces and gardens, museums and assorted playing fields, Exposition Park is a place for playing, learning and being entertained. Dino-fans flock to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County to see the impressive collection of prehistoric creatures, especially a remarkable trio of complete T. rex skeletons of various ages and sizes. Other notable sites include a 14,000-square-foot/1,300-square-metre masterpiece that tells the history of the city in six expansive sections. Learn about Spanish padres during the Mission Era in the 1700s, to Mexican ranchos, on to water wars, the Great Depression and Tinseltown.
A quick stroll takes you to the impressive California Science Center, with hands-on exhibits and a dramatic centerpiece—the space shuttle Endeavour. See more displays and artwork at the excellent California African American Museum.
If you need to give your brain a break from checking out all this cool stuff, stroll through the adjacent Rose Garden (open April through December, with blooms from nearly 16,000 rose bushes scenting the air.
Think of this extraordinary complex, at Kelley Park, as the Santa Clara Valley’s memory book in real life. It’s a chance to imagine what the region was like before computer chips, gigabytes, and tech startups became the heartbeat of the region. First, there are expansive displays and historical buildings (imported to the park campus) that showcase the region’s amazing agricultural roots, including historical images, machinery, and other mementos. Other buildings shed light on various early trades and businesses, such as a recreated print shop, where costumed volunteers let kids try out an early printing press. For a fascinating look at the broad range of immigrants who have settled in the region, tour the collection of preserved buildings—from early banks to a former stable—that make up History Park. This cultural campus provides a place for 19 partner programs to tell their history, like the harrowing journeys made by Vietnamese boat people, and share their traditions at lively festivals, like the annual Dia de Portugal.
Stroll beside cherry trees and alongside calm pools in the Shinzen Friendship Garden (check the schedule for interesting docent-led tours). Follow paths for pretty views of the San Joaquin River and surrounding Central Valley. If you’re lucky, daredevil mountain bikers will be testing their skills and speed in the park’s time-trial course.
In the heart of this beautiful coastal city, stroll among beautiful plantings featuring native and drought-tolerant species. Relax in a serene gazebo, look for fish in the koi pond, and listen and touch in the sensory garden.