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12 Great California Urban Parks

12 Great California Urban Parks

Explore these urban oases in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and more

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 in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and more.

Read on to learn about 12 of California’s great urban parks, listed here from south to north.

1. Mission & San Diego Bays, San Diego

Mission Bay and San Diego Bay trim the edge of San Diego like sparkling gems, and the sprawling Mission Bay Aquatic Park is the centerpiece of it all. No matter your experience level, there’s some kind of water activity at this aquatic wonderland that will fit the bill. Dozens of outfitters can get you out amidst the blue in every possible craft, from kayaks and paddleboards to motorboats, sailboats, and kiteboards. For a more novel approach, book a ride on the Bahia Belle, a Mississippi River–style paddleboat, snuggle aboard a romantic Venetian gondola, or try jetpacking to skim across the water like James Bond. (More: Mission & San Diego Bays)

2. Balboa Park, San Diego

Larger than New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Millennium Park combined, San Diego’s Balboa Park comprises 1,200 acres of urban green space with 16 museums, 65 miles of trails, and of course, the internationally renowned San Diego Zoo. In addition to being one of the biggest, Balboa is also one of the oldest public parks in the nation. Luckily for visitors, much of the early architecture—some of it dating back to the early-19th century—has been impeccably preserved, including the iconic California Tower. The ornate structure, which was constructed in celebration of the Panama Canal, reopened in 2016, allowing anyone to climb to the top of its 125 steps and enjoy one of the best views in town. (More: Balboa Park)

3. Orange County Great Park, Irvine

Turning former military land into a roughly 1,300-acre green space, Irvine’s Orange County Great 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 as far as 40 miles 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. (More: Orange County Great Park)

4. Exposition Park, Los Angeles

With green spaces and gardens, museums, and assorted playing fields, Los Angeles’ Exposition Park is a place for playing, learning, and being entertained. Most of its museums and attractions are free. A quick stroll takes you to the impressive California Science Center, with hands-on exhibits and a dramatic centerpiece—the space shuttle Endeavour. Or, check out paintings, sculpture, photography, and video exhibits at the excellent California African American Museum. Dino-fans, meanwhile, 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. (More: Exposition Park)

Griffith Park

5. Griffith Park, Los Angeles

The largest municipal park in Los AngelesGriffith Park offers a wealth outdoor activities and culture to more than 10 million visitors a year. Hikers can choose from more than 50 miles of trails, and unpaved roads provide mountain bikers access to trail rides; guided rides out of Sunset Ranch include great views of the Hollywood sign. The park has a more refined side, too—learn about American Western art at the Autry Museum of the American West, or attend a performance at the open-air Greek Theatre. Kids can get close-up looks at koalas and Komodo dragons at the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens. And high on a slope overlooking Los Angeles, the landmark Art Deco-era Griffith Observatory gives you a window to the cosmos. (More: Griffith Park)

6. Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, Santa Barbara

In the heart of the beautiful coastal city of Santa Barbara, stroll among the Alice Keck Memorial Garden’s beautiful plantings featuring native and drought-tolerant species. Kids will delight in the ducks, turtles, and waterfowl that thrive in the park, and there’s a playground across the street that makes for another convenient diversion. Relax in a serene gazebo, look for fish in the koi pond, and listen and touch in the sensory garden. If you’re lucky, you might be able to enjoy an impromptu acoustic concert under a tree frequented by musicians. (More: Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden)

Fresno Japanese Garden

7. Woodward Park, Fresno

The largest public park in Fresno, Woodward Park is located a little over a dozen miles due north of downtown. 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. Woodward Park also hosts the summertime Woodward Shakespeare Festival, which typically runs from June through September. (More: Fresno's Woodward Park)

8. Kelley Park, San Jose

Think of the extraordinary complex of History Park, located at Kelley Park, as the Santa Clara Valley’s memory book in real life. It’s a chance to see what the region was like before 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 antique 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 region’s immigrant past, tour the collection of preserved buildings that make up the park. (More: History San Jose at Kelley Park)

Conservatory of Flowers

9. Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

In the heart of San Francisco, Golden Gate Park has something amazing for everyone to see or do. The park’s cultural hub is in its northeast corner, where the de Young Museum showcases a world-class collection of classic art from around the world, and the California Academy of Sciences is home to a planetarium, aquarium, living four-story rainforest, and natural history museum. It’s a quick stroll to the Japanese Tea Garden, and there are more colorful plantings fronting the giant glasshouse that’s home to the Conservatory of Flowers. While exploring, look for the surprising herd of American bison in the park’s northwest end. (More: Golden Gate Park)

10. The Presidio, San Francisco

Wrapping around the north end of San Francisco is the Presidio, a 14,491-acre park that’s an outstanding destination for families, adventure seekers, history buffs, and beachgoers. Crissy Field, the sandy stretch on the park’s northeast corner, attracts families, water-loving dogs, and kiteboarders and windsurfers. Golfers can hit the links at one of the oldest courses on the West Coast, the Presidio Golf Course. And just inland from Crissy Field is the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts, originally built for the 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo, now home to an intimate theater. Hiking and mountain-biking trails loop through the heavily wooded park, and are a wonderful way to see evidence of the Presidio’s past life as a U.S. Army base. (More: The Presidio)

11. State Capitol, Sacramento

With its noble columns and snappy cupola, all painted wedding-cake white, California’s State Capitol building looks like a mini replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.in Sacramento. Take a free tour to learn about the 1869 building’s architecture and history. Despite such concessions made to visitors, this is very much a working capitol building, and, if legislators are in session, you can ask about access to public galleries to watch bills being debated or votes being cast. Outside, stroll through the adjacent 40-acre Capitol Park. (More: State Capitol)

12. Bidwell Park, Chico

Be sure to bring your bathing suit when you visit Bidwell Park, a surprising find in the inviting college town of Chico in the northeastern part of California. At 3,670 acres, this is one of the largest city parks in the country, so rent some wheels at Campus Bicycles to take it all in. Head for the Annie Bidwell Trail, a moderate 4.7-mile loop that hugs the southern bank of Big Chico Creek in a quiet section of Upper Bidwell. After your ride—if the weather is warm enough—take a leap into Sycamore Pool, a gargantuan 3-acre pool that was formed out of Big Chico Creek in the 1930s. Located right in the center of town, the pool is shaded by its namesake sycamores and has five lifeguard stations and a roped-off section for kids. (More: Bidwell Park)

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