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.
Mission Bay and San Diego Bay trim the edge of the city like sparkling gems, and the 4,600-acre Mission Bay Aquatic Park is the centerpiece of it all. No matter 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 amidst the blue via every imaginable conveyance; kayak, stand-up paddleboard, motorized watercraft, sail boat, 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 jetpacking 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 dinner and brunch cruises and whale-watching tours. If you are 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 kicks off at Shelter Island and finishes up at the Coronado ferry landing. The free parade features about 80 seriously tricked-out boats and draws huge crowds along the shoreline.
Mission Beach, the narrow strip of land between Mission Bay and the Pacific, is a chockablock with surf shops, t-shirt joints, and funky beach bars, and there’s a 3-mile oceanfront boardwalk that rivals Venice Beach for people watching. At Belmont Park, classic amusement rides include the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster and FlowRider Wave House, as well as rock climbing, bumper cars, miniature golf, and arcade games. Mission Bay also has 27 miles of water’s-edge pathways, perfect for strolling and biking, 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 allowed on Fiesta Island only, which closes at 10 p.m.
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 the city, this 14,491-acre/5,864-hectare park, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is an outstanding destination for families, adventure seekers, history buffs, 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?). Southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s Baker Beach, with a wild feel and amazing views (just be warned: it’s clothing optional, particularly on its north end). Crissy Field, the sandy stretch on the Presidio’s northeast corner, attracts families, water-loving dogs (they’re okay off-leash here), and kite-boarders and wind-surfers. 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, a wonderful way to see buildings that once housed military personnel (the Presidio was a working U.S. Army base from 1846, before California was a state, until 1994). Many buildings have been handsomely converted into open-to-the-public destinations, including justly popular restaurants (Dixie, Presidio Social Club, and the Presidio Officer’s Club) and the Walt Disney Family Museum, which focuses on the personal history and brilliance of the man behind the mouse (definitely not Disneyland, in case the kids get overly excited, but more for grownups).
Another notable site: the Letterman Digital Arts Center, part of the Lucasfilm empire—though 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—here’s the emerald heart of San Francisco, a classic city park where everyone, from first-time visitors to go-every-weekend locals, 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 shell. On the north side is the de Young Museum, showcasing a world-class collection of classic art from around the world. Take the elevator 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, bay, and Pacific Ocean).
Opposite the de Young is the equally impressive California Academy of Sciences, home to a planetarium, aquarium, living 4-story rainforest, and natural history museum under an undulating living roof. It’s a quick stroll to the Japanese Tea Garden, always lovely but especially breathtaking in spring when cherry trees and azaleas bloom. Other treasures abound, easily discovered by bike (rentals are available along Stanyan and Haight Streets on the east side of the park; be sure to get a lock too). Stroll among the colorful plantings fronting the giant glasshouse that’s home to the Conservatory of Flowers, explore the botanic gardens (great for birds as well as plants), and look for the surprising herd of American bison in the park’s northwest end.
If you’re not into cycling or strolling, there’s a free shuttle on weekends and major holidays, with stops throughout the park. However you travel, you’ll see locals everywhere—playing tennis, picnicking, jogging, rowing across little Stow Lake, and horseback riding on broad paths. San Franciscans seriously love their park.
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. Take a free tour to learn about the 1869 building’s architecture and history. In the Capitol Museum, check out the collection of cool flags—including those carried by California soldiers during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, as well as artwork by former legislators and government staffers. Kids can download puzzles and coloring sheets that feature fun Golden State facts. (Quick: Which city is the Raisin Capital of the world?)
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 bathing suit when you visit Bidwell Park, a surprising find in the inviting college town of Chico in the northeastern part of the state. At an impressive 3,670 acres, 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 in 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’re oriented, rent some wheels at Campus Bicycles and 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. 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 such guests 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 3-acre pool that was formed out of Big Chico Creek in the 1930s. Locatedright 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. Admission is free.
With green spaces and gardens, museums, and assorted playing fields, 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, which completed 25 space missions, including ones to the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station. (Keep in mind that you often need timed reservations to see the shuttle on weekends.) Or, check out paintings, sculpture, photography, and video exhibits at the excellent California African American Museum.
Visit the park anytime between April and December, and you can stop and smell the roses for free—roughly 16,000 of them—at the adjacent Exposition Park Rose Garden.
Dino-fans, meanwhile, flock to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Count (which offers Free Tuesdays about a dozen times a year) 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 the Becoming L.A. permanent exhibit, a 14,000-square-foot/1,300-square-meter 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.
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.