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 theatre 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 artefacts 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 62-mile 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.
Fresno County Blossom Trail
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 62-mile 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 cosy 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 neighbouring 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.
Fresno's Tower District
Built up in the 1930s as a suburb accessible by Fresno’s (since retired) streetcars, the luminous Tower District is the city’s leading nightlife destination. The district is named for the neon-lit Tower Theatre, a 1939 Art Deco masterpiece and national historic landmark designed by S. Charles Lee, the architect of many of Hollywood’s most famous theatres. It’s now the 761-seat Tower Theatre for the Performing Arts, which hosts a busy line-up of local and national rock, jazz and comedy concerts, as well as film screenings. When you come for a show, give yourself time to take in such architectural details as the lobby’s bas-relief etched-glass panel depicting hunters and backlight-illuminated circular murals painted with fluorescent pigments.
For more live theatre, book a table at nearby Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, home to the Good Company Players, a troupe that also stages productions a block away at the 2nd Space Theatre. Music fans should check the schedule at Strummer’s, a concert hall, restaurant, and club named for Joe Strummer, The Clash’s late frontman.
With all of the live performances, restaurants, art galleries, vintage clothing shops and record stores, this walkable district positively buzzes after dark. Less than a block from the Tower Theatre, dine at eclectic Veni Vidi Vici, a popular restaurant with a menu that incorporates Asian and Italian influences. Sequoia Brewing Company makes a great place to lounge pre- or post-show; try its China Peak Pilsner or a General Sherman IPA. And for more craft beer (plus classic arcade games!), head over to the bicycle-themed Spokeasy Public House.
Several times a year, special events turn the entire Tower District into a giant party. These include the celebrated Rogue Festival (the city’s annual fringe festival), the Fresno Film Festival and an annual Mardi Gras parade.
Warnors Center for the Performing Arts
Grand movie theatres have always been great gathering places for their cities, and that’s certainly true of the spectacular Warnors Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Fresno. Originally a Pantages Theater that staged vaudeville shows, this 1928 landmark (it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places) now hosts an eclectic assortment of performances and community events.
According to the preservation organization Historic Fresno, the theatre blends a variety of architectural elements: Moorish Revival, Spanish and Italian Revival touches all add to the structure’s romantic, Old World look. There’s extensive use of terra cotta, and a tiered tower above the marquee rises to a lantern and cupola.
The Warnors was designed by B. Marcus Priteca, who served as the architect on all of the theatres owned and operated by the Pantages organization. But the Warnors remained under Pantages ownership for only a year before Warner Brothers purchased and renamed the building the Warner’s Theatre; Historic Fresno says it was renamed the Warnors Theatre in the 1960s.
Now the 2,100-seat Warnors Center is one of the most visually stunning spaces in the entire Central Valley, especially as light shows paint in vivid colours the elaborate interior, with its ornate, flattened dome. Come here for the centre’s classic film series, as well as concerts by the likes of Fresno’s own Audra McDonald, the six-time Tony Award-winning actress who has been honoured in four different acting categories.
Listen to the historic pipe organ, which has 1,035 pipes and 720 keys to replicate the sound of a full orchestra. Made by the Robert Morton Organ Company, the instrument once provided background music for silent films and is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world still used for performances at the original location.
Insider Tip: Take a free theatre tour during ArtHop events in downtown Fresno, the first and third Thursday of each month.
Forestiere Underground Gardens
Beneath the surface of the Central Valley, a staggering network of subterranean tunnels, chambers, and grottos meanders for some 10 acres, 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 sombre collection of barren caves. Forestiere was building a home, and the hand-chiselled 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 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.
Fresno's Christmas Tree Lane
If Paris is ‘The City of Light’ then Fresno is the city of Christmas lights in December, thanks to the two miles 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 Harbour and the energy crisis of 1973—Christmas Tree Lane has glowed brightly every year since 1920. But the tradition had a sombre 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.
Fresno Chaffee Zoo
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 13 acres 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 six feet 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 150 miles 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, a 35-foot 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 Honour 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
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 300-acre 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 meters and the other 10,000 meters, 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 Amphitheatre, an intimate, open-air venue with both covered seating and lawn areas. The eclectic line-up 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.
Fresno Art Scene
Spend time in Fresno and you’ll quickly discover that this Central Valley city has a homegrown art scene independent of those in California’s larger metropolitan area.
With a history that dates to the late 1940s, the celebrated Fresno Art Museum (FAM) is the city’s most prominent cultural destination. Built in 1960, the museum building has nearly tripled in size over the years, and now serves as the impressive home for a collection that focuses on contemporary American art, modern and folk art from Mexico, and pre-Columbian ceramics—some as old as 2,500 years.
Among the most renowned works in the permanent collection is El dia de las flores, Xochimilco, a 1926 painting by Diego Rivera. Definitely check the schedule for an innovative line-up of special exhibitions. Recent events have included shows about iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (who was married to Rivera), California nature photography, and the works of legendary photographer Ansel Adams.
FAM partners with Arte Américas, another prominent Fresno arts institution. Focused on Latino arts and culture, from the traditional to the avant-garde, Arte Américas’ galleries include one that displays works from FAM’s collection. The centre hosts a variety of events, including Nights in the Plaza, a summer concert series held at La Plazita, its landscaped outdoor space.
Across the street in Fresno’s Cultural Arts District, Arte Américas recently unveiled a mural inspired by the works of Rivera and dedicated to Central Valley writers—among them, Fresno native son and Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist William Saroyan.
For another way to experience Fresno’s creative vibe, on the first and third Thursday of every month, the Fresno Arts Council hosts ArtHop. The first Thursday event centres on downtown Fresno and the Tower District, where you can meet local artists, listen to live music and enjoy extended hours at museums and galleries. The third Thursday ArtHop event features venues in outlying parts of the city.