A foray into the heart of a city can be more memorable with a visit to a public park. In addition to providing restful spaces for a picnic or a snowball fight, most of the nation's metropolitan parks offer an extraordinary array of recreational opportunities and cultural sites. Plus, locals likely hang in them, helping give an authentic sense of the city. In many instances they stand out among the city's top attractions.
Here are 10 U.S. urban sanctuaries that are worth a visit next time you're in town, from New York's iconic Central Park to Oklahoma City's surprising Myriad Botanical Gardens and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
Audubon Park, New Orleans
This 350-acre beautiful urban oasis nestles along the Mississippi River in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. It was named after the 19th-century artist and naturalist John James Audubon, who lived in the city during the 1820s. The park's plan was drafted by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted's nephew and adopted son, John Charles Olmsted. It holds lush lawns, gardens, stately oak trees, lagoons, the Audubon Zoo and an 18-hole golf course.
Balboa Park, San Diego
With 17 museums and 17 gardens, this park boasts both culture and nature. Named for Spanish maritime explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the park hosted the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition, and both of these world fairs left behind a treasure trove of architectural landmarks. These flamboyant Spanish-Renaissance and Pueblo Revival-style buildings house the many museums lining the park's famous El Prado pedestrian walkway. Among them are the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the Fleet Science Center and the Tony Award-winning theater, the Old Globe. The 1,200-acre park is also home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
Boston Common, Boston
Whether for protesting or picnicking, Boston Common has been an important gathering spot throughout the nation's history. Founded in 1634, it is the oldest city park in the United States. Revolutionary War and Civil War troops paraded on its grounds and Pope John Paul II and Martin Luther King Jr. delivered speeches there. The shining gem in the "Emerald Necklace" — a network of parks and parkways — the Common features monuments, bandstands, sports fields, fountains and the Frog Pond, which hosts ice skating during the winter.
Central Park, New York City
Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and English architect Calvert Vaux in 1858, 843-acre Central Park was the first landscaped public park in America. More than 40 million visitors a year make it the most-visited urban park in the nation. Highlights include the Central Park Zoo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Conservatory Gardens, an ice-skating rink, a 57-horse carousel, 26,000 trees, 21 playgrounds, 50 fountains, 51 sculptures, 58 miles of pedestrian paths and 9,000 benches. There's so much to see and do here that the park has its own app to help visitors navigate its many sites and activities.
Forest Park, St. Louis
Forest Park, known as the "Heart of St. Louis," opened in 1876 and has hosted events such as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 and the 1904 Summer Olympics. Covering 1,371 acres, it features a variety of attractions, including the St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Center and St. Louis Science Center. Recreational features include a skating rink, a pair of tennis centers and three golf courses.
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Often cited as the Central Park of the West, Golden Gate is considerably larger than its Big Apple counterpart. Straddling 1,017 acres, it is one of the world's largest man-made public parks and, with 13 million visitors a year, ranks among the most visited public parks in the U.S. Carved from a windswept expanse of sand dunes in the 1870s, Golden Gate Park is a picturesque public space where visitors can relax, play and reconnect with the natural world. Among its many features are gardens, lakes, picnic groves, playgrounds, multiuse trails, sporting facilities and monuments, plus an array of cultural venues, events and activities. Museums here include the de Young Museum with its fine arts collections, and the California Academy of Sciences, one of the largest natural history museums in the world. Best of the many gardens are the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden & Arboretum, showcasing more than 8,000 plants from around the world, and the Japanese Tea Garden with its classic pagodas and koi ponds.
Grant Park, Chicago
Named for the nation's 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant, this 319-acre expanse on the western shore of Lake Michigan is one of America's most recognized green spaces. It is home to numerous walking paths, including the 18-mile-long Chicago Lakefront Trail, sports fields, museums, and one of the world's largest fountains, the rococo-style Buckingham Fountain. Major attractions include the Field Museum of Natural History, the Art Institute of Chicago and Shedd Aquarium. Another important feature was added in 2004 with the conversion of rail yards and parking lots in the northern section of the park into an expansive network of gardens, pavilions and fountains known as Millennium Park.
Klyde Warren Park, Dallas
This unusual public park creates a three-block long, 5.2-acre urban green space bridging a below-grade section of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway in downtown Dallas. It connects the city's flourishing Arts District with other neighborhoods, bringing together cultural events and recreational activities around a sweeping pedestrian promenade. The park offers a restaurant and performance stage, a children's park and playground, jogging trails, a reading room, a games area and a botanical garden. Although it is open to the public (from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.) at no charge, it is not a city park but is operated by the private Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation.
Myriad Botanical Gardens, Oklahoma City
Though comprising just 17 acres, Myriad Botanical Gardens is Oklahoma City's most beautiful and vibrant urban park space. It is an outgrowth of a downtown revitalization plan by renowned architect I.M. Pei. Myriad's centerpiece is the Crystal Bridge Conservatory, a striking 13,000-square-foot cylindrical glass greenhouse, home to more than a thousand species of tropical and desert plants from six different continents. Outdoor features include ornamental gardens, a 6-acre children's garden and playground and the Grand Event Lawn, a festival space that hosts a year-round schedule of special events and horticultural programs.
National Mall and Memorial Park, Washington, D.C.
Nicknamed "America's Front Yard," the National Mall and Memorial Park is the epicenter of the nation's capital city. It is the most visited national park in the United States, hosting more than 25 million visitors annually. The most familiar portion of the mall stretches some 2 miles between the U.S. Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial. Its most visible feature is the Washington Monument, a towering 555-foot high marble obelisk. Other important memorials in the park include the World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and memorials honoring Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. Cultural attractions include the National Gallery of Art and 11 of the 19 Smithsonian Museums.