America's Coolest City Parks
Sure, New York’s Central Park has a lot to offer, but when it comes to cool, the park just can’t compete with the thrill of swinging yourself off a 23-foot-high trapeze platform on Governors Island. Adding to the island’s cool factor is an expanding lineup of art installations, food-truck festivals, and rock concerts on a sandy beach—all this with skyline views.
Cities well beyond New York are investing in parks, either opening new ones or getting creative with traditional favorites like Denver’s City Park, where the Electric Prismatic Fountain puts on cutting-edge light shows. A 2010 study by the Trust for Public Land found that the most populated cities in the country spent about $5.8 billion on parks and recreation in 2008, up by a third since 2004.
Parks play a big role in making a city desirable for both locals and visitors. It’s easy to see why at San Diego’s Balboa Park. You can explore the open-air San Diego Zoo, where 4,000 animals such as giant pandas and koalas roam in natural habitats, catch a show at the Tony Award-winning Old Globe Theater, or take a breather on a garden bench overlooking the Pacific. Balboa Park is the single greatest tourist attraction in San Diego, where total park-derived tourist spending came to $114.3 million, according to the Trust.
Discovery Green in downtown Houston has hosted more than 800 events, including performances by Kings of Leon and Kenny Chesney and foam parties for kids, and attracted three million visitors since its 2008 opening—impressive considering the city’s population of just under 2.1 million.
“It’s a place where people can kick back and relax,” says Guy Hagstette, the founding president of Discovery Green, who recalls seeing a group of women coming from the nearby convention center dancing—“convention badges, tote bags, and all”—at one of the earliest park concerts. The park’s appeal is so strong that it has attracted over $500 million in development to revitalize downtown, adds Hagstette.
Whether the draw is a big-name concert or a genteel garden party serving mint juleps, America’s coolest city parks are proving they’re worth a trip across town—and even across the country.
Discovery Green Park, Houston
Concrete parking lots were torn up to make way for this 12-acre downtown paradise of lawns, a man-made lake, and cool features like 14-foot-high arcing water jets. Dog jumping and other wacky competitions, free classes, and fine dining at James Beard award–winning chef Robert Del Grande’s restaurants have helped lure some three million visitors since the opening in 2008. It’s a transformation that would make singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell proud.
Coolest Time to Visit: During Houston’s annual Restaurant Week (actually a month, August 1–31, 2011), whose participants include Del Grande’s park restaurant, The Grove. Its elegant, glass-walled dining room overlooks century-old live oak trees.
Grant Park, Chicago
The northwest corner, dubbed Millennium Park, made headlines when it opened in 2004 with the Frank Gehry–designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Anish Kapoor’s stainless-steel Cloud Gate—the shiny, reflective bean-shaped sculpture that’s become an instant city icon and popular photo-op. Compare the outdoor installations to the collections within the park’s Art Institute of Chicago, famous for Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
Coolest Time to Visit: Summer, when the lakefront park hosts two major events: Taste of Chicago, the world’s largest outdoor food festival, with treats from 70-plus local restaurants, and Lollapalooza, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in August 2011.
Patterson Park, Baltimore
A 27-foot-long platypus and 25-foot-long caterpillar are just some of the outrageous people-powered creatures that have participated in Baltimore’s annual Kinetic Sculpture Race. The park also encourages dress-up for its Great Halloween Lantern Parade and for BARCStoberfest, with contests for best pet costume and pet trick. Dogs (and their owners) like to loll about on a gently sloping hill near the restored 1890 Pagoda.
Coolest Time to Visit: May, when you can catch both the wacky Kinetic Sculpture Race and the annual Bike Jam, a daylong cycling festival for watching races and participating in public rides, including a 12-mile waterfront route.
Papago Park, Phoenix/Tempe
Orange-red sandstone geological rock formations like Hole-in-the-Rock have been a fixture of this 1,200-acre park for millennia. The Desert Botanical Garden, a more recent addition, nurtures cacti, succulents, and other desert plants—amid a rotating collection of modern art that has ranged from steel sculptures by Ludvic to a 17-piece glass installation by Dale Chihuly. The park is also home to the Phoenix Zoo, which opened a new exhibit for its orangutan family in April 2011.
Coolest Time to Visit: Sunset, when the sandstone buttes take on a deeper, more fantastic color. Arrive before 7 p.m., when entrances close (trails remain open until 11 p.m.). While the city skyline is visible from Hole-in-the-Rock, the most sweeping views are from South Mountain. Don’t forget your camera!
Governors Island, New York City
Instead of lazing in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow or Great Lawn, you now have the option to head south for eclectic art, food events, and even a sandy beach at this former military base off the tip of lower Manhattan. For circus geeks, there are flying trapeze lessons on the weekends; others rock out to awesome waterfront concerts from the likes of M.I.A. and Passion Pit. Getting to Governors Island has its own appeal: the free ferry ride from Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building or Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 offers panoramic views of the skyline and the Statue of Liberty.
Coolest Time to Visit: Fridays from late May through early October, when hour-long bike rentals are free (normally $15 for adults). The island has a car-free policy, so cyclists rule the roads.
City Park, New Orleans
One of the first things park visitors notice is that these are no ordinary trees. This is the world’s largest collection of mature live oaks—majestic, sculptural-looking marvels, the oldest of which have branches that spread out twice as wide as their height (up to 75 feet). Live bands that gather at the finish line of the annual Rock ’n’ Roll Mardi Gras Marathon course lend an only-in-New-Orleans vibe.
Coolest Time to Visit: Thursday evenings (March–October), when the Botanical Garden throws genteel parties with mint juleps and performances by ensembles like the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra.
Schenley Park, Pittsburgh
There’s a sport for everyone. Choose among 13 tennis courts, a soccer field, a running track, a high-jump area, and golf courses: an 18-hole Frisbee golf course and a traditional 4,600-yard course on rolling terrain with an indoor practice facility. Of course, you can also take it slow. Stroll by rare miniature orchids and primitive tree ferns at Phipps Conservatory or plop with a blanket on Flagstaff Hill, where movies are screened on summer evenings.
Coolest Time to Visit: During the free Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix (July 15–24, 2011). Some 200,000 visitors cheer on 150 sports cars—including prewar and MG T Series vehicles—as they navigate 23 turns (not to mention hay bales) around the park’s Paddock Drive.
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
This iconic park—where the Summer of Love kicked off in 1967 and dreadlocked drummers still gather in circles—has gotten at least some updates. The de Young Museum reopened with a Herzog & de Meuron–designed building in 2005 that mounts blockbuster exhibits like a collection of 100-plus Picasso works on loan from Paris. The California Academy of Sciences, whose eco-friendly Renzo Piano structure debuted in 2008, has a 1.7 million plant “living” roof and restaurants by star chefs Charles Phan and Loretta Keller.
Coolest Time to Visit: Sundays, when John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to cars and the outdoor swing-dance party, Lindy in the Park, takes place (11 a.m.–2 p.m., with free beginner lessons at noon).
Forest Park, St. Louis
A one-stop destination for many of St. Louis’s finest cultural institutions: the McDonnell Planetarium; the Cass Gilbert–designed Saint Louis Art Museum, with paintings by mid-20th-century masters like Andy Warhol and a 56-foot-tall steel tree by contemporary artist Roxy Paine; and the Muny, the country’s oldest outdoor musical theater. With 500 more acres than Central Park, it has plenty of room left for picnic areas, including covered pavilions with barbecue pits.
Coolest Time to Visit: September, when dozens of colorful hot-air balloons take to the sky, originating from Central Field, for the annual Great Forest Park Balloon Race.
City Park, Denver
More than 125 years ago, locals first gathered around the park’s bandstand on Ferril Lake to listen to live concerts. The City Park Jazz Summer Concert Series continues that tradition, attracting tens of thousands of concertgoers annually with 10 free jazz, blues, and salsa shows including the 18-piece Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra and local salsa band La Candela. Another updated relic: Ferril Lake’s Electric Prismatic Fountain, whose water patterns change every five minutes, was completed in 2008 to replace the 1909 original.
Coolest Time to Visit: Summer evenings. The jazz concert series takes place on Sundays at 6 p.m., while the Electric Prismatic Fountains’s spectacular lighted shows—employing 116 colored LED fixtures—start each day at dusk.
Balboa Park, San Diego
The sprawling 1,200-acre Balboa Park packs in more than two dozen cultural institutions, including the Tony Award–winning Old Globe theater, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the famed San Diego Zoo, one of the world’s few zoos with resident giant pandas. The park overlooks a seriously beautiful backdrop (the Pacific Ocean) and has buildings so stunning that some exteriors were filmed by Orson Welles to represent the grand fictional estate Xanadu in Citizen Kane.
Coolest Time to Visit: Spring, when the zoo animals are more active and the park’s magnificent gardens bloom.
Piedmont Park, Atlanta
The concert lineup here has included Sir Paul McCartney, the Eagles, and the Dave Matthews Band—and those are just the rock legends. Jazz takes over for the annual May festival, and music also plays a part in the Atlanta Dogwood Festival, which celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2011 with more than 70 sets (from a Native American flute performer to a Turkish folk dance group). Groundbreaking on a 53-acre extension started in 2008 and has already produced a bocce court, an aquatic center with lap lanes, and a children’s splashing area.
Coolest Time to Visit: Memorial Day Weekend is the high point of the annual Atlanta Jazz Festival, which has seen legends like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie perform.