America’s Best Cities for Picnics
Jennifer Pearson-Smith packs a few vital tools when she embarks on a road trip: a vintage Pendleton blanket, a soft-sided cooler, a corkscrew and a cheese plane. “We’ve dined al fresco in such destinations as Sedona, Lake Tahoe and Napa,” says the Costa Mesa-Calif.-based social media consultant. “It’s so much fun to discover local markets when selecting picnic eats.”
One of her favorite picnic cities—San Diego, where she has dined above the crashing waves at Sunset Cliffs— is also a favorite of Travel+Leisure readers. In the annual America's Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 38 cities on such urban qualities as luxury shopping, cocktail lounges and cool food trucks. But to calculate which cities offer the best grassy dining, we looked at the more outdoor-feast-friendly rankings: parks and gardens, gourmet markets, epic sandwiches, accommodating weather, and perhaps the lovely accompaniment of wine.
With or without a fine bottle, there is something magical about a picnic while traveling: picking up sandwiches, local tacos, or just some fresh bread and cheese (assuming you packed that cheese plane) and settling in for a fresh-air meal and people-watching in a city park. In some winning cities, the best picnic spots offer uniquely local settings, whether you’re next to a natural spring, in front of an iconic band shell, or in the shade of an 80-foot-tall shuttlecock.
Picnicking can also make you feel more like a local—though it’s also important to know the local rules. Pearson-Smith, for instance, has learned that there’s no glass permitted in San Diego’s Balboa Park. “No picnic in San Diego would be complete without sampling a brew or two from the local craft beer scene,” she says, “so I stock up on versions from local breweries like Saint Archer and Ballast Point—in cans.”
No. 20 Denver
Locals in the Mile High City ranked at No. 4 in the survey for being athletic, and a picnic makes the perfect break during a day of hiking or cycling. City Park is Denver’s answer to New York’s Central Park, and ups the ante with the free dancing water shows—starring the Electric Prismatic Fountain from 1908—on summer evenings. Cheesman Park, meanwhile—featuring both mountain views and the Denver Botanic Gardens—isn’t far from gourmand-friendly Cherry Creek Fresh Market (dubbed “the Cadillac of Farmers Markets”). To experience the city’s top 10 beer ranking, however, and call it a picnic, park yourself at a table in the 7,500-square foot beer garden Garden Valley Ranch.
No. 19 New York City
Despite the world-class hubbub—the city ranked at No. 1 for noise—NYC still makes the picnic top 20, perhaps because its pastoral oases seem all the more idyllic just for existing. The first choice for many readers may be Central Park, but some of the less famous spaces have even more elbow room, like Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, upper Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park (home of the medieval museum The Cloisters) and the Bronx’s Pelham Bay Park, where you can spot herons, hawks and sometimes even harbor seals. While all five boroughs are chock-a-block with good sandwich shops—NYC ranked in the top 10 for delis—you can get full-service treatment from Perfect Picnic NYC, which offers plush picnic baskets with cured meats from Salumeria Biellese and sea salt caramels from Liddabit Sweets.
No. 18 Cleveland
The city’s industrial heritage actually enhances some of its most scenic picnic settings: Cuyahoga Valley National Park was created in part through the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, and Edgewater Beach, on the banks of Lake Erie, has views of the Rust Belt city, as well as a big outdoor screen for movie nights (the park also has easy access to local favorite ice cream Honey Hut). Don’t spoil your lunch, though, in the top 5 city for food halls and sandwiches: The West Side Market—with the stuffed olives from Rita’s and the kraut-topped delights from Frank’s Bratwurst—is one of the oldest food halls in the nation, while Cleveland Pickle has creative sandwiches like the Madison Mash (roasted mushrooms, onions, sliced apples and balsamic). The city also scored well for its urban civility, ranking in the top five for good drivers.
No. 17 Minneapolis/St. Paul
Despite the cities’ abysmal survey ranking for weather—blame those long winters—their variety of lush parks and lakes made readers happy to dress in layers. One of the prime picnic spots is Minnehaha Park, home of the picturesque falls, but Lake Harriet is another nice choice, combining natural beauty with a band shell used for Minneapolis’ Music and Movies in the Parks series. To stock your basket locally, shop at gourmet grocery Lunds & Byerlys, which guarantees a warm baguette as late as 5 p.m. on any given day, or it’s free. Minneapolis-St. Paul also made the top 5 for its food-coma-inducing baked goods.
No. 16 Nashville
Music City didn’t rank so highly with readers for its parks, but it still has great scenery: pick up a Bless Your Heart salad (with hearts of palm) from downtown’s Southernaire Market, then set up lunch at the Walk of Fame Park, which neighbors both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Indeed, the city has an often unsung classical bent: At Centennial Park, you can picnic—perhaps with some Beef Wellington hoagies from Provence Breads & Café—outside the Parthenon, the world’s only full-scale replica of the Greek landmark. Step inside the Parthenon afterward—it’s filled with 19th and 20th century American art—to see why Nashville also placed in the top 20 for its cultural chops.
No. 15 Austin
Summers in Austin get plenty warm—which makes a picnic at Barton Springs at Zilker Park especially appealing, since you can always cool off in the 68-degree water. To dine in the cool shade of the city’s top-20 art scene, take your lunch to the sculpture garden at art museum Laguna Gloria. Austin also made the top 20 for it gourmet grocery stores, like the expansive Central Market (which many locals prefer to Whole Foods) or salumeria Salt and Time. To blend in well with the resident nerds—Austin ranked at No. 4 for geeks—you can’t go wrong with a picnic of subs from local favorite Thundercloud.
No. 14 Philadelphia
Survey voters may have appreciated Philly more for its buildings than its green spaces, but that may make those parks even more blissful, away from the crowds: the rocky Wissahickon Gorge in Fairmount Park, for instance, has been declared an Important Birding Area by the Audubon Society, so you can enjoy chirping chickadees and cardinals while you lunch. And lunch in the top 10 city for pizza and street food offers countless options: A good area to focus on these days is East Passyunk—from the breads, fresh mozzarella, and cherries at Green Aisle Grocery to the artisan pizzas at Birra and Brigantessa. The neighborhood also has a different kind of musical outdoor setting: the singing fountain, which broadcasts everything from Sinatra to contemporary pop. Otherwise, readers’ favorite fields in Philly feature scoreboards: the locals placed at No. 5 for their sports passion.
No. 13 Honolulu
A nice shade tree is one thing, but you’ll find “Exceptional Trees”—two canopied monkey pod trees and one spiritually-charged bodhi tree—at this Hawaiian city’s Moanalua Gardens, which has been preserving such trees since the 1970s. To watch the waves while you lunch, go to Waimea Bay, a prime surf spot during the winter, and a calm spot for swimming during the summer. For a local feast, pack a portable poke seafood salad, like the colorful mixes from Tanioka’s, Alicia’s Market or Tamura’s (the latter has been around for four generations). A high-protein picnic lunch will keep you moving: Honolulu also ranked near the top of the survey for adventure.
No. 12 Portland, Oregon
Despite the often drippy weather, Portland still has prime ingredients for excellent picnic culture: lush parks, creative cuisine (it ranks No. 2 for food trucks) and free-spirited locals. In fact, the city even has its own Portland Picnic Society, which organizes regular outdoor feasts around the city. If you picnic on your own, though, two excellent locales are Mt. Tabor—a dormant dome volcano with nice views of the city—and grassy Cathedral Park, which sits at the foot of St. John’s Bridge on the Willamette River (it’s so nice, Lewis and Clark reportedly camped on the site in 1806). The explorers, however, did not have the benefit of the city’s creative take-out options, like the meatball banh mi sandwiches at Lardo, which also sells growlers of the city’s highly-ranked craft beer.
No. 11 San Francisco
In this NorCal city, picking your real estate—even for a picnic—is all about the view, and the Presidio offer photo ops of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge. Come on Sunday afternoon or Thursday evening and you can get your meal from the Off the Grid food trucks, like the brunchy Benedict Arnold’s, the Vietnamese Little Green Cyclo or the Crème Brulee Cart. To lower your chances of fog, spread your blanket at Fort Baker, near the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, which tends to stay sunny while offering views of the Bay. To honor the city’s good ranking for brunch, stock your picnic basket with a popular Rebel Within muffin—featuring a soft-boiled egg in the center— from Craftsman and Wolves in the Mission District.
No. 10 Houston
While summer temperatures in this Texas hub may have you looking for shade and a breeze, Houston still impressed readers with its picnic-friendly gourmet markets and deep wine selection (you can find both at Revival Market). The best new picnic spot is Buffalo Bayou Park, near the spot where the city was founded in 1836, which now has pedestrian bridges and canoeing trails. Houston also ranked at No. 5 for its world-class art—like the Menil Collection, which has a picnic-magnet lawn, and the promise of air-conditioned bliss afterward, as you look at the Byzantine and Surrealist art inside. Its Museum District location also means you can pick up some portable sliders from Little Bigs, a representative of the city’s No. 5 ranking for burgers.
No. 9 Kansas City
A day of art mixes nicely with a picnic in this Missouri city, which ranked at No. 7 for museums and No. 1 for affordability. There’s Penn Valley Park, which lies next to the free-admission National WWI Museum, or the Hall Sculpture Park at the also-free Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where you can feast in the shadows of the iconic, 18-foot Shuttlecock. In mid-July, the Nelson-Atkins even hosts a big picnic on the lawn, where diners can participate in a living-quilt installation. To pack a meal with the nation’s top-ranked barbecue, get some brisket mac ’n’ cheese from Broadway Butcher Shop or sausages from The Local Pig— like those made with bourbon-apple, goat chorizo or local burnt ends.
No. 8 Tampa
This Florida city exudes a serene vibe to readers, who ranked it highly for feeling clean and peaceful, and for having nice parks—many with water views. In fact, you can even picnic on the water: local operator eBoats lets you bring your basket and captain a boat on Tampa Bay or Hillsborough River. But for many travelers, just sitting next to the water is enough: Water Works Park, on the northern tip of the Tampa Riverwalk, has a bandshell, old oak trees and possible sightings of dolphins and manatees. To complement the view, pick up a Beef Martini sandwich (rare roast beef with bacon and white-wine-marinated mushrooms) from Wright’s Gourmet Café. For a local beverage, pick up some Florida Cracker Belgian-style White Ale from hot craft beermaker Cigar City Brewing.
No. 7 New Orleans
New Orleans always charms readers with its lovely architecture and festival atmosphere, but it secured its lock on the picnic top 10 by winning the survey for sandwiches. For an excellent po’ boy, go to Parkway Bakery and Tavern or Killer Poboys, but if you want a classic muffaletta, head to Central Grocery on Decatur Street, which is credited with making the first olive-laden indulgence. Once you’re armed with your sammie of choice, take it to moss-canopied City Park, or to Crescent Park, which sits on the Mississippi River with lovely views of downtown. The city also ranked at No. 1 for fascinating people-watching.
No. 6 Charleston
Perhaps because the South Carolina city ranked at No. 2 for relaxing getaways, Charleston excels in picnic-friendly settings: you can get harbor views from Waterfront Park, or see Castle Pinckney from White Point Garden, along the Battery. As a top five city for fine dining, Charleston doesn’t take any shortcuts in its lunch options, either: Caviar & Bananas has duck-confit paninis and Creole white fish sushi, while Queen Street Grocery—a corner store that’s been around since 1922—offers sweet and savory crepes (including a chicken-and-waffles crepe called the Dashing Ashley). In accordance, the locals also ranked at No. 3 for being pretty.
No. 5 Providence
The Rhode Island capital ranked at No. 6 in the survey for historic charm, and one of the most popular picnic spots embraces the city’s beginnings: the 435-acre Roger Williams Park, named for the city’s founder, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has more than 100 acres of ponds. If you want a soundtrack for your picnic—Providence made the top 10 for live music—go to Waterplace Park, along the Woonasquatucket River, where you can hear free concerts on summer Friday nights. Otherwise, readers’ favorite activity in Providence was chowing down, ranking it in the top 10 for pizza, bakeries and brunch. For a locally authentic basket, pick up some Italian sandwiches from Venda Ravioli in Federal Hill.
No. 4 Atlanta
Thanks to the ever-expanding BeltLine project along an old railroad corridor, the city’s picnic-ready green spaces are only getting better. The Historic Fourth Ward Park, for instance, is one of the first completed parks along the BeltLine–and it sits conveniently behind food hall Ponce City Market, which is about to get a branch of the renowned cheeseburger purveyor Holeman and Finch (Atlanta ranked in the top 10 for burgers). For dessert, stop by Alon’s in Morningside, which has won awards for its sold-by-the-pound cookies, like the chocolate chip pecan or Krakovskis: an almond cookie topped with raspberry preserves. With their flair for colorful accents, Atlantans also made the top 10 for fashion sense.
No. 3 Los Angeles
While Los Angeles boasts a long coastline of beach-picnic locales—from Redondo Beach (pick up a sub at Rinaldi’s) to Venice and Santa Monica, where you can take out from Tacos Por Favor—Los Angeles also impressed readers with its picnic-ready concerts. Maybe you’re listening to live jazz on Friday evenings while eating outside LACMA, or getting a gourmet basket from Patina before a show at the Hollywood Bowl. Readers also applauded Angelenos for their elegant (if perhaps snooty) taste: you can join them for a refined picnic at Hollywood’s Barnsdall Art Park (home of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House), which does Friday night wine tastings during the summer.
No. 2 San Diego
In the No. 1 city for weather, who would want to eat inside? Balboa Park offers a variety of pastoral settings—from the Japanese Friendship Garden to the butterfly-filled Zoro Garden—and neighbors some of the best takeout options in the city, like Big Front Door in Hillcrest (which does an avocado-topped Cali Cubano) and North Park’s Venissimo Cheese, which is located inside craft-beer shop Bottlecraft. For a blissful picnic on the sand, head north to uncrowded Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, with its backdrop of sandy bluffs and feathery pine trees. Whether it’s the idyllic scenery or the good-looking locals, San Diego also made the top 5 for romance.
No. 1 Albuquerque
With its fresh mountain air, farmer’s-market cuisine and mellow ambience—the city ranked at No. 5 for peace and quiet—Albuquerque topped the list for blissful picnics. At Downtown Growers’ Market, for instance, you can fill your basket with fresh fruit and plenty of local flavors, like burritos from Java Joe’s or green-chile bacon quiches from New Mexico Pie Company. After that, you don't even have to walk far: the center of the market has a park area, often featuring live music. To dine al fresco at a higher elevation (like 6,500 feet), go to the Elena Gallegos Picnic Area, which has hiking trails, pinon-juniper trees, and views of the Sandia (meaning “watermelon”) Mountains. To pick up a local vintage first—Albuquerque also ranked in the top 10 for wine—stop by centuries-old Casa Rondena Winery.