Get lost in these 8 amazing sanctuaries for urbanites

Walt Whitman extolled the virtues of Saturdays in the Park, where “every day’s the fourth of July.” (Okay, it was the ’70s band Chicago.) Discover for yourself the joy of leaving the concrete jungle to get lost in nature right in the heart of the city.

Savor a San Francisco treat—Golden Gate Park

The Golden Gate Bridge may be San Francisco’s most iconic attraction, but the park that bears its name is one of the city’s greatest treasures. Encompassing 1,017 acres of gardens—including the historical Conservatory of Flowers—playgrounds, trails, lakes, and picnic areas, Golden Gate Park piles natural beauty on top of the city’s already beautiful scenery. Outdoor types can fish, golf, hike, bike, or even Segway around the park’s expansive grounds. Culture vultures can check out the de Young Museum or the Japanese Tea Garden, while parents can rejoice at the offerings for kids—from penguin sightings at the California Academy of Sciences to art classes at the Koret Playground.

Escape the gridlock in New York’s Central Park

Come on. Does it get any better than Central Park? After traversing the concrete grid of Midtown and dodging Yellow Cabs, you slip across 59th Street into pure tranquility. Dotted with green meadows and seven bodies of water, Central Park is a paradise for joggers, bikers, in-line skaters, and just about any city dweller needing a tree to hug. Rent a rowboat or kayak on a spring afternoon. Take the kids to a playground. Enjoy Shakespeare in the Park in the summer. Ice skate in the winter. Or visit the Central Park Zoo, the Conservatory Garden, or a wildlife sanctuary year round. It’s no wonder Central Park is the most-visited urban park in the nation.

Kick back in Portland’s emerald forest

From its microbreweries and its coffeehouses to its eco-friendly laid-back vibe, we ask: Could Portland be any more chill than we already think it is? Yep, it could. The city boasts a green-space lover’s paradise in Forest Park, a 5,157-acre urban wilderness just minutes from downtown. Who needs an oxygen bar when you can breathe in the O2 beneath a thick canopy of Douglas fir and cedar trees. The largest urban forest in the United States, Forest Park contains 80 miles of trails, fire lanes, and roads—perfect for cycling, horseback riding, or quietly strolling for hours as you plan your next latte break and contemplate life’s mysteries.

Ditch the politics in DC’s tranquil Rock Creek Park

Museums, monuments, the Mall—you’ll want to see them all in DC. But amid the bustling excitement of our nation’s capital is an oasis of calm right inside the Beltway. Rock Creek Park spans 2,000 acres in northwest DC and includes a golf course, equestrian trails, playgrounds, a planetarium and nature center, and even a water-powered grist mill. You can watch professional tennis at the FitzGerald Tennis Center, catch a concert at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, or see wildlife at the Smithsonian National Zoo. Or if an unstructured afternoon is what you seek, take a blanket to one of the park’s thirty picnic areas and soak up the silence.

See the sites and stars in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park

Above: photo by JuanCarlos Chan, Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks

You may picture red-carpet premieres and Malibu beach parties when conjuring images of Los Angeles. But imagine a different type of playground—4,210 acres of chaparral-covered terrain, parkland, and picnic areas just east of the Hollywood attractions. Griffith Park is the largest urban park with wilderness area in the United States. As you climb the trails, you’ll enjoy sweeping views of the Los Angeles Basin. And though you’ll be tempted to hike to the Hollywood sign (you can get close, but not too close), you’ll also find concerts at the Greek Theater, stargazing at Griffith Observatory, and even the “Batcave” from the ’60s TV series Batman.

Find your bliss in New Orleans’ City Park

Sure, you’ll want to hit Bourbon Street when you visit New Orleans. But how about taking in a lush botanical garden, an amusement park with 17 rides, a world-class art museum, a sculpture garden, and 600-year-old live oak trees? You can find them all in New Orleans’ City Park, 1,300 acres of sprawling green spaces in the heart of the Big Easy. Though damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the park has undergone massive renovations and improvements since then, making it more of a crown jewel than ever. It’s no wonder the park is a magnet for weddings, parties, and other special events.

Above: Photo by Scioto Audubon Metro Parks

Here is a “before” and “after” story to wow fans of home renovation shows (and miracle weight-loss programs for that matter). Scioto Audubon Metro Park, in the heart of Columbus, is a gleaming new urban gem resurrected from the brown fields of a blighted industrial area. Opened in 2009, the 120-acre park boasts a climbing wall, obstacle course, and sports fields in addition to restored wetlands and open spaces where wildlife and birds abound. Located on the Whittier Peninsula of the Scioto River, the park also features a boat ramp and an aviary habitat observation deck, where nature lovers can spy bird migrations and other outdoor wonders.

Spend the day in Chicago’s “Front Yard”

Lake Michigan may be Chicago’s summer playground, but Grant Park is the city’s year-round “front yard.” Spanning 319 acres in the Loop community area, Grant Park is home to the Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park, Buckingham Fountain, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium. If that’s not enough to make it a central hub, the park also hosts summer food and music festivals, including the Chicago Jazz Festival and Lollapalooza. Even in winter, you’ll be drawn to the park’s open spaces. The Skating Ribbon, an ice skating path, gives visitors an “alpine in the city” experience … topped off by hot chocolate!

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