America's Best Parks
America's Best Parks
There are over a million acres of urban parkland across the U.S., and city dwellers take serious pleasure in arranging a blanket on these great lawns for a delicious picnic feast. Some plots are nobler than others, however, and a little extra planning can mean the difference between a crispy, sun-scorched setting and a shady stretch overlooking snowcapped peaks. Not far from the country's outstanding picnic spots, there are also fantastic places to cobble together a portable meal—from renowned chefs' take-out joints to gourmet markets selling cult California cheeses.—Ratha Tep
Photos: © Scott Kemper/Alamy/Courtesy of Lucia's To Go
The National Mall; DC
Where to Picnic: The National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden features installations by Claes Oldenburg and Roxy Paine, whose project "Graft" is a 16,000-pound stainless steel tree. The wildly popular Jazz in the Garden concert series runs Fridays evenings through September 9 from 5 to 8:30 p.m.
What to Pack: At the historic Eastern Market, restored in 2009 after a fire, Canales' Quality Meats stocks smoked local hams. Even closer, Cowgirl Creamery's shop sells excellent organic-milk cheeses. Cowgirl Creamery, about a 10-minute walk from the Mall; 919 F Street NW, 202-393-6880. Canales' Quality Meats, about a 20-minute walk from the Mall; 225 7th St. SE, 202-547-0542.
Photos: Courtesy of Visions of America, LLC/Alamy/Ted Nigrelli
Fairmount Park; Philadelphia
Where to Picnic: There's a beautiful gazebo behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art within the park. From there, it's a short walk down to the Azalea Garden; a more winding path leads to historic Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River.
What to Pack: The large and splashy Chestnut Street location of Philly's best gourmet shop, Di Bruno Bros, has an extensive selection of artisanal cheeses and charcuterie. About a seven-minute drive from the park; 1730 Chestnut St., 215-665-9220.
Photos: © M. Edlow for GPTMC/www.agpix.com/mcelroy
Central Park; New York City
Where to Picnic: Manhattan's ultimate refuge can be found around the 22-acre Central Park Lake, where visitors watch necking swans and couples gliding in rented rowboats.
What to Pack: House-made charcuterie, terrines and pâtés (plus selections from locally adored Saxelby Cheesemongers) are sold at mega chef Daniel Boulud's first takeout shop, Épicerie Boulud. For an all-American spread, Shake Shack's Upper West Side location serves the same great ShackBurgers (American cheese, tomato, lettuce, and "Shack Sauce") as the Madison Square Park original, minus the long lines. Épicerie Boulud, about a five-minute walk from the park; 1900 Broadway, 212-595-9606. Shake Shack, about a five-minute walk from the park; 366 Columbus Ave., 646-747-8770.
Photos: © Darcy Strobel/William Brinson Photography
Brooklyn Bridge Park; Brooklyn
Where to Picnic: Both sprawling lawns at the newly opened Pier 6 are bordered by native sassafras and bald cypress trees. Unbeatable views include the Lower Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
What to Pack: Among the pier's best vendors, Bark Hot Dogs hawks artisanal franks topped with Chardonnay-barrel-aged sauerkraut, and Milk Truck makes buttery grilled cheese sandwiches with breads from the city's best bakeries (Sullivan Street and Balthazar). Pier 6, Furman St. and Atlantic Ave; no phones.
Photos: © Julienne Schaer/Courtesy of Milk Truck Grilled Cheese
Boston Common; Boston
Where to Picnic: Hundred-year-old trees shade the areas of grass surrounding Frog Pond, which turns into a popular ice-skating rink in the winter.
What to Pack: The sleek Italian gourmet shop BiNA Alimentari packs prepared foods like lemon-stuffed roast chicken and grilled artichokes, cures salumi for sandwiches and imports cheeses from Piedmont and Alto Adige. At Via Matta, lunch sandwiches available for take-away include the Grinder (mortadella and pork pâté with spicy aioli). BiNA Alimentari, about a two-minute walk from the park; 571 Washington St., 617-357-0888. Via Matta, about a two-minute walk from the park; 79 Park Plaza, 617-422-0008.
Photos: Courtesy of Stuart Pearce/Alamy/Courtesy of Via Matta
Patterson Park; Baltimore
Where to Picnic: The banks of serene Boat Lake are prime spots for watching mallard ducks and the occasional peregrine falcon.
What to Pack: Langermann's serves Southern-by-way-of-Maryland comfort food, like a crab cake-stuffed potato roll and fried green tomatoes with chowchow, a traditional tomato relish. About a five-minute drive from the park; 2400 Boston St., 410-534-3287.
Photos: Courtesy of Patterson Park/Courtesy of Langerman's
Lake Harriet, Chain of Lakes; Minneapolis
Where to Picnic: With its new floating dock, the lake's North Beach is a prime location between the band shell and Lyndale Park's beautiful rose garden. Grilling is permitted in tree-shaded picnic areas behind Lake Harriet's band shell.
What to Pack: Fans of star local chef Lucia Watson can pick up rotisserie chicken and other prepared dishes from Lucia's To Go. Corner Table's deli counter sells garlic-butter bratwursts from Hidden Stream Farm. Lucia's To Go, about a five-minute drive from the band shell; 1432 W. 31st St., 612-825-9800. Corner Table, about an eight-minute drive from the band shell; 4257 Nicollet Ave., 612-823-0011.
Photos: © Scott Kemper/Alamy/Courtesy of Lucia's To Go
Grant Park; Chicago
Where to Picnic: Every day at noon, Millenium Park's Jay Pritzker Pavilion hosts concerts, including jazz and blues on Mondays and electronica on Saturdays.
What to Pack: Chef Phillip Foss takes liberties with the meatball subs from his truck, Meatyballs Mobile. His signature BBQ Balls are formed with pork shoulder and braised in a cola-bourbon sauce. About a six-minute walk from the park; intersection of S. Dearborn St. and E. Monroe St., 11 a.m.-1 p.m. daily, 312-315-6127.
Photos: © City of Chicago/GRC/Galdones Photography
Veterans Park; Milwaukee
Where to Picnic: Towering weeping willows create a canopy over the green banks of the lagoon.
What to Pack: The 70-year-old Wisconsin Cheese Mart stocks local dairy. For a post-picnic espresso, there's an outpost of the city's favorite café and roaster, Alterra at the Lake, in the Milwaukee River Flushing Station. Wisconsin Cheese Mart, about a seven-minute drive from the park; 215 W. Highland Ave., 414-272-3544. Alterra at the Lake, at the nexus of Veterans Park and McKinley Park; 1701 North Lincoln Memorial Dr., 414-223-4551.
Photos: Courtesy of Veteran's Park/Courtesy of Alterra at the Lake
Schenley Park; Pittsburgh
Where to Picnic: The gently sloping Flagstaff Hill holds music performances and movie screenings on Wednesday and Sunday evenings through August 31.
What to Pack: Essie's Original Hot Dog Shop (known simply as "The O") has been feeding locals griddled beef hot dogs and crispy twice-cooked fries for more than 50 years. About a 10-minute walk from the park; 3901 Forbes Ave., 412-621-7388.
Photos: © Melissa McMasters/J. Dennis Thomas
Forest Park; St. Louis
Where to Picnic: Sprawling Central Fields is so large that it's been the starting point for dozens of colorful hot-air balloons during the annual Great Forest Park Balloon Race each September.
What to Pack: St. Louis institution Pappy's Smokehouse slow-smokes dry-rubbed ribs over apple- and cherry-wood. About a five-minute drive from the park; 3106 Olive St., 314-535-4340.
Photos: Courtesy of Forest Park/Courtesy of Pappy's Smokehouse
Cal Anderson Park; Seattle
Where to Picnic: What was once the Lincoln reservoir is now a reflecting pool surrounded by neat lawns.
What to Pack: Rain Shadow Meats, eight blocks away, sells house-cured charcuterie, and Baguette Box makes fantastic sandwiches, like grilled lemongrass steak with hoisin sauce, pickled daikon and cilantro. Post-picnic: Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream uses dairy from western-Washington cows. Rain Shadow Meats, about a nine-minute walk from the park; 1531 Melrose Ave., 206-467-6328. Baguette Box, about a nine-minute walk from the park; 1203 Pine St., 206-332-0220. Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream, about a one-minute walk from the park; 917 E. Pine St., 206-708-7947.
Photos: Courtesy of Seattle Parks and Recreation/Courtesy of Molly Moon Ice Cream
Laurelhurst Park; Portland, OR
Where to Picnic: A decade ago, Laurelhurst Park became the first city park to be named to the National Register of Historic Places. Its open meadow is visible from the western entrance, but the field's slight dip—and surrounding fir and plane trees—lend a more secluded feel.
What to Pack: At Laurelhurst Market, partner David Kreifels assembles spectacular sandwiches combining house-made deli meats with breads from local bakery Fleur de Lis (available from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.). About a five-minute walk from the park; 3155 E. Burnside, 503-206-3099.
Photos: Courtesy of Portland Parks & Recreation, Portland, Oregon/Courtesy of Laurelhurst Market
Liberty Park; Salt Lake City
Where to Picnic: There's a sunny stretch of grass just north of Liberty Pond, where rented paddleboats circle families of ducks.
What to Pack: Tony Caputo's Market & Deli employs a salumi-maker for its charcuterie. A favorite: soppressata prepared with organic pork and hand-crushed, wine-soaked garlic. About a six-minute drive from the park; 1516 S. 1500 E., 801-486-6615.
Photos: © Jeffrey Owen/Courtesy of Tony Caputo's Food Market & Deli
City Park; Denver, CO
Where to Picnic: The eastern side of Ferril Lake overlooks 100-plus miles of snow-capped peaks that make up the Front Range.
What to Pack: Steve's Snappin' Dogs specializes in the region's style of tricked-out franks, including the Rippin' Rockies, a deep-fried wiener topped with green chili, grilled onions, sour cream and jalapeños. Among the deep-fried-vegetable sides: green beans and carrot sticks. About a 10-minute walk from the park; 3525 E. Colfax Ave., 303-333-7627.
Photos: Courtesy of Denver/City Park/Courtesy of Steve's Snappin' Dogs
Papago Park; Phoenix
Where to Picnic: The basin-side picnic tables are a short trek from Hole-in-the-Rock, the famous orange-red sandstone formation.
What to Pack: Legendary Pizzeria Bianco has a take-out offshoot called Pane Bianco, where sandwiches contain exquisite ingredients like house-made mozzarella and Creminelli soppressata. Closer to the park, Honey Bear's Bar-B-Q will pack its famous ribs to go. Pane Bianco, about a 20-minute drive from the park; 4404 N. Central Ave., 60-0234 2100. Honey Bear's Bar-B-Q, about a four-minute drive from the park; 5012 E. Van Buren St., 602-273-9148.
Photos: Courtesy of Papago Park/Courtesy of Honey Bear's BBQ
Discovery Green; Houston
Where to Picnic: The southern perimeter of Jones Lawn is bordered by majestic, 100-year-old oak trees.
What to Pack: At the Lake House, star Texan chef Robert del Grande serves some easy-to-carry options like the Smoke House Burger, prepared with a blend of ground chuck, sirloin, brisket and smoky bacon. Adjacent to Jones Lawn; 1600 McKinney, 713-337-7320.
Photos: © Katya Horner/Deborah Smail, Reality Photography
Zilker Metropolitan Park; Austin
Where to Picnic: Robert Redford learned how to swim as a kid in the three-acre Barton Springs Pool, which is surrounded by gentle hills.
What to Pack: Torchy's sells Baja-style fried shrimp tacos. And 24 Diner walk-ins can place to-go orders for Andrew Curren's terrific sandwiches—like pulled chicken, goat cheese and roasted-tomato vinaigrette on a baguette, and egg salad with applewood-smoked bacon on wheat. 24 Diner, about a five-minute drive from the park; 600 N. Lamar Blvd., 512-472-5400. Torchy's Taco, about a five-minute drive from the park; 311 S. 1st St., 512-366-0537.
Photos: © Kelly Bazely/Courtesy of Torchy's Tacos
Griffith Park; Los Angeles
Where to Picnic: In the woodsy Ferndell, there are quaint footbridges, tumbling brooks and more than 50 species of ferns. For the intrepid, it's a two-mile trek up from Ferndell to the iconic Griffith Park Observatory for breathtaking views of downtown L.A.
What to Pack: Little Dom's Deli pairs seasonal vegetables in delectable salads, like corn with grilled zucchini and heirloom tomatoes with cucumber. About a five-minute drive from the park; 2128 Hillhurst Ave., 323-661-0088.
Photos: © Ranger Patrick Joyce/Courtesy of Little Dom's Deli
Balboa Park; San Diego
Where to Picnic: By the Lily Pond with its floating pink-and-white lotus flowers, the green lawns on either side of the Balboa Park Botanical Gardens are a good place to sit and admire the structure's molded redwood dome. A plus: The lawns are among the few areas in the park where alcohol can be legally consumed.
What to Pack: The towering sandwiches from Hash House A Go Go include the Kokomo: griddled meatloaf and smoked mozzarella wedged between thick slices of milk bread. About an eight-minute drive from Balboa Park Botanical Gardens; 3628 5th Ave., 619-298-4646.
Photos: Courtesy of Balboa Park/Courtesy of Hash House A Go Go
Golden Gate Park; San Francisco
Where to Picnic: The secluded Garden of Shakespeare's Flowers grows some 150 species of plants and flowers.
What to Pack: Local chefs Charles Phan and Loretta Keller run a sustainably driven restaurant called Moss Room that's inside the California Academy of Sciences (but doesn't require tickets). The ultra-eclectic, ever-changing menu might feature lamb kefta with hummus and an heirloom-tomato-and-cucumber salad, plus walnut brownies. Adjacent to the Garden; 55 Music Concourse Dr., 415-876-6121.
Photos: Courtesy of Golden Gate Park/© Erin F. Gainey
Forsyth Park; Savannah, GA
Where to Picnic: Near the iconic two-tiered fountain, there are patches of green grass under massive oak trees dressed in layers of moss.
What to Pack: Marked by a yellow awning and lines out the door, Zunzi's sells South African- and Dutch-inspired sandwiches like the Boerewors on a Roll: homemade sausage, onions, mustard and gravy on French bread. About a five-minute drive from the park; 108 E. York St., 912-443-9555.
Piedmont Park; Atlanta
Where to Picnic: The Magnolia Greenway, renovated last year, now includes a wooden arbor with picnic benches and two regulation-size bocce courts.
What to Pack: At the park's green-market, Bella Cucina sells terrific panini, like roasted eggplant with herbed ricotta and roasted peppers or pimenton cheese with caramelized onion and bacon jam. Saturdays, 9 a.m.–1 p.m., 12th St. park entrance. The brick-and-mortar Bella Cucina Porta Via is about a four-minute drive from the park; 1044 N. Highland Ave., 404-347-6476.
Courtesy of Piedmont Park/© Helena Peixoto
South Pointe Park; Miami
Where to Picnic: The park's location on the southernmost tip of South Beach affords prime views of the bay. Gently sloping, man-made hills throughout were renovated two years ago.
What to Pack: Joe's Stone Crab does crab-cake sandwiches and grilled-lobster reubens, but for purists, stone-crab claws are also available for take-away. About a three-minute walk from the park; 11 Washington Ave., 305-673-0365.
Photos: Courtesy of South Pointe Park/PCL /Alamy
Cherokee Park; Louisville, KY
Where to Picnic: Big Rock is a large, flat slab of stone that juts into scenic Beargrass Creek, where there's shallow swimming.
What to Pack: Blue Dog Bakery & Café bakes wonderful artisanal breads, like pecan-raisin loaf, and sells open-face tartines with Mahon, brie and blue cheeses. About an eight-minute drive from the park; 2868 Frankfort Ave., 502-899-9800.
Photos: Courtesy of Cherokee Park/© John Nation
City Park; New Orleans
Where to Picnic: The largest grove of shade-providing, centuries-old oaks can be found in the southern end of the park between City Park Avenue and Bayou Metairie.
What to Pack: Swirl Wine Shop sells charcuterie, cheese and crackers alongside its bottles. For a picnic with regional flavor, the Parkway Bakery and its much-revered fried-shrimp po'boys are within walking distance. Swirl Wine Shop, about a five-minute drive from the park; 3143 Ponce De Leon St., 504-304-0635. Parkway Bakery, about a six-minute drive from the park; 538 Hagan Ave., 504-482-3047.
Photos: Courtesy of City Park/Courtesy of Parkway Bakery