Top 17 art & nature playgrounds

See art and artful nature in the urban wild

Little Bohemia: Denver, CO

Photo by Carmel Zucker

Little Bohemia: Denver, CO

Don’t let the Rocky Mountains steal the thunder from Denver’s vibrant art scene. A pixelated blue steel rhino sculpture welcomes you to the River North Art District (aka RiNo), where 100+ artists are represented in galleries and studios within a mile-square area. rivernorthart.com

Best time to go: December, for artistic one-of-a-kind holiday shopping.

Stay: The historic Hotel Teatro in the theater district has luxe touches like a chauffeured courtesy vehicle, new beds, drawn baths, and destination-worthy food at its Restaurant Kevin Taylor ($$$$). From $239; hotelteatro.com

 

Art in a national park: San Francisco, CA

Photo by Drew Kelly

Art in a national park: San Francisco, CA

The Presidio, the city’s urban forest, is a beautiful mashup of art and nature. Look for works among the trees by big-name artists like Andy Goldsworthy. You’ll also catch animation fever at the Walt Disney Family Museum ($20; waltdisney.com) and at Lucasfilm HQ, where you can pay your respects at the statue of Yoda. nps.gov/prsf

Best time to go: Fall, for sunshine and Indian summer temps.

Stay: A century-old officers’ quarters became the new Inn at the Presidio, with 22 comfy rooms smack in the middle of the park. Wide porches with rocking chairs keep the Golden Gate Bridge in view. From $195; innatthepresidio.com

Sculpture on the water: Seattle, WA

Photo by Benjamin Benschneider

Sculpture on the water: Seattle, WA

The West’s greatest sculpture gallery without walls is Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park on downtown’s waterfront. There are a whopping 21 sculptures, including an enormous typewriter eraser and rusted-steel waves. seattleartmuseum.org

Best time to go: Summer, for food trucks, free yoga, live music, and dance performances.

Stay: The Inn at the Market is a short stroll from Pike Place, with 360° views of Puget Sound from the fifth-floor observation deck. From $269; innatthemarket.com

 

Performance al fresco: Los Angeles, CA

Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero

Performance al fresco: Los Angeles, CA

The newly finished central park of L.A., Grand Park, is a parking-structure roof turned 12-acre playground. There are light shows from the high-tech fountain’s 100+ colored jets, and music, theater, and dance performances on two giant lawns, along with yoga classes and a dog run. grandpark.lacounty.gov

Best time to go: July and August, when you can cool off in the park’s fountain.

Stay: The 1920s Figueroa Hotel downtown has an Old World Moroccan vibe with lanterns, Persian rugs, and a candlelit bar by the pool. $148; figueroahotel.com

 

 

Park of the future: Irvine, CA

Photo by Aaron Fuller

Park of the future: Irvine, CA

Part of a former Marine Corps air station has been transformed into Orange County Great Park, a sprawling green oasis in the middle of the burbs. Take a big orange helium-balloon ride with forever views from 400 feet up, and check out art galleries and the Farm + Food Lab garden with 12 demonstration plots. ocgp.org

Best time to go: Late spring and early summer, when events like outdoor movies are in full swing.

Stay: The Pacific Edge Hotel in nearby Laguna sits on one of the prettiest stretches of beach in all SoCal, with a reasonable rate for stylish rooms. From $159; pacificedgehotel.com

Nature's palette: Portland, OR

Photo by Janet Lougrey

Nature's palette: Portland, OR

The hilly Japanese Garden has views of downtown. In fall, the Japanese maples are vibrant cinnamons and yellows. $9.50; japanesegarden.com

Best time to go: Mid-October, for autumn color.

Stay: Hotel Modera has a fun living wall along its outdoor patio. From $129; hotelmodera.com  

 

Curated plants: Seattle, WA

Photo by Mary Levin

Curated plants: Seattle, WA

On the shores of Lake Washington, the Washington Park Arboretum is tree- and plant-opia. depts.washington.edu/uwbg  

Best time to go: February, for the Northwest Flower and Garden Show at Washington State Convention Center for design ideas and marketplace. $17; Feb 20–24; gardenshow.com

Stay: The whimsical Hotel Monaco includes an in-room goldfish and free treats for pets. From $169; monaco-seattle.com

 

 

Secret (art) garden: Costa Mesa, CA

Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero

Secret (art) garden: Costa Mesa, CA

Music, theater, and dance make this Orange County town an art hot spot. What also puts it on the art map is California Scenario, the super-cool modern sculpture garden hidden between two office buildings. Created by famed artist Isamu Noguchi, the garden has areas devoted to the state’s varying geography: There’s a mini redwood forest, a tiny desert, and a little mountain stream. Though it was installed more than 30 years ago, few outsiders know about it, so it’s usually quiet.

More: California Scenario

Cactus as canvas: Phoenix, AZ

Photo by Adam Rodriguez

Cactus as canvas: Phoenix, AZ

Rambling among red rock formations with vistas in nearly every direction, the Desert Botanical Garden will make you feel like you’ve left the city for the country. Show-offs are bristly headed barrel cactus like organpipe, senita, and totem pole, and native ornamental grasses. Don’t miss the Desert Discovery Loop Trail (about 0.3 mile) along a yucca forest and the Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail (0.25 mile) through stands of organpipe cactus. $18; 1201 N. Galvin Pkwy.; dbg.org

Larger-than-life wildlife: Vancouver, WA

Photo by Martin Tessler

Larger-than-life wildlife: Vancouver, WA

Vancouver's artistic surprise: the life-size Digital Orca sculpture breaching vertically from Jack Poole Plaza, a triangular slice on the waterfront. And no, the whale isn't fuzzy; it's pixelated into Lego-like blocks. Also on the plaza is the Olympic cauldron—where the flame burned during the 2010 Winter Games—now on display permanently.

More: Jack Poole Plaza

Artful gardens: Near Santa Barbara, CA

Photo by Bill Dewey

Artful gardens: Near Santa Barbara, CA

The grounds of opera lover Ganna Walska’s 1940s estate, Lotusland, show off the entire world of plant palettes, from a bog garden to 450 species of cactus. $35; lotusland.org

Best time to go: July and August, to see water lilies in bloom.

Stay: Hotel Oceana has two pools and free beach cruisers for guests. From $179; hoteloceanasantabarbara.com

Triple threat: San Marino, CA

Triple threat: San Marino, CA

For fans of art, letters, and botany, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has it all. Of the 207-acre property, 120 landscaped acres are open to visitors with their more than 14,000 different varieties of plants in more than a dozen principal garden areas, including the Children's Garden, Jungle Garden, and Desert Garden. Head indoors to the library to browse rare historical and literary books and manuscripts, and then check out American and European painting in the art wing.

More: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Wild displays: Tucson, AZ

Photo by Rhonda Spencer

Wild displays: Tucson, AZ

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum introduces you to wild desert creatures. $15; desertmuseum.org

Best time to go: March, for the wacky saguaro blooms.

Stay: The 1931 Lodge on the Desert has cactus- and succulent-dotted grounds. From $149; lodgeonthedesert.com

Quirky landscaping: Sonoma, CA

Quirky landscaping: Sonoma, CA

At the nine-acre Cornerstone Gardens, you'll find the quirky work of top landscape architects, including a “flying” picket fence that soars five feet above the ground, a tree encrusted in sky blue Christmas balls, and an orchard of plastic daisy pinwheels. These eye-poppingly unconventional landscapes make you really think.

More: Cornerstone Gardens

Floral fantasia: Fort Bragg, CA

Photo courtesy of Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Floral fantasia: Fort Bragg, CA

Canyons, wetlands, a pine forest, and more make up the 47-acre Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens overlooking the Pacific. See native species in their natural plant communities, and formal gardens filled with heaths and heathers. Stroll the trails along coastal bluffs for breathtaking ocean views, at their best on clearer autumn days. Don’t miss dahlias in full bloom in the Dahlia Garden in summer and fall. $14 ($7/Mendocino Coast Recreation & Park District residents); 18220 N. State 1; gardenbythesea.org

Indoor & outdoor masterpieces: Los Angeles, CA

Photo courtesy of J. Paul Getty Trust

Indoor & outdoor masterpieces: Los Angeles, CA

This sprawling art museum is a destination unto itself, but you'd be remiss not to wander its refreshed Central Garden. The maze of clipped azaleas, blooming dahlias, and a stream form a lovely backdrop for the building and its staggering hilltop view. But don't miss the mod and marvelous bougainvillea “trees” trained up rebar arbors—they’re absolutely awe-inspiring. $15/vehicle; 1200 Getty Center Dr.; getty.edu  

Eye candy in the desert: Palm Desert, CA

Photo by David Fenton

Eye candy in the desert: Palm Desert, CA

You know Palm Springs for its midcentury mod design, but this low-key neighboring town is also a destination for art. Check out Desert Art Collection & Sculpture Garden, a gallery with a large courtyard set with sculptures amid palm trees, cactus, and bougainvillea. Then get some natural art to spruce up your home at the onsite garden center.

More: Desert Art Collection & Sculpture Garden

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