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.”
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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