Fresno is the largest city in California's Central Valley, an agriculturally rich region that sits at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains and is within driving distance to some of the country's most magnificent national parks, not to mention both San Francisco (three hours) and L.A. (3.5 hours). It's home to an international airport, an Amtrak station, one of the country's largest Hmong communities, and plenty of surprising things to see, do, eat, and enjoy. Here are 11 great ways to enjoy your time in this San Joaquin Valley hub.
We can thank Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere for Fresno's own 10-acre subterranean villa known as Forestiere Underground Gardens—a sprawling place of grottos, courtyards, rooms, and tunnels that the self-taught builder constructed over the course of 40 years in the early 1900s. It's the perfect place for cooling off during the city's exceedingly hot summers. This designated California Historic Landmark hosts guided one-hour tours exploring the space, which includes its own varying micro-climates and even fruit-bearing flora—some producing oranges and grapefruit for sale on-site during spring. Forestiere Underground Gardens is especially known for its distinct Roman architectural features, such as arches and stone-built walls reminiscent of the ancient city's catacombs.
Go Park Hopping
There's no better launch-pad for Central California's trio of National Parks—Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite—than Fresno. Just a 90-minute drive from Sequoia, home to some of the world's tallest trees, the city offers affordable lodging options so you can get up and go. From Sequoia, intrepid travelers can embark on a three-day Majestic Mountain Loop of all three parks, taking in some of the country's deepest canyons and Yosemite's extraordinary granite rock formations, including Half Dome. It's a road-trip unlike any other!
Set Out on a Farm Fresh Trail
As the heart of California's agricultural-rich San Joaquin Valley (the lower half of the Central Valley), Fresno is home to acres-upon-acres of farmland and a bounty of fresh nuts and fruits that include almonds, apples, peaches, plums, and nectarine. The Fresno County Fruit Trail brings it all together as a self-guided driving tour, uniting farmers markets, farm-stands, hometown festivals, and orchards region-wide for a summertime celebration that showcases local farmers and their produce. Stops along the way are typically open May through September. However, if you happen to be visiting in late February or early March, there's also the 62-mile-long Blossom Trail when all the orchards spring to life with colorful flowers and pedals. The relatively cool weather and the trail's manageable distance make for an ideal weekend bicycle excursion. Just remember, the bloom only lasts a few weeks.
Fresno is a city of parks, and its largest is 300-acre Woodward Park, a gem of a place situated on the south bank of the San Joaquin River. Named for long-time resident Ralph Woodward, who once owned much of the land it now sits on, the park is an incredible urban escape—one filled with five miles of hiking trails, a substantial lake, and even a redwood glen. You can access Fresno's popular 7.7-mile out-and-back Lewis S. Eaton Trail from here, test your mountain biking prowess at its Woodward Mountain Bike Skills Progression Park, or play a round or two of disc golf. The park is also home to its own Japanese garden and an amphitheater for concerts, with both covered and terraced-lawn seating.
Enjoy the Local Art Scene
Whether it's perusing the 20th- and 21st-century paintings, sculptures, pre-Columbian artifacts, and more of the Fresno Art Museum (FAM) or savoring the live performances, open gallery receptions, and free wine and snacks of ArtHop, a multi-venue event that takes place the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of each month and is put on by the Fresno Arts Council, you'll find that Fresno has quite a thriving cultural scene. One place not to miss: Arte Américas, a non-profit cultural center bringing attention to Latino arts and artists, from traditional to modern, in a space that's colorful, vibrant, and always free to enter.
Experience Local Nightlife
Evenings come alive in Fresno's vibrant Tower District, named for its landmark Tower Theatre—a still-in-operation, mixed-use Streamline Moderne theatre from 1939 with a stunning neon marquee. You'll find some of the city's best restaurants and shopping locales in these neighborhoods, as well as venues such as Strummer's Bar and Grill, a Fresno favorite known for its live music venue on one side and good brews and dining on the other. Or swing by the neighborhood's Roger Rocka's Dinner Theatre for shows like "Guys and Dolls" and "Annie," and a changing menu that incorporates local foods.
Another place to check out is Fresno's downtown neighborhood,—home to the historic Warnors Theatre, a Spanish Revival-style performing arts venue first opened in 1928 and designed by B. Marcus Priteca, who also designed San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre and the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles.
Stroll Among Animals
Fresno's 39-acre Fresno Chaffee Zoo is a delight for kids and adults alike, with more than 190 wildlife species, including lions, cheetahs, white rhinos, emo, sheep, and wallabies. Two of the zoo's newest exhibits are its 13-acre African Adventure and its Australian-themed Roo Walkabout. You'll also find fun features like Sea Lion Cove, Stingray Bay (where you can feed the sea rays for an additional fee), and Twiga Terrace, a guest feeding station for giraffes.
From mouthwatering Mexican fare at spots such as Taqueria Don Peppe and Sabor Cocina Latina & Bar to food trucks like Barb's Soul Food and Planet Vegan, Fresno has a wealth of delicious eats to choose from. You'll often find food trucks like Curry on Wheelz and El Tapatio parked at the city's Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Company Beergarden (a great place for sipping on golden ales and IPAs), as well as at CartHop, a downtown gathering of food trucks (enlivened with local art and music) that takes place every Thursday during lunch. For barbecue, head on over to Fresno's Smokeys Grill, or opt for tri-tip sandwiches and buffalo cauliflower at Heirloom, a farm-to-table favorite.
Fresno temperatures are often sweltering, but thankfully Island Water Park provides plenty of opportunities for cooling off, including its relaxing Waimea River float, side-by-side Bora Bora Racers, and the thrilling Nature's Furies, a twisting and turning flume slide that ends in a refreshing splash pool. Seasonal summer passes are available, as are rental cabanas. You can even bring along your own picnic, though glass containers and all alcohol are prohibited.
Known as one of the region's top shopping destinations, River Park is home to dozens of shops—places like REI, Vans, Anne Taylor Loft, H&M, and Macy's—as well as a bevy of eateries, spa services, and even an IMAX movie theater. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the shopping center plays host to a farmers market as well, where you'll find some of the region's freshest produce. Imbibing is also an option at onsite spots like Yard House and Dave & Busters.
Catch a Minor League Baseball Game
Located in downtown Fresno, the impressive 10,650-seat Chukchansi Park is home to the Fresno Grizzles, a minor league Washington Nationals Triple-A affiliate of which legendary SF Giants players Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, and Brian Wilson are all alum. Along with its spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the park offers luxury suites and plenty of snacking options, everything from corn dogs and tacos to churro waffles and ice cream, so that you can make a night of it. Catch a game in-season, or a concert or motocross event—depending on what's on offer.