We love cities for their verticality, the man-made grandeur of skyscrapers and the utilitarian nature of concrete. We love the energy, the hubbub, the noise.
That said, humans also need a healthy dose of nature and solitude every once in a while, and for the city-dwellers and vacationers among us, urban parks provide the perfect respite. Parks offer green in an otherwise drab existence, room to think and some fresh air to breathe. Here are five of our favorites across North America.
Millennium Park - Chicago, Illinois
At less than 25 acres, this is the smallest park on our list, but President Obama put it on the map the night he was elected to the Oval Office; he delivered his acceptance speech from here. The public space is a subsection of Grant Park. Completed in 2004, it sits on a section of the city previously occupied by Illinois Central rail yards and parking lots. The centerpieces: The Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Great Lawn, a fantastic spot to experience outdoor concerts, and Cloud Gate, a sculpture that resembles a giant stainless steel jelly bean. The rest of Millennium Park boasts buildings and sites that have attracted corporate sponsors over the years. Sponsored recreational sites include an ice rink, a fountain, a bike rental center and a suspended walkway.
Central Park - New York City, New York
Park lovers call this Frederick Law Olmstead masterpiece the granddaddy of all parks, and they should. The 843-acre park was opened in 1859, completed in 1872 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963. Since then, it has welcomed heads of state, religious leaders, thousands of marathoners and about 25 million other visitors each year. Most lists of recommended attractions include the Central Park Zoo, Wollman Skating Rink and Strawberry Fields, a section of the park dedicated to Beatles legend John Lennon. Our favorite parts of the park are more subtle: the gorgeously hand-carved Bow Bridge, the Medieval-looking Belvedere Castle, the 1.61-mile loop around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, and, of course, the Carousel. Put simply, city parks don't get better than this.
Stanley Park - Vancouver, British Columbia
Pine trees and waterfront views abound in this 1,001-acre park situated smack in the middle of downtown Vancouver, making it perfectly representative of the region itself. One undisputed highlight is the 5.5-mile seawall path that circles the park along the water's edge; another is the old-growth forest in the middle of the city, with some trees topping 250 feet. Marine mammal-lovers will swoon over the Vancouver Aquarium, a state-of-the-art facility with ample space for dolphins, walruses and whales (one of the resident belugas recently gave birth). Visitors to the park will also find miniature railroads, tennis courts, an 18-hole mini-golf course and an oval for track and field sports. Of course, the best way to spend a day at Stanley Park is looking for eagles. Go in summer, you're bound to see a few.
Forest Park - Portland, Oregon
Covering more than 5,100 acres, this urban park is one of the country's largest urban forest reserves. Much of the park's flora has been here a while -- most of it is second growth, but a decent-sized portion is old growth. This means that within mere steps from park trailheads, visitors forget quickly that they're so close to a major metropolitan area. The longest trail in the park is Wildwood Trail, which begins near the Oregon Zoo and winds its way roughly 30 miles through hemlock, fir and cedar trees. Shorter trails intersect Wildwood throughout the park. The best day spent in Forest Park includes hours of hiking, followed by a picnic lunch.
Golden Gate Park - San Francisco, California
While this park has oodles of open space (1,017 acres), it has become known more for its noteworthy structures. The California Academy of Sciences (and its living roof) and the deYoung Museum (with its collections of American art) have grabbed headlines largely for their architectural grandeur. Elsewhere in the park, the circa-1879 Conservatory of Flowers is a stately Victorian greenhouse built from wood and glass, and the circa-1903 North Windmill looks as if it were teleported straight out of the Netherlands (windmills were once used to pump water through the park). Visitors can hit all four structures in one long day. Just be sure to bring good sneakers. And unless you're going in the early fall, when the fog seems to dissipate a bit, bring a jacket, too.