Pine trees and river in Sequoia National Park

Visit the beautiful Sequoia National Park. (Photo: Getty Images)

Weekend Getaways

Explore Fresno, the Gateway to Central California

Located halfway between San Francisco and L.A. — and 100 miles from the beach — historic Fresno, California, is often overshadowed by its glitzier cousins situated along the Pacific Coast.

Which is a shame, considering the diverse, vibrant city has so much going for it: The city is home to attractions like Forestiere Underground Gardens, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo and Woodward Regional Park and is known for its chic shopping, family-friendly entertainment and great local food and craft beer scene.

And for nature lovers, the city makes the perfect base for exploring some of Central California’s most spectacular national parks, including Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Friday: Visit the Top Cultural Sites in Fresno

Start your first day in town at Fresno Breakfast House, a local favorite serving up breakfast classics with garden seating. Try the “California Benedict” with grilled artichoke crowns and avocado, the spicy chile verde omelet or the cinnamon-roll pancakes topped with sweet cream-cheese icing.

Flamingos standing in water
There’s so much fun wildlife to explore in Fresno. (Photo: Marriott International)

If you’ll be visiting sometime between mid March and mid December, don’t miss the chance to take a one-hour tour of historic Forestiere Underground Gardens, a series of subterranean structures and gardens hand-built by Baldassare Forestiere, an immigrant from Sicily, from 1906 until his death in 1946.

This unforgettable open-air museum is on the National Register of Historic Places and features interesting fruit trees (from lemons to loquats), shrubs and vines, many of which have been growing underground for more than 90 years.

Afterward, spend the balance of the morning roaming beautiful Fresno Chaffee Zoo. It features a 13-acre African savanna, an elevated giraffe feeding station, kangaroos, a reptile house and sea lion cove, plus a dino dig where kids can help excavate a full-size Tyrannosaurus rex.

For lunch, grab an outdoor table at Kopje Lodge,where you can munch on gourmet pizzas and salads while you watch elephants, rhinos and wildebeests wander the zoo’s savanna.

In the afternoon explore the latest exhibitions at the Fresno Art Museum, whose permanent collection includes more than 3,600 works primarily focused on modern and contemporary art, plus pre-Columbian works from Mesoamerica and modern and folk art from Mexico.

For happy hour, try Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Co.‘s popular Beer Garden, where you can sample the local craft brewery’s lagers, stouts and ales along with tasty tacos and a rotating list of specialties from some of Fresno’s best food-truck vendors.

Round out your night with an off-Broadway show or a concert at downtown’s historic Saroyan Theatre. Named after native son William Saroyan, a mid-20th-century novelist who won both an Oscar and Pulitzer Prize, the 2,353-seat theater is also home to Fresno’s Philharmonic Orchestra, the Fresno Ballet and the Fresno Grand Opera.

Another option: Reserve an outdoor table at Quail State, downtown’s only rooftop bar, for craft cocktails and small plates made with locally sourced ingredients.

Saturday: Check Out Two Iconic National Parks

Kings Canyon National Park at sunset
You’ll be blown away by the beauty of Kings Canyon. (Photo: Getty Images)

Before hitting the road early to head east into the Sierra Nevada mountains, swing by the Mug for a large Americano and build-your-own bagel or fresh-baked Bundt cake. On your way out, snag a $10 box lunch (which includes a deli sandwich of your choice, fresh fruit, veggie straws and a pickle) to enjoy alfresco later.

Nearby Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks are about 1.5 hours from Fresno and both showcase rugged foothills, deep canyons, and some of the world’s largest trees.

Tucked in a grove of giant sequoias, you’ll find the General Grant Tree Trail, where an easy hike takes you to General Grant, one of the world’s largest living trees. The spectacular sequoia measures 107 feet around at its base and is almost 270 feet tall, about the height of a 27-story building!

For a million-dollar view, drive to nearby Panoramic Point to look out across hundreds of miles of Kings Canyon National Park. Afterward, enjoy your box lunch alongside beautiful Hume Lake, located 10 miles below in Sequoia National Forest. Time permitting, you can kayak, hike or fish for trout there, too.

You can also make a pit stop at one of central California’s many wineries, including Cedar View Winery or Marechal Vineyards, on your way back to town.

After a long day of hiking, tuck into a rustic Italian feast at Annex Kitchen, which is best known for fresh pastas, hearth-cooked chicken and beef and gourmet wood-fired pizzas. Be sure to try the porcini- rubbed rib-eye, the tagliatelle with lamb ragu and the carbonara pizza. Finish with traditional tiramisu or ricotta zeppoles, served with amaretto, chocolate and caramel sauces.

Still energized? Enjoy some local beers on the patio at Out of the Barrel in Fig City Village.

Sunday: Stroll Through Gardens Before Visiting A Local Brewery

Start your day at Batter Up, a popular breakfast joint beloved for its pancakes, which are available in flavors like banana-chocolate, Hawaiian (which includes macadamia nuts, grilled pineapple and coconut syrup) and whole-grain blue cornmeal with real maple syrup.

Afterward, carry on to Shinzen Japanese Garden in Woodward Regional Park, just north of downtown. Built by the local Japanese-American community, the serene garden includes a teahouse, waterfalls and koi pond.

While you’re there, be sure to explore the rest of the park, which fans out across 300 acres on the south bank of the San Joaquin River. There’s also fishing, swimming, picnicking and hiking along 5 miles of established trails.

Chicken and waffles with syrup
Is there anything better than chicken and waffles? (Photo: Getty Images)

Enjoy a soul food lunch at Chef Paul’s Café, where fried chicken and waffles, meatloaf and other hearty specials are in store. House favorites include braised oxtails, Creole-style shrimp and grits and the barbecue combo with Memphis pork ribs, Santa Maria tri-tip and hot links.

Next, head to the Kearney Mansion Museum & Gallery, located within Kearney Park, for an hourlong guided tour of this impressive 1903 estate of M. Theo Kearney, an agricultural pioneer who came to be known as the Raisin King of California.

After your historic tour, it’s time for a self-guided local drinking tour. Start at Full Circle Brewery, which offers live entertainment shows along with unique craft beers, then head to nearby 411 Broadway Ales & Spirits, another local favorite in Fresno’s downtown brewery district.

When you’ve worked up an appetite, make your way to Dab Tacos, a food truck turned restaurant that serves delicious pork belly tacos and deep-fried corn. After your final feast, head next door for a bourbon or craft cocktail at Modernist, where you can end the night with a toast to Fresno—and a weekend well spent.