While many visitors to California choose to spend most of their time in San Francisco to the north or Los Angeles to the south, the city of Fresno, one of the largest cities in the San Joaquin Valley, has a surprising amount of things to do if you find yourself spending a few days there.
At first, the one-story houses and palm trees make Fresno appear like any other city in central California. But when you dig below the surface, you’ll find some great experiences around every corner.
Fresno is a major agricultural hub in this region, which means that tourists can delight in spectacular views of seemingly endless farmland in the outskirts of the city as well as wonderful hands-on agricultural experiences.
Fresno was named for the Spanish word for “ash tree” on account of the abundance of ash trees that line the San Joaquin River. Perhaps before you do anything else in Fresno, you should take a walk along the river and get a sense of the city’s namesake.
Fresno also has its roots in the California Gold Rush, as it was established in 1872 as a railway station on the Central Pacific Railroad so that miners could easily access the area in search of gold.
Today, the city has a massive Latinx influence, with many street names and store signs written in Spanish. Fresno is a great place to try some of the best Mexican food you’ll ever have in your life before you head out to the surrounding areas for some outdoor adventuring.
While the urban areas of Fresno offer some amazing food and interesting activities, the best thing to do while you’re here is head outside of the city. It’s surrounded by three national parks all within a 90-minute drive. Pack your hiking boots, rent a car, and venture out into the nearby deserts and forests for some top-notch nature. Here are the six best things to do in Fresno (and the surrounding areas):
Forestiere Underground Gardens
Agriculture plays a huge role in the economy of Fresno. However, in the sweltering heat of the summer, there are certain foods that can’t be grown. Luckily, Italian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere found a solution to that problem back in the early 1900s when he founded the Forestiere Underground Gardens.
These subterranean gardens were built entirely by hand by Forestiere himself and feature an impressive labyrinth of underground rooms, hallways, and planters that house a wide variety of fruit trees.
The Forestiere Underground Gardens are located about 10 miles northwest of downtown Fresno and can be accessed by bus or by car. The gardens are a California State Historic Landmark and can only be seen by taking a one-hour guided tour. The temperature inside the gardens is usually around 15 degrees lower than it is above ground, so you’ll want to dress accordingly.
Fresno Blossom Trail
Before you head outside of the city in search of natural beauty, you can find one of the most gorgeous hikes in the region right inside the metropolitan area. This 62-mile trail that cuts right through the city is beautiful all year round, but the very best time to visit is in the spring when the fruit and nut trees are in bloom. You can walk, drive, or bike along the trail and smell and look at the apricot, apple, and peach trees that line your path.
If you only have a limited amount of time, the best place to get a look at the Fresno Blossom Trail is in the southeast of the city. You can stop at some of the little stores around the trail, pick up some jam or candy made from the fruits of the orchards, and take a walk or have a picnic.
Named after the iconic Tower Theatre at the intersection of East Olive and North Wishon Avenues, the Tower District is one of the best places for nightlife and dining in the city of Fresno.
On any given weekend, you’ll find crowds of exuberant people walking the streets, en route to one of the many restaurants and bars. The Tower District really puts the city’s diverse community on display, as you can enjoy food from all around the world, hear live music in a variety of international styles, and sometimes even stop to watch performers on the streets.
While the Tower District is primarily frequented during the evenings, restaurants like Irene’s Cafe offer some incredible breakfast options as well. If you do find yourself in the Tower District at dinnertime, make sure to head over to Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre, where you can eat some great American cuisine while watching a musical comedy performed live.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
California is known for many things, but a defining feature of this beautiful state is undoubtedly its trees. There’s no better place to experience the best of California’s trees than in Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park.
In fact, Sequoia National Park is home to the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on Earth at 52,508 cubic feet. The park is more than just one big tree, though. There is a wealth of unbelievable hiking trails winding all throughout the park, giving you the opportunity to conquer some of the highest peaks in the region.
Plus, you can’t leave the area without stopping at the breathtaking Kings Canyon, a natural land formation unlike any other in the world.
Both of these national parks are located about 90 minutes outside of Fresno by car. If you have a few days to spare, you can easily camp in one of the parks one night and then make the short journey to the other park the next night. Azalea Campground in Kings Canyon National Park is probably the best place in the area to sleep under the stars, and the Moro Rock Trail is a can’t-miss hike located in Sequoia National Park.
Yosemite National Park
Of course, if you’re staying in Fresno, you’re only a stone’s throw away from one of the most popular and most spectacular national parks in the United States: Yosemite. Renting a car in Fresno and then driving to Yosemite National Park will give you the freedom to explore the further reaches of the park and get off the beaten path a little more. However, if you have to take the bus to Yosemite Valley instead, there are still plenty of things to see and do.
If you end up staying in the Yosemite Village or Curry Village areas of the park, you can easily access the Vernal Fall Trail, the Glacier Point Trail, and the Half Dome Trail. All three of these hikes are absolutely gorgeous the entire way up, and once you reach the summits, you’ll be treated to mind-boggling views of waterfalls and the surrounding canyon.
If you have a little more time to spare, you should also check out Taft Point, a super accessible viewpoint; Tenaya Lake, which you can pull right up to in a car and go for a swim; and Mount Hoffman, a more challenging hike.
River Park Shopping Center
If you’ve had enough of the trees and the mountains and you’re ready to get back to some good old-fashioned shopping, the best place to do so in Fresno is the River Park Shopping Center, located right by Woodward Regional Park.
The River Park Shopping Center is home to well-known stores like Target, REI, and Macy’s as well as an abundance of different restaurants. If there’s a particular movie that you’ve been itching to see, you can go watch it at Regal Edwards Fresno, a high-tech movie theatre offering 3D films in IMAX and 4DX.