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DISCOVERY GREEN PARK, HOUSTON

Concrete parking lots were torn up to make way for this 12-acre downtown paradise of lawns, a man-made lake, and cool features like 14-foot-high arcing water jets. Dog jumping and other wacky competitions, free classes, and fine dining at James Beard award–winning chef Robert Del Grande’s restaurants have helped lure some three million visitors since the opening in 2008. It’s a transformation that would make singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell proud.

Coolest Time to Visit: During Houston’s annual Restaurant Week (actually a month, August 1–31, 2011), whose participants include Del Grande’s park restaurant, The Grove. Its elegant, glass-walled dining room overlooks century-old live oak trees.

FOREST PARK, ST. LOUIS
A one-stop destination for many of St. Louis’s finest cultural institutions: the McDonnell Planetarium; the Cass Gilbert–designed Saint Louis Art Museum, with paintings by mid-20th-century masters like Andy Warhol and a 56-foot-tall steel tree by contemporary artist Roxy Paine; and the Muny, the country’s oldest outdoor musical theater. With 500 more acres than Central Park, it has plenty of room left for picnic areas, including covered pavilions with barbecue pits.
Coolest Time to Visit: September, when dozens of colorful hot-air balloons take to the sky, originating from Central Field, for the annual Great Forest Park Balloon Race.

GOLDEN GATE PARK, SAN FRANCISCO
This iconic park—where the Summer of Love kicked off in 1967 and dreadlocked drummers still gather in circles—has gotten at least some updates. The de Young Museum reopened with a Herzog & de Meuron–designed building in 2005 that mounts blockbuster exhibits like a collection of 100-plus Picasso works on loan from Paris. The California Academy of Sciences, whose eco-friendly Renzo Piano structure debuted in 2008, has a 1.7 million plant “living” roof and restaurants by star chefs Charles Phan and Loretta Keller.

Coolest Time to Visit: Sundays, when John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to cars and the outdoor swing-dance party, Lindy in the Park, takes place (11 a.m.–2 p.m., with free beginner lessons at noon).

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