Image: National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Washington DC
Visions of America, LLC / Alamy
Artwork at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., can provide both shade and visual interest.
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updated 9/3/2011 4:09:04 PM ET 2011-09-03T20:09:04

There are more than a million acres of urban parkland across the U.S., and city dwellers take serious pleasure in arranging a blanket on these great lawns for a delicious picnic feast. Some plots are nobler than others, however, and a little extra planning can mean the difference between a crispy, sun-scorched setting and a shady stretch overlooking snowcapped peaks. Not far from the country’s outstanding picnic spots, there are also fantastic places to cobble together a portable meal — from renowned chefs’ take-out joints to gourmet markets selling cult California cheeses.

Slideshow: America’s best parks for picnics

In Minneapolis, one of the most scenic areas in Chain of Lakes Park is Lake Harriet’s North Beach, with views of calm water, anchored sailboats and a majestic-looking band shell. Nearby, star local chef Lucia Watson opened Lucia’s To Go for easy-to-transport prepared foods, such as goat-cheese tarts and rotisserie chicken.

Down south in Louisville, Ky., Cherokee Park’s most idyllic picnic area is atop Big Rock, a flat stone that juts into a shallow swimming area in Beargrass Creek. Before securing the right perch, locals stop at Blue Dog Bakery & Café to pick up open-face tartines with Mahon, brie and blue cheeses, or Spanish bocadillos (salumi sandwiches).

On Friday evenings in Washington, DC, jazz lovers convene at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden to listen to music amid art installations such as “Graft,” Roxy Paine’s 16,000-pound stainless steel tree. The best picnic baskets are stocked at Eastern Market, where Canales’ Quality Meats supplies smoked local hams, and at Bay Area–based Cowgirl Creamery, which sells outstanding organic-milk cheeses.

New York City maintains some of the country’s most picturesque picnic spots — like the fields around the 22-acre Central Park Lake, where couples circle the manmade body of water in rented row boats. NYC’s two newest and most desirable lawns are on Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6. Artisanal vendors like Bark Hot Dogs — which ages its sauerkraut in Chardonnay barrels — snagged permits for food stands with views of the Manhattan skyline, Upper New York Bay and the bridge.

For those snow-capped peaks, there’s Denver’s City Park. Nearby, beloved quick-serve joint Steve’s Snappin’ Dogs sells regional-style franks like the Rippin’ Rockies, a deep-fried wiener topped with green chili, grilled onions, sour cream and jalapeño peppers. Proof that finding the right picnic area is worth a bit of work: Ferril Lake’s eastern edge is a 10-minute walk away and features views of the Front Range mountains.

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