Overview

Fresno, California, lies in the center of one of the most productive agricultural regions in the U.S.: Trucks piled high with tomatoes or melons pass cars on the highway, many businesses in Fresno are farm-related, and "agrotourism"—tours of farms, orchards and wineries—is popular with visitors, especially families.

Fresno is the largest city in California's Central Valley. The downtown appeals to visitors with its lively mix of old and new, gritty and chic, with coffee shops, restaurants and vintage-clothing shops next to old theaters and warehouses.

Being in the center of the fertile San Joaquin Valley, it's no wonder that Fresno also has wineries of its own—including the Madera Wine Trail. http://www.maderawinetrail.com.


One of the most intriguing gardens in California is Baldassare Forestiere's Underground Garden. Transplanted from the founder's native Sicily, the fruit trees, vines and shrubs are all planted in sunny openings of subterranean courtyards and passageways. The garden is still run by Forestiere's great nephew. http://www.undergroundgardens.com.

Fresno's holdovers from the past include intriguing historic architecture and more than 30 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Among them are the Water Tower, Tower Theater and Kearney Mansion Museum. In addition, the city of Fresno, California, is a good jumping-off point for visits to Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

Geography

Fresno is located in the San Joaquin Valley in central California. To the east are the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which are snow-capped most of the year. A flat agricultural plain extends to the west. The city is laid out in a grid pattern that is fairly easy to navigate.

Interstate 99 is the main north-south highway through Fresno, connecting it with Bakersfield and Los Angeles to the south and Sacramento and the Bay Area to the north. Highway 41 leads to Yosemite National Park, about 92 mi/148 km north. Highway 180, to the east, leads to Sequoia and King's Canyon National Park.

History

Once a dry desert, Fresno was discovered when the Spanish missionaries were searching for suitable sites for what was to later become 21 missions through the length of California. Fresno County was established in 1856, but the town of Fresno only emerged as the county seat in 1874. (In 1873, an inventory revealed that Fresno had a total of 16 buildings.) Although many saw the potential of the area for agriculture, the soil was arid, and efforts to grow wheat and other crops were unsuccessful. In 1871, the Fresno Canal and Irrigation Company was formed, and other canal and damming efforts followed. With irrigation canals in place, agricultural ventures flourished over the next few decades, and Fresno and the Central Valley became known as producers of wheat, grapes and raisins, citrus and cattle.

Agriculture is a labor-intensive industry, and Fresno attracted farm workers from all over the world. Many ethnic groups, including Italians, Armenians and Basques, and most recently the Hmong, still maintain a strong sense of identity and pride in their heritage. This is reflected in city life today.

Although Fresno's economy has diversified, agriculture is still important, generating US$4 billion annually.

Sightseeing

For the best of Fresno's agricultural heritage, visit Simonian Farms on Clovis Avenue, where you can see some of the 158 varieties of produce grown there and take a look at the antique farm equipment on the premises. Or, during harvesting season, explore the Fresno Fruit Trail on a self-guided tour of farms, orchards, country stores and more.

One of the most unusual things to see in Fresno is the Forestiere Underground Gardens, a maze of subterranean rooms built around gardens and fruit trees. The Fresno Metropolitan Museum is the most comprehensive museum in the city, with a display of Ansel Adams' famed photographs of Yosemite and an exhibit on writer William Saroyan's life and work. The Kearney Mansion Museum and Park, the home of California's Raisin King, is a great place to spend half a day, or you can browse around historic buildings downtown and in the Tower District.

Nightlife

Despite the fact that there are several colleges in town, Fresno's nightlife is laid-back. The Tower District is bustling on weekend nights, thanks to live bands playing at the Tower Theater. Otherwise, you're more likely to find food and pool tables than dance bands at late-night hangouts.

Dining

You'll find a variety of cuisines in Fresno, but casual, American-style food is popular. Bars and grills with hearty steaks and prime ribs rule the day. Steak houses such as Logan's Roadhouse and the more upscale Livingstone's Restaurant and Pub are popular. Guilia's and La Rocca's Ristorante Italiano are both well-known Italian restaurants (they're rumored to be owned by the same family). The large Armenian population in the city means that you'll find restaurants that offer Armenian food. Basque cuisine, a reflection of the Basque shepherd tradition in the area, is another favorite.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.

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