Here’s a tip when you visit San Francisco. Don’t miss the gardens in Golden Gate Park. Sure the bridge takes top billing and the cable cars are fun to ride, but the gardens are an unexpected discovery in this city by the bay.
Golden Gate Park is the jewel of San Francisco’s parks system. It has everything you want in a park; monuments, museums, meadows, lakes, and several top-notch gardens. What started as an area covered in sand dunes that even Central Park’s landscape architect Frederick Law Omstead said couldn’t be developed has become an oasis in the heart of the city. The park will celebrate its 150th birthday in 2020 with many activities planned to commemorate the milestone event.
With over 9,000 different kinds of plants on 55 acres you could spend the whole day at the San Francisco Botanical Garden located in the park. Once you enter the main gate, the Great Meadow welcomes you into the garden. Monterey cypress trees line its perimeter, and paths lead you from here in several directions to discover the many garden sections laid out by country or theme. Bring a picnic to enjoy in the meadow before or after your garden visit.
First stop is the California native garden.
California has one of the world’s five Mediterranean climates (warm dry summers with wet mild winters) and the California native garden showcases an array of plants that thrive in this climate. A massive California buckeye covered in panicles of white flowers is a definite photo stop, as is the state’s largest native flower, the stunning Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) when it is in bloom. A walk in the adjacent coast redwood grove is just a taste of these majestic trees found farther up the coast. In season, be on the watch for the caterpillar crossing signs in this area. These will become California Pipeline Swallowtail butterflies.
The Ancient Plant garden is a window into the evolution of plants. Walk the boardwalk through the garden and imagine the era of dinosaurs and the plants of that time, all clearly explained on the signage throughout. Many of these plants are considered living fossils.
Continue on and you can discover more of the world through its gardens; New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, and Australia are represented, and immerse yourself in the tropical oaks and pines in the Mesoamerican Cloud Forest. Along the way, stop at the Garden of Fragrance where you can stop and smell unique plants from around the world.
The botanical garden offers a free 60-90 minute tour of the garden daily at 1:30pm. Meet at the Main Gate kiosk. Just show up, pre-registration is not required – the tour is included with regular admission to the garden.
After your visit, exit out the north gate of the garden (the Friend Gate) for an easy 20 minute walk to the next jewel of Golden Gate Park—the Conservatory of Flowers. Along the way you’ll pass the Japanese Tea Garden, another place where you can spend the day, and a lovely small rose garden. You can also drive there.
The Conservatory of Flowers is a magnificent Victorian era glass greenhouse—painted white to reflect the sun’s heat—filled with rare and endangered plants of more than 50 countries. Step inside and you are transported to those countries through plants.
Your first stop inside the greenhouse is the Lowland gallery with plants that thrive in steamy areas of the world; palms, cycads, cacao, ferns, and an Imperial Philodendron that is said to be 150 years old grow here. The greenhouse section to the right houses highland plants that grow in elevations of 3,000 to 7,000 feet. Orchids, including the Dracula orchid because it resembles a vampire face, and other epiphytes like staghorn ferns are found here. An adjacent aquatic gallery has many interesting water-loving plants growing in and around the serene pools of water.
The opposite side of the greenhouse has an impressive collection of exotic and rare plants in the Potted Plants gallery. The gallery is a tribute to the Victorian craze of growing unusual plants in pots when the Conservatory first opened in 1879. Other plantings from poinsettias in winter and begonias in summer and fall fill the gallery with even more color.
If you are in Golden Gate Park in spring, check out the windmill and tulip area. And you can relax at the many lakes, groves and meadows any time, including in the area aptly named Hippie Hill.
When You Go:
There are many things to do in San Francisco. First, you don’t need a car when you visit. Instead, hop aboard a Big Bus Tour with on and off options as you sightsee the city. The bus tour goes across the Golden Gate bridge, with options to get on and off on either side to walk onto the bridge. Purchase a City PASS to enjoy a harbor cruise and experience a cable car ride, plus admission to many museums and activities.
You can learn a lot about a place by taking a food tour. Local Tastes of the City offers a range of walking tours, including one with stops in Chinatown and the North Beach area. This particular tour winds its way through both communities with stops at bakeries, restaurants, and candy stores, linked together by the engaging commentary of the tour guide who explains the stories of the area and its food. Whether on the tour or on your own, stop at Vital Tealeaf in Chinatown where you can learn about making tea (a tip is don’t use boiling water as it releases tannin) and sample the many blends imported from China.
If you have time and like climbing stairs, there are gardens on the top of Telegraph Hill – reachable by 400 stairs up, and then down.
Extranomical Tours offers day trips from the city to destinations like Yosemite, Monterey and Carmel.
The Redwoods and Wine Country tour includes a stop at the Muir Woods National Monument (admission charged) to walk among the towering redwood trees, and visits to wineries in Sonoma and Napa, where you can learn about growing grapes and enjoy wine samples. There’s a reason why a rose bush is planted at the end of each vineyard row. It’s the “canary in the cage” warning system. The rose has similar growing needs as grapes and can detect disease first before it wipes out the vineyard. Cheers!
For more information about San Francisco, visit sftravel.com.
Featured image: The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco / Beverly Hurley