Where to “Stop and Smell the Roses” in San Francisco

Photo by David Laws

Where gardens thrive on steep slopes, rooftops and barren sandhills in San Francisco

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While they don’t always feature roses, this San Francisco Gardens itinerary describes places to relax and enjoy the some of the finest publicly accessible gardens in the city and county of San Francisco.

These gardens display the variety of creative approaches resulting from an acute shortage of cultivatable land ranging from the windswept sand hills that today form Golden Gate Park, to rooftop, stairway, and vertical gardens.

Click on the red POI (point of interest) links for more information on each location.

Be sure to plan your itinerary to allow for dense traffic conditions throughout the area. For gardens on the south San Francisco Peninsula see the Silicon Valley Gardens itinerary.

Golden Gate Park Theme Gardens

Beginning in 1871, William Hammond Hill and John McLaren created one of the nation’s finest urban parks by transforming 1,000 acres of barren, windswept sand hills into Golden Gate Park.

Today’s recreation fields, playgrounds, lakes, museums, and a bison paddock are complemented by areas devoted to specific horticultural varieties or themes, as well as as the San Francisco Botanical  Botanical Garden. Among the most popular sites are the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, Japanese Tea Garden, Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers and the Conservatory of Flowers.

San Francisco Botanical Garden

The San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum is a 55-acre collection of more than 7,000 kinds of plants from Asia, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Central America, New Zealand and California inside the boundary of Golden Gate Park. It is dedicated to the exploration of horticulture and gardening conservation and education.

Stairway Gardens

More than 350 stairways link neighborhoods scattered across the city’s forty-plus hills. Vines, flowers, trees and shrubs transform narrow borders lining many of these flights into steep linear gardens. In their focus on automobiles negotiating the tight curves of Lombard Street, tourists often overlook the backdrop of massed hydrangeas and boxwood hedges.

Residents of mansions on Lyon Street Steps enjoy one of the finest views of the bay, with the added bonus of an avenue of cherry blossom in springtime. Terra-cotta hued walls and brick inset steps complement lush green banks along Pemberton Stairway.

Rooftop Gardens

Garden oases are located on several publicly-accessible rooftops downtown. They range in elevation from a sun terrace with rippled glass fountains just one flight up at 100 First Plaza to a 15th-floor patio shaded by full-grown olive trees at 343 Sansome Street. A forest peeking over the parapet of a Wells Fargo bank identifies the roof terrace garden of Crocker Galleria.

Footbridges and paths linking fountains and sculpture at the Embarcadero Center and Maritime Plaza buildings are lined with beds and containers of flowers, shrubs and large trees. Mature palms and a manicured lawn frame a panoramic view of the skyline from the Fairmont Hotel garden.

Perhaps the most extreme example of overcoming space limitations is Drew School’s vertical garden.

Gardens with Water Features

At Yerba Buena Gardens the Martin Luther King Waterfall cascades from the rooftop-level Sister City Gardens. Highlights of street level areas include an Ohlone Indian Memorial and Cho-En Butterfly gardens.

Water is also the focal point of contrasting spaces at Levi Strauss Plaza. Rapids roar over granite in the paved square while a gentle brook meanders through a green strip of the Park just across Battery Street.

Gardens by the Bay

Two areas planted with species that thrive in the challenging bayside conditions of high wind, salt spray and summer fog are the Golden Gate Bridge, Memorial Garden and Alcatraz Island of the National Park Service where Garden Conservancy volunteers have restored terrace gardens created by former prison inmates.

Explore Another San Francisco Itinerary

Secret Monuments of Downtown … Discovering landmarks hidden in plain view
San Francisco with Kids … Food, fun and frolicking for the whole family
Fun, Food, Arts and Culture in San Francisco’s Embarcadero District … A walking tour from the Ferry Building to Union Square
Top Attractions … Must-sees for a first-timer to the City by the Bay
Top Family-Friendly Adventures … Best attractions for the entire family

And more related itineraries below.

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