San Francisco – the golden city of cool summers, rolling fog and even greater rolling hills. In such a densely populated city, packed full of some of the best known and loved sights (The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island to name but a few), you could be tricked into thinking there’s little opportunity to escape the crowds. Hidden amongst this dynamic metropolis however, are a whole bunch of urban parks and secret gardens, all open to the public and all hiding a wealth of beautiful sights and sounds. Take a look at our guide to San Francisco’s finest – whether a local secret or lesser-known hideout, each provides a tranquil setting for those seeking a leafy respite.
The Historic Gardens of Alcatraz
Whilst many will have heard of, or visited, the historic Alcatraz Island, after marvelling at the architecture our top tip is to head straight to the gardens for a taste of the island’s history. Originally tended to by prisoners, there’s now an ongoing project to preserve the beautiful gardens, aided by locals and volunteers. Take a wander around the shrubbery and momentarily forget where you are. An early morning visit is always a good option for those seeking a little solitude.
Yet another secluded island experience awaits on Angel Island, although admittedly rather different from the last. Catch the ferry over the bay (get your SLR-pointing enthusiasm in quickly, it’s only a 10 minute ride), before grabbing a bike and choosing one of the numerous hiking paths to get lost on. There are plenty of picnic spots, each with an incredible view over the bay, and an abundance of wild flowers and hidden coves to discover. To preserve the island’s simple, back-to-nature quality, there are only basic services on offer, but this only adds to Angel’s tranquil atmosphere.
Step into Stern Grove and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d left San Francisco behind. Hiding numerous oasis-like meadows and undiscovered tracks, this park is an idyllic spot in which to spend an afternoon basking on the grass through the dappled sunlight, or, if you’re feeling active, hunting for the park’s towering eucalyptus – the largest tree in San Francisco (shouldn’t be too hard to spot, surely). Stern Grove’s crowning glory is an outdoor amphitheatre, which plays host to Sunday concerts throughout the summer, the perfect way to unwind after all that activity.
Flora Grubb Gardens
A garden centre with a twist, Flora Grubb Gardens is a jungle of plants and shrubs, smack in the middle of the old, urban architecture of Bayview. Relax on the sculpted loungers or perch on one of the tiny box-style chairs and absorb hundreds of colours and plant forms you might never know existed, before taking a quick trip to Flora’s Edsel Garden. Housing the garden’s noted showpiece, a battered and rusted car with shrubs sprouting from every window and door, this makes for an interesting interlude.
Located a stone’s throw from the infamous Twin Peaks, Tank Hill is the lesser known, but equally as well placed, sister of these tourist hotspots. Make your way through the eucalyptus covered paths to a hilltop secret enclave, and whether you sit for minutes or hours, the panoramic views over the city are sure to keep you captivated. As with the majority of hilltop destinations, the best time to go is at sunset, when the cityscape below emanates a golden orange hue.
Tenderloin National Forest
From the towering cherry and Japanese maple trees, to the abundant edible plants and herbs and the meticulously tiled mosaic floor and goldfish ponds, Tenderloin National Forest is an unexpected, yet highly enjoyable, assault on the senses. Set down a back alley in Tenderloin (a somewhat shady neighbourhood in one of San Francisco’s more deprived areas), the miniature forest is a welcome breath of fresh air in this part of the city. Lively foliage, graffiti and wall paintings, and fruit carvings are just a handful of the artworks that adorn the walls above; whilst back on solid ground there are a multitude of exciting activities on offer, including public performances and experimental art projects and classes. They even provide garden tools for visitors to help out, if you feel so inclined…
Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, Golden Gate Park
The Golden Gate Park is a king amongst San Francisco’s large public gardens, but our favourite spot is hidden away amidst the grounds. The Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Gardens, named after Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, (a country in which the tulip symbolises peace), are located within the great park near the windmill at the westernmost side. In full bloom the tulip garden is awash with deep maroon and bright orange buds, and the best time to visit is in early spring, when you’ll catch the tulips at their height.
Words by Charley Hancock