It's summertime, and San Francisco's in bloom. Sure, it may not seem like it as you wander in the shadow of skyscrapers or window shop on Fillmore Street, but this is a city where trees tower and blossoms beckon. Don't believe us? Then it's time to get yourself over to Golden Gate Park, a thousand-acre oasis of greenery near the city's northernmost point.
The land on which the park sits was once a vast expanse of sand dunes; it wasn't until the 1870s that the area was transformed into a verdant escape for a growing population of city-dwellers. Today, in addition to its meadows; lakes; and eucalyptus, cypress, and pine trees; the park also has a wealth of gardens that explode with color in the summer. Here are our favorite places to stop and smell the roses this season.
Garden of Shakespeare's Flowers
"A rose by any other name"… "The violet smells to him as it doth to me"… ever notice how often Shakespeare makes use of "flowery" prose in his works? The members of the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association sure did. They're the ones who established the Garden of Shakespeare's Flowers in Golden Gate Park in the 1920s; today it comprises over 200 kinds of flowers and plants mentioned in the Bard's various works. Bronze plaques highlighting the Shakespeare passage in which each flower pops up make the imagery that much more vivid, and benches scattered throughout the garden beckon passersby to relax and read a sonnet or two.
Japanese Tea Garden
Jump easily from England to Japan with a visit to Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden. Located just a quick walk from the Shakespeare garden, this traditional Japanese-style garden was originally created for an international exposition in 1894. Today, it's been expanded to cover five acres with koi ponds, zen gardens, pagodas, stone paths, pink-and-white tinged magnolias, flowering shrubs, and a seemingly endless expanse of plants. Entrance to the garden will set you back $7, unless you arrive before 10:00 a.m. on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when the admission fee is waived.
San Francisco Botanical Garden
Just how big is Golden Gate Park? Big enough to contain a 55-acre park-within-a-park that's home to over 8,000 kinds of plants from around the world. There are no fewer than 26 themed gardens within the San Francisco Botanical Garden, each representing a different climate or part of the world. Start locally in the California Native Plant garden, then go further afield in the Mesoamerican Cloud Forest, the South Africa Garden, the Mediterranean Garden, or even the New Zealand Garden.
Tickets for the Botanical Garden will run you $7, though early-morning entry – between 7:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. – is free every day. The admission fee is also waived all day long on the second Tuesday of every month. On Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays at 2:00 p.m., your admission includes a free docent-led tour of the grounds.
If you're interested in learning even more about flowers, plants, and trees, stop by the Botanical Gardens' on-site Helen Crocker Russell Library. It's free to visit and holds some 27,000 volumes on horticulture, ethnobotany, landscaping, and more.
San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers
This Victorian-style wood-and-glass San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers went up in 1878, making it, today, the oldest conservatory of its kind in North America. The space is dedicated to showcasing exotic and tropical plants, making this the only place in the city you're likely to come across a Venus flytrap, an African comet orchid, and a Southeast Asian rhododendron all in the same afternoon.
Individual galleries inside the historic building focus on themes including aquatic plants, potted plants, and lowland tropical plants, while a special exhibit gallery hosts an ever-changing line-up of unique gardens (the most recent, "Butterflies & Blooms," let visitors wander through a greenhouse filled with the beautiful winged creatures).
Admission to the conservatory is $8, but you can score free entry on the first Tuesday of every month.
The Rose Garden at Golden Gate Park
Summer's the best time of year to poke your nose into the namesake flowers at Golden Gate Park's Rose Garden. It's free to wander the 60-some rose beds that make up the garden. In addition to your run-of-the-mill rose varieties, you'll find blooms with unique names like "Walking on Sunshine," "Strike it Rich," or "Dream Come True."
The Dahlia Garden
In 1926, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors named the dahlia the city's official flower, noting how the flowers have long thrived in SF's cool, foggy climate. The brilliantly colored blossoms are still honored today in Golden Gate Park's Dahlia Garden (also sometimes called the Dahlia Dell), not far from the Conservatory of Flowers. The park's dahlias start to bloom in June and continue through August, making summer the perfect time to visit.
Golden Gate Park Windmills and Tulips
There's a little slice of the Netherlands at the western edge of the park, right across the street from Ocean Beach. The city built two Dutch-style windmills (referred to as the North and South Windmills) on this spot in the early 1900s in order to pump groundwater for irrigating Golden Gate Park. While the windmills are no longer used for irrigation, they are both still functional, and you can occasionally see their arms spinning in the wind.
The North Windmill is set in a field of tulips named for former queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. The popping red, yellow, pink, and orange blooms complete the Dutch theme in this little piece of the park, and make it a particularly scenic spot for relaxing on a bench and sipping a cup of coffee. If you get hungry, stop by the Park Chalet restaurant, overlooking the garden, for lunch or dinner. The menu can get pricey at this little al fresco favorite, but Tuesday nights bring a menu of $2.50 tacos and discounted margaritas, plus live performances from local bands.
To explore even more gardens with an urban twist, be sure to check out our guide to San Francisco's Secret Open Spaces. No matter which garden – or gardens – you choose to visit, your trip to SF is sure to be a little brighter!
Stay at one of our three San Francisco hostels.