These Are America’s Most Gorgeous Botanical Gardens
You don’t have to travel to a national park to reconnect with nature.
Updated on 4/14/2022 at 1:05 PM
Get back out there with a trip to a botanical garden. | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
While our country has some awe-inspiring national parks, for the majority of people who dwell in cities, getting there isn’t always easy. Cherry blossom season across the country is beautiful, but not everyone can make it in time to catch the blooms. And, sure, there are a wealth of great city parks built specifically to deliver us from chaos—but should a cloudless, sunny day dare rear its beautiful head, chaos in the form of overzealous picnickers is sure to follow.
For a real oasis, a slice of private forest amid the urban jungle, and time to reconnect with nature after too many days spent staring at screens, find your way to one of America’s best botanical gardens—one or two of which may sit right in your backyard.
Kicking off with the entry with the catchiest name, Filoli looks like something straight out of Bridgerton and feels a little bit like walking through a floral-scented dream. Tended to by 14 full-time horticulturists, this is an ideal place for those who want to pretend they’re in a fairy tale.
Wander through the Walled Garden, featuring 10-foot-high brick walls and divided up further by hedges so that you can get your own personal taste of paradise; a working fruit and vegetable garden and pool pavilion; and—how convenient for you!—a 54,256-square-foot, 56-room, ballroom-equipped palace (aka The House) fit for royalty. By the time you’re through, you’ll be singing to birds and squirrels like a bonafide Disney princess.
No, that’s not Mother Nature in the flesh (or rather, in the florals) you’re looking at here: it’s the 25-foot Earth Goddess sculpture at Atlanta Botanical Garden. Although she’s certainly one of the park’s most impressive assets—not to mention most meticulously manicured, requiring daily maintenance to keep her foliage and more than 18,000 annuals looking immaculate—she’s not the only thing here that’ll keep you ooh-ing and ahh-ing.
There are indoor and outdoor displays featuring flora from all over the world, 20-plus species of carnivorous plants, more than 2,000 varieties of orchids, some 200 types of magnolias, over 80 kinds of maples—you name it, and it’s almost certainly here. There are also a score of events and exhibitions that run year-round, as well as garden-inspired classes that’ll teach you everything from sketching and cooking to the art of origami.
The Bronx, New York
Central Park will forever be the most renowned urban respite for perpetually cramped New Yorkers, but nothing relaxes a city dweller like a trip to the NYBG. The park spans more than 250 acres, including 50 acres of preserved forestland and 50 gardens with more than a million species of plants.
It’s also home to America’s largest Victorian-era glasshouse at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, where guests walk from desert to tropical landscapes and see the world’s largest collection of indoor palm trees. The garden is more than just an exhibition: it educates some 90,000 underserved students a year and even boasts its own printing company.
St. Louis, Missouri
Imagine you retire at 39, but the year is 1840 so there are no Ferraris or Gulfstreams to blow your money on. What would you do? Create an American botanical garden in the style of the great ones of Europe, of course. That’s what Henry Shaw did when he developed the 75 acres that surrounded his country home into one of the most beautiful places in Middle America.
The gardens include his historic house and a Victorian-era observatory, one of the largest Japanese gardens on the continent, and a Turkish garden reminiscent of a Mediterranean villa. Its centerpiece is the Climatron, a geodesic dome where you can experience climates from Hawaii, Arizona, and the coast of Italy all in a Midwestern winter’s afternoon, before stepping back outside to meet blown-glass sculptures and 6,800 species of plants.
This 230-acre piece of parkland between Lake Washington and I-5 is worth visiting even if you don’t get out of your car (which, at the moment, is pretty clutch). The main road meandering through the park is lined with blooming trees in the spring, and the rare (in Washington, anyway) deciduous trees in the fall.
The scenic drive is just the warm-up, though. Step out of the car and you’re surrounded by meticulously landscaped gardens throughout the wetlands and woodlands, leading to the park’s crown jewel, the Japanese Garden. It’s the largest of its kind outside Japan and home to the most impressive collection of cherry blossoms in the Pacific Northwest every spring.
DC is more than just cherry blossoms. The idea of a garden on the National Mall was first floated by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison in the late 1700s. It was created in 1820, formally established in 1850, and has lived at its current location since 1933. The garden isn’t huge—it occupies only a couple of city blocks—but is a serene, scenic respite in the shadow of the US Capitol.
The conservatory contains desert as well as tropical environments, which make for handy places to warm up during the winter. In the springtime, the garden opens up its 34-greenhouse, 85,000-square-foot production facility in Anacostia (Southeast DC) so visitors can see the massive operation that supports the national garden. And because the founding fathers would’ve wanted it this way, the whole thing is free for visitors.
Koloa, Kauai, Hawaii
These may not be urban gardens, but if you happen to be on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, they deserve a long, lingering visit. These gardens in the Lawai Valley, which were featured prominently in Jurassic Park and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean flick, are the only tropical gardens established by congressional charter. They make up two-fifths of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a federally established park that stretches throughout the Hawaiian Islands.
These two gardens sit on the south shore of Kauai, a former sugar plantation that was once a vacation destination for American royalty (looking good, Jackie O) and is now a tropical paradise accessible to the public. They’re home to the largest collection of Hawaiian plants on Earth and offer the only access to Allerton Beach. And in McBryde Garden, you can take a hidden trail to a seldom-seen waterfall.
Fort Worth, Texas
Dallas’ sometimes overlooked sibling city is not only home to one of the best zoos in the nation, it also rocks this grand botanical garden—the oldest in Texas. The 110-acre property has 22 gardens and 2,500 species of plants, and admission to the main garden is free.
For a few bucks, though, you can wander through the koi pools, stone bridges, and waterfalls of the Japanese garden or the tropical foliage of the conservancy. Next door is the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, where educational programs and rotating exhibits teach visitors about what’s in the gardens.
Many of the students at Gainesville’s University of Florida don’t even know the place exists, and that’s a shame. The paths here wind through swamps with live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and through a rose garden, rock garden, and butterfly gardens.
The park’s two dozen collections include the state’s largest collection of bamboos, the biggest herb garden in the Southeast, and ponds full of giant Victorian water lilies. At the park’s edge, visitors can relax on a bench and enjoy sweeping views of 250-acre Lake Kanapaha.
Brooklyn, New York
While the New York Botanical Garden delivers Mother Nature to the Bronx, this century-plus-old, 52-acre botanical garden gives Brooklynites a seriously beautiful dose of greenery. Although it’s home to one of the best cherry blossom displays on the Eastern Seaboard (which you should absolutely catch if you’re in town during the bloom) this one wows just about any time of year, attracting more than a million annual visitors in the process.
The most popular section of this one by far is the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, featuring a torii gate and a small Shinto shrine, but you’ll also find a Native Flora Garden, a Rose Garden, a Shakespeare Garden, and more. In any case, there are 18,000 kinds of plants from all over the world here, so chances are you’ll find a floral arrangement that suits your fancy.
The Bay Area strikes again. | Don Ferber/EyeEm/Getty Images
San Francisco, California
It’s no wonder that San Francisco, with weather that shifts quicker than a Game of Thrones plotline, can produce one of the most naturally biodiverse botanical gardens in the world. The 55-acre gardens in Golden Gate Park are home to 8,000 different kinds of plants, native to climates from all parts of the world.
High-elevation tropical gardens befitting equatorial mountains? Check. Native California redwoods? Of course. The most diverse collection of Magnolias outside China? Sure! Why not! And beyond the plant diversity, there’s a garden completely devoted to fragrant flowers and one devoted entirely to moon gazing. Because it still is San Francisco, after all.
Canandaigua, New York
The Gilded Age mansion (named for the German translation of “sunny hill”) is really the undercard to the main attraction at this New York State Historic Park. The meticulously landscaped grounds make up one of only two public gardens in the New York State Parks system.
Here, you’ll be greeted by striking architecture sprinkled between more than a dozen gardens and greenhouses that offer up the sort of features one would expect in a garden five times the size, including a sublimely diverse rose garden man Italian garden full of blue and red perennials, and the Sub-Rosa Garden featuring a marble fountain, cherubim statues, and a deep pool. This nonprofit garden relies on donations, so don’t forget to show your appreciation at the door.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
South Carolina’s premier botanical garden might be the most educational in America. Not only is this place home to a vast array of Lowcountry vegetation, but it also boasts one of the most impressive collections of outdoor sculptures in America. These gardens are home to 1,440 works—550 of which are displayed at a given time—by 300 of the best sculptors the country has ever seen. Also, there’s a zoo!
The E. Craig Wall, Jr. Lowcountry Center has educational programs on the history of the region, and, as an added bonus, a single admission is good for a week, meaning you can make it a daily visit in one of the 25 best beach cities in the US.
Clocking in at 50 acres of botanic excellence, the trails that winds through Richmond’s own Lewis Ginter will take you through more than a dozen themed gardens, including a Healing Garden, a Rose Garden, a Cherry Tree Walk, and a Victorian Garden.
Strolling the lawns is always on the menu, as is doing a little shopping and stopping in at the Robins Tea House, where you can dine on light bites while overlooking the West Island Garden—but they’ve also got a solid list of seasonal events and rotating exhibitions running. During 2022, you can see larger-than-life insect installations from artist David Rogers, a barrage of beautiful butterflies, Wednesday alfresco “date nights,” and so much more.
That great rock ‘n’ roll philosopher Dick Valentine once asked, “What’s so great about a buckeye?” Clearly, Dick had never been to the Franklin Park Conservatory, where in addition to housing 400 plant species ranging from tropical to Himalayan, there’s also an incubator for buckeye trees.
Ohio’s state tree aside, this park was also the first in America to have a seasonal butterfly exhibition, where for the past 22 years tropical butterflies have fluttered through the Pacific Island Water Garden. Franklin Park is also home to a Hot Shop where visitors can watch artists blow glass. And every night, the John F. Wolfe Palm House is lit up by 7,000 LED lights, creating an in-park explosion of color after dark.
Say this for Texans: they really do go all-out. The DFW Metroplex boasts two of the best botanical gardens in America, the more famous of which is this 66-acre park that opened in 1984. The park and arboretum is home to 19 gardens—there’s a magnolia glade, a pecan grove, even trial gardens where scientists see how various plants react to the North Texas environment.
It’s also home to the biggest spring flower festival in the Southwest with 500,000 blooms park-wide. And in the fall? The gardens are saturated with 50,000 pumpkins. Definitely come back here in the fall.
Coral Gables, Florida
Located far down Old Cutler Road from the steel and glass high-rises of Brickell, and across Biscayne Bay from the bright lights of South Beach, this 83-acre tropical oasis sits as a shady escape in Miami’s coolest suburb. Here visitors can get a taste of what Miami was like before the swamps were dredged—mangrove gardens, pine rocklands, and palm savannahs dot the landscape, while flamingos huddle in the shallow lakes under the palms.
The collections here are impressive, to say the least: 40 species of tropical birds at the Wings of the Tropics Conservancy, and another 450 species of rare plants in the 16,500sqft Tropical Plant Conservancy. While communing with nature might not be at the top of everyone’s Miami to-do list, a trip here feels more tropical than almost anywhere in the city.
This is a particularly fun one; botanical gardens need not be green to be lush. The folks at the Arizona Native Plant Society, who established this place in 1939, wanted to educate people about the unique plant and animal life of the Sonoran Desert, as well as the people who call it home.
The result is this 140-acre garden in Papago Park where five different walking loops take visitors through desert wildflowers, arid herb gardens, and lessons about how people have long lived in the desert. It boasts 50,000 plants throughout the five trails, and—if you go when it’s not 110 degrees outside—it’s a scenic, educational way to enjoy the warm Arizona sunshine.
Though a rose garden isn’t technically a botanical garden, PORTLAND DOESN’T NEED TO PLAY BY YOUR RULES, MAN! It’s also the Rose City, so logic would dictate it would be home to a place designated to test new varieties of roses, including one of only six gardens to test miniature roses. The place has more quirks: its individual rose plots have names like Neil Diamond, Prima Donna, and Baby Boomer, and the Shakespeare Garden was originally intended to only include plant life mentioned in the Bard’s plays.
The whole thing sits on only 4.5 terraced acres, most of which have sweeping views of Downtown Portland, the Willamette River, and—on clear days—Mount Hood. And if you haven’t gotten your fill, the Rose Garden is in Portland’s sprawling Washington Park, meaning you can stroll over to the city’s lush Japanese Garden or hike through a patch of old-growth forest to the famous Hoyt Arboretum.
San Marino, California
At a sprawling 120 acres, LA County’s Huntington is less a singular garden and more a Russian doll of landscape architecture spanning continents and climates. Here, you can stroll through an Alice in Wonderland-style interactive children’s garden and a miniature rainforest; saunter over to a fully realized Chinese garden complete with waterfalls and noodle bar under a pagoda; and transition through a bamboo forest and emerge in an ancient-seeming Japanese garden with koi pond, zen gardens, and bonsai.
You can also zip down a path into a eucalyptus-spotted Australian garden en route to peaceful lily ponds that butt up against a sweeping desert garden and end up taking high tea in an English-style rose garden. There are also galleries displaying priceless art, ancient artifacts, a massive library, restaurants, wine bars, hidden sculptures, and more.