San Francisco parks and gardens
There’s just no way around it. San Francisco is the most shamelessly photogenic city in California, the West Coast, and probably all of North America. (There, I said it, Vancouver) It’s all those hills surrounded by all that water. And at a manageable 7 miles by 7 miles (that’s 11.26 km by 11.26 km) it’s easy to hop between the city’s many parks and gardens as you hunt for some enviable photos of your own. Quick tip! You may be a tourist, but here’s how to pass as a local. If you’re not already wearing a sweater, make sure you have one with you. Even on the sunniest days it gets cold by afternoon when the wind picks up and blows in fog off the Pacific. San Francisco gets so much for it has its own Twitter and Instagram. The breezy clouds make for stunning shots and also for chattering teeth. Seriously, pack a sweater and a scarf!
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park serves the same role for San Francisco that Central Park serves for New York. It’s no accident the two are often compared. Early city administrators were inspired by Central Park to lay out a similar patchwork of gardens, playfields and concert venues for San Franciscans, even going so far as to hire Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of Central Park, to take up the task. Olmsted didn’t last long on the job. He quit soon after touring the site, claiming San Francisco’s western edge – then acre upon acre of shifting beach dunes – could never be tamed.
The city responded by hiring Olmsted’s apprentices – William Hammond Hall and John McLaren – to replace both Olmsted and the dunes. The two succeeded at both, and in the process built an oasis 20% larger than Central Park, with only a third as much foot traffic. Today Golden Gate Park is a much-loved green space where picnickers, joggers, museum-goers, and concert attendees all find something to enjoy.
Japanese Tea Garden
Established in 1894, the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States, and has been the site of both contention – and reconciliation – throughout its history. For the first thirty years, the garden was maintained by immigrant and founder Makato Hagiwara. After Makato’s death, his daughter Takano, took over maintenance until the onset of WWII, when the Hagiwara family was evicted from their home during the Japanese-American Internment. For the duration of the war years, park administrators attempted to erase the garden’s origins, renaming it ‘the Oriental Tea Garden’ and hiring Chinese staff.
Following the surrender and occupation of Japan, and the signing of the treaty of San Francisco which formally ended the war, the title ‘Japanese Tea Garden’ was reinstated in 1952. As a further move towards reconciliation, the consul general of Japan presented a lantern of peace to the garden in 1953, purchased with the contributions of school children of Japan and which can still be seen today. Though contemporary visitors may be more likely to recognize the garden’s teahouse, where several pivotal scenes from the 2005 film “Memoirs of a Geisha” were filmed, and where they too can enjoy a cup while contemplating the serenity of the surroundings.
Conservatory of Flowers
Also tucked into Golden Gate Park is the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers. The Victorian era glass households over 1,700 specimens of tropical and subtropical species from around the world, and on foggy San Francisco afternoons, is a welcome place to warm up and dream of more humid climates.
Though it may be tricky to time a visit accordingly, in recent years the conservatory has almost annually had at least one member of their collection of titan arums bloom. In their native Sumatra, the two and a half meter tall flowers rely on flies and carrion beetles for pollination, and to attract them put off a stink like rancid grease, which explains their common name of ‘corpse flower.’ Not into giant smelly vegetation? The cactus garden and dahlia dell just outside the conservatory is especially lovely in summer, and free all year!
Buena Vista Park
As you might have already gathered from the name, Buena Vista Park has some of the best views of the city. Another of the city’s smaller treasures, visitors can hike through forested paths, up a semi-challenging incline, that gives way to a tidy manicured lawn with impressive views – considering the park’s diminutive size – of the bay, the bridge, and the bordering Haight Ashbury neighbourhood.
An unusual, and somewhat macabre detail of this lovely bit of green: on the west side of the park, visitors can still see inscriptions in the stones that make up the paths, gutters and retaining walls. This writing is no mere graffiti. In 1914 San Francisco banned any new burials within city limits and drastically reduced the size of existing cemeteries. The city exhumed and relocated 150,000 bodies south to Colma. The gravestones that were left behind were repurposed, some of which were used to mark the borders of the flowered paths of Buena Vista Park.
It is often said that there are more dogs in San Francisco than there are children. Spend an hour or two at Duboce Park and you might well believe it. The small park has an off-leash area for canines to run about in, with a slight hill at the west end where families and couples set up to picnic and enjoy views of the bay and across it to the Oakland hills. If you’re not quite in the mood to sit on the grass, the Duboce Park Cafe is an equally good place to relax and take in a bit of dog watching, without any of the hassle of owning a dog.
Glen Park Canyon
A canyon? In San Francisco? Reader, you have that right. Get off BART at Glen Park station, grab a coffee at Bello, pick up a book at Bid & Beckett, then swing by Canyon Market to grab the fixings for lunch on your way to Glen Canyon Park. The 70-acre park snakes the edges of the neighbourhood. The canyon is surprisingly deep sided and steep, with a creek that runs year round through the bottom, even during the dry summer. Follow the hiking trails upstream to a jumble of boulders. Climb up top for a view above the treetops and some excellent urban wildlife viewing. Coyotes are sometimes seen in the canyon, but this park is for the birds. Songbirds nest in the groves beneath, while hawks circle and stalk the sky.
Visitors to San Francisco, if they know no other park, know this one. It’s the one on all the postcards. And on any day of the calendar, you can find visitors from all the world over cleverly cropping the several dozen other tourists from the frame as they try for their own photo that looks exactly like all the others. The surroundings of Alamo Square are indeed lovely. Though the park itself, while offering that picture perfect background, doesn’t offer much else. It’s just a grassy lawn with a few widely spaced trees. But hey! You can pass the time taking photos of somebody else’s porch.
The most intensely interesting photos of Alamo Square come from the disaster of 1906, when city residents gathered in the park to watch as their city was destroyed first by an earthquake, then by fire. For we moderns, used to the pastel hues of the Painted Ladies, it’s a surprise to see them in black and white, stripped of colour, as the city behind them turns to ash.
The Rest – There are many other wonderful public and private gardens and parks elsewhere in the city – in Bernal Heights, in North Beach, up Russian Hill, out in the Presidio – not to mention the ones that require a ferry: Angel Island and Alcatraz. But it’s not too hard to find most of them. Just find a hill and start climbing. And remember what we said about a sweater.