If you love plants and gardens, prepare to be captivated (and to learn a lot!) when you visit the many beautiful botanical gardens in California.
California’s best botanical gardens boast interesting and unique plant collections, diverse areas of focus, and serene environments where you can enjoy the plants, trees, and flowers, spot birds and wildlife, and learn.
If you enjoy gardening, or nature photography, or just love visiting beautiful gardens, you will definitely want to put some of these amazing botanical gardens on your itinerary for the Golden State.
California’s botanical gardens are also great places to take your kids to observe and learn, and for adults and kids alike just to enjoy a green break in the midst of a sightseeing trip.
California’s Best Botanical Gardens
Gardens are so therapeutic! When you need a vacation from your vacation, a garden is the perfect place to go. After you stroll among the plants and trees for a bit, you’ll feel relaxed and rejuvenated and ready to go again.
California has so many beautiful botanical gardens that no matter what part of the Golden State you are visiting, you will find a garden (or three!) nearby.
Many gardens require advance reservations (and advance online ticket purchases), so call the garden you plan to visit (or check their website) for current information before you go.
Excited to discover the most beautiful botanical gardens in California? Let’s get started!
San Francisco Botanical Garden
With more than 9,000 plants from around the world and ten themed gardens, the San Francisco Botanical Garden is a must-visit 55-acre oasis in the City by the Bay. It is one of the top Bay Area gardens to visit.
Walk through a shaded coastal redwood grove in the California garden. Elsewhere, admire fuchsias from the Andean Cloud Forest, marvel at the giant spear lilies from Australia, and take in the fragrance of herbs in the Mediterranean garden.
For a special treat, visit between December and March to see the magnificent magnolias in bloom. San Francisco Botanical Garden has the largest collection of magnolia species outside of China, and the mature trees look gorgeous when covered in white or pink blooms.
We visited in early March to see the magnolias and found many trees showing off masses of waxy blooms. Rhododendrons, in white and shades of pink, were in peak bloom as well, and we also caught the tail end of the blooming of the camellias.
For more information, visit the SFBG website.
The Huntington Botanical Gardens, San Marino
The Huntington features an astounding 15,000 types of plants in 16 themed gardens, spread over 120 acres. The complex, just outside Pasadena, makes for a wonderful day trip from Los Angeles: apart from the gardens, you can also tour the Huntington Library and Art Collection when you visit.
Must-visit gardens at the Huntington include the Desert Garden, which houses one of the largest collections of succulents in the world, the Japanese Garden with its moon bridge and tea house, the Chinese Garden with its lake and architectural elements, and the Rose Garden, which has over 1,200 varieties and looks absolutely stunning in peak bloom.
A smaller garden we loved at the Huntington is the Shakespeare Garden, which contains plants and flowers from Shakespeare’s time, as well as those he referenced in his works! The herb garden nearby also makes for a lovely wander.
You could see most of the gardens in one full day, if you start at opening time. On our first visit to the Huntington, we took two full days to browse the entire complex, including the art and the library.
For more information, visit the Huntington website.
Balboa Park Gardens, San Diego
With over a dozen themed gardens, Balboa Park, in the heart of San Diego, is a must-visit if you enjoy plants and flowers. The Botanical Building is a beautiful photo spot, and the Botanical Collection in the San Diego Zoo, with over 4,500 species of plants from all over the world, is accredited as a botanical garden.
The 12-acre Japanese Friendship Garden, built over two levels, is a joy to visit, with koi ponds, stone arrangements, and lovely architectural elements. This garden has an entry fee, but the other gardens at Balboa Park are free.
The Botanical Building, arguably the most photographed spot in San Diego, is one of the largest lath structures in the world. Set against a reflecting pond, the building houses a variety of tropical plants, including many species of orchids and ferns.
Visit the Zoro Garden to see colorful butterflies, and the Alcazar Garden to admire the Spanish tiles and fountains. The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden looks spectacular when in bloom, generally from April until November.
For more information, visit the Balboa Park website.
California Botanic Garden, Claremont
Located in Claremont in Southern California, at the foot of the San Gabriel mountains, the California Botanic Garden showcases native California plants over 86 acres. Bring your binoculars when you visit, to spot birds, butterflies, and other insects as you stroll.
You can see more than 2,000 different types of native plants in the garden. Take a guided walking tour (or a tram tour) if you want to learn about the plants and take in the most important areas in the large garden in a structured manner. You can also take classes here!
You can also choose to wander the myriad walking paths on your own, enjoying the plants, the sculptures, and the water features. Shaded benches allow for little breaks should you need them. Don’t forget to visit the Butterfly Pavilion!
Visit in the spring for the showiest bloom: ceanothus, with its brilliant blue flowers, manzanita, with its reddish sculptural bark and white or pink flowers, and the bright orange California poppy are all in bloom in the spring.
For more information, visit the CalBG website.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, Ft. Bragg
With several significant collections and display gardens, as well as a vegetable garden and orchard, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens make for a delightful visit!
Camellias, magnolias, and rhododendrons do well in the coastal climate, and you will see many different species of each in the Mendocino Coast Gardens. In fact, the garden boasts the largest collection of camellia species on the west coast!
Visit in the late summer to see lots of dahlias in peak bloom: their gorgeous forms and beautiful colors will stop you in your tracks. And if you love old roses, you will definitely want to spend time in the Heritage Rose Garden: the roses in the collection were discovered in old homesteads and ranches and along roadsides in Mendocino County.
Walk through the five-acre vegetable garden and orchard, where you will find a mix of vegetables, herbs, fruit trees, and flowering plants that attract beneficial insects.
For more information, visit the MCBG website.
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
With a focus on the diversity of native California plants and trees, historic landmarks, and fabulous views to the Santa Ynez mountains and the Channel Islands, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a must-visit! For nature lovers, visiting the garden is one of the top things to do in Santa Barbara.
The garden’s 78 acres include cultivated areas as well as natural woodlands. Stroll the pathways to admire the over 1,000 species of plants on display. Also in the garden, you can admire historic landmarks such as the dam built in 1806 to supply water to the Santa Barbara Mission.
The Meadow Section is a riot of colors in the spring, when yellow, purple, and orange wildflowers bloom in profusion. Also in the spring, the Manzanita Section looks stunning, with white and pink flowers looking lovely against the reddish bark of the shrub.
Year round, the Japanese Garden offers a serene place to stroll. The use of California natives in a Japanese design makes this garden truly unique. Also walk the shaded Redwood Section, and wander the Woodland Trail to see a less cultivated part of the garden.
For more information, visit the SBBG website.
Planning a getaway to Santa Barbara? Check out our article on the best things to do in Santa Barbara on a weekend trip!
University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley
Across the bay from San Francisco, the 34-acre University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley contains over 10,000 varieties of plants from all over the world, including many that are rare or endangered.
The garden’s main collections are organized geographically, and you can stroll the pathways to admire plants from many parts of the planet, including California. As part of its conservation program, the garden propagates endangered California species for re-establishing in the wild.
Don’t miss the Japanese collection: the garden holds about 450 types of plants from Japan, many of them documented wild. The maples look stunning in the fall, and the Japanese Pool, with its little waterfalls, stepping stones, and lanterns, is beautiful any time of year.
My favorite garden at UC Berkeley is the Garden of Old Roses, where fragrant cup-shaped roses in shades of pink and white grow happily alongside other perennials such as foxglove and penstemon. It’s like the pretty photos in my books on English gardens come to life!
For more information, visit the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley website.
Descanso Gardens, La Cañada Flintridge
Descanso Gardens features a number of gorgeous themed gardens, including native plants and woodlands, over an impressive 150 acres. The garden is a must on your Los Angeles itinerary if you enjoy plants and nature.
Descanso Gardens contains the largest camellia collection in North America. Featuring both rare and familiar species, the camellia garden is best visited in January or February, when the bloom peaks. Descanso’s Rose Garden, covering 5 acres, is just stunning, with both heritage and modern varieties.
To experience native California plants and trees, walk through the Oak Forest, where you can admire mature coast live oaks and look for birds and wildlife. The Ancient Forest showcases a collection of cycads and tree ferns.
If you enjoy kitchen gardens, make sure you stop by Nature’s Table, where you will find fruit trees, seasonal vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers.
For more information, visit the Descanso website.
A 26-acre oasis of more than 4,000 plants from all around the world, the Fullerton Arboretum is located on the California State University campus in Fullerton.
The Arboretum is a place for people to observe and learn: you can take classes on a diverse range of subjects from cooking and bonsai to nature photography and painting. Join guided nature tours led by docents to learn as you tour the garden.
In the middle of the Arboretum is the lovely Heritage House, built in 1894. Docents in Victorian dress lead tours of the historic home. Meandering paths lead into various collections, including Southern California natives, an organic vegetable garden, and a rare fruit grove.
As you stroll, look for birds and other wildlife. If you are visiting with kids, there is a Children’s Garden you will want to explore. Check out the pond and the lake: you will almost certainly spot birds around the water, and turtles and koi fish in the pond.
For more information, visit the Fullerton Arboretum website.
San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas
Located about 25 miles north of San Diego in Encinitas, the 35-acre San Diego Botanic Garden is home to over two dozen display areas that you can explore via four miles of walking trails. The garden is well worth the 30-minute drive!
Some must visit areas: Palm Canyon, which contains palm trees from all over the world, the Mexican Garden, where you can see cool topiary mariachis, and the bamboo garden, the largest collection in the country.
Stroll the Overlook Natural Area, which contains Southern California natives and offers stunning ocean vistas. The Conservatory features beautiful hanging orchids and a living green wall. Water features provide tranquility, and there are places to just sit and enjoy nature.
If you enjoy birding, bring your binoculars! The garden is a prime birding area, with 156 different species seen in (or from) the garden. Monthly bird walks are offered.
For more information visit the SDBG website.
Hakone Estate and Gardens, Saratoga
Over 100 years old, Hakone Estate and Gardens is one of the oldest Japanese gardens in the Western hemisphere. Located in Saratoga, Hakone is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and covers 18 acres.
Without a doubt, the best time to visit Hakone is when the cherry trees are in bloom, which generally happens at some point in March. The garden looks spectacular at that time, with clouds of pale pink blossoms everywhere you look.
That said, you can visit in other months and still enjoy the tranquility of the garden and other plants in bloom. In April, for example, wisteria and rhododendron offer lots of color. The Japanese maples look beautiful year round. The waterfalls are soothing any time of year, as is the bamboo garden.
Admire the architectural elements on the property: the Upper House, also called the Moonviewing House, was built without the use of nails!
For more information, visit the Hakone Estate and Gardens website.
Sunnylands Center & Gardens, Rancho Mirage
The Sunnylands Desert Gardens are not large, but they are gorgeous. If you enjoy succulents and desert plants, you will love strolling this 9-acre garden in Rancho Mirage, just 10 miles from Palm Springs.
The former winter estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, the complex includes the gardens and the mid-century modern Sunnylands Center, both of which are free to explore. The historic estate (home and grounds) can only be visited on a guided tour, with advance reservation.
The desert garden features landscaped succulents of several kinds. Walk through the pathways to admire the succulents and enjoy the views of Mount San Jacinto in the distance. In season, join bird walks to see the many species that visit the estate.
The Center is a striking building, with tall windows looking out onto a serene back garden and green space, and views of Mount San Jacinto. Admire the twin reflecting pools by the windows, framed with more plants.
For more information, visit the Sunnylands Center website.
The Gardens at the Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades
A lovely harmonious blend of art, architecture, plantings, and open spaces, the gardens at the Getty Villa will captivate you. As Italy afficionados, my husband and I loved our visit to the Getty Villa gardens.
Featuring about 300 varieties of Mediterranean plants, the four gardens at the Getty Villa are laid out adjacent to the villa, which is a reproduction of an ancient villa in Herculaneum that got buried by the eruption of Vesuvius.
The Outer Peristyle Garden features a stunning reflecting pool, many sculptures, and wall paintings. Pomegranate trees adorn the corners, and greenery like ivy, laurel, and boxwood fringe the pool. The Herb Garden contains a variety of Mediterranean herbs and fruit trees.
The Inner Peristyle Garden features a square walkway along its perimeter, with columns and fountains. A small pool in the center is surrounded by statuary. The tiny East Garden is a jewel, with two ornamental fountains and mature trees for shade.
For more information, visit the Getty Villa and Gardens website.
Conservatory of Flowers, San Francisco
The iconic white Conservatory of Flowers building in San Francisco stops you in your tracks as you enter Golden Gate Park. Built in 1879, the gorgeous structure is a national, state, and city historic landmark.
Even before you enter, admire the landscaped grounds outside, bursting with color in season. The Conservatory of Flowers houses rare and exotic plants from all over the world, arranged in five different categories.
In the Lowland Tropics section, check out coffee, cacao, and vanilla plants, along with pineapple and starfruit. In the Aquatics section, admire the waterlilies and carnivorous plants. In the Highland Tropics, gape at the gorgeous orchids and ferns.
In the Potted Plants section, view changing selections of plants through the year, including rare blooming plants such as the gigantic Corpse Flower, which only blooms once in every few years.
For more information, visit the Conservatory of Flowers website.
Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, Catalina Island
A unique garden located on Catalina Island, the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden showcases plants that are endemic to the California islands: plants that grow naturally in these islands but nowhere else. Many species in the collection are rare and some are endangered.
Spread over close to 38 acres, the hilltop garden houses the Wrigley Memorial, which honors the memory of William Wrigley Junior, the chewing gum magnate. The memorial, built mainly with material found on the island, offers stunning views over the water.
Stroll through the Desert Garden, the original garden at the site. It houses succulents from all over the world. As you walk the meandering pathways, watch for birds and wildlife: you may see deer, or even a Catalina Island fox!
You can walk up to the garden in about 30 minutes, or take the tram or a rented golf cart to the top of the hill.
For more information, visit the Catalina Conservancy website.
Filoli Historic House and Garden, Woodside
Built in the early 20th century for Mr. and Mrs. William Bowers Bourn II, the owners of the Empire Gold Mine in Grass Valley, Filoli is a stunning Bay Area estate listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Filoli estate includes a fabulous formal garden that was laid out over a period of about 12 years, with flower plantings, an extensive kitchen garden with espaliered fruit trees, berry cages, and greenhouses, and a 10-acre fruit orchard.
The English Renaissance design features a sunken garden with a lovely pond, a walled garden, a woodland garden, and a rose garden. Beautiful formal hedges divide the garden into compartments, and manicured lawns set off the brightly colored flowers.
The gorgeous rose garden at Filoli contains many historic hybrid tea rose varieties. Originally a mixed color garden, it is today organized by color. You will also find camellias, magnolias, rhododendrons, irises, peonies, and maples in the garden, as well as a lovely English style mixed perennial border.
For more information, visit the Filoli website.
A unique 37-acre garden created over a period of 43 years by Madame Ganna Walska, a Polish opera singer, Lotusland is a must-visit for its exotic plant collections and dramatic garden design.
Home to more than 3,000 different plants from all over the planet, Lotusland’s collections of palms, bromeliads, cacti, and cycads are of particular note. The topiary garden contains a working topiary clock from 1955.
Don’t miss the truly unique Blue Garden, which features blue-foliaged plants against a backdrop of blue Atlas cedars. Not only are the plants gorgeous, they are also drought-tolerant.
Admire the parterre, with its Spanish and Moorish elements and stunning star fountain, Neptune fountain, and pebble mosaics. Wander the tranquil Japanese garden, which features a reflecting pond. Visit in the summer to see the garden’s signature lotuses in bloom.
For more information, visit the Lotusland website.
Moorten Botanical Garden, Palm Springs
A privately-owned arboretum in Palm Springs, Moorten Botanical Garden showcases the beauty and diversity of desert plants, and is a must-visit when you are in the area.
With more than 3,000 varieties of cacti and other succulents organized around a nature trail, Moorten Botanical Garden is just one acre in size. Species are grouped geographically, and cover not only nearby areas such as the Mojave Desert but also far-flung biomes like the South African Karoo.
The Cactarium houses rare arid region plants that you may not find elsewhere. Along with the plants, you can browse crystals, fossils, and relics from the gold-mining days.
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