4 spectacular Bay Area public gardens to explore

By Jackie Burrell

SAN JOSE, Calif. — You don’t have to hit the backcountry — or the smoke-choked Sierra or currently-closed national forests — to get a dose of nature. There are gorgeous parks and public greens tucked among the skyscrapers and asphalt of Bay Area cities, from a rooftop park in San Francisco to a historic garden in Palo Alto and botanical wonders in the Berkeley hills.

Here’s just a sampling of beautiful spots for sauntering in the Bay Area — including one that sets pianos among the plants.

An urban sky walk in San Francisco

Rolling lawns, redwood and bamboo groves and lavender heaths amid the San Francisco skyscrapers? When Salesforce Tower opened its SoMa transit center, it topped its grand bus, train and MUNI station with an urban park. Today, Salesforce Park’s 5.4 acres of green lushness include rolling hills, a desert-inspired garden, a wetland garden and groves of redwoods, bamboo and palm trees. The trail that winds around the four-block park includes 13 mini-botanical gardens. There’s a children’s play area. And a 1,200-foot “Bus Fountain” art installation sends 247 tiny fountains into a gushing frenzy every time a bus pulls into the transit station.

In nonpandemic times, the park amphitheater hosted concerts and other events, and a gondola carried you skyward from street level. But even now, this rooftop park is a great place to take a stroll, enjoy the gardens and picnic on the grass. The escalator may not be as grand as a glass gondola, but it will get you there just fine.

Details: The Salesforce Transit Center’s rooftop park is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. through October and until 8 p.m. November through April. Masks are required in the Transit Center, but not in the park. The park is bordered by Mission, Howard, Beale and Second Streets (psst, look up!). Find more details, including details on bird walks, tree tours and yoga classes, at https://salesforcetransitcenter.com.

Gamble Garden in Palo Alto

Everyone knows about Filoli, the historic Georgian Revival estate and gardens in Woodside. But the Bay Area brims with other historic gardens, too, including the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden built in 1902 for the Gamble family of Procter & Gamble fame. Elizabeth Gamble, who had a passion for gardening, bequeathed the 2.5-acre property, its home and expansive formal gardens, to the city of Palo Alto when she died in 1981. For the last 30-plus years, the property has been a public garden, restored to its former glory and preserved by its non-profit horticultural foundation and a small army of volunteers.

Stop by anytime and you, too, can stroll its paths, enjoy the extensive camellia collection, the irises and roses, and survey the cutting, formal herb and Mediterranean gardens. Wander on your own or join a Gamble Garden docent for a themed tour that includes the main house and different areas of the gardens. The hourlong tour on Sept. 21, for example, focuses on the estate’s edible gardens.

Details: Gamble Garden is open daily during daylight hours. Admission is always free. Tours are $5 and require reservations. Find the estate at 1431 Waverley St. in Palo Alto; www.gamblegarden.org..

Flower Piano at Golden Gate Park

The 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden is a treat at any time of year. But Flower Piano, the annual five-day musical celebration, transforms these gardens into an alfresco concert venue. From Sept. 17-21, music of every variety — jazz, classical, pop, soul, folk, cross-genre and genres we’ve never even heard of — will flow from pianos set on the Great Meadow, the Garden of Fragrance and 10 other botanical sites.

Among the fun options: A Twelve Piano Extravaganza on Sept. 18 that will see a dozen hourlong piano concerts unfolding at 12 different sites at noon, another dozen at 1 p.m. and still another set at 2 p.m. So you can catch Dawn Oberg’s “Amusing 21st-Century Yacht Rock for Piano” in the Redwood Grove, for example, “Earth, Wind and Flowers” in the Garden of Fragrance and a Beatles sing-along on the Great Meadow.

Also, a family-friendly Rabbit Hole Theater Magical Scavenger Hunt for fairies, fortune tellers and more on Sept. 19, and an all-day community art project with Messy Art Lab.

Details: Flower Piano runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 17-21 at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, 1199 Ninth Ave. The botanical garden opens daily to the public at 7:30 a.m., with closing hours that vary by season. Tickets range from $3 to $10, with a family pass available for $21; advance purchase is strongly recommended. Masks are required in all indoor spaces. Find more information at www.sfbotanicalgarden.org and www.sfbotanicalgarden.org/flowerpiano.

A botanical garden in the Berkeley hills

UC Berkeley’s gorgeous botanical garden stretches across 34 acres in Strawberry Canyon, offering bay views along with more than 12,000 plants from around the world. With nine gardens representing geographic areas, you can journey — botanically — from Australia to South Africa, the Mediterranean and the Americas.

Stroll the gardens and explore its wonders for yourself or take the garden’s self-guided contemplative tour, which includes quiet spots to meditate or read — near the Japanese pool, perhaps, or the Circle of Redwoods — complete with poetry and literature excerpts.

Prefer to roam from home? Take one of the garden’s virtual tours: walk-through videos that immerse you in the agaves, cacti and succulents of the Deserts of the Americas, say, or the winding paths of the Asia garden. Or sign up for one of the Botanical Garden’s Zoom experiences, which range from a virtual butterfly walk on Oct. 3 with “caterpillar lady” Sal Levinson and “butterfly guy” Sarab Seth, to a botanical illustration class on acorns and oak leaves on Oct. 8.

Details: The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (but closed on the first and third Tuesdays of the month beginning in October) at 200 Centennial Drive. Reservations are a must; book your ticket ($7-$15) online before you go. Masks are required in all indoor spaces. Note: On Cal football game days, you’ll want to approach Centennial Drive from Grizzly Peak Boulevard, not the Berkeley campus, to avoid game-related closures. Find more information and download the contemplative tour guide at https://botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu/visit.

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