Los Angeles—and California as a whole—is a pretty amazing place, botanically speaking. Stick practically any plant in the ground and it’ll grow, hence the palm tree-lined streets and the ubiquitous jacaranda tree bloom. Even though some of us can reach out our windows and pluck an avocado from a tree, a trip to one of the region’s many botanical gardens (among the best things to do in L.A.) reveals vegetation that simply can’t be found on our city streets. We’ve rounded up some of our favorites—broken up by category, like Japanese gardens or museum grounds—from botanical gardens in the San Gabriel Valley to a hidden oasis in a Hollywood Hills park.
Japanese & botanical gardens
You’ll find cultural glories inside the library’s impressive book collection—the bequest of entrepreneur Henry E. Huntington—but the Huntington’s true highlights are outdoors in its vast jigsaw of botanical gardens, arguably the most glorious in the entire Los Angeles region. The acres and acres of public gardens are divided into a variety of themes, including a prickly desert garden, a serene Japanese garden and bamboo forest, as well as an ever-expanding assembly of Chinese pagodas, pavilions and bridges.
This delightful tribute to the horticultural magic of Southern California includes more than 600 varieties of camellia (these are best seen between the middle of February and early May, when there are around 34,000 of the plants in bloom) and some five acres of roses. There are also lilac, orchid, fern and California native plant areas, as well as a tea house—flanked by seasonal cherry blossoms—donated by the Japanese-American community.
These gorgeous grounds in Arcadia have been designed as an educational facility (the plants are mostly arranged by region, and tours are available), but many people simply come here for a little peace and quiet. You could wander these gardens for hours, taking in tropical forests and waterfalls, trees and fish. Plus, be on the lookout for wild peacocks.
The L.A. Zoo’s greatest asset is its location in the isolated hills of Griffith Park. It’s a pretty popular place, but the zoo’s size—80 acres, plus a huge parking lot—means that, like the park itself, it rarely feels busy. There’s not a separate botanical garden here, but you will find over 800 different plant species, from native succulents to prehistoric cycads, labeled and catalogued throughout the zoo’s continentally-themed habitats.
This South Bay botanical garden covers 87 acres on the northeast side of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. You’ll find a mix of Southern California flora, from fuchsia to the talngled roots of Moreton Bay Fig trees, alonside more specialized areas like small Japanese and desert gardens. It may not be as grandiose as some other gardens, but it’s well worth the reasonable price of admission.
This small, tranquil garden is one of Little Tokyo’s best-kept secrets as the urban oasis isn’t accessible from the street. According to the adjoining community center, gardens carry great importance in Japanese culture—caring for the grounds is a form of art and spending time among the flora encourages harmony with nature—so walk the outer path for a complete view of the garden’s foliage, babbling stream and cascading waterfall.
This appropriately titled Japanese garden sits just across from the Sepulveda Basin on the border of Van Nuys. The stony bridges and footpaths wind along a central pond, flanked by by rockwork, manicured trees and tea houses. Of course, this wouldn’t be the Valley without a bit of an industrial edge—the garden is irrigated by the adjacent Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant.
This nearly two-acre private Japanese garden and traditional teahouse opens its doors to the public a few days each week. First constructed in the late 1930s, the garden features two ponds, four bridges and a cascading waterfall, all centered around a Japanese tea house. The current structure was painstakingly restored after a fire in 1981; the original was created in Japan by landscape designer and craftsman Kinzuchi Fujii.
Mansion & institution gardens
Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the J. Paul Getty Trust’s astronomical endowment is the famed hilltop art museum’s grounds. Once you’ve taken the electric tram ride up the hill, one thing becomes apparent: it’s a big place. Zigzagging paths cut across a manicured creek and down to artist Robert Irwin’s Central Garden, with a pond and hedge maze as its focus. You’ll find bits of greenery elsewhere among the limestone edifices, but make sure to visit the perch above the cactus garden, set against the Century City skyline and Pacific Ocean.
Though much of the majesty of past Olympics has faded, Exposition Park still stands as one of L.A.’s most significant institutions. You’ll find green spaces scattered around the USC-adjacent property, but the most charming section resides in the fragrant Rose Garden. Rest in one of the gazebos or take a stroll around the central fountain, all the while admiring its beautiful brick neighbors.
This Pacific Palisades villa—the original site of J. Paul Getty’s collection—houses thousands of Greek and Roman artifacts, but you could easily spend hours just wandering through its gardens. Built to mimic a Roman country house, the villa’s central pool is flanked by flower beds and bronze busts, and its southernmost point offers a glimpse of the ocean. Make sure to explore both sides to find an edible garden and a fountain set against a vibrant mosaic.
This 55-room Tudor estate is a good way to get a glimpse into the lives of L.A.’s historical 1%. Though the interior is only open for events and tours, the exterior gardens are open daily, free of charge. Take a stroll through alleys of poplars and cypress trees, a fountain and reflecting pool, and a terraced pool area, along with a public educational guide.
Department store magnates Virginia and Harry Robinson built this Beverly Hills estate in 1911, and upon their passing it entered into the county’s hands as a public park. Because of the six-and-a-half-acre estate’s quiet residential location, it’s only accessible via docent-led tours, which you’ll need to arrange two weeks in advance over the phone or via email. Once inside, you’ll find finely manicured gardens and a just as impeccably assembled mansion. In keeping with its storied history of lavish Hollywood parties, the estate hosts a swanky garden party at the beginning of each summer.
Urban & hidden gardens
It’s impossible to cruise along Grand Avenue and miss the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a twisted metallic explosion of Frank Gehry’s imagination. You may not realize, though, that the acoustically impressive hall harbors a lush garden in its shadows. Whether you’re looking for a quiet place to sit on your lunch hour or a climb along the building’s lustrous exterior, it’s the perfect spot to both appreciate and escape the city.
Just inland from the Pacific Coast Highway and easy to miss when you’re rushing to catch the sunset, the mystical, mysterious Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine is run by a non-denominational order that welcomes visitors but doesn’t proselytise to them. Set on a 10-acre site that was used as a film set during the silent era, the lovely gardens evoke old Hollywood: look out for the Dutch windmill chapel, the Mississippi houseboat and a number of gliding swans. The East, meanwhile, is represented by a gilded lotus gate enclosing a shrine that contains some of Gandhi’s ashes.
Events, weddings and banquets are often held at the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens, but the former site of the Lawry’s California Center is an ideal spot for an afternoon stroll as well. Stop by the visitor center, which serves as an exhibit hall celebrating the L.A. River (yes, it’s making a comeback), or walk through the River Garden Park at the corner of San Fernando Road and Avenue 26, where you might see families picnicking or joggers taking a water break.
In 1971, hiker Amir Dialameh singlehandedly nurtured a scorched hillside in Griffith Park into a shaded retreat. Nearly five decades later, this five-acre, volunteer-run garden remains a favorite rest stop for hikers and equestrians alike. Getting here is the difficult part: It’s about a half-mile walk uphill from the trailhead at Mineral Wells Road and Griffith Park Drive. But the payoff is sweet once you’ve found a seat on the hilltop picnic benches, among a patchwork of flower beds.
Tucked between the Hollywood Reservoir and the Hollywood Sign, this mosaic-filled grove of folk art is decidedly not public: the locked gate and general lack of information clearly state that this garden is meant to be hush-hush. But as a Designated Historic-Cultural Monument (#996), its existence isn’t exactly secret; indeed, you can even visit it on Thursdays from 10am to noon (as long as you don’t take photos inside). At any other time, we just request that you glance into this peaceful terrace of tilework and potted succulents from a respectful distance.
Pasadena certainly doesn’t come up short when it comes to green space. But among all those parks and plazas, Arlington Garden is the only public garden in the city. Walk among sycamores and succulents in this Italian-inspired sanctuary and navigate a seven circuit labyrinth.