Destinations No Passport Required: Secret US City Gardens Revealed

by Joni Sweet | June 21, 2019

From the tranquility of an English country garden to the momentary splendor of an African desert in bloom, Mother Nature inspires far-flung journeys to glimpse her finest and most alluring work up-close.


But here’s a secret: You don’t actually need to travel far to behold plant life from around the world. Some of the most impressive green spaces in America are right in the backyards of major cities. These seven under-the-radar gems offer travelers a chance to immerse themselves in nature, while seeing a leafier, sweeter-smelling side of the country’s urban landscape.

pond with lily pads at Wave Hill Gardens
Photo courtesy of Wave Hill Gardens

Wave Hill Gardens

Bronx, NY

Boasting views of the Palisades Cliffs across the Hudson River, the Bronx’s Wave Hill Gardens has been a fresh-air retreat for New Yorkers for more than 175 years, including past presidents. Now, the 28-acre property — anchored by a renovated English-style country mansion built in 1843 — provides present-day travelers with a lush escape just 12 miles north of midtown Manhattan. The Flower Garden resembles a French impressionist painting brought to life, while the Elliptical Garden has converted the estate’s swimming pool into a formal garden of native plants in an eccentric color palette.

View of front lawn and mansion at Longue Vue House & Gardens
Photo courtesy of Longue Vue House & Gardens

Longue Vue House & Gardens

New Orleans, LA

Longue Vue House & Gardens is only a 20-minute drive from Bourbon Street, but it might as well be an entirely different world. The manicured property serves as one of the most cherished examples of architecture from the Country Place Era, an early 20th-century design movement where affluent Americans started adding massive gardens (like those they’d seen on trips to Europe) to their country estates. Tours of the historic mansion take you through decorated rooms, some of which were dedicated to specific activities like flower arranging and wrapping presents, and a porch filled with contemporary art collected from France. But, just as magnificent are Longue Vue’s 14 garden areas including an interactive Discovery Garden for children.

exterior of greenhouse at Desert Botanical Garden
Photo courtesy of Desert Botanical Garden

Desert Botanical Garden

Phoenix, AZ 

Next time you’re in Phoenix, lace up your hiking boots and head to Desert Botanical Garden. The 140-acre natural attraction, which celebrates its 80th birthday this year, features five thematic trails that offer the chance to see towering cactus, plump succulents and desert wildflowers that explode with color. Among Desert Botanical Garden’s collection of more than 50,000 plants are a 15-foot Euphorbia ammak from Saudi Arabia and Queen Victoria Agave plants from Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert. For an even more dynamic experience, plan your visit around one of the garden’s regular performing arts events, like ballet recitals and dueling piano sing-alongs.

elevated walkway through the trees at Morris Arboretum
Photo courtesy of Paul Warchol

Morris Arboretum

Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia may have been crowned “America’s Garden Capital” (boasting 30 gardens within 30 miles of the city), but visitors are still discovering Morris Arboretum, a hidden gem in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood. The 92-acre Victorian arboretum is home to some of the city’s oldest and rarest trees, like a 250-year-old bender oak, a Tatar wingceltis from China that turns yellow in the fall and a cotton candy-scented Katsura tree, native to Japan and China. Kids will love getting a view of the forest from 50 feet high on the canopy walk and sitting atop giant robin’s eggs in the Bird’s Nest. Travel tip: The Morris Arboretum is open late on Wednesdays during the summer, so guests can lay out a picnic dinner lit by fireflies.

rose garden at the International Rose Test Garden
Photo courtesy of International Rose Test Garden

International Rose Test Garden

Portland, OR

Portland’s “City of Roses” nickname makes perfect sense once you've experienced the fragrant International Rose Test Garden. Nestled within 410-acre Washington Park, one of Portland's oldest parks, the lush garden features more than 10,000 rose bushes that bloom from April to October, with their peak in June. This is more than just a perfumed place to stroll; it’s the country’s oldest continuously operating public rose test garden, home to varieties hailing from countries all over the world, including England and Germany. Check out the Gold Award Garden to see some of the most prized specimens or the Miniature Rose Garden, which contains pint-sized versions of the bigger blooms.

Sibley Victoria pool at Fairchild Tropical Botanical garden
Photo courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden

Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden

Miami, FL

You may never make it to Madagascar, but at least you can say you’ve seen the island’s array of extraordinary plant life if you visit Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. The Lin Lougheed Spiny Forest of Madagascar is just one of many unique plant collections at the 83-acre tropical botanical garden. You can also get up-close to exotic butterflies (like the Bamboo Page from Central America and Leopard Lacewings from Asia), tropical fish and rare plants at the Wings of the Tropics Conservatory. Explore one of the world’s most important palm collections at the Montgomery Palmetum and see hundreds of orchids in Fairchild’s rainforest exhibit. Don’t miss the Sibley Victoria Pool, one of the only outdoor gardens in the U.S. to feature examples of the world’s largest water lilies, the Victoria.

Inside the arboretum at Garfield Park Conservatory

Garfield Park Conservatory

Chicago, IL 

For more than 100 years, Garfield Park Conservatory has been reminding Chicago residents and visitors of the important relationship humans share with plants. Its eight indoor display gardens showcase living greenery from Madagascar to Mexico, earning the conservatory the reputation of having “landscape art under glass.” If you’re visiting with children, point out the Powderpuff Tree in the Show House — its fluffy fuchsia flowers look like something they'd see in a fantasy book. And in the warmer months, the 12 acres of outdoor gardens offer endless ways to commune and interact with nature, including beekeeping demonstrations and meditative walks through the winding labyrinth set in the Sensory Garden.

Joni Sweet

is a travel writer who loves seeing nature at its best, both at home and abroad. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Lonely Planet, Forbes and Travel Weekly.