The Secret Gardens of San Francisco: 10 Downtown Parks and Open Spaces
In the "butterfly garden," the fragrance of Indian summer is strong and the butterflies are out in force. A smattering of office workers occupies nearby grassy spaces, eating and reading. Cumulus clouds loiter to the east. It’s lunchtime at Yerba Buena Gardens, one of San Francisco’s wide open spaces. San Francisco’s downtown outdoor gems range from Yerba Buena Gardens, a greensweep in the heart of the City, to rooftop gardens and waterfront sitting areas at the foot of Market Street. More than just emerald belts, these public gardens and open spaces offer an expanse of serenity in the midst of skyscraper forests.
Yerba Buena Gardens
Planted on top of the underground Moscone Center North, Yerba Buena Gardens lies at the doorstep of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a visual and performing arts complex. The gardens are divided into three parts: the Esplanade, Sister Cities Garden and the East Garden.
Twenty species of trees and an abundance of flowers ring the five-and-one-half acre Esplanade. The "butterfly garden" is in the northeast corner. Refugees from nearby offices lunch on one of many benches or stretch out on the lush lawn. Enter on Mission or Howard between Third and Fourth streets.
On the upper terrace of the Esplanade is the Sister Cities Garden, home to a diverse collection of flowering plants from San Francisco’s 13 sister cities around the world. Such international specimens include the Orchid Rockrose from Assisi, Italy, the Australian Bluebell Creeper from Sydney and Trailing Lantana from Caracas, Venezuela. Adjacent to the garden are two cafes, offering indoor and outdoor seating. A curved, wooden bench the length of half a city block faces north, overlooking a 200-foot-wide reflection pool and the San Francisco skyline. The flowing pool cascades into a 22-foot-high, 50-foot-wide waterfall over the granite-walled Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial below.
Separate from the main concourse, the East Garden is tucked between two Center for the Arts buildings. The half-acre garden sits above street level lending even more privacy. Among the grove of shady trees are flowers and patches of lawn. The three-tiered fountain drowns out sounds of traffic from Third Street below.
343 Sansome Street
Slivers of the bay peek through neighboring skyscrapers to the east; A full-length view of the Transamerica Pyramid can be seen to the west. One of several rooftop gardens open to the public, the Sun Terrace is on the 15th floor of the original Crown Zellerbach building, completed in 1930. Sixteen trees rooted in enormous planters, each encircled by white benches, provide seating and shade. In the center is a geometric-patterned tiled floor and a mini-mosaic-tiled Washington Monument, surrounded by free standing tables and chairs.
To the east, the Transamerica Pyramid appears to poke through the roof of a nearby apartment building. The inner garden, surrounded by a sitting area, resembles a putting green interrupted by flower beds. The entire yard sits under the shade of three 30-foot date palm trees. The ring-shaped fountain in the middle erupts at Old Faithful like intervals and is surrounded by meticulously trimmed hedges. The Fairmont, located atop Nob Hill, was opened in 1907. The clatter of cable cars can be heard from below as two lines intersect near the front of the hotel at Powell and California streets. Although accessible only from inside the Fairmont, the roof garden is open to the public. From the main lobby, veer right and turn left at the elevators. Walk past the gift shops to the end of the ramp and look for the sign; the garden is on the left.
100 First Street
This generously landscaped rooftop garden on the second floor of the Delta Tower building, was the winner of the 1992 American Association of Nurserymen National Landscape Award. Ample seating is found around the tiered benches, which alternate between shady ferns, lawn and fragrant flowers. Tables surround the "Waterwall," a water sculpture of reflection pools containing wavy sheets of glass, created by sculptor, John Luebton. The entrance is off Mission, near First Street, up the stairs to the left of 511 "Blooming Plaza."
One Market Plaza
Two large, breezy plazas are on the seventh floor, where the Steuart and Spear Street towers come together. The towers are connected to the old Southern Pacific Building by a pedestrian mall. A grass-filled area, with seating around the perimeter, dominates each plaza. A panorama of the bay is seen from both sites and each are graced with planters filled with trees and flowers. Both plazas are accessible from Spear Street, between Mission and Market. Use the elevator bank on the far right to the seventh floor.
Justin Herman Plaza
Year-round, office workers and visitors are entertained at lunchtime with free jazz, blues and rock concerts on the square. In the summer, lively volleyball games are played in the sand-filled courts on the plaza. Surrounded by the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Four Embarcadero Center and the Ferry Building across the street, Justin Herman Plaza is a 4.2-acre open space located at the base of Market Street. Umbrella-topped tables amid shade trees and a wide expanse of lawn draw the local lunch crowd. The 30-foot-wide Vaillancourt Fountain sounds like a waterfall as 30,000 gallons of water per minute cascade into its reflecting pool. Walkways built into the sculpture allow the curious to walk under and around the waterfalls.
Justin Herman Plaza was originally designed to complement Embarcadero Center, a five-building, 10-acre complex of restaurants, shops, offices and the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Connected by pedestrian walkways on levels two and three, wide expanses of promenade are liberally dotted with tables, chairs and benches, inviting shoppers to take a breather or permitting an al fresco dining experience.
Waterfront – Herb Caen Way
Daydreamers can plant themselves on a bench along the water and gaze at the endless cross traffic of tugboats, barges and sailboats making their way to port or out to sea. The best place to view this procession is from the promenade roughly from Folsom to Mission streets. This stretch of palm-lined walkway, opened in August 1994, was the first phase of a transportation improvement project that added the historic F-line streetcars in 1995 and a landscaped promenade to the bayside waterfront.
Behind the Ferry Building clock tower, at the bottom of Market Street, is the Ferry Plaza across from where the ferries depart for Sausalito and Larkspur in Marin County. Benches in front of the terminal offer a wide-angle view of the Bay Bridge to the south and of Alameda County to the east.
Fishermen catch flounder, kingfish and leopard shark off the end of Pier 7, while visitors and locals casually stroll up and down, watching the maritime activity. Built in 1989, the pier replaced the one that served as a terminal for passenger vessels between San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.