5 Botanical Gardens and Parks Worth a Visit

Populated by magnificent plant species, colorful structures and moving artworks, botanic and sculpture gardens top the must-visit lists of travelers seeking to experience the magical heart-expanding and eye-opening power of nature and human creativity.

Whether you spend an hour or a day exploring a botanical or sculpture garden, you’ll come away inspired and uplifted. California’s Sunnylands Gardens, Florida’s Marie Selby Gardens, Morocco’s Jardin Marjorelle, Mexico’s El Charco del Ingenio garden and Norway’s Vigeland Sculpture Park are stunning examples of how a well-plotted and planted piece of land can boost your mood.  

Sunnylands Center & Gardens in Rancho Mirage, California 

About 11 miles from Palm Springs, CA, a spectacular desert garden surrounding a midcentury- modern structure invites visitors to stroll and ogle. Since 1966, the 200-acre estate, which once served as the winter home of renowned ambassadors and philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg, has hosted 8 U.S. Presidents and numerous world leaders. In 2001, the couple established The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands to preserve the estate as a place for world leaders to go on retreat and discuss vital domestic and international issues. And in 2008, the Foundation established an educational Center and nine acres of desert gardens as serene, contemplative places for the public to enjoy.

Sunnylands Center & Gardens.
Sunnylands Center & Gardens. Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

The Center, which stylistically references the historic home of the Annenbergs, has the feeling of a grand living room. Sitting in this majestic space and looking out through the glass wall that fronts the gardens provides a view of distant mountains and a small taste of the garden glories to come.

Walking through the gardens both in back and in front of the Center, one encounters many different types of botanicals and scenery—from meticulous, orderly plots to more wild and free-form landscaping. Highlights include twin reflecting pools, a labyrinth that winds through trailing smokebush, over 70 species of native and arid-adapted plants (50,000 all told) from around the world and an inscribed wooden bench that expresses the diplomacy dimensions of the broader estate. President Barack Obama presented the bench to Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China during their visit to the estate in 2013.

Sunnylands Center & Gardens.
Sunnylands Center & Gardens. Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

Winding paths cut through all sections of the gardens. Wherever one wanders, the plants fuel awe and contemplation—many wield the power of sculpture and art. No surprise there: The gardens were inspired by the Annenberg’s collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings (bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991); the influence of Van Gogh’s brushwork is particularly evident.

If you visit, you’re likely to encounter any number of wildlife species—iguanas, hummingbirds, monarch butterflies and jackrabbits are just a few of the possibilities.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Downtown Sarasota Campus, Sarasota, FL

Hugging the shores of bluer-than-blue Sarasota Bay, Selby Gardens is a compact 15-acre botanical garden—a  lush, healing oasis in the heart of Sarasota that occupies the grounds of the former home of Marie and William Selby, who were philanthropic luminaries. It’s the only botanical garden in the world that is dedicated to the display and study of orchids, bromeliads, gesneriads and ferns, epiphytes, and tropical plants—nearly 13,000 examples can be found here.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Downtown Sarasota campus.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Downtown Sarasota campus. Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

The garden is actually made up of a variety of smaller gardens—each a world unto itself. Explore them all and you’ll feel as if you’ve traveled to several different lands. A walk through the Tropical Conservatory is tantamount to a journey to a remote and exotic island paradise. Take a breather on a bench alongside the koi pond and Japan won’t feel all that far away. Take special note of the property’s spectacular old Banyan Trees—their intricate sprawling root systems can only be described as otherworldly.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Downtown Sarasota campus.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Downtown Sarasota campus. Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

Venture to the small Museum of Botany and Arts, housed in an old home on the property, and you’ll see firsthand how the inspiration that plants and nature provide morphs into magnificent artworks. As you make your way to the Museum building, pause along the bayfront mangrove walkway and take in the soothing sights and sounds of the water.

The benefits of Selby Gardens go far beyond the solace and visual delight it provides the public; it’s also a major plant research facility. The Spirit Collection—35,000 vials of three-dimensional flowers and other plant parts in preservative fluid—compose the largest collection of its type in the western hemisphere. And the Garden’s Herbarium, with over 115,000 collections of tropical flora, are a treasure trove for scientists. The fact that your visit to the Gardens will support its critical research and conservation efforts is just one of many great reasons to go.

El Charco del Ingenio, located a few minutes outside of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico

This stunning botanical garden and 170-acre preserve in the heart of the central highlands of Mexico features a vast array of cacti and other rare and/or threatened indigenous Mexican succulents. (Interesting fact: Mexico has the widest variety of cacti in the world.) Pathways cut through and around the preserve’s lush plant displays, awesome scenic outlooks, bird sanctuaries and interactive children’s garden, providing multiple vantage points for enjoying the sights.

El Charco del Ingenio.
El Charco del Ingenio. Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

Follow the network of paths leading out from the visitor center and you’ll be traversing ancient wetlands surrounded by sloping scrublands. El Charco is a lovely spot to walk, jog, hike and meditate. It’s also a great place to paint and photograph natural scenery—you may spot an artist or two creating a plein air work as you meander.

Visit the Conservatory of Mexican Plants (a spacious greenhouse that also houses aquatic plant species and native fish), the adjacent Agave Garden and the Area of Rescued Plants, situated on the garden’s western side. You’ll be hooked by the dazzling colors of the blooms and the unusual forms of the cacti and other succulents (there are more than 500 species here)—they  range from soaring columns and rounded barrels to creeping, sinewy shoots and squat shrubs. As for the notorious cacti spines—well, daggers and swords may come to mind. Stay clear! 

El Charco del Ingenio.
El Charco del Ingenio. Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

In 2004, the Dalai Lama, Tibetan leader, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, visited and proclaimed El Charco a Peace Zone. You’ll know why as soon as you set foot in this magical garden.

The Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh, Morocco

Conceived and planted as a sanctuary and botanical laboratory by French artist Jacques Majorelle starting in 1922, this 2 ½-acre garden features alleyways that crisscross it at various heights, as well as spectacularly colorful buildings that blend Art Deco and Moorish design, adding visual pizzazz to thousands of exotic botanical specimens.

Jardin Majorelle.
Jardin Majorelle. Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

Morocco brims with pattern and color, and so too does Jardin Marjorelle. But it feeds the senses with a uniquely calming combination of hue and form rather than overstimulating them, as other aspects of the country do. From the moment you leave the streets of the walled medieval city of Marrakesh and enter Jardin Majorelle, a feeling of relief will wash over you—relief from the assault of the overwhelming density, bustling souks and confounding, maze like alleys just outside. Breathe deeply and then walk along the ochre-toned pathways, set your sights on the deep blues and yellows of the structures and urns.

Blue and yellow have served as a classic color duo in art and design for eons—derived from nature, they’re both soothing and pleasing. But the particular tones used on the structures here (a bold cobalt blue, that has come to be known as Majorelle Blue, and a rich, sun-struck yellow) redefine the combo’s artistic impact. The vivid contrast they provide to the paler tones of the surrounding palms, bamboo and cacti powerfully imprint your mind and memory and won’t leave you anytime soon.

Jardin Majorelle.
Jardin Majorelle. Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

It’s impossible to call out all the unforgettable features in this dreamscape, but standouts include the thick bamboo stalks etched by visitors (they wield the visual power of ancient hieroglyphics), the brilliant orange koi fish darting about in one of the garden’s many shimmering fountain features, and the palm fronds that knit together overhead like gigantic lacy umbrellas.

Famed fashion designers Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge purchased the garden in 1980 to save it from imminent destruction by hotel developers and took up residence in Majorelle’s Cubist-style villa, renamed Villa Oasis. Today, the garden is run by a nonprofit foundation and the villa houses the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech, the Berber Museum (fabulous textiles!) and the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. You’ll want to see these museums while you’re here—of course. But outdoors is where you’ll want to spend the majority of your time. 

Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, Norway

With 212 granite, bronze and cast-iron sculptures by Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, this is the largest sculpture park in the world featuring the work of one artist. Built between 1939 and 1949, the statues are arranged along a grand boulevard in Frogner Park, and strike a variety of poses that explore the human form, and various stages of human life and aspects of the human condition.

Vigeland Sculpture Park.
Vigeland Sculpture Park. Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

Frogner Park would be worth a visit even without the Sculpture Park—it’s a popular Oslo haven that draws tons of local residents looking to run, walk their dogs, picnic, play badminton and ogle at Norway’s biggest collection of roses (14,000 plants representing 150 different species). But Vigeland Sculpture Park cements its appeal.

Vigeland not only designed the statues, which were created over a period of about 20 years, but the entire park that surrounds them. It features a central axis leading to several sculpture groupings, including The Monolith—the park’s centerpiece, which rests on a raised plateau overlooking everything. Almost as soon as you enter the park, you’ll encounter Vigeland sculptures—the long path that leads to The Monolith first acts as a bridge, crossing over a lake and setting the tone of what’s to come with lineups of statues that present the grandeur of the male and female body and examine relationships. Other walkway statues probe family dynamics and explore movement, such as dancing.

Keep going and the standalone sculptures get a bit more aggressive and surreal. Once you clear them, you’ll start to see the sculpture groupings, each a magnificent landmark in its own right and leading up to The Monolith. The most notable are: The Fountain, which contains 60 bronze reliefs depicting the human life span, from childhood to the teenage years to old age, and The Wheel of Life—a circle formed of embracing bodies that suggests an infinitely looping life cycle.

Vigeland Sculpture Park.
Vigeland Sculpture Park. Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

You’ll climb steps to reach The Monolith, a 46-foot-tall obelisk-like form carved out of a single piece of granite that features 121 intertwined human figures, crawling toward the pinnacle. This single form is encircled by numerous monumental sculptures showing unclothed people of various ages—connecting, striving, loving and fighting, living and dying.

Some of the sculptures in the park are abstract and others are more literal. All are sublimely expressive and resonant. You can’t come here and not be moved to reflect on your own life experiences and those of people close to you—from birth to mortality and everything in between.


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