Slip into a secret garden. Climb to a rooftop oasis. Stroll an elevated park. To get a fresh angle on a city, take a walk on its green side.
We are drawn to cities for their dazzling lights, their bustling streets, and their dynamic cultural blends. But sometimes we need a break from the noise, the crowds, the urbanness of it all. And when we find a green space—tucked between buildings, growing from a wall, blooming in a reclaimed lot—another side of a city reveals itself.
“Humans have this incredible ingenuity to turn little corners of spare space into remarkable green resources for the public,” says Toby Musgrave, the author of Green Escapes: The Guide to Secret Urban Gardens (Phaidon, 2018), which features a diverse collection of more than 260 urban parks and gardens around the world.
For travelers, parks—particularly ones off the beaten path—offer both a new angle on a city and a place to simply absorb your experience. “I love walking in cities, but at some point, you need to sit down, have a sandwich, rest your feet, and just reflect on what you’ve seen,” Musgrave says. For his book, he sought out visually arresting, lesser-known sanctuaries with a story to tell. “Each one has its own individual character, but they are all three-dimensional works of art,” he says. Here, you’ll find our suggestions (as well as Musgrave’s) for the best places around the world to find peace, draw inspiration, take in the view, or go for a stroll. Because the most stimulating urban jungles have a bit of the actual jungle in them, too.
Where to find peace
These little-known gardens offer a chance to pause and reflect.
1. Wendy’s Secret Garden, Sydney
*A Toby Musgrave favorite
Tucked between Lavender Bay and Clark Park, this garden exists because one woman wanted to reclaim her life after the deaths of her former husband and her only child. Fueled by grief, Wendy Whiteley transformed a derelict rail yard in Sydney into a whimsical, vibrant space full of native ferns, bright flowers, and Bangalow palms.
Beloved for its suspended bookshelves and enormous whale skeleton, Mexico City’s “megalibrary” is a sanctuary for more than just books. In a 6.4-acre botanic garden, an abandoned factory repurposed as a greenhouse shelters an array of palm trees and an aromatic garden of native plants.
3. St. Dunstan-in-the-East Church Garden, London
An English parish church built in 1100, Saint Dunstan in the East was first damaged in the 1666 Great Fire of London. It was restored but again ravaged during the Blitz in 1941. Instead of rebuilding, the city of London used the church’s shell to create a public garden in 1967. Halfway between the Tower of London and London Bridge, this Gothic green space offers a refuge from the city and a reminder of its resilience.
Where to get inspired
Space-efficient, environmentally friendly, and easy on the eyes, these living buildings are the future of green architecture.
1. Tree House, Singapore
At the time it was completed in 2013, the Tree House’s 24,640-square-foot, west-facing green facade, which spans 24 floors, broke the Guinness World Record for largest vertical garden. The 429-unit building is as green as its surrounds: It’s located in Singapore’s park-filled District 23, and from their apartments, residents can enjoy a view of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Upper Peirce Reservoir.
*A Toby Musgrave favorite
Created in 2003 on the site of Osaka’s former baseball stadium, Namba Parks is a meandering green space incorporated into a massive shopping mall. A rock canyon winds through the mall, and each terrace offers something to be discovered: Tree groves, waterfalls, and vegetable gardens await among boutiques and restaurants.
3. Bosco Verticale, Milan
On the edge of Milan’s Isola district, a pair of residential towers hosts 800 trees, 4,500 shrubs, and 15,000 plants on balconies that project from all four sides of each building. It took botanists three years to select the right mix of plants. When it was completed in 2014, Bosco Verticale won the International Highrise Award, given every two years to “the most beautiful and innovative highrise in the world.”
Where to get a view
These green spaces put a roof under your feet and help you to see a city from a new perspective.
In this multipurpose building on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands, 15 terraces draped in greenery sit atop 1 million feet of space that holds the Fukuoka Symphony Hall, exhibit spaces, and a tourist information center. At the top: an observation deck offering views of the city and Hakata Bay.
Brasília’s Oscar Niemeyer–designed Palácio do Itamaraty houses Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the country’s largest public art collections, and a delightfully understated top-floor garden. The slatted roof allows sunbeams to reach the beds of native palms, ferns, and grass, and the arched facade offers views of Niemeyer’s National Congress building.
3. Salesforce Park, San Francisco
*Update: Shortly after opening in August 2o18, the Transit Center and Salesforce Park closed to repair reported damages. Officials have not yet announced a reopen date.
San Francisco’s the 5.4-acre Salesforce Park sits atop the highly anticipated Salesforce Transit Center. The public space includes an amphitheater, restaurants, and a variety of gardens. Take an elevator from the Transit Center lobby or, better yet, ride the new gondola that ascends from Mission Square for fifth-story views of the city’s upward-expanding Financial District and SoMa neighborhoods.
Inspired by the Promenade Plantée in Paris, the High Line, New York’s famous converted rail park planted the seed for urban greenway projects all over the United States.
In 2015, the year following the completion of Manhattan’s High Line, the 1.45-mile elevated park attracted 7.6 million visitors to the city’s Chelsea neighborhood. But New York wasn’t the first city to turn its old rails green. Paris built the first elevated, linear urban park in the world, the Promenade Plantée, on the abandoned Vincennes railway line in 1993. Now the model has spread to more U.S. cities.
Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta have now rehabilitated their own disused railroads to create linear parks. Opened one year after the High Line, the elevated 606 trail runs for 2.7 miles on the former Bloomingdale Line route, connecting four neighborhoods in northwest Chicago. Detroit’s Dequindre Cut links the city’s Eastern Market neighborhood with the riverfront via two paved miles of the former Grand Trunk Railroad. In Atlanta, the massive BeltLine project that began in 2008 is a third of the way done, with its first finished section open to the public. By 2030, the project—which will connect 45 Atlanta neighborhoods—will include 1,300 acres of parkland, 33 miles of multi-use trails, and 22 miles of light-rail.
One such project, Philadelphia’s Rail Park, completed its first phase this June. The quarter-mile section from Callowhill Street to North Broad Street kicks off an effort to transform three miles of the defunct Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. When finished, the Rail Park will consist of three sections—the elevated “Viaduct” with views of the city, the ground-level “Cut” weaving between the streets, and the subterranean “Tunnel” running under Pennsylvania Avenue—and connect 10 neighborhoods in central Philadelphia.