Bernard O’Riordan stumbles upon one of San Francisco’s best-kept secrets: a network of privately-owned gardens where everyone is welcome.
So, you’ve ridden the cable cars, walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, eaten chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf and visited Lombard St – the world’s most crooked street.
You think you’ve seen just about everything San Francisco has to offer, right?
In major buildings across the city, a network of hidden rooftop gardens, sunny atriums and even terraces offering free Wi-Fi are waiting to be discovered.
These privately owned, public open spaces – or POPOS as they are known – are often hard to find, but they’re free for everyone to enjoy.
I’ve been visiting San Francisco on and off for 30 years, but I’ve only just discovered these secret, hidden gems which come in various forms, from tiny parklets referred to as “snippets,” to grand rooftop terraces, all of which are open to the public.
In-the-know locals and tourists have been enjoying these urban oases for decades.
Of the more than 70 spaces scattered throughout the downtown area, 45 were created between 1959 and 1985.
The rest were created as part of the 1985 Downtown Plan, a set of zoning regulations that included guidelines for the creation of more publicly accessible open space in downtown San Francisco for office workers and visitors.
In-the-know locals and tourists have been enjoying these urban oases for decades, but some building owners either didn’t know or were reluctant to grant access to these secluded public spaces.
As a result, many of these public spaces were neither obvious, nor clearly marked, sometimes intentionally.
So, in recent years the city has been updating requirements which forces all buildings to display adequate signage about these magnificent hidden spaces.
It’s a weird concept because most of us are generally programmed to feel like we’re trespassing if we visit a large downtown office building where we have no business, or similarly a hotel where we have no booking.
And while many of these private sanctuaries might seem off-limits to the public – particularly those housed in large corporate towers like Wells Fargo or Citigroup – rest assured they are very much open to the public.
Some of these sites might require you to show ID or even sign in, which is an acceptable security measure in this day and age, but just don’t take no for an answer.
Once you gain access to these buildings across the city, you can lounge in a landscaped rooftop garden for free or read a book on your lunch hour. Some have views that stretch all the way to the bay, while others have manicured gardens and even a sun dial.
This year, a 5.4 acre park on the roof of San Francisco’s TransBay Center, at First and Mission Sts, promises to steal the show after seven years in construction.
It will include 13 different gardens, a great lawn, an 800-seat amphitheater, a half mile jogging track as well as space for concerts and events when it opens this Spring.
Another beautifully manicured garden that is often incorrectly labelled as an officially designated open space is the Fairmont Hotel’s rooftop garden at Nob Hill. It’s a stunning oasis in the city that is well worth visiting, but it is not a registered POPOS.
Where You’ll Find The Hidden Gardens
Many of these open spaces are little more than concrete courtyards, but a small handful are actually quite mind-blowing.
Here are some of the best privately-owned, public open spaces worth checking out. Most are open weekdays only between 9am and 5pm, although some open later.
100 First Street
This is one of the largest and most accessible rooftop gardens in San Francisco, and quite possibly my favourite. It’s basically a lush garden on top of a parking garage.
A staircase on Mission between 1st and 2nd streets leads up to the terrace, which sprawls across the entire roof of the parking garage. You’ll find a silver plaque on a wall at Mission Street that marks its location.
Despite the vast size, intimate areas are created with planter beds and benches.
There are water features with undulating glass panels that resemble waves and numerous planters filled with flowers and grasses, providing a truly naturalistic escape from the bustling city below.
343 Sansome Street
The terrace at 343 Sansome Street is one of the best-kept secrets in the Financial District, and it’s also been called downtown’s best outdoor lunch spot.
It features tables, benches, planters filled with seasonal flowers, and views of the bay and TransAmerica Building.
Go through the Wells Fargo doors to the elevators and push ‘R’.
You’ll ride the elevator alongside office workers who might get a surprise when you step out to a garden oasis on the 15th floor. The space is open from 10am to 5pm weekdays.
One Kearny Street
Possibly one of the most secluded rooftop gardens in San Francisco, One Kearny is truly a calming urban oasis perched above city life below.
Just walk into the lobby on the Geary St entrance and ask the guard for access to the 11th floor open roof terrace, which will be granted after going over a simple list of rules.
This is a small space, with only a few benches and shrubbery, but the view and the architecture is gob smacking.
TransAmerica Redwood Park
In the shadows of the Transamerica Pyramid, Redwood Park is one of the Financial District’s greenest and most serene spots. It’s not strictly a Popos, but it’s definitely a hidden gem.
Originally there were 80 mature redwood trees brought in from the Santa Cruz Mountains when the park was constructed in 1972, alongside the tower.
Fifty of the original trees remain, creating a shaded, green oasis amidst the glass and steel skyscrapers.
The Crocker Galleria terrace at 50 Post St is a quiet haven in the heart of the busy Financial District – but it’s also the city’s best known POPOS. So when the sun is out, you can almost guarantee that the terrace will be heaving.
Overlooking Market Street and the downtown office towers, it’s the perfect spot for some time out in the city. It has shrubbery, planter boxes, plenty of seating and a fountain.
It’s located one flight of stairs up from the 3rd floor of the Galleria food court. Just look for the barrel-shaped glass ceiling.
Sky Terrace, Westfield Center
From what I can tell, the Sky Terrace at Westfield Centre on Market Street is almost always deserted. Probably because of the noisy and very annoying air conditioning units on the rooftop, as you can see (and hear) in this clip.
The entrance to the Sky Terrace is at 835 Market. Walk in and ask the guard for roof access, where you will be directed to a clearly marked elevator.
This is the only elevator that goes to the 9th floor sky terrace level.
The elegant enclosed atrium at the Citigroup Center (corner of Sutter and Sansome) is one of the most accessible and well-known POPOS in the city.
The atrium features a crêpe stand, a fountain, seating, and more than a dozen queen palms.
At one point, the space was used as a bank lobby – now it’s an open space in front of the building. There’s a glass ceiling in the atrium and a couple of dozen tables where you can sit while eating lunch.
It’s a cool environment highlighted by white marble and a tonne of natural light.
LinkedIn, 222 Second St
You might not know it, but the first-floor plaza at LinkedIn’s controversial digs at 222 Second Street is open to everyone, not just employees.
The enclosed open space, with floor to ceiling windows and doors, can be accessed through the street-level lobby. It also boasts restrooms, Wi-Fi and a cafe by Equator Coffees & Teas.
There are many wonderful open spaces to discover right across San Francisco. So next time you’re wandering the city streets, be sure to look up. You might be surprised.
You can read more about San Francisco’s incredible hidden gardens in this guide.
© 2020 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved
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