10 Secret Gardens in the Middle of Major Cities

A man sitting on a bench under a huge tree

Peter Trimming / Flickr

You rarely hear a city dweller complain about gardens taking up space. These oases of nature provide a sense of calm in an otherwise hectic environment. Some of the most interesting urban gardens are in unexpected places: on top of a public building, in the middle of a commercial district, or in the terminal of one of the world’s busiest airports. You may have strolled on a sidewalk next to a "secret garden" without realizing it was just around the corner or on the other side of a wall.

Indeed, the main problem with hidden city gardens is that they're hidden. If you don’t know these attractive natural spaces exist, you might never experience them. At the same time, the fact that these places escape notice makes them worth seeking out. Unlike central parks and city gardens that draw big crowds, you may have these secret spaces all to yourself.

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Butterfly Garden at Changi Airport

Photo: Raju Kasambe/Wikimedia

Singapore Changi Airport has earned high marks from travelers for its amenities, design and pleasant atmosphere. Like most modern hubs, Changi's main focus is retail, but it has other attractions, including multiple gardens, spas and lounges. One of the most interesting of these spaces is a butterfly garden with more than 1,000 winged residents representing 40 different species.

The colorful insects are located in Terminal 3. Though it's inside the airport, the garden has an open-air design with nets instead of solid walls. This means garden visitors are exposed to the perpetually hot Singapore air and that they can hear airplane noise in the background. The garden is limited to airport passengers, but if you still find it too crowded here, you can head to Changi's other natural spaces. Terminal 3 has a koi pond, Terminal 2 boasts orchid and sunflower gardens, and Terminal 1 features a cactus collection.

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Garden of the Prince of Anglona

Photo: Concepcion AMAT ORTA/Wikimedia

The Garden of the Prince of Anglona, Jardín del Príncipe de Anglona to locals, is near the Plaza de la Paja in the center of Madrid. This historic garden was restored at the beginning of the 20th century, but it retains its neoclassical style with brick pathways, manicured hedges and classic benches. Like many Spanish buildings and gardens from previous centuries, you will notice Moorish/Arabic influence in Anglona's geometric layout.

Barriers and hedges mean the garden is difficult to notice from outside, even though it's right next to the busy Calle de Segovia. The space is relatively small, so this is a destination for sitting on a bench and relaxing, not for a lengthy stroll. The hedges, fountain and aromatic fruit trees provide a buffer from the noise of downtown Madrid. The adjacent palace, where the garden’s namesake royal once lived, is still intact as well. It now houses a restaurant.

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St. Dunstan-in-the-East

Photo: Agatha Kadar/Shutterstock

St. Dunstan-in-the-East is a historic church in London. The parish is hundreds of years old. It survived the Great Fire of London in the 17th century, but it was directly hit by a German bomb during World War II. The steeple and some exterior walls survived the blast. The city of London was slowly rebuilt after the war, but St. Dunstan remained a bombed-out shell for more than 20 years while the Anglican Church reorganized its parishes. Finally, the city turned the grounds into a public garden. The remaining walls hide lawns, trees, a fountain and climbing ivy.

St. Dunstan is located down a quiet street, but it's only a short walk from major attractions like the Tower of London. This peaceful, ivy-covered park reportedly gets relatively crowded at noon on sunny days when office workers from the nearby buildings come to eat lunch. At most other times, however, it's a quiet place to get away.

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University of Warsaw Library Gardens

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This garden surrounds the library at the University of Warsaw. Most of it sits on the building's roof. This surprisingly large green space stretches for 1 hectare, which is about 2.5 acres. The garden has a fish pond, streams that you can cross on footbridges, pathways, sculptures and fountains. The design features two different levels: a smaller upper section and a larger lower section with a majority of the water features and art installations.

This is not a classical walled secret garden. It opened for the first time in 2002. Most visitors are students taking a break from studying in the library below and locals, who come to relax, picnic or enjoy one of the events that are regularly hosted in the garden. One other reason to visit this elevated natural attraction is that it's high enough that you can enjoy views of Warsaw.

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The Cloisters

Photo: Ted/Flickr

The Cloisters is a museum first founded by John D. Rockefeller in Upper Manhattan. The four-acre attraction features art, architecture and gardens inspired by the Medieval era. The space is run by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has artwork and artifacts such as paintings, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts. Even the gardens, which are surrounded by architecture with period elements, pay tribute to the Middle Ages. Horticulturalists tend plants that grew in the 13th and 14th centuries using techniques from that era.

This is a lesser-known New York City attraction, so crowds are often light. The enclosed nature of the gardens adds to the peaceful atmosphere. Despite the impressive collection of art, architecture and plants, this isn't on the tourist map for most Manhattan visitors. One reason for this is that the Cloisters is a 45-minute ride from central Manhattan. Also, unless you are a resident of New York, you'll to pay a rather steep admission fee of $25 for adults.

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Fay Park

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Fay Park is modest in size, but it is unique when it comes to design. This space in the Russian Hill area of San Francisco has three levels, which are connected by walkways and stairs. A local resident willed the gardens to the city in the late 1990s, and the city renovated it so that it could be open to the public. Fay's gazebos are a popular location for wedding photos and events, but the garden isn't on the tourist trail, so most visitors are locals.

Fay is laid out like a formal garden with ornamental plants, the aforementioned gazebos, and installations such as a sundial. It also boasts some unusual features, including a street lamp that once stood in Copenhagen, Denmark. The adjacent house, which was inspired by Victorian-era architecture, dates back to 1912. It is not open to the public, but the exterior is one of the elements that gives the park the feel of a backyard garden.

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Wendy's Secret Garden

Photo: Sardaka/Wikimedia

The garden created by Sidney resident Wendy Whiteley is not as secret as it once was, but its foliage, views of Sydney and its harbor, and the story of its creator certainly make it a worthwhile place to visit. Whiteley started the garden in a derelict train yard in 1992 after her husband passed away. She built it up over the years and added paths up the hillside. The land on which the garden is located is owned by the state, but it recently granted a lease that will allow the garden to continue operating at least another 30 years.

Whiteley's late husband was an artist, and other Sydney artists have contributed to the ongoing development of the garden with sculptures and other installations. There are also plans to use other unused train land to create a greenbelt through the neighborhood that will connect Whiteley's garden with other natural spaces in the area.

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Addison's Walk

Photo: Adrian Scottow/Flickr

Addison's Walk is well known to people in Oxford, England. British author C.S. Lewis was so impressed by the mile-long trail around a meadow on the Magdalen College campus that he wrote a poem about it. Another famous author and Oxford resident, J.R.R. Tolkien, reportedly sometimes accompanied Lewis on strolls along the path. The walk was named after writer and Magdalen fellow Joseph Addison, who also liked to stroll through the area in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Much of the mile-long green space is shaded by trees. This might not be a hidden garden to people who live, work and study in the area. Despite being close to Oxford’s famed High Street, however, it requires passing under an arch, through a cloister, and over a bridge. The hard-to-find trailhead makes it difficult for outsiders to find.

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Dunbar's Close

Photo: Ponderful Pictures/Shutterstock

Dunba'’s Close is a classical garden in Edinburgh, Scotland. To reach this three-quarter-acre oasis in the heart of the city, you have to pass through an entryway between shops on Edinburgh's famous Royal Mile. The Royal Mile has 80 closes, which are narrow lanes off a main thoroughfare, so choosing the right one might not be as easy as you’d expect.

The name of this particular lane comes from Scottish writer David Dunbar, who owned property there. The walled garden retains its classical layout with gravel paths, ornamental flowers, shade-giving trees and gravel and paving-stone walkways. The space had fallen into disrepair over the decades, but a private trust gave it to the city. It was renovated in the 1970s and has been a public space ever since. Some locals come here and it is a stop for tourists on walking tours, but it's often uncrowded because of the obscure entrance point.

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Paris Petite Ceinture

Photo: Traktorminze/Wikimedia

The Petite Ceinture means the "Little Line" in French. This is a 20-mile-long railway that hasn't been used for its intended purpose for more than 80 years. Sections of this unusual greenbelt are accessible to everyone. These corridors have street art, unusual wildflowers and plants. Currently, four different sections are easily accessible to the public.

Part of the allure of this secret garden is that the tracks are still visible. Anyone who fantasizes about taking the whole 20-mile trek along the Little Line will be disappointed because sections are still closed and some of the tunnels are completely blocked off.