Discovering San Francisco secret gardens and public rooftop open spaces
POPOS are privately owned public open spaces that have been required as part of development in San Francisco since the 1985 downtown plan. They make up what are more popularly know as San Francisco Secret Gardens.
POPOS may sound like a funny name for something you’d munch on during happy hour, but that is so wrong. POPOS stands for “Privately Owned Public Open Spaces,” a.k.a. San Francisco secret gardens.
Whether you as a traveler call them POPOS, secret gardens, or rooftop parks, they are ideal respites and secluded open spaces when wandering and touring cities for travelers who just need to rest weary feet or simply take in the surroundings or do a little people-watching – for free, often in a really pleasant venue.
POPOS is in fact the legal and official name of this collection of often pocket-sized parks, atriums, terraces and plazas scattered about the urban core of San Francisco. And they are required of private spaces and buildings by public planning codes since 2012 when the city published an actual guide. Secret garden guide aside, these San Francisco secret gardens have been idyllic getaways of one level or another since the 1980s.
Finding San Francisco secret gardens
So where do you find these little secret gardens or rooftop parks in San Francisco? All over! Take a look at the city guide to pinpoint POPOS as well as public art. Granted, there are laws about required signage to alert the public to the park but sometimes it doesn’t really exist or is hard to find. And sometimes there may be other hurdles placed in your way of your legal enjoyment of these San Francisco POPOS secret gardens. But you always have the right to enjoy!
We visited five of these secret rooftop parks, art venues and privately owned public gardens that are right in the financial district/Union Square/SOMA core of downtown San Francisco (two of them aren’t even on the city’s list!). Use this information below as your quick-start guide. Then just keep your eyes open for signs, don’t be shy about making your way in, and eat up these POPOS, i.e. secret garden gems, à la San Francisco…
Beginner’s Guide to POPOS secret gardens and rooftop parks in San Francisco
600 Washington St., between Washington and Clay streets
(Additional access via Merchant Street off Sansome Street)
Open: business hours or approximately 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
This could be one of the better maintained and most peaceful retreats in the city. And it gets pretty busy at lunch. During the day, you may also find impromptu meetings there between the towering redwood trees, among the ponds, fountains and whimsical sculptures (see the feature image for this story). The trees originally came from the Santa Cruz Mountains when the famous high-rise pyramid was built in the ‘60s. Look to it for a dandy escape from urban sensory overload. And you are seriously sequestered in nature here. Take a moment to read the plaque commemorating two stray dogs that were literally adopted by the city as a whole in the 1860s.
Washington and Battery streets, off Clay street
Open: 24 hours but be careful at night when sometimes folks like to find dark corners to sleep (I visited at night and found a building guard patrolling frequently though).
Although not listed on the city’s map of parks (only as public art), you can see the green blob on any map and just head there. The landscaped plaza is elevated from the street and the entrance off Clay at least had no signs. You’re just going up these not-so-attractive concrete stairs next to a parking garage. Don’t be shy. These are public stairs leading to a public open space. Up top, the wide open park offers great benches, a superior pond and fountain, sun (if it’s sunny), and a few pieces of public art to enjoy too.
343 Sansome Street (duh), between Sacramento and California streets
Open: business hours, approximately 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Walking into this one is even more intimidating since it is an office building with a guard next to a bank. Built originally in 1909, the art deco building has a tall, heavy, golden door and an elegant foyer you traverse to the guard’s station. Just tell him you’re headed to the rooftop garden on the 15th floor and up you go. The secret garden itself is quite nice, open, with flower boxes, tables and chairs with less people-watching but awesome sitting, relaxing and enjoying. The view to the ocean or beyond is blocked mostly by buildings other than a few peek-a-boos, but you can look straight up the side of the Transamerica Pyramid, which is kinda cool.
Between Clay and Sacramento streets
Open: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (but most garden areas don’t have gates for pre- or post-hours visits)
Running from the Hyatt Regency and the Embarcadero bayside area are three buildings called, appropriately One, Two and Three Embarcadero Center. You find restaurants, shops and cafes, but the centers are dotted with privately owned public parks and secret gardens. One garden area runs the length of the buildings above street level. With beautifully landscaped nooks and crannies with tables, chairs and benches, you can hang out and watch the activity below you. Or just gaze up at the buildings around you. Or people watch. Inside the centers at ground level are even more parks with artwork and fountains. You can even access a little plaza that is often less busy out the back of the Hyatt Regency that has a gigantic sculpture floating overhead. Go to the Embarcadero website to learn more about the art and sculptures on site and even access on the website a self-guided tour to the art.
750 Howard St., between 3rd and 4th streets
Open: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Carousel, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
OK, OK, so Yerba Buena Gardens aren’t really so secret. They are in fact pretty dang huge. And OK, OK, so they aren’t really a rooftop park, although privately owned public space à la POPOS. But they are a wonderful retreat for travelers (or anybody) that offers a massive amount of green space smack in the city. Many convention goers next door at the Moscone Convention Center don’t even realize they can go up some stairs above the center for a green escape from convention and trade show madness. Or for a tour of public art. Only a block down from tumultuous Market Street and a couple of blocks from the Westfield Shopping Mall, Yerba Buena Gardens are close by, and they also offers something that I adore: A fantastic circa-1906 carousel that is part of the Children’s Creativity Museum there. Yes, I ride it every time I get a chance!
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