Get off the hot beach and cool down in the natural shade of the Sunken Gardens, one of America’s oldest roadside attractions and a tropical wonder in the middle of the historic city of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Sunken Gardens Overview
The Sunken Gardens is a meticulously-maintained park covering 4 acres of 50,000 tropical and subtropical plants, countless flowers, winding paths, koi ponds, exotic birds (including flamingos), an ancient snapping turtle, plants growing on plants growing on plants, hundred-year-old trees, and lots of shade to get a break from the bright Florida sunshine.
As you drive down the street to the park (north of the charming downtown and miles from the vast gulf beaches), you might think this area is a bit asphalt- and cement-heavy, as a lot of Florida can seem. But that’s why it feels even more magical and rewarding to step through the gate and down into the “secret garden” of the Sunken Gardens.
This hidden gem is an excellent reminder that nature’s beauty can be found in an urban setting – you just have to look for it.
Today, the city of St. Petersburg owns the park. But it all began in 1903 with one man, George Turner, who bought the land when it still included a lake that was 10 feet below sea level. Turner drained the lake and started a then-private sunken garden in its place. After years of selling produce from this below-sea-level nursery, in 1935 he turned the gardens into a roadside tourist attraction and started charging 25 cents admission.
The admission fee has grown quite a bit over the years. Some might find it steep, considering the park isn’t very large and other places (e.g., the Largo Botanical Garden) are free to enter, albeit many charge for parking, which Sunken Garden doesn’t. Most importantly, there is a huge difference between what the free parks are offering and the unusual display of nature you will discover here. Sunken Gardens is called a “living museum” for good reasons!
What makes Sunken Gardens So Special?
There are several reasons why Sunken Gardens is such an outstanding park and well worth a visit for anyone in the Tampa Bay Area who appreciates nature and nature escapes.
- The gardens and some of the plants are over 100 years old. That’s not just cool to be in the presence of something so lasting, it also means that some of the plants have grown larger than is common.
- The park is very well maintained. Anyone who has a Florida garden or spends a lot of time in subtropical nature, knows how quickly some plants here can grow and overtake – or how during the dry, sunny winter other plants will just turn scraggly. Sunken Garden looks exceptionally lush, colorful, beautiful, and amazingly maintained while still allowing plants to naturally grow on and with each other.
- The animals: parrots and other exotic birds, that old snapping turtle, the butterfly garden, the colorful (and at least one black) koi – and last but not least: the Chilean Flamingos.
- It’s usually not too crowded. Probably a benefit of charging a fee.
- So many opportunities to take photos – from macro shots of plants, to observing animals, or using the gardens as a backdrop for portrait photography (permission required).
When visiting Sunken Gardens, we highly recommend you take your time to truly “Stop. Look. Appreciate.” This is not a green space to hurry through to get your exercise or do just a walk’n’talk. This is one for slowing down, discovering, and cherishing. The variety and intricacy of the plants in the Sunken Gardens is amazing. Keep in mind, some of the plants are 100 years old (!!!) – others are blooming only today – and that butterfly is just fluttering by.
Floridian Chilean Flamingos
There have been flamingos in the park since 1956. In 2016, thanks to private donations, a new flock of Chilean flamingos moved in (from the San Antonio Zoo, not from Chile). Since our own move to Florida, this was our first flamingo sighting. Admittedly, we have mixed feelings about animals being kept in “enclosed spaces” in general – but as we’ve learned, there are no wild flamingos in Florida, so this is the only way to see any.
So if you ever see a pink bird flying overhead in Florida, it’s either a roseate spoonbill or you’re high. Or maybe a flamingo escaped from a zoo or hotel garden? Sadly, wild flamingos have been extinct in Florida for a very long time, even in the Everglades. Why the Flamingo is still associated with Florida? Maybe it’s because of all the people who have visited the Sunken Gardens since the 1950s…
EDIT 8/21/21: Since writing this article, we have read several opinions about re-wilded “escapee” flamingos and self-relocated Mexican flamingos living in the Everglades and the argument that flamingos shouldn’t be considered extinct anymore. To the questions are there wild flamingos in Florida, conservation specialist Steven Whitfield said in an interview with WBUR: “Since the 1950s, there’s been a slow but steady increase in the number of flamingo observations around Florida. So that to us looks like flamingos are starting to recover as they fly in from Cuba, from the Bahamas and from the Yucatan [Peninsula] or Mexico or other places where flamingos have been surviving and breeding all along.”
Location, Hours, and Fees
Address: 1825 4th Street North, St. Petersburg, FL 33704
Official St. Pete website
As of this writing (7/30/2020) and despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Sunken Gardens is open! However, tours, workshops, classes, programs and photo sessions are canceled for now.
Monday – Saturday: 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Sunday: Noon – 4:30 p.m.
Seniors (62+): $10
Children (2-17): $6
Annual membership: $50
Currently, there are Groupon deals for admission and membership discounts available.
More Photos of Sunken Gardens
Other Florida Happier Places
Like it? Pin it.
Let’s Inspire Each Other
Have you been to the park? What was your experience like? Can you recommend any other favorite nature escapes in the area? Do you have any hidden nature places where you live? Can you help us identify any of the plants or animals in the photos? What’s your favorite roadside attraction?
Please leave a reply in the comment section below.
All photos in this post taken by Luci Westphal.