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Best Gardens and Zoos in Los Angeles

Thanks to its Mediterranean climate, Los Angeles can simulate a host of other environments ranging from lush tropical to bone-dry desert. So forgo the round-the-world plane ticket that you have been dreaming about and tour L.A.'s eclectic mix of gardens instead.

Descanso Gardens

Tucked away in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in La Canada Flintridge, Descanso Gardens is a plant-lovers paradise. Wander past the Craftsman-style entrance and find yourself winding through Japanese-theme gardens complete with bubbling fountains, koi ponds, and a traditional teahouse. The trail continues through a shady grove of native oaks under-planted with hundreds of varieties of camellia trees. Other highlights include a California native plants garden, a mini-railroad that runs on the weekends, and a scenic outdoor café.

Huntington Gardens

On more than 200 acres in the tony neighborhood of San Marino, the Huntington Gardens and Library is one of Los Angeles' most beautiful locales. With more than a dozen theme gardens, it is almost impossible to see the Huntington in one day. Don't miss the impressive bonsai collection and rock garden housed in the Japanese-theme garden, or the floating pagodas and lyrically named bridges of the Chinese garden. The water features of the children's garden are a hit with the kids as are the curvy paths that wind through the rainbow-hue succulent garden.

Los Angeles Zoo

Across from the Western-theme Autry Museum in Griffith Park, the L.A. Zoo is the perfect place to spend a couple of hours (unlike its bigger, badder San Diego counterpart, which demands an entire day). Of course, the L.A. Zoo's smaller size doesn't mean that its animals are any less impressive—simply that you can see more of them in a shorter amount of time. Be sure to check out the chimpanzee compound, the giraffe corral, the new and expanded elephant forest, and a lion and lioness dozing in the sun.

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

True or false: The palm tree is native to California. Surprisingly, the answer is false. Despite the city's iconic tree-lined boulevards, the palm was actually imported from more tropical locales. For the native plant aficionado, the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden offers a sneak peek into what the region may have looked like before nonindigenous species were introduced. Think stately old oak trees stretching their branches over manzanitas and lots of lilac and sage bushes.

Murphy Sculpture Garden/UCLA Hannah Carter Japanese Garden

The UCLA campus offers a shady haven from the sun-drenched concrete corridors of Los Angeles—not to mention a top-notch outdoor sculpture collection that includes 70 sculptures by artists such as Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Auguste Rodin, and Richard Serra. UCLA also runs a little-known Japanese garden located off-campus on a hillside plot in Bel Air. This classical Japanese garden features authentic water basins, stone carvings, and a five-tiered pagoda. But be forewarned: Reservations are required, so plan ahead.

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