The 14 Most Beautiful Home and Garden Tours in America
From a Revolution-era plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s sleek Arizona compound, here's a guide to the country’s most majestic historic homes—and the must-see gardens surrounding them.
You might think home and garden tours are merely a superficial pleasure (the kind Grandma might enjoy), but you're only half right. Sure, these estates offer their fair share of sensory pleasures—the scent of blossoming flowers, the gurgle of fountains, the warmth of the sunshine as you traverse the grounds—but their beauty is far from skin-deep. To make our list, a property had to be as interesting as it is beautiful, and the result is a collection of homes with real stories to tell. A Georgian Revival mansion that housed descendants of Abraham Lincoln, a palatial, Charles II-style mansion so striking that three classic Hollywood films were shot there—these are the kinds of places you'll still be talking about long after you've left. And then there are the gardens—romantic, Italian-inspired grounds, tropical forests, the gardening world's versions of the Mona Lisa and David. Yes, Grandma would like these places, but who wouldn't?
Filoli, Woodside, California
Husband-and-wife gold-mine owners built this Georgian-inspired 36,000-square-foot house between 1915 and 1917, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. But the property's star feature is the 16-acre English Renaissance garden, which was completed in 1929. The 654-acre Filoli estate is known for its bonsai and magnolia collections, as well as the largest heirloom orchard in private hands in the United States.
Best time to visit: In February through August on the fourth Wednesday of every month (and the third Wednesday in September and October), Filoli hosts afternoon teas, where visitors snack on scones with fresh lemon curd and sip tea out of china cups. Open Tuesdays-Sundays (except holidays) until October 21 in 2012, 86 Cañada Rd., 650/364-8300, filoli.org, admission $15, tea $45 (including admission).
Hildene, Manchester, Vermont
The 107-year-old Hildene is a must-see for presidential-history buffs: After all, it was built by Robert Lincoln, the only son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln to survive into adulthood. Set on a promontory 300 feet above the Battenkill Valley in Vermont's southwest corner, the Georgian Revival mansion housed descendants of the president until 1975 and still contains Lincoln family heirlooms, such as a 1,000-pipe organ installed in 1908, as well as one of only three of the President's iconic stovepipe hats in existence today. Hildene's gardens are notable for their multi-colored flowers, including more than 1,000 peony blooms, planted to resemble a cathedral-style stained-glass window.
Best time to visit: Mid-June marks the start of peony season; visit the Hoyt Garden to see Hildene's massive collection of the flowers (many from the original plantings) in bloom. Open daily (except for major holidays), 1005 Hildene Rd., 800/578-1788, hildene.org, admission $16.
Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Built in 1923, the Villa Terrace was once owned by Lloyd Smith, president of the A.O. Smith Corporation, which made bicycle parts, hot water heaters, and later heavy munitions during World War II. The place now serves as a decorative arts museum, housing pieces from the 15th to the 18th centuries, including an extensive collection of artisan iron crafts. The estate's grounds, which overlook Lake Michigan, are known for the Renaissance Garden, which was modeled after 16th-century Tuscany and restored in 2002. Highlights include bushes that sprout culinary and medicinal herbs and the Scaletta d'Aqua, a water stairway that flows down past three terraces of crab apple trees into a fishpond.
Best time to visit: Every year, on the first Sunday in June, the Renaissance Garden celebrates its official opening with free admission. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 2220 N. Terrace Ave., 414/271-3656, villaterracemuseum.org, admission $5.
Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia
Designed by Thomas Jefferson in the neoclassical style, this plantation home sits on a mountaintop 70 miles northwest of Richmond. From oval flowerbeds to winding paths, Jefferson designed every fruit, vegetable, and flower garden over two centuries ago. Today, those gardens are planted up to three times per year to let seasonal flowers shine, including bee balm and calendula. Don't miss the home itself, where you can see Jefferson's 18th-century furniture, books, and gadgets such as the polygraph, a device which used pens and ink to make exact duplicates of his letters as he wrote them.
Best time to visit: Spring and early summer bring the prettiest blossoms. Vibrant tulips reign late April; ornamental Sweet William and delicate Canterbury bells bloom in May. Open daily except Christmas, 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, 434/984-9822, monticello.org, admission $17-$24 (depending on the season).