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Sarah P. Duke Gardens: Everything you need to know

If you’re looking for something free to do in Durham, check out the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. The botanical gardens are a great way to spend the afternoon.

For more help planning your trip, check out all of our travel posts.

A stone fountain with two metal birds on top and the words "Sarah P. Duke Gardens: Everything you need to know" digitally written on top.

Whenever I’m planning a vacation to a new city, I always look for a few specific things. I always look for free things to do because that’s an easy way to stretch our vacation budget. The other is I always look for botanical gardens. Gardens are a great place to spend a sunny afternoon in a new city. And visiting a new garden (well, new to us) is a great way to learn about the area in a really fun and beautiful way.

So, how lucky was it for my planning to find the Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham, NC? The gardens are located in the Duke University campus, making them really accessible. There are no entry fees (although you are allowed to leave a donation), except for the paid parking lots. The lots are only $2 an hour though, so we paid $4 and had a great afternoon.

If you like botanical gardens, the American Horticultural Society Reciprocal Admissions Program is for you. Find out everything you need to know on

If you like botanical gardens, you need to check out the American Horticultural Society Reciprocal Admissions Program. You join at your local garden and can use that pass for free entry into over 400 other botanical gardens, sculpture gardens, and more.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens Review

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The Sarah P. Duke Gardens are split into four distinct areas: the Historic Gardens, the Doris Duke Center and Gardens, the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, and the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum.

Both parking lots are located near the Doris Duke Center, which is where you can grab two pamphlets. One is a map of the gardens and the other is a map showing the seasonal plantings and what’s in bloom. The latter helps with what you’re looking at because, although the gardens do a good job of labeling the flora that’s around, both times I was really intrigued by a flower, it wasn’t labeled.

A tree-lined paved walkway at the Sarah P Duke Gardens in Durham, NC.

The main entrance, though, is through the gothic gate. That’s where you’ll find the Cherry Allée. If you’re lucky to be at the gardens in mid-March, that’s the best time to see the cherry blossoms in bloom. You’ll see miles of pink cherry blossoms lining both sides of the walkway. It’s an absolutely gorgeous way to enter the gardens. We went in early May and the blossoms were long gone by then.

Down from there is the Mary Duke Biddle Rose Garden and the Roney Fountain.

Mary Duke Biddle, if you’re curious, is the daughter of Sarah P. Duke. And Sarah was the wife of Benjamin N. Duke, one of Duke University’s founders.

Sarah’s friend, Dr. Frederic M. Hanes, a member of Duke Medical School, wanted to start an iris garden. He convinced Sarah to donate $20,000 to start the garden in her name. She agreed and in 1935, the gardens began with 40,000 iris plants and other bulbs and annuals.

This is a slight tangent, but the Swan Lake Iris Gardens in Sumter, SC, where the Sumter Iris Festival is held annually, began with planting Japanese irises in 1927. If I had a nickel for every time I heard of a garden in the southeast starting because of iris plants … well, I’d have two nickels but that feels like a big coincidence.

Unfortunately, Sarah’s garden fell into disarray because of rains and flooding and disease. The most unfortunate thing about that is it happened a year after Sarah’s garden was started … which also happened to be the year Sarah died.

So, Dr. Hanes, ever the smooth talker with the Duke women it seems, convinced Mary Duke Biddle to reconstruct the gardens on higher ground. Mary agreed and here we are, over 80 years later.

A Japanese tea house in the Sarah P Duke Gardens in Durham, NC.

I’m partial to a Japanese garden, and there’s a nice one within the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum. It has a Japanese tea house that’s open on weekdays (and we were at the gardens on a weekend, so I was super bummed to know it was closed).

A woman in a red shirt and blue jeans sitting on a bench in the bamboo garden at the Sarah P Duke Gardens in Durham, NC.

What we did get to experience was the huge bamboo forest in the gardens. It was amazing and reminded me of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove that we visited in Kyoto, Japan. The bamboo at the Duke Gardens had a very unique bloom last year. The Blackstem bamboo bloomed — an occurrence that usually happens once every 120 years.

When you’re in that area, don’t miss the Meyer Bridge. It’s a stunning arched red bridge that you would expect to see in Japan.

Metal tables and chairs outside, surrounded by green leaves and bushes, in the Sarah P Duke Gardens in Durham, NC.

If you’re hungry, there’s a cafe within the Bartter Family Terrace House. It’s open seasonally and was, unfortunately, closed when we were visiting due to the fact that it was supposed to rain all day. The staff decided to not open it since they weren’t anticipating that many visitors because of the weather.

The staff was bummed, as were we, because the cafe would have been a great spot to stop for a little. There is a really cute seating area in the back of the cafe where I would have loved to enjoy a bite to eat.

The cafe is in the Historic Gardens where you’ll also find the terrace gardens and a pergola that was used during the garden’s dedication in 1939.

Pink flowers in the Sarah P Duke Gardens in Durham, NC.

There are signs in the Historic Gardens pointing to Duke Chapel. We walked towards it because I really wanted to see it, but before we got to the chapel, we were met by a main road. So, if you want to see it, drive by it when you’re leaving the gardens. Don’t try and walk there. I mean, you could if you have all day, but if you’re only in town for a little while, you can’t do it all.

And that’s the thing about the Duke Gardens too. It’s a huge garden (it’s 55-acres of landscaped and wooded areas) and you just might not have time to see it all, especially if you’re dodging rain like we were.

A waterfall at the Sarah P Duke Gardens in Durham, NC.

I will suggest you look for the small waterfall in the Historic Garden before you leave, though. The garden has a lot of nice spots, but that small waterfall was my favorite view in the entire garden.

Large purple flowers in the Sarah P Duke Gardens in Durham, NC.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens: Frequently Asked Questions


420 Anderson St.; Durham


(919) 684-3698

Hours of Operation:

8 am to dusk

The visitor’s center restrooms and information desk are open from 9 am to 5 pm and are closed on holidays.

Are the Sarah P. Duke Gardens free?

​The gardens are free although you can leave a donation in the Doris Duke Center.

Is there parking?

There are paid parking lots at the gardens. There’s a parking lot to the left after you enter the gardens from Anderson Street and there’s a second small parking lot with handicapped parking next to the Doris Duke Center.

There’s also an overflow lot by the Lewis Street Gate, which is located near the Burpee Learning Center and the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden (which you should stop at if you’re into home gardening because there’s a ton of information about vegetable and fruit gardening there).

All lots are $2 per hour (from 8 am to 7 pm) and you’ll pay via the PayByPhone mobile app or by scanning a QR code on the signs in the lot. You will need to enter your license plate number, so have that handy.

What is the best time of year to visit Duke Gardens?

Definitely mid- to late-March when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. You’ll see really beautiful blooming flowers any time of year (well, besides winter), but the cherry blossoms are something you might not see anywhere else.

There are also tulips in the terrace garden in the spring. We have those at Airlie Gardens and they’re just stunning if you catch them at the right time.

Are the gardens accessible?

There are miles of allées, which are paved and accessible. Some of the terrain is rocky, though, and you’ll need to be very careful if you’re pushing a wheelchair or walking with someone who has accessibility issues.

Are there trolley tours?

The Sarah P. Duke Gardens do offer trolley tours. The one-hour private tour is led by a volunteer docent and needs to be booked at least one day prior to your visit. You can do that here. Payment is due at the time of booking and is a flat fee of $60 for 1 to 5 participants.

Are there walking tours?

The Sarah P. Duke Gardens do offer walking tours. The one-hour private tour is led by a volunteer docent and needs to be booked at least one day prior to your visit. You can do that here. Payment is due at the time of booking and is $15 per person.

Can you bring food to Duke Gardens?

Yes, you can bring your own food into the gardens. There are a bunch of big open areas where you can set up a blanket and have a picnic lunch.

Just remember to take your garbage and dispose of it in proper receptacles. 

Is there a gift shop?

A gift shop is located next to the Doris Duke Center.

A woman on an American Ninja Warrior obstacle course called OC Aerial in Durham, North Carolina.

More things to do in Durham:

If you’re planning a trip to Durham, check out OC Aerial. It’s an American Ninja Warrior course and adventure gym. We had the best time spending the morning on the ropes course and trying all the Ninja Warrior obstacles.

If you want to do something a little less active, you can check out all the Breweries in Durham, NC. There are over a dozen in Bull City.

Have you been to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens? Let us know about your trip in the comments.