Some negative stereotypes about the City of Angels are utterly true – like the ones about congested freeways and unhealthy smog. As a former resident of Los Angeles – and as someone who still spends at least two months there every winter – I’m intimately familiar with “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of the Southland. Despite its drawbacks, though, it’s still an incredible region to visit – any time of the year.
Given the world-class museums, picturesque beaches, engrossing amusement parks, and myriad restaurants – from high-end sushi bars to all-night diners – first-time visitors will never be bored in the diverse neighborhoods and suburbs that comprise the Southland. In fact, this five-county area boasts so many must-see attractions – including Disneyland , the Santa Monica Pier , the Griffith Observatory , the Los Angeles County Museum of Art , and the Hollywood Walk of Fame  – that subsequent trips might be necessary. This sprawling tapestry of ethnic enclaves, quaint downtown districts, and incorporated cities - home to nearly 18 million people - can certainly overwhelm newcomers.
To escape the ubiquitous congestion, head to one of the many gardens that pepper this thriving region. On more than one occasion, I’ve taken my own advice and relished the chance to enjoy a bit of natural splendor in an area that reveres cars and air-conditioned movie theaters.
My two favorite oases of tranquility are The Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden  (301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, 626/821-3222, daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., $7 adults, $5 seniors and students, $2.50 children 5-12) and The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens  (1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, 626/405-2100, hours vary, $15-20 adults, $12-15 seniors, $10 students, $6 children 5-11). Over the years, I’ve savored many laidback picnics above the waterfall at the 127-acre Arboretum, where highlights include a rose garden, a bamboo forest, vibrant peacocks, summertime concerts, and the Victorian mansion featured in the original Fantasy Island television show. At the 207-acre Huntington – which has a slightly more cultured vibe – I’ve easily spent an entire day wandering amid the rose, desert, jungle, and Japanese gardens, viewing the American and European art on display in the impressive galleries, and enjoying a traditional English tea in the Rose Garden Tea Room (where reservations are required). If you'd like to save a little money, consider planning your Southland garden tour around free admission days, such as the third Tuesday of every month at The Arboretum and the first Thursday of every month at The Huntington.
Of course, the Southland has several other wonderful gardens, including the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden  (1212 Mission Canyon Rd., Santa Barbara, 805/682-4726, daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., $8 adults, $6 seniors, students, and children 13-17, $4 children 2-12); the intimate Japanese Garden  (6100 Woodley Ave., 818/756-8166, hours vary, tours $3 adults, $2 seniors and children under 10) in Van Nuys; the 86-acre Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden  (1500 N. College Ave., Claremont, 909/625-8767, $8 adults, $6 seniors and students, $4 children 3-12), a living museum of native California flora; the South Coast Botanic Garden  (26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Palos Verdes Peninsula, 310/544-1948, daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., $7 adults, $5 seniors and students, $2.50 children 5-12); and the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden  (310/510-2897, daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m., $5 adults, $3 seniors, children under 13 free) on Catalina Island. These, however, are just the beginning – there are numerous other well-tended sanctuaries within Los Angeles, plus many more near San Diego and San Francisco, so no matter where you travel in California, serenity is never far away.