Golden Gate Park, a garden oasis that extends three miles from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to the Pacific Ocean's Ocean Beach, is one of the city's most popular and beloved landmarks. Encompassing museums, meadows, gardens, and groves, it’s hard to believe that the park first came to fruition in the 1870s and encompassed more than 1000 acres of reclaimed sand dunes. In addition to taking advantage of its miles of trails and sports grounds (everything from lawn bowling to archery to tennis), here are the top things to do and see in the park.
With koi ponds, bridges, gates, Japanese maples, bamboo, cherry trees, bonsai, a pagoda, a Zen rock garden and a big bronze Buddha, the Japanese Tea Garden is both peaceful and romantic. Constructed for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, Japanese immigrant and landscape designer Makoto Hagiwara pushed to make the garden permanent and was later its caretaker from 1895 until his death in 1925. Hagiwara is said to have invented the fortune cookie to serve at the tea garden in the early 1900s. Fortune cookies are still served at the garden’s tea house, along with green tea, mochi, rice crackers, finger sandwiches and other snacks.
With 55 acres and over 8,000 different plant varietals, the San Francisco Botanical Garden is a great place to wander away an afternoon. Its unique microclimate (San Francisco is full of those) allows plants native to the cloud forests of Central and South America as well as plants from Asia and New Zealand, including their famous Magnolia collection. Check the website for special events like their Flower Piano exhibit, in which playable grand pianos are placed throughout the gardens, each July, and full moon walks.
Explore earth, the oceans, and space at Cal Academy, the park’s natural sciences center that houses an aquarium, planetarium and about 40,000 live animals, including penguins, sharks, and rays. Immerse yourself in a coral reef ecosystem and a four-story-tall rainforest, and experience a simulated earthquake. Wildflowers and native plants grow on the academy’s “living” roof. Catch the morning or afternoon feeding of the penguins in the African Hall.
The de Young may be San Francisco’s oldest museum, but its current copper-sheathed structure first opened in 2005. Its permanent collections include paintings, sculptures and decorative arts from 17th-century to contemporary America, art from Oceania, Africa, and the Americas, and textile arts and costumes. Everything from King Tut’s treasures and post-Impressionist from Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, to Bulgari jewelry and Keith Haring’s subway drawings have made their way through its halls. Go to the top of the museum’s 144-foot tower (which is free) for grand views of Golden Gate Park and the city.
A national historic landmark and the oldest building in the park, the conservatory is an exquisite wood-and-glass structure topped with a gleaming dome—which makes it a popular setting for wedding photographs. It was modeled after a greenhouse in London’s Kew Gardens, shipped from Ireland as a prefab kit, and opened in 1879. It houses 1,700 species of aquatic and tropical plants, including orchids of all sizes, huge water lilies, a century-old giant Imperial philodendron and bizarre-looking carnivorous plants. Outside this distinctly Victorian building are carefully designed flowerbeds and gardens of dahlias and drought-tolerant plants.
Stroll down John F. Kennedy Drive on any given Sunday and you’ll witness San Francisco’s oldest swing dance venue—the sidewalk right outside the De Young Museum. The best part is that you can join in on the fun. Lindy in the Park hosts free swing dancing lessons every Sunday (weather permitting) for anyone who’s interested. Get in and try your hand at the moves or just watch some of the seriously impressive dancers who come on the regular.
Man-made Stow Lake is the park’s largest body of water, and a prime spot for picnicking, walking and boating (its boathouse rents rowboats and pedal boats). In the middle of the lake stands Strawberry Hill Island (where wild strawberries once grew), at more than 400 feet is the highest point in Golden Gate Park. It's home to bridges and walking trails, a Chinese pagoda, and the 110-foot Huntington Falls.
If picnicking is your thing, Hellman Hollow is the perfect go-to spot for afternoon relaxation. Book one of the field's nine picnic areas in advance for your own table and grill, or simply bring along a blanket and some snacks from a local spot like Gus's Community Market or Say Cheese. Beer and wine are welcome as well. Just across the way sits Marx Meadow, another quality picnic spot. The hollow is named for Warren Hellman, the SF venture capitalist responsible for starting Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (HSB), the park's three-day October music festival that's both free and one of the city's biggest draws.
Believe it or not, there’s a herd of American Bison grazing in the middle of the park. Before San Francisco opened its first zoo in the 1930s, Golden Gate Park served as habitat for elk, deer, bison, and bears. The only remnant of that is the buffalo, which has been there since 1892. Sit on a park bench and watch the bison graze and keep your eyes peeled in the spring when a family of Great Horned Owls makes their nest in the pine across the street.
Golden Gate Park is also home to the city's only archery range. Rent your gear from the San Francisco Archery Shop, a mere 15-minute walk to the range, which stands right at the corner of Fulton and 47th. As long as there’s a target open, you’re free to test your aim.