Top Things to Do in Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

Golden Gate Park, a garden oasis that extends three miles from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to the Pacific Ocean, is one of the city's most popular and beloved landmarks. Home to museums, meadows, gardens, and groves, it’s hard to believe that the park first came to fruition in the 1870s and encompassed more than 1,000 acres of reclaimed dunes. With miles of trails for walking and jogging, as well as diverse sports facilities for arching and lawn bowling, here are some of the park's must-see attractions.

01 of 10

Dip Your Feet at Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach, San Francisco

TraipSavvy / Melissa Zink

Ocean Beach, San Francisco, CA, USA

The weather in San Francisco may not always be prime for a beach day, but it could still be nice enough to kick off your shoes and go for a barefoot walk on the sand at sunset. Located on the far end of the park, Ocean Beach is a 3.5-mile stretch of the coast far away from the city high-rises. Popular with joggers, experienced surfers, and kite-flyers, it's a great place for people-watching. During low tide keep your eye out for the shipwreck that sometimes sticks out of the stand at the bottom of Ortega Street.

02 of 10

Search for the Hidden Fairy Doors

little child opens a fairy door

Matt Cardy / Stringer / Getty Images

Beloved by locals, Golden Gate Park is full of small wooden doors known as "fairy doors." Originally installed by vigilante artists Tony Powell and his son Rio, the fairy doors welcome children to leave notes and toys for the fairies. These charming artworks are hidden throughout the park, but you can start your search for them in the Japanese Tea Garden and on the Music Concourse, between the Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum. The exact locations of the doors are kept under wraps to preserve the fun of finding them yourself.

03 of 10

Get Zen at the Japanese Tea Garden

San Francisco's Japanese Tea Garden

 Judy Watt / Getty Images  

75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
Phone +1 415-752-1171

With koi ponds, bridges, gates, Japanese maples, bamboo, cherry trees, bonsai, a pagoda, a 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 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.

04 of 10

Feel Inspired at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens

san francisco botanical garden

 Stan Shebs / Wikimedia Commons

1199 9th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94122, USA
Phone +1 415-661-1316

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 for the thriving of 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. The gardens often organize special events like full moon walks and their Flower Piano exhibit, during which playable grand pianos are placed throughout the gardens.

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05 of 10

Learn Something New California Academy of Sciences

A triggerfish inside the aquarium at the California Academy of Science, San Francisco.
J. Andre Clark / Getty Images
55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
Phone +1 415-379-8000

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 and you can catch the morning or afternoon feeding of the penguins in the African Hall.

06 of 10

Get Artsy at the de Young Museum

de Young Museum

Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images 

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
Phone +1 415-750-3600

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. Over its long history, everything from King Tut's to Keith Haring's subway drawings has graced the museum's halls. Take advantage of free entry to the top of the museum's 144-foot tall tower where you can find grand views of the park and the city.

07 of 10

Smell the Roses at the Conservatory of Flowers

Tropical FLowers

TripSavvy / Kathleen Messmer

100 John F Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
Phone +1 415-831-2090

A national historic landmark and the oldest building in the park, the Conservatory of Flowers is an exquisite wood-and-glass structure topped with a gleaming dome. 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.

08 of 10

Rent a Boat on Stow Lake

Stow Lake San Francisco

 Beihua Steven Guo / Getty Images

Stow Lake Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA

Man-made Stow Lake is the park’s largest body of water, and a prime spot for picnicking, walking, and boating. In the middle of the lake stands Strawberry Hill Island, named for the wild strawberries that once grew there, and at more than 400 feet, it is the highest point in Golden Gate Park. The lake is home to bridges and walking trails, a Chinese pagoda, and the 110-foot Huntington Falls. You can rent a rowboat or paddleboat from the boathouse.

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09 of 10

Picnic Atop Hellman Hollow

Dolores Park, San Francisco

TripSavvy / Melissa ZInk 

800 John F Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, CA 94122, USA
Phone +1 415-831-5500

If picnicking is your thing, Hellman Hollow is the perfect go-to spot for afternoon relaxation. You can book one of the field's nine picnic areas in advance to reserve a table and grill, or simply bring along a blanket and some snacks from a local spot like Gus's Community Market or Say Cheese. 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.

10 of 10

Say Hello to the Bison Paddock

Bison laying in a a grassy field in San Francisco

Duluoz Cats / Flickr/ CC BY NC-ND 2.0

1237 John F Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, CA 94121, USA
Phone +1 415-831-6818

Believe it or not, there’s a herd of American Bison grazing in the middle of Golden Gate Park. Before San Francisco opened its first zoo in the 1930s, the park served as a habitat for elk, deer, bison, and bears. The only remnant of that is the bison herd, 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. 

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Top Things to Do in Golden Gate Park