Golden Gate Park’s best
One of the world’s great metropolitan parks, Golden Gate Park encompasses 1,017 acres. It is nearly 200 acres larger than Manhattan’s Central Park, after which it was patterned originally. Once just sand dunes, it is now one of the largest man-made parks in the world. Miles of trails wind through the park, and on Sundays many roads are closed to automobile traffic.
Bounded by: Fulton St., Stanyan St., Lincoln Way, & Great Highway.
Getting here by public transportation: From Union Square area/Powell St., take the N-Judah streetcar that runs down Judah Street and get off at 8th Avenue.
Golden Gate Park annual events
Band Concourse performances
April-October; Sundays at 1. Free.
Formed in 1882, the 30-piece Golden Gate Park Band is heavy on brass and woodwind instruments and is the oldest continuously operating municipal band in the U.S. Bring a picnic. The bandstand is situated across from the Academy of Sciences.
Hippie Hill 4/20
April 20. Age 18+. At Hippie Hill. Free.
This smoke out attracts huge crowds that show up to light up. For many years an underground party, it was first sanctioned by the city in 2017. The event begins at 10:30 am and runs until dusk, but it peaks at 4:20 pm, when the drum beat get “more frenzied, and hippie girls twirl faster.” As you might imagine, it can turn into a bit of a mess, with limited bathrooms and space. Lore has it that this celebration began with some San Rafael High School kids who would meet to smoke after school at 4:20. The Grateful Dead, who were from that area, picked up the tradition and brought it to the Big Time.
August-October, date varies. At Robin Williams Meadow. Free.
Just bring a blanket, a picnic, and a smile. Laughs are provided by national headliners and local professional comedians, who in the past have ranged from upstarts–who just naturally seem to try harder–to such established luminaries as the late Robin Williams (he performed at the first Comedy Day and helped financially to keep it going later), Bob Goldthwait, and Father Guido Sarducci. This celebration of stand-up is the longest-running free outdoor comedy concert in the world. Robin Williams Meadow, formerly known as Sharon Meadow, is a wide, grassy lawn at the east end of park. The uphill extension became known (and is still known) as Hippie Hill in the ‘60s.
Opera in the Park
Designed to make opera accessible to everyone, this event is a great way for reluctant listeners to give this art form a try.
Golden Gate Park attractions
Beach Chalet Visitors Center
Here you’ll see natural history exhibits as well as the Beach Chalet’s colorful restored WPA wall frescoes depicting life in San Francisco during the Depression. The Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant operates on the second floor (see below).
On Sundays, part of John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to automobiles.
Car traffic is replaced with bikers, skaters, and pedestrians. Skate and bike rentals are available at shops along Stanyan and Fulton streets.
At W end of Kennedy Dr., W of 36th Ave., across from Anglers Lodge. Free.
Bison have lived in the park since the 1880s, when the park was a free-range zoo (elk, goats, and bears lived here then, too). Foreign visitors seem particularly impressed with viewing this small, all-female herd of authentic bison. It is interesting to know that technically buffalo and bison are not the same animal. And it is bison, not buffalo, that are displayed here. Bison are native to the U.S. and are different than buffalo physically in that they have humps on their backs and bigger heads. Buffalo are native to Asia and Africa and have bigger horns than bison.
California Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Dr., in Golden Gate Park.
This oldest scientific institution in the West was founded in 1853 following the Gold Rush. Newly rebuilt, it combines an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, and scientific research facilities under one roof. Visitors can explore the outer reaches of the galaxy in the world’s largest all-digital planetarium, get a bird’s-eye view of a Costa Rican rainforest canopy, and view the world’s deepest display of living corals. The new building is topped with a 2.5-acre living roof and employs a wide range of energy-saving materials and technologies. More than 38,000 live animals fill the aquarium and natural history exhibits–one of the most diverse collections of live animals at any museum or aquarium in the world. Allow four hours, and aim for Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday for less crowding. Must-sees include the living roof, 4-story rainforest, Philippine coral reef, earthquake simulation, African penguins, and albino alligator.
Casual Academy Cafe has a menu of sandwiches, tacos, pastries, and more.
Conservatory of Flowers
100 John F. Kennedy Dr. Fee.
This impressive and rare example of Victorian prefabricated architecture was erected here in 1879. It is a tropical greenhouse with a central dome flanked by two wings, and it is the oldest remaining building in the park and the oldest surviving municipal wood-and-glass conservatory in the U.S. Its oldest and largest plant–a 35-foot-tall imperial philodendron from southeastern Brazil–has been displayed in the dome since 1901. Other noteworthy specimens include primitive cycads from the dinosaur era, a collection of 2,500 rare cool-growing orchids that are found in few other botanical gardens, and two ponds featuring giant Amazon water lilies that were displayed first in the U.S. here. A living butterfly exhibit is held November through June. A chrysalis display allows watching the metamorphosis process, and then enjoying their 3-day lifespan with them as they flit around in a small cottage garden setting. Outside, giant flowerbeds are tilted at a 45-degree angle so that their floral messages can be seen from the street. Known as “carpet bedding,” this old European gardening technique is costly and time-consuming and now almost extinct.
The Dahlia Dell is adjacent on the south end, with free entry. The dahlia is San Francisco’s official flower. Someone has described the dinner-plate-size flowers as “living fireworks.” Bloom is best in August and September.
de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., in Golden Gate Park.
Housed now in a monumental new building that seems as if it grew organically right out of the park, the city’s premier museum holds a significant collection of American paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th through 21st centuries, as well as the country’s best collection of American trompe l’oeil paintings from the late 1800s. The permanent collection of art from Africa, Oceania, Mesoamerica, and Central and South America features outstanding works from ancient to modern times and an extraordinary collection of New Guinea art. Some contemporary art is displayed. Do visit the 9th floor of the tower for a breath-taking 360-degree view. Ticket may be used on the same day for free entrance to the Legion of Honor.
For three days every March the museum galleries are decorated stunningly with fresh flowers. For Bouquets to Art, members of Bay Area flower clubs and professional florists design arrangements inspired by museum paintings. Some mimic the paintings, other pick up the colors or feeling; overall, they enliven the galleries.
The de Young Cafe is convenient for a quick snack or lunch. The menu is short but includes sandwiches, hot entrees, and elegant desserts. Seating is available both indoors in a glass box of a room that makes you feel like you’re outside, or actually outside on an extensive patio adjacent to the sculpture garden.
Japanese Tea Garden and Teahouse
Next to de Young museum. Fee.
A stroll through this garden is pleasurable at any time of day, any time of year, and in almost any kind of weather. Climb the steep arch of the “wishing bridge” (actually a drum bridge) make a wishdrop a coin in the pond below. Then climb the steep steps leading to a miniature red pagodaook for an undulating dragon hedge nearby, and see if you can find what is the oldest dwarf black pine in the world. Allow time to stroll the winding paths, which are plentiful because the Japanese believe that evil travels in a straight line. A spectacular display occurs annually during the last week of March, when the cherry blossoms bloom.
You’ll want to stop for refreshment at the inviting open-air stone tea house, where tea and Asian cookies are delivered by waitresses clad in traditional Japanese kimonos (order at the counter). It is pleasant and relaxing to observe nature while leisurely sipping jasmine or green tea and munching on exotic cookies. An interesting note: Makoto Hagiwara, who designed the garden in 1893 for the California Midwinter International Exposition, is credited with inventing the fortune cookie in America in 1909 and introducing it here in 1914. Another story has it that a former Japanese shop in Japantown–Benkyodo–once made traditional temple sweets for the park’s tea house, but during World War II Chinese Americans took over production.
Koret Children’s Quarter and Carousel
320 Bowling Green Dr., betw. King & Kennedy drives, E of California Academy of Sciences. Playground free.
Opened in 1888, this was the very first public playground in a U.S. park. Today it is equipped with creative modern play structures.
An antique carousel (fee) makes its rounds within a protective hippodrome enclosure. Built in 1914 by Herschel-Spillman and originally powered by steam, it has 62 beautifully painted hand-carved animals–among them lions, tigers, and bears, as well as frogs, a dragon, a camel, a giraffe, and a chicken–plus its original Gebruder band organ.
San Francisco Botanical Garden
Entrance adjoins San Francisco County Fair Bldg. Fee.
Known for its magnolia and rhododendron collections, this 55-acre garden opened in 1940 and now displays more than 8,000 plant species—330 of which are extinct or endangered in the wild. Many are unique to this climate, and most are labeled. Noteworthy among the 24 specialty gardens are the Japanese-style Moon-viewing Garden, the Arthur Menzies Garden of California Native Plants, the Redwood Trail with its mature second-growth redwoods grove, the Garden of Fragrance, the Meso-American Cloud Forest, and the Primitive Plant Garden.
Many garden events take place in the adjacent San Francisco County Fair Building. The Mother’s Day Rose Show displays a splendid variety of climbing, miniature, and old roses. It is the largest such show in Northern California, and cuttings perfect for presenting to Mom are for sale.
Behind California Academy of Sciences. Free.
This formal, manicured garden is planted with the 150 flowers mentioned in William’s plays. An attractive wrought-iron archway marks the entrance, where a brick pathway bordered by crabapple trees leads into the garden. Benches and grassy expanses invite lingering.
Stow Lake Boat House
A boat on Stow Lake, the largest of the park’s 11 lakes, makes both an unusual, and memorable, picnic spot. Find a pleasant cove with little water movement, and then be careful about tossing bread to the ducks and seagulls because they can sink a boat with their enthusiasm. Though the water is shallow and it’s not possible to get far from shore, it is comforting to know that cushions in the boats double as life preservers. Life vests are also available upon request at no additional charge. Because boats are often wet inside, consider bringing along a blanket to sit on.
A Cafe here serves fast foods such as hamburgers and hot dogs as well as cold beer and hot espresso drinks. Picnicking is nice on manmade Strawberry Hill island, where you can also get up close to Huntington Falls.
In NW corner of park.
Completed in 1903, this 75-foot-high Dutch-made windmill once pumped up well water to irrigate the park. In February and March, the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden bursts forth in riotous color with more than 10,000 tulip bulbs.
In SW corner of park.
Built in 1905, this 6-story windmill is among the tallest in the world. It also pumped water throughout the park until the 1950s. Restoration began in 2002, and in 2011 it was recapped with a special steel dome weighing 64 tons.
Golden Gate Park restaurant
Beach Chalet Brewery & Restaurant
1000 Great Highway/Ocean Beach.
Designed in 1925 by San Francisco architect Willis Polk, this historic colonnaded Spanish stucco building with terra-cotta roof tiles is at the western end of Golden Gate Park, across the street from the Pacific Ocean. In the past it has served as a tea house and as an Army signal station, but now the upstairs is a wildly popular brewpub bistro with ocean views from every table. Target a visit for breakfast or lunch, when the menu is less pricey and the views can be enjoyed uninterrupted by sun-shielding shades. Don’t miss the sampler of house-brewed, English-style ales or the full-flavored, though essentially fizz-less, housemade root beer. Two standouts on the eclectic, bistro-style menu are a cheeseburger with pickled onions and a crispy fish and chips. Sausage dishes are. Sausage dishes are usually available, and the kitchen is famous for its achiote-spiced chicken wings. Desserts have included items such as the ultimate vertical dessert–the pastry chef’s signature Chocolate Sandcastle, whimsically composed of a flourless chocolate truffle cake placed vertically between two chocolate castle-shaped cookies. A nickel from each beer sold goes to charity, and live music is scheduled Tuesday through Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.
The more informal Park Chalet Coastal Beer Garden cafe operates downstairs in the back.
Downstairs in the front is the Beach Chalet visitor center.(see above).