Guide to Golden Gate Park: Top Things to Do
Interested in Golden Gate Park? Whether you visit the park regularly or you’ve never been, this guide highlights the best things to do in one of San Francisco’s most interesting locations.
Experience miles of green lawns, bridle paths, lakes, flowers amid countless trees and 7,000 kinds of plants right in the heart of San Francisco. Here you’ll enjoy a treasure of varied attractions from top museums to exquisite gardens to extraordinary events like Outside Lands—you can even see buffalo roam. Cars are not permitted on certain roads throughout the park on Sundays, so it’s the best time to visit for a bike ride or stroll.
Here’s list of the highlights and top things to do in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park:
BY THE NUMBERS
Area: 1,017 acres
Annual Visitors: 13 Million—the fifth most visited city park in the U.S.
Open: Daily. 365 days a year. Attraction hours vary.
Cost: FREE. Some attractions have costs.
The de Young Museum
A top destination while visiting San Francisco, the de Young museum showcases an extraordinary permanent collection of American art from the 17th through 21st centuries, modern and contemporary art, photography, international textiles and costumes, and art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The ninth-floor Observation Level of the de Young's Hamon Tower offers breathtaking 360-degree views of San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. Open Tuesday–Sunday 9:30 a.m. – 5:15 p.m., Fridays (March–November) until 8:45 p.m. Closed most Mondays and holidays. Special exhibition tickets available for additional price. Prices, hours and programs are subject to change. deyoungmuseum.org
California Academy of Sciences
Explore an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum all under one living roof. A four-story living rainforest and awe-inspiring coral reef ecosystem will delight visitors of all ages, while immersive planetarium shows will transport audiences through space and time for a new perspective on our planet. Dynamic daily programs - from penguin feedings to coral reef dives - offer a wealth of opportunities to dive deeper. In addition to general admission tickets, the Academy offers a variety of opportunities to enhance any visit, including daily Behind-the-Scenes Tours, weekly NightLife events and NightLife VIP Tours (ages 21+) and Penguins and Pajamas sleepovers. The museum is also available for special events of up to 3,000 guests. Let the wonder begin! calacademy.org
Conservatory of Flowers
Historic San Francisco landmark in Golden Gate Park since 1879 boasting rare tropical flowers and plants from around the world. Architectural gem with five distinct galleries. Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; open holidays except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Discount available for visitors with proof of San Francisco residency. conservatoryofflowers.org
San Francisco Botanical Garden
Stroll through New Zealand, the Mediterranean or Central American rain forests. The garden is a beautiful, calm oasis. Monday-Friday 7:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Saturday, Sunday and holidays 10 a.m.–5 p.m.. Tours Monday–Friday 1:30 p.m., Saturday–Sunday 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. sfbg.org
Japanese Tea Garden
Constructed in 1893 for the California Midwinter International Exposition, the Japanese Tea Garden is graced with torii (gates), pagodas, a moon bridge and a 1.5-ton Buddha. Fortune cookies were first created and served here in 1914 and can still be enjoyed in the teahouse.
A pristine man-made lake located in the heart of the park where you can rent a row boat, electric boat or pedal boat from the Stow Lake Boathouse. The surrounding views and grounds are gorgeous. And the boathouse café sells food, snacks and drinks to keep you going throughout your park adventure. It’s a lovely place to spend the afternoon. stowlakeboathouse.com
National Aids Memorial Grove
The National AIDS Memorial Grove is dedicated to the millions of lives AIDS has affected. This memorial signifies that the global tragedy of AIDS will never be forgotten. This dedicated space is open to the public for picnics and regularly hosts performing arts events and weddings. It is a beautiful, peaceful place to gather, remember, explore and experience.
Why visit the home on the range when you can see real buffalo roam right here in Golden Gate Park See these majestic creatures in an open, safe habitat.
Located steps from the Pacific Ocean on the west side of the park is the Beach Chalet. Stop by for a lunch, dinner or drinks. Come out for Taco Tuesday, featuring live music from 6:30–9:30 p.m., cheap tacos, handcrafted beers and half-price margaritas. The Spanish Colonial architecture and history associated with the building (formerly a changing house for beach frolickers) is worth checking out, too.
Dutch and Murphy Windmills
Standing at 75-feet-tall, the north windmill was originally constructed in 1902 to pump water. Today it’s known for the thousands of colorful tulips that surround the historic landmark in the northwest corner of the park. The windmill is worth a visit anytime, but tulip time (February and March) is the best. A second windmill, the Murphy Windmill, is located in the southwest corner of the park but has suffered significant damage. A campaign to save the windmills set out to repair both in the early 2000s as well as build a bike path connecting the two locales. In 2011, the south windmill received a new dome, but further renovations are still under way.
A favorite attraction for all ages, Spreckels Lake is the perfect place to stroll, jog, bike, or read under the Monterey Cypress trees. Keep your eyes peeled for frogs, turtles and fish among the model yachts
Speedway (Hellman Hollow) and Lindley Meadows
One of San Francisco’s biggest music festivals, Outside Lands, brings thousands of people to Golden Gate Park and, specifically, to these two meadows every August. You can head to these grassy patches any time of the year for a nice picnic, a sweet outdoor nap, or a game of frisbee. In 2012, Speedway Meadow was renamed Hellman Hollow after late park benefactor and Hardly Strictly founder Warren Hellman.
In the 1930s, colorful lights were installed to illuminate this beautiful waterfall, giving it its name. Now the falls greet visitors as they enter and exit the park near Crossover Drive. If you’re up for a hike, check out the Prayerbook Cross near the top of the waterfall. Dating back to 1894, the Celtic-style landmark is the tallest in the park.
Situated in the middle of Stow Lake and measuring 430-feet-high, the island is the highest point in the park. Take the Rustic Bridge or the Roman Bridge on either side, and hike to the top to see a stunning view of Mt. Tamalpais and the Golden Gate Bridge. And don’t forget to meditate at the Golden Gate Bridge Pavilion, a Chinese temple-like structure that was a gift from the city of Taipei to commemorate early Chinese settlers. Take the southern bridge to get there. You might never want to leave.
Located at the center of the museum district of the park, the Music Concourse was originally built for the festivities of the 1894 Midwinter Fair. Check out free performances of the Golden Gate Park Band on Sundays from April to October, and keep an eye out for other major headliners. Don’t forget to say "hi" to Ludwig Van Beethoven, Ulysses S. Grant, and the other statues of historical figures that line the concourse.
Inhabited by drum circles and covered in a haze of pot smoke, Hippie Hill always makes for an adventure. Infamous for the flower children who gathered there during the 1960s, the meadow and slope are still a good place to enjoy the city and people-watch on a sunny day.
This is one of the best ways to experience Golden Gate Park. Weave your way through the tree-lined roads and take in the many spectacular views across the park. The best day to ride a bike through the park is on Sunday when the main road through the park is closed to cars. Rentals are available at the park. Visit golden-gate-park.com/biking for more information.
San Francisco Electric Tour Company offers fully narrated Segway and Electric Bike Tours. Tour the eastern section of the park via winding trails and bike routes. See the best views while listening to the legends of the park. Check out their Yelp and Tripadvisor reviews for more detailed info on the experience. Learn more at electrictourcompany.com.
With 21 courts, temperate weather year-round and stunning views of the park, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better location to play tennis. Costs for walk-in play for the weekdays is as follows: residents ($4), non-residents ($6), seniors 65+ ($2), and youth under 18 are free. During the weekend and evening, the fees increase for residents ($5) and seniors 65+ ($5). On the weekends, all youth are expected to pay $2. You can reserve courts by time to guarantee yourself a spot. Players of all skill levels are welcome. Lessons at these courts are also available if you're interested.
Familiar with disc golf? The process involves throwing a flying disc from distances to a metal basket target. It was popularized by college students and has a reputation for being a hippy sport, but it’s become more popular over the years with courses in many destinations. The Golden Gate Park disc golf course is the only one in San Francisco. It features 18 holes. It is free. But you’ll need to bring your own discs.
Golden Gate Park Bike & Skate
Rentals, sales and service. Ride through beautiful Golden Gate Park on bicycles, rollerblades, in-line skates and traditional skates—for adults and children (safety gear provided). Open daily. goldengateparkbikeandskate.com
Parkwide Bike Rentals
Parkwide Activities provides bicycle rentals and tours in and around San Francisco city parks including Golden Gate Park. With one-way rental options, Parkwide customers have the flexibility to ride in one direction and end their rental at any of our citywide locations. www.parkwide.com
There are a number of places around the park where you can set up a friendly match of futbol. Most games take place at the soccer fields that surround Beach Chalet, but you can also set up a match at Kezar Stadium or the Polo Fields. Reservations are necessary, but that’s no excuse not to go out and kick the ball around.
So you want to be Katniss, Legolas, or Hawkeye? The Golden Gate Park Archery Field is the first step. The only archery field in San Francisco, the outdoor range offers nine target bales and can be used free of charge. Rent equipment at the nearby San Francisco Archery Pro Shop or take a beginners class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and get practicing.
Handball is no longer just another non-sport you used to rock at in middle school P.E. Show off those skills you’ve been hiding since your preteen days, and get back in the game. The handball courts are open every day on a first-come-first-serve basis. Bring your own equipment and start sweating.
Outside lands is held annually in Golden Gate Park and is one of the country’s most popular music and arts festivals. The festival is usually held at the beginning of August. Check back for more info.
Some past artists who have performed at the festival include Paul McCartney, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Stevie Wonder and many more. The festival focuses on food, wine and art as well as world-class live music. Visit sfoutsidelands.com for more information.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
A San Francisco and Golden Gate Park tradition since 2001, this is a free music festival held annually during the first weekend of October. If you haven’t yet experienced this festival, it is highly recommended you make the journey as this is a truly special outdoor event during San Francisco’s best seasonal climate. Visit hardlystrictlybluegrass.com for more information.
Limited free parking is available throughout the park, and there is a parking garage located near the Music Concourse with varying prices. The entrance to the garage can be found at 10th Avenue and Fulton Street.
There are various Muni bus lines that run along and throughout the park. Please visit sfmta.com for more information.
There are various access points throughout the park for cyclists and roads feature safe, bike-friendly lanes.
Visit golden-gate-park.com/how-to-get-around-golden-gate-park for more information.
Photo by Louis Raphael