Miles of pristine shoreline, old growth coastal redwood trees right in the heart of the city, botanical gardens and nearby wilderness areas all add to San Francisco’s natural wonders.
Aquatic Park to the Pacific
Begin your day at Aquatic Park, a busy historical maritime cove with a stretch of sand hauled to the site from the excavation that created the Union Square Garage. Dolphin Club swimmers have been entering the chilly Bay waters near the cove since the club was founded in 1877. The park’s seawall is partly constructed of tombstones taken from the Lone Mountain (Laurel Hills) Cemetery in the late 1920s. Walk out on the municipal pier on the west side of the cove and watch fishermen land shiny perch and the occasional striper, or haul up a net with two or three Dungeness crabs.
Stroll along the bayside shoreline to Fort Mason, the WWII Army depot that now houses a cultural nexus of nonprofits, many of them environmental groups. Continue along the Marina and, at the far end, walk toward the water, make a right past the Yacht Club, out onto the jetty that forms the boat harbor.
At the jetty tip is the Wave Organ, an exhibit of the Exploratorium that creates a symphony from pipes that reach down into the Bay and are activated by the crashing waves. The intensity and complexity of the wave music depends on the tides and weather. From the granite seats, you get a spectacular panorama of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz, Angel Island, Sausalito and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Walk back to Marina Blvd., cross over to Baker Street and wander through the colonnade of the Palace of Fine Arts, a Beaux-Arts structure and reflecting pond built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Long before there was the city of San Francisco, there was the Presidio of San Francisco. First established in 1776, the adobe walls of the Presidio Officer’s Club stand testament to California’s colonial beginnings. Throughout the 20th century the Officers’ Club was a gathering place for Army brass and their families. Today this beloved institution has been transformed into a cultural destination that welcomes the entire community. Enjoy moving exhibitions, dynamic events, delicious dining, educational programs and wonderful spaces to gather and celebrate. (50 Moraga Ave. at Arguello Blvd; 561-3650) Presidio, formerly home of the Sixth U.S. Army is now a 1,480-acre national park. Head to the water’s edge and the shoreline promenade of Crissy Field (603 Mason St.; 561-7690); San Francisco’s spectacular natural jewel. The 100-acre stretch of land, originally a salt marsh, was filled in after the 1915 Exposition and used as the Presidio’s airfield from 1921-36. The beaches, dunes and tidal marsh were restored in 2000, offering a premier spot for strolling, bird watching, running, kite-flying and picnicking. It has a sweeping, uninterrupted view from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge. At the western end of the promenade, stop for hot cocoa and light meals at the Warming Hut café and bookstore (Marine Drive and Long Avenue; 561-3042).
Just beyond the Hut and across the road is a trailhead that leads up to the viewing area of the Golden Gate Bridge as well as to a coastal trail where you can see migrating birds, whales, fishing boats and wildflowers, as well as abandoned gun batteries, other architectural World War II-era “ruins,” and gorgeous ocean and Bay panoramas. The trail goes for miles along the coast.
Stretching from the Cliff House to Sloat Boulevard. is Ocean Beach, a stunning but usually windswept place for a bracing stroll. Stop at the Cliff House (1090 Pt. Lobos Ave.; 386-3330), a restaurant and souvenir shop with sweeping ocean views. Behind the Cliff House on a lower terrace is the Camera Obscura (1096 Point Lobos Ave;750-0415), a national historic landmark. In this darkened chamber, a camera that rotates every six minutes captures a panoramic image of the end of the continent, including Seal Rock, popular with sea birds and, sometimes, Steller and California sea lions, and the former Playland at the Beach site.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a man-made wonder, 1,000-plus acres reclaimed in 1880 from the persistent sands blowing in off the Pacific. Once called “The Great Sand Bank,” the park is three miles long and a half-mile wide, with museums, boating, specialized gardens, nine lakes and 4,000 species of trees. It is a year-round breath of green air, like the lungs of the city.
Start at the 1879 Conservatory of Flowers, completely renovated in 2003. The all-glass Victorian structure, lush with tropical plants, is North America’s oldest public conservatory and a national historic landmark. Walk west a ways to San Francisco Botanical Garden (Ninth Avenue and Lincoln Way; 661-1316), which features 70 acres and distinct gardens of lovingly maintained flora — from the sun roses (Helianthemum) of Mediterranean climates to giant lobelias from high-elevation cloud forests. Some redwood trees along the Redwood Trail date from 1898 and are among the garden’s oldest specimens. Free guided tours are offered daily at 1:30 p.m. with additional 10:30 a.m. tours on weekends. For lunch, walk south out of the park along Ninth Avenue to Irving Street, a bustling neighborhood filled with countless cafes and ethnic cuisines.
Back in the park, head toward the ocean. Stop at the buffalo paddock off John F. Kennedy Drive. In 1890, the city Recreation and Park Commission purchased the paddock’s first bison — two cows named Madame Sarah Bernhardt and Princess and a bull, Ben Harrison. Those “wildings” from the Montana plains were the progenitors of all the park’s bison until 1984, when a new herd was brought in to replace the ailing, shaggy beasts. Periodically, lucky visitors get to see the herd’s huge, gawky calves. At both west ends of the park stand turn-of-the-century windmills, powered by ocean winds. Originally, they pumped 1.5 million gallons an hour of fresh well water to green the park. The city installed motorized pumps in 1913, but eventually the windmills fell into disrepair. The spars of the Dutch or north windmill began turning again in 1981 thanks to a restoration project led by Eleanor Rossi Crabtree, daughter of former Mayor Angelo Rossi. A campaign to restore the Murphy or south windmill is under way.\
San Francisco Zoo
At the southern end of Ocean Beach is San Francisco Zoo (Sloat Boulevard and 47th Avenue; 753-7080). Built in the 1930s by the WPA, Northern California’s largest animal park is one of the oldest U.S. zoos. The one-acre Grizzly Gulch, home to sister bears Kachina and Kiona; Kangaroo with a joey in its pouch at the Australian WalkAbout; giraffes, zebras, kudus, ostriches and other wildlife that roam a lush, three-acre African Savanna; the Lemur Forest, with five species of these irresistible primates from Madagascar; a jaguar relaxing in a 20,000-square-foot habitat (big cats are fed at 2 p.m. daily except Monday) — these are just some of the zoo’s pleasures. Don’t miss the antique Dentzel Carousel with wondrously carved animals and the Children’s Zoo, where the petting animals are a yes-yes.
Destinations Outside San Francisco
North of the City
San Francisco is surrounded by natural wonders and destinations of scientific interest for visitors of all ages. Just across the Golden Gate Bridge is the Marin Headlands — coastal bluffs, rugged hiking trails, vast wetlands, protected valleys, historic landmarks. It’s a major stopover on the Pacific Flyway and, from the second week in September to the first week in December, a premier spot to see a medley of raptors wheeling overhead: golden eagles, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, peregrine falcons, osprey and many more. At the Bay Model Visitors Center (2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito; 332-3871), the Army Corps of Engineers operates a working scale model of the Bay. The Marin Mammal Center (Bunker Road at Rodeo Lagoon; 289-7325) cares for injured, sick or orphaned seals and sea lions stranded along the coast. Marin Headlands Visitors Center (331-1540), which has maps of hiking trails, is a favorite resting place for brown pelicans, blue herons and egrets. Also just across the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Baker in Sausalito is the Bay Area Discovery Museum, an indoor-outdoor science mecca for kids — even toddlers (557 McReynolds Rd.; 339-3900).
Twelve miles north of San Francisco is Muir Woods, a stunning old-growth redwood forest with more than 30 miles of trails on eight separate routes, the shortest one mile, the longest six. The forest, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2008, was designated a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt, and its Coast Redwood tree — with a life span of more than 2,000 years — was the country’s first living species preserved under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
Point Reyes National Seashore (25 miles northwest of San Francisco; 464-5100), a Northern California treasure, boasts 30 miles of coastline, 140 miles of trails, majestic vistas, herds of tule elk, acres of wildflowers. A haven for rare birds, it is a paradise for birdwatchers.
The 3,849-foot Mt. Diablo State Park (925-837-2525) beckons hikers with 100 miles of trails and a museum at the summit. Lindsay Wildlife Museum (1931 First Ave., Walnut Creek; 925-935-1978) features up-close encounters with live, native California animals. U.C. Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science (Centennial Drive near Grizzly Peak Blvd., Berkeley; 510-642-5132) is a public science museum and a center for teacher education, research and curriculum development. Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St., Oakland; 510-318-8400 ex 2) has the state’s most detailed exhibition of California natural history. The largest refractor in the Western United States regularly open to the public is at Chabot Space & Science Center (10000 Skyline Blvd., Oakland (510-336-7300).
South Bay and Peninsula
On Hwy. 1, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and Pillar Point tide pool offer a beautiful beach that is safe and interesting for children. Be sure to check newspapers for low tide times. Mammoth elephant seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals come ashore at Año Nuevo State Reserve to rest, battle for mates, and give birth in the sand dunes or on the beaches (Hwy. 1, 13 miles south of Pescadero; 650-879-0227). Reservations are recommended during the winter breeding season. At the Children’s Discovery Museum (180 Woz Way, San Jose; 408-298-5437), 150 exhibits and programs help youth understand our complex world. Tech Museum of Innovation (201 S. Market St., San Jose; 408-294-8324) provides interactive exhibits highlighting advanced technology.
For calendar information and local expert recommendations on all of San Francisco’s arts and cultural activities, visit sfarts.org which features more than 1,000 arts events in its database along with curated arts highlights and feature articles. SFArts.org is accessible on iPads, iPhones and other mobile devices.
Explore 10 self-guided tours designed to immerse visitors in San Francisco’s culture, rich ethnic heritage and world-class art.