Golden Gate Park San Francisco
This guide will help you find both the "must-do" and more unusual "secret" things to see in this amazing, giant San Francisco Park. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is huge; it over three miles long and covers more than one thousand square acres. This is larger than Central Park in New York City. You could spend an entire day or just a few hours enjoying your own favorite museums, gardens and attractions in this beautiful park that helps to define San Francisco's character. The park is also one of the best spots for a jog or run, with or without your dog!
Golden Gate Park History
Before we look at the amazing things that there are to do in this tremendous park, let’s look at why it is such an important part of the city of San Francisco. When it was established in the late nineteenth century it was due largely to the creativity of visionaries who could see a large urban park in an area of the city that was empty sand dunes at the time. 60,000 trees had to be planted to initially help stabilize the land that was shifting sand dunes. Scotland-trained gardened John McLaren became the park’s superintendent in 1887 and stayed in that position until 1943, helping to bring that vision to life for the city.
The first big event for the city was the 1894 Midwinter World’s Fair. A sunken open-air plaza called the Music Concourse was established at this time. More than 100 buildings were erected in the 200 surrounding acres and more than two million people visited during the months that the fair occurred. Some of the park’s most famous attractions, including the Japanese Tea Garden and the building that became the DeYoung Museum, were set up during these early days.
In the days following the devastating 1906 earthquake Golden Gate Park became home to one of the largest refugees for displaced people. More than 40,000 people took shelter here, setting up their own camps and helping each other get through the tragedy. Outdoor kitchens were set up in the park to help feed the homeless and outdoor hospitals were set up to provide care to the wounded.
Golden Gate Park was a central gathering spot for many of the protests, contests and daily activities of the hippie generation during the 1967 Summer of Love and the years around that time. A nod to that history can be seen today in the daily gatherings at Hippie Hill.
Today Golden Gate Park receives more than thirteen million annual visitors. It is one of the top five most-visited city parks in the United States.
Gardens of Golden Gate Park
This beautiful park has a number of different must-see gardens that allow you to enjoy a diverse array of different plant life. Those gardens include:
- Botanical Gardens at Strybing Arboretum. This is a favorite spot of locals who want to feel like they have escaped into nature. There are more than fifty acres of plant life here from all around the world, organized by region. The garden is free for San Francisco residents and is free to all on certain holidays and the second Tuesday of each month. It is open daily and there is a nominal fee on other days. The botanical gardens are a key part of the history of Golden Gate Park, planned in the nineteenth century and finally launched in the late 1920s.
- Japanese Tea Gardens. These five acres of lovely gardens offer a serene place to sit down and drink a cup of tea. There’s a nominal entrance fee and you can purchase tea and snacks inside of the garden.
- Tulip Garden. On the west end of the park is a large old windmill and a beautiful tulip garden. Check out the northern windmill here as well, which is one of two windmills established in 1903 that originally fed water to landscape the park.
- Rose Garden. The Golden Gate Park rose garden is another popular spot with visitors. Late spring through early fall offer the best rose displays although a pruning demonstration each January is also interesting.
- Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers. More than 200 different flowers are featured at this garden, which is also adorned with quotes from the famous plays and poems of Shakespeare.
Other Nature in Golden Gate Park
In addition to the formal gardens, some great places to see nature and plant life in Golden Gate Park include:
- Conservatory of Flowers. Flower lovers absolutely shouldn’t miss this indoor garden. It’s one of the world’s largest indoor conservatories built of wood and glass and both the exterior and interior of the building area eye-catching.
- AIDS Memorial Grove. This beautiful memorial flower garden is worth stopping in at while you’re in the park. It was set up in 1988 to recognize and honor the millions of people affected by AIDS. In 1996 Congress designated it a national memorial.
- Stow Lake. Feed the ducks or take a paddleboat ride here at this lake in the center of the park.
- Spreckels Lake. This lesser-known lake is located on the north side of the park. Model yacht clubs meet here so you might get to see them showing off their stuff when you visit.
Golden Gate Park Museums
Man-made creations are also celebrated in Golden Gate Park. The museums of the park are a great example of this.
Start with a visit to California Academy of Sciences. This amazing science museum complex holds a San Francisco aquarium, a planetarium, a rain forest and other great displays. It also has a Living Roof that offers a nice view of some of the park.
After checking out the science museum, you may want to check out art at the DeYoung Museum. Right across from the California Academy of Sciences is this favorite art museum. Even if you don’t have time to check out the exhibits, you should take the time to ride up to the top floor gift where an observation deck shows you an even better view of Golden Gate Park at no charge.
There are a lot of opportunities to see (or watch) sports in Golden Gate Park. Some of your choices include:
- Archery field. One interesting way to spend the day is to head out to this field in the park for an archery lesson.
- Soccer fields. There are soccer fields located on the northwest end of the park. It’s easy to find a pickup game here.
- Handball / Racquetball Courts. Towards the east end of the park there are a couple of well-hidden free handball courts for people who bring their own equipment. There are also tennis courts nearby.
- Rollerblading / cycling hot spots. It’s worth noting that the park is a favorite place for rollerbladers and bicyclists. There are options for bike rental inside of the park.
- Horse stables and Polo Field. Horse owners board their horses in stables in this park. Sometimes you can see them riding or performing stunts in the polo field at the park. There’s no schedule for this so it’s just a matter of dropping by and seeing if you get lucky.
- Kezar Stadium. Check the schedule here for various games and events that you can attend. Roller derby games held here are a popular choice.
- Golf Course. People who enjoy golf, or who simply want to take some lessons, will find that the Golden Gate Park Golf Course is one of the most convenient locations to downtown San Francisco.
Music, Art and Entertainment in Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a really popular place for concerts and other wonderful outdoor entertainment. The most popular event of the year is the annual Outside Lands concert, a three-day music event that draws tens of thousands of people. However, you can find numerous smaller music events in the park. Another large music event, but one that is free, is October’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Check out the free concerns often held at the music concourse and Spreckels Temple of Music. There are frequently free musical concerts held at this pretty outdoor stage area. Or visit “hippie hill” and you might see an impromptu drum circle going on; the so-called Janis Joplin Tree is a favorite attraction of this part of the park.
If you are a fan of art then you may want to keep an eye out for the many statues that have been erected throughout Golden Gate Park. These include historical figures like musicians (Beethoven), politicians (President Garfield) and authors (Cervantes) as well as fictional characters like Sancho Panza. Art lovers may also want to take advantage of the affordable all ages arts and crafts courses available at Sharon Art Studio in the park.
And Even More
If you have seen all of the above things in Golden Gate Park and are hoping for some more you will not be disappointed. Check out:
- The South Windmill. Most park visitors see the North Windmill where the park’s Tulip Garden is. However, there is also a cool historic windmill on the south end of the park. It is currently not restored which makes it an interesting relic.
- Bison and Buffalo Paddock. There are a few old bison / buffalo that make their home in an enclosure in Golden Gate Park. There isn’t much of a display to enjoy here but it’s worth checking them out if you’re in the park anyway.
- Children’s Playground and Carousel. A top spot to spend a day in the park with children.
- Beach Chalet and Park Chalet. On the west end of the park you will find a historic two-story restaurant called Beach Chalet and the adjoining sister restaurant Park Chalet. Inside you will find murals established during the WPA Arts era of the 1930s. Outside you will find a beautiful lawn where you can enjoy your lunch on a sunny day.
There are people who have lived in San Francisco for decades and still not seen all that Golden Gate Park has to offer. There is just so much to see and enjoy here.
Golden Gate Park is located in the western half of the city, bordered on the north by Fulton Street and on the south by Lincoln Way. You can get there using several MUNI buses including the 5 on Fulton and the 71 on Lincoln (both of which you can catch near Union Square if you’re staying at a centrally-located hotel). You can also take the underground MUNI N line to quickly get from downtown to just a few blocks away from the park. If you are driving then you can look for street parking in or around the park or pay to park in the Music Concourse Garage located between the DeYoung and California Academy of Science museums.