Fun Things To Do
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA
Below is a list of some of the best things to do in Golden Gate Park San Francisco. Checking them out definitely belongs any local’s list of things to do. See our Golden Gate Park map for exact locations.
Modeled after New York City’s Central Park, Golden Gate Park is considered by many to be the best city park in the United States. It is also the largest man-made park in the world at 1,017 acres and over 3 miles (50 blocks) long by 1/2 mile wide. Thirteen million people visit each year making it the third most visited park in the U.S. after Central Park, NYC, and Lincoln Park, Chicago. (Note: see The Presidio for SF’s biggest natural park).
SF’s Golden Gate Park encompasses several major attractions including museums, lakes, and gardens. Biking around is a good way to “accidentally” run across the wide variety of smaller attractions such as childrens’ playgrounds, a carousel (built 1912), buffalo paddocks, dog parks, fly fishing, archery, model boat sailing, lawn bowling, golf, soccer, the Polo grounds, Kezar Stadium, and more.
Golden Gate Park was originally part of what was called Outside Lands, one of the largest sand dune systems on the West Coast. An engineer William Hammond Hall coaxed life out of the barren sand dunes by planting grasses, shrubs, and finally trees at the Western end of the Park. This wind break allowed the developments of the remainder of the park.
By 1890 a Scotsman, John McLaren, had established grass and trees throughout the park even though many had said it couldn’t be done. He used two giant windmills to pump up to 1.5 million gallons/day of fresh water in for new plantings. The Dutch windmill built in 1902 and the Murphy windmill, the world’s largest when built in 1905, are both located at the Park’s west end.
In 1854 the Japanese Tea Garden was built for the California Midwinter International Exposition. And, in 1878 the Conservatory of Flowers was assembled from parts shipped from Ireland. This is the oldest glass Victorian greenhouse in the U.S.
Go Ride a Bike (or take a hike)
It’s difficult to see all the paths and nooks and crannies by car. And, the distances are a bit far to go by foot unless you are a serious runner. So we recommend doing a few hours of easy, fairly flat biking. You can rent a bike on the east side of the park at one of several bike rental shops along Stanyan Street either side of Haight Street.
This way you’ll get a real insider’s feel and can stop any time to check out details or to picnic on a hidden grassy knoll. Once you have scoped out the area by bike then come back any time later to partake further of your favorite spots … just like we do.
John F Kennedy Drive, from Stanyan to Park Presidio, is closed to cars on Sundays (and half a day on Saturdays from April-September) which makes it one of San Francisco’s favorite place to bike and inline skate. We also enjoy the quieter southwest corner of the park for biking and hiking … and the 15 block ride south along the Great Highway to the Zoo. There are bike rentals available on Stanyan Street (immediately east of the park), behind the music concourse near the Japanese Tea Garden and at Stow Lake.
Just south of Golden Gate Park, for 15 beautiful blocks uninterrupted by street crossings, paralleling The Great Highway between Golden Gate Park (Lincoln Way) and the Zoo (Sloat Blvd) are three great places to walk.
- A “secret” part of Ocean Beach which is hidden by sand dunes from the road
- A sand trail in the dunes just west of The Great Highway
- A paved berm, you can ride your bike here as well, just east of The Great Highway
If you don’t have time to investigate by bicycle try this nice visual map of Golden Gate Park. Be sure to click on the map and then its various colored buttons for excellent photographs of the Park’s many treasures.
Also see our hiddenSF Golden Gate Park map for exact locations, phone numbers, and URLs of attractions mentioned on this page.
Stow Lake is the largest of ten lakes in the park and the second biggest lake in SF. On the northwest side of the lake you can rent paddle boats. They’ll let you take your dog on a rented rowboat which is fun too.
You can row around the man-made 428 foot high Strawberry Hill located in the center of Stow lake. For a little hike walk across one of the two foot bridges to the Strawberry Hill island and then climb the path to the top. From there you can see several excellent views including Golden Gate Bridge.
San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum
This very fine botanical garden covers 55 acres and has over 8000 varieties of plants. Just stroll in, relax, and enjoy the beautiful walks. The main west-side entrance is on Ninth Ave, about a block north of Lincoln Way. You can also enter via a gate just south of the Tea Garden. Admission $7. (Note: FREE to SF Residents with proof … and to others on the 2nd Tuesday of every month plus Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Call (415) 661-1316 for details.)
Conservatory of Flowers
If you are serious about flowers or butterflys also check out the Conservatory of Flowers. It is a beautiful glass-and-wood building with an impressive glass dome. Admission $7. Note: FREE on the first Tuesday of every month. Call (415) 831-2090 for details.
Going inside, where it looks and feels like a greenhouse, is free the first Tuesday of every month. The world’s largest collection of high-altitude orchids, with over 700 species, is shown there. Also a six-foot wide Amazonian water lily, Victoria Amazonica.
Japanese Tea Garden San Francisco
The Japanese Tea Garden is not really our cup of tea … we prefer the Botanical Garden. However, it is one of the most visited attractions in the Park and worth seeing at least once. Nice paths & tea in a rustic Japanese setting. $5 admission is charged.
By the way, spring is the time to check out the Tea Garden’s cherry blossoms. While you are at it drive by the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden at the base of the Dutch Windmill to see the 10,000 tulips that also bloom in the spring.
Two of the City’s most impressive museums are found in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Most locals have heard about special world-famous exhibits there which are heavily advertised and sometimes sold out. These museums do tend to be expensive, lines can be long, and parking & traffic may be a problem on weekends. So, we don’t often go.
- The newish 400,000 sf California Academy of Sciences which includes an aquarium, planetarium, and rain forest. Prices have now climbed to $34.95 admission. Check the link above for a few free days/year though the line is probably unbelieveably long.
- The de Young Museum, San Francisco’s main art museum. We like the museum cafe (admission is free to the cafe only) and the view from the museum’s 144 foot tower.There is paid parking underneath the de Young Museum with access (south) from Fulton St at 10th Ave. This particular museum as well as several others in the city is free the first Tuesday of each month; otherwise admission is $11.
- The Band Shell at the Music Concourse, between the two museums above, is where the Golden Gate Park Band gives free concerts on Summer Sundays.
Almost every Sunday, for over 14 years now, from 11:00-2:00 pm there is swing dancing in the park to watch or join on the JF Kennedy Drive sidewalk between 9th & 10th Avenues. It’s free, you can wear sandels & shorts or whatever, people are friendly, and being a good dancer is definitely not required. Just give it a whirl from the edge of the group. No one will notice. Free beginner’s lessons are given from 12-12:30 pm.
Since no cars are allowed on Sundays one way to get there is to park at the de Young Museum, San Francisco. (From Fulton St. turn south at 10th Ave into the Music Concourse Garage’s north entrance. You’ll have to pay for parking and sometimes it’s full). Then, walk to the northeast side of the museum and proceed a few hundred feet further north towards JFK Drive until you’ll hear dance music. If you don’t mind a stroll you can also look around for parking on the east side of Golden Gate Park and walk on in from there.
We will often combine a trip to the park with walks to interesting adjacent neighborhoods.
Immediately to the east of the park starting at Stanyan St. you can walk east along Haight St. to see the Haight Ashbury district. It’s usually busy and somewhat seedy with a few panhandlers & “wanna be” hippies in sight. Two blocks north of Haight St., between Fell St. & Oak St. you can ride your bike for 8 blocks along the flat block wide section of park land called the Panhandle.
Cole Valley is a nice little neighborhood only three blocks north of Haight Ashbury. From Cole St & Haight St take Cole Street north to Frederick Street. Between Frederick Street & Parnassus Ave you will find several pleasant restaurants in an area which is much less scruffy than the Haight Street scene. Conservative types will prefer hanging out here rather than with the beggars on Haight.
On Golden Gate Park’s south side at Lincoln Way & 9th St. near the Botanical Garden, walk south down 9th Street a block or two to visit a very active local neighborhood with many different & interesting restaurants. We especially like one of the best bakeries in the city, Arizmendi Bakery at 1331 9th Ave. We also frequent the Yummy Yummy Vietnamese restaurant two blocks away at 1015 Irving St for their Vietnamese coffee and Pho soup.
Immediately to the west is the Great Highway and Ocean Beach. It’s easy to get to by car and there’s almost always parking nearby. Check out the beach and the Beach Chalet restaurant located immediately south of John F. Kennedy drive. We think the restaurant upstairs is not that exciting. Instead, we prefer the Park Chalet restaurant down stairs on a sunny weekend day. Sitting outside on the lawn in back eating a tasty high class hamburger with your dog is fun; however, on busy weekends expect a very long wait.
Or, you can walk north on the Great Highway, past the large Dutch windmill formerly used to pump park irrigation water, a couple blocks to the Cliff House restaurant for great surf views and a nice bar. Sutro Heights Park, a pleasing hidden park with great views, overlooks the Cliff House.
If you are a biking there is a nice flat bike ride south along a raised paved hiking path along the east side of the Great Highway. Two blocks south of Golden Gate Park, at the corner of Judah Street where the N-Judah trolley ends, is a good coffee shop Java Beach Cafe, 1396 La Playa St, often filled with locals in their twenties. Fifteen blocks or so further south you’ll hit the Zoo. Along the way cross west over the Great Highway to walk among the sand dunes and along a narrower, more interesting beach than the big wide beach to the north.
Golden Gate Park is a nice relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon. You owe it to yourself to get out and try this traditional San Francisco “thing to do” soon, especially if you live in the SF Bay area! And don’t forget to check out the nifty adjoining neighborhoods while you are at it!
- Golden Gate Park map – Shows exact locations and details about attractions.
- Golden Gate Park FAQ – Park department facts about Golden Gate Park.
- Ocean Beach page & map – Shows some little known things to do next to Golden Gate Park.
- Judah Street & map – An interesting neighborhood, only 2 blocks south of Golden Gate Park by the ocean.
- The Presidio & map – Another truly great park, but newer, bigger & more natural.
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