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Golden Gate Park San Francisco: Best Things to Do & See in SF's Golden Gate Park

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Golden Gate Park San Francisco stretches across almost half the width of the city, offering a plethora of attractions and natural treasures. Here you can visit the California Academy of Sciences—the most popular SF museumor find places to relax like the serene Japanese Tea Garden or Stow Lake. You will also find several annual events held here that bring in thousands of people to its greens.

You could spend an entire day in Golden Gate Park and still only see a slice of what it offers.

The entrance to Golden Gate Park from the Great Highway in San Francisco

Golden Gate Park San Francisco was designed to give residents and visitors tons of beautiful escapes from city life. Often compared to New York's Central Park, it is actually about 20% larger (1,017 acres vs. 843).

The park is rectangular, about three miles long from east to west and about half a mile wide from north to south. In the aerial view from a recent plane ride I took, you'll see that the massive green area in the photo beckons you to discover what's in it.

Just beyond the park's limits you'll see the downtown city skyline, and off to the left the Golden Gate Bridge. The beach in the foreground is Ocean Beach along the Pacific Ocean.

Golden Gate Park from above

History

Where Golden Gate Park now lies was once nothing more than windswept sand dunes. But when San Francisco hosted the first world's fair west of the Mississippi in 1894, developers really began to see the potential of this area, and the footprint of the fair became the foundation for the park's main attractions.

One of those features is the Music Concourse, which is now flanked by two of San Francisco's most popular museums. The California Academy of Sciences opened in 1923 and got a hugely acclaimed makeover in 2008, since much of it had been damaged by the 1989 earthquake. Just across the way is the de Young Museum, first established in 1895 and also updated with a new building in 2005.

The little oasis that is the Japanese Tea Garden is another relic of the California Midwinter International Exposition. If you love this type of uniquely landscaped sanctuary, you can also check out the botanical garden, Shakespeare garden, and rose garden.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers is the oldest formal building in the park. Originally built in 1879, its all-glass structure stands out as an impressive feat of architecture that has withstood damage from various storms and disasters over the years.

Golden Gate Park San Francisco has evolved to offer myriad meadows and lakes, outdoor concert venues, and specialized sports areas where people practice soccer, baseball, tennis, track, archery, lawn bowling, disc golf, and more.

Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.

Top Attractions in Golden Gate Park

Here is a map showing all of the top attractions described in further detail below.

Map of the attractions in Golden Gate Park

1. California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences is the gem in Golden Gate Park. It's the most visited museum in San Francisco—and is really four museums in one. Here you can watch the butterflies in the four-story rainforest, get to know several species of fish in the Steinhart Aquarium, and take a look at the museum's living roof.

You can also catch a show at the planetarium, feel what it's like to be in an earthquake, and check out the exhibits in the natural history museum. This is only a small amount of what you'll experience at the California Academy of Sciences.

>> More tips on visiting this popular SF museum

Are you interested in visiting the museum? If so, I highly recommend buying a skip the line ticket in advance. This gets you past the long lines, so you can spend more time enjoying the museum. Find skip the line tickets for your visit to the California Academy of Sciences.

2. Conservatory of Flowers

This living museum is set inside one of the oldest conservatories in the United States. Here you will find four galleries with distinct climates and plants. In the center dome you see below, you'll find Phil, a gigantic philodendron believed to be more than 100 years old.

Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park

Step inside this masterpiece to see what's new or blooming during your visit, especially the colorful tropical plants. Don't miss its amazing special exhibits located on the far western side of the conservatory.

>> Pictures of the Conservatory of Flowers and tips to visit

3. Japanese Tea Garden

Unwind in the Japanese Tea Garden on the eastern side of Golden Gate Park San Francisco. Enjoy a walk on the meandering paths that take you through this beautifully manicured garden, complete with picturesque Japanese maples and pagodas.

Climb to the top of the Drum Bridge for the perfect photo opportunity. Grab a latte or a light lunch in the café as you soak in even more of this gorgeous 5-acre garden.

>> Pictures and tips to visit

4. Botanical Gardens

This 55-acre gem is a must for those curious about rare plants from around the world. A visit here is a trip to the landscapes of South America, Asia, Australia, and more. With more than 50,000 plants, there is always something in bloom.

Red Flowers in the Botanical Gardens in SF

The features you do not want to miss include the largest collection of magnolias outside of China and the century-old towering pines in the Redwood Grove.

>> See pictures and get tips to visit the Botanical Gardens

5. Stow Lake & Strawberry Hill

Stow Lake is a peaceful retreat away from the hustle and bustle of the other attractions in Golden Gate Park San Francisco. Here you can take a moment to slow down and enjoy the view, or have a quiet outdoor adventure running, hiking, or taking a boat out on the lake.

You can also relax in the Chinese Pavilion or soak in the beauty of Huntington Falls.

>> More on what there is to do at Stow Lake

6. de Young Museum

The de Young Fine Arts Museum houses more than 25,000 works of art from around the world. Here you can see everything from pre-Columbian American murals to works from sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea and Indonesia.

de Young in SF

The building itself is a cultural experience, as the sleek modern design and copper facade offer a portal into what is actually the city's oldest museum. During your visit, make sure you also take in the 360° views of the city from the museum's observation tower.

>> Pics and information on visiting de Young Fine Arts Museum

7. Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach is on the far western side of Golden Gate Park San Francisco. Along this four-mile stretch of beach, there is plenty to see and do, including surfing, grabbing lunch, and admiring the restored windmills. Be aware that it is usually chilly and windy here, so bring a jacket and get ready for spectacular views of windsurfers taking to the Pacific waves.

Ocean Beach runs along the coast of SF's Sunset District. On the northern end of the beach, you will find the official Golden Gate Park Visitor Center in the Beach Chalet building, along with other famous sites such as Sutro Baths and Cliff House. Down at the southern end, you will find Lake Merced Park and the San Francisco Zoo.

>> Tips to visit Ocean Beach

8. Rose Garden

So you're on vacation in one of the most exciting cities! But don't forget to stop and take time to smell the roses. The Rose Garden is one of my other favorite things to do in Golden Gate Park San Francisco. Almost all year around, you can see a variety of colorful roses in bloom.

Yellow & Pink Roses in SF's Golden Gate Park

You will find this garden at the entrance to the park near Park Presidio Boulevard and Fulton Street. It's also just to the north of John F. Kennedy Drive between Stow Lake and the de Young Museum.

>> Find more beautiful gardens around SF

Top Activities in Golden Gate Park

Looking for a way to make your visit to Golden Gate Park San Francisco even more fun and memorable? Check out the following activities.

1. Take a Segway Tour of Golden Gate Park

This Segway tour is one of the best ways to see the park since it's both eco-friendly and fun. The other thing I really love about it is getting to see almost all 1000+ acres, which would take multiple trips on foot.

This two-hour narrated tour will take you past the top attractions here, including the California Academy of Sciences, the de Young Museum, and the Japanese Tea Garden. You will also ride past several hidden gems such as the gorgeous Redwood Tree Grove, Storybook Cross, and a pioneer log cabin.

On this tour, you get the chance to learn more about the history of Golden Gate Park San Francisco and how it turned into the popular destination it is today. Find out more and book your spot on this tour today.

2. Learn About the Park's History on One of These Walking Tours

If you like to take things a bit slower to take in all the details, try one of the free walking tours of Golden Gate Park through SF City Guides. Each week, the library offers four popular tours. One is a 45-minute stroll through the Japanese Tea Garden. Another gives you a 1.5 - 2-hour historical glimpse at important events, famous monuments, trees and museums. 

The other two free tours cover the two different sectors of the vast park. The East End tour covers the area between the Conservatory of Flowers and the Music Concourse, including the AIDS Grove, Shakespeare Garden, and Children's Playground. The West End tour traces the path of Leland Stanford's steam train around the Dutch Windmill, within sight of the Pacific Ocean.

Find Tours: City Guides Walking Tours

3. Bike Its 1,000+ Acres

Renting a bike is another great way to get around to all of the attractions in Golden Gate Park San Francisco. You can easily rent a bike all day and visit the attractions here at your own pace. Each bike rental includes a lock so you can stop at any time, take a closer look at various sites, and take a little rest while enjoying the views. This is a very efficient and fun way to discover the many trails and paths within the park and take your bike to the harder-to-reach corners of the park.

Find out more about renting a bike for the day in San Francisco.

Top Events in Golden Gate Park

In addition to the year-round fun things to do in Golden Gate Park, you will also find some of our largest festivals and events held here every year. These are just a few of the top picks.

Outside Lands: San Francisco's biggest music festival every year is Outside Lands. This event features three full days of music, food, wine, and other entertainment. It's held in August. Learn more about this year's event.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: In October, you will find a free festival in Golden Gate Park San Francisco. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass draws international acts as well as up-and-coming artists, for three days of live music. More about this year's festival.

Easter & Hunky Jesus: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence offer up a fun Easter event each year, starting with a children's Easter egg hunt. After the kiddies go home, they have their very popular Hunky Jesus contest. Find out more on my Easter page.

Sunday Streets: Another free event in Golden Gate Park San Francisco each year is Sunday Streets. This car-free event closes down part of the Great Highway to offer runners, walkers, and bikers a chance to get in some miles. It also features health screenings and other fun activities. Find this year's schedule here.

Bay to Breakers: The Bay to Breakers race is a running event every May in SF. It's unlike any other as most runners come in costume. It's part race, part party. Runners start in downtown SF (the Bay) and finish on the ocean side of Golden Gate Park (the Breakers), where they spend the rest of the day partying. More about this annual event.

Tree Lighting & Holiday Celebrations: Golden Gate Park San Francisco also has some fun tree lighting and other holiday events. Check out my calendar for this time of year to learn more.

Are you looking for additional events in SF? Click the links below for a full calendar of events for each month of the year.

January

March

May

July

September

November

February

April

June

August

October

December

Golden Gate Park Weather

The great thing about Golden Gate Park San Francisco is that it's open and accessible, offering great events and activities all year round. However, you should be aware that the weather on this side of town is always about 5 to 10 degrees cooler than downtown and other parts of the city. That's because the park sits right on the Pacific Ocean, receiving the cool sea breeze and lots of fog throughout much of the year.

When SF temperatures in the summer are around 60 to 65 degrees, you can expect it to be in the mid-50s to 60s in the park. In the winter, the city cools down to the mid- to lower 50s, meaning it will be in the upper 40s to lower 50s during our rainy winters.

You can get specific details on the weather for each month below. I always recommend bringing a jacket when you visit the park.

January

March

May

July

September

November

February

April

June

August

October

December

Where to Eat Nearby

There are plenty of places to eat both close to and inside Golden Gate Park San Francisco. Here are some of the options available.

Museum Cafes: Both the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum have cafes with great fresh, local food. There a couple of places to eat at the California Academy of Sciences. All options are inside this museum and only accessible for those holding a ticket to the museum. The de Young Museum has a cafe that is open to the public, so you don't need a museum ticket to eat at their cafe.

Food Trucks: What would San Francisco be without its amazing variety of gourmet food trucks? You will find these tasty quick bites behind the pavilion between the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum.

9th & Irving Streets: Just to the south of the park is the Inner Sunset neighborhood. Here you will find several great restaurants and bars that are less than a block from the 9th Avenue park gate. Almost all restaurants in San Francisco have their menu posted in the front window, so you can quickly browse to find a restaurant that you will enjoy.

Beach Chalet: On the park's western side, you will find the popular Beach Chalet restaurant. It's a right across the highway from the Pacific Ocean and offers both great food and beautiful views of the ocean. In the same building, you will also find the Park Chalet. This restaurant is a little more casual than the Beach Chalet and offers both outdoor seating and views of the park.

Getting Here

Public Transit: Taking public transportation is one of the most cost-effective ways to get to get here. From downtown San Francisco your three best options are:

  • 5-Fulton: This bus has several stops along Market Street. It will take you to the northern side of Golden Gate Park. The ride from downtown San Francisco to the park is about 35 to 40 minutes.
  • 21-Hayes: Another great option is the 21-Hayes bus. It has one stop on the far eastern side of the park. From this stop, it is about a 10 to 15-minute walk to many of the park's popular attractions.
  • N-Judah: The N-Judah light rail train is one of the fastest options. It drops you off in the Inner Sunset neighborhood - on the southern side of Golden Gate Park. From the 9th Avenue and Irving Street stop, you can walk to the park in less than 5 minutes.

Hop On/Hop Off: The Hop On/Hop Off Bus Tour is another great way to get to the park. This narrated bus tour offers a stop right in front of the California Academy of Sciences, which will leave you close to many of the key attractions in the park. Learn more about this bus tour and how you can book your seat today.

Rent a Car: One of the best ways to get to get here is by driving. You can rent a car for the day at car rental places in both Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf. This gives you the most flexibility and allows you to see the park attractions at your own pace. Before booking a car, read through my tips for renting a car in San Francisco.

Where can you park in Golden Gate Park San Francisco?

  • Street Parking: You can usually find parking on the streets within the park during the week. Check the signs around you as you park because most of this parking has a time limit unless you have a permit. On the weekends or during big special events, this parking is hard to find.
  • Ocean Beach: On Saturday and Sunday, you can park for free at Ocean Beach and a shuttle will bring you around the park to your destination. The shuttle runs from 8am to 9pm both days.
  • Music Concourse Underground Garage: Underneath the de Young Museum, there is a large parking lot with 800 spaces. You enter the parking lot at 10th and Fulton and the rates are by the hour. This provides easy access to all of the museums and attractions on the eastern end of Golden Gate Park San Francisco.

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