Marvel at the view of the park from the de Young Museum's observation tower. (©Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
Bisecting San Francisco’s western districts, the massive sprawl that is Golden Gate Park can seem like an overwhelming embarrassment of riches with no clear entry point. That’s because at half a mile wide and three miles long—over a thousand acres in all— Golden Gate Park is even larger than New York’s Central Park.
The park is free to visitors, though some of the gardens and museums require admission. It’s possible to traverse the length of the park in one day, though you’ll miss a few must-see spots if you try to cram it all in.
From the east entrance, the first main attraction you’ll notice is the Conservatory of Flowers. The gleaming white glass and wood Victorian pavilion is the oldest existing conservatory in the Western Hemisphere, originally unveiled in 1879 and reopened in 2003 after renovations following extensive wind damage in the mid-1990s. It houses four permanent exhibitions of over 1,700 species of plants from all over the world. In the steamy highland tropics gallery, for instance, you’ll find orchids and perennial impatiens the size of your face—which is appropriate, because most of these blooms bear a resemblance to an actual face, petals folded in just such a way to mimic a bemused or angry expression.
If you’re looking for a quiet reprieve, cross the street to visit the National AIDS Memorial Grove, a peaceful sanctuary dedicated to the lives of those touched by HIV and AIDS. The heavy fragrance of the redwood trees and ferns makes it a perfect place to rest and contemplate before heading back out into the sprawling park fields.
Next up, it’s time to learn a thing or two. As you near the middle of the park, several museums peek over the treetops, including one with a “living” roof that blends right in. The California Academy of Sciences is fun for families and kids at heart, featuring a tidal wave of information and exhibitions. Inside you’ll find the two-story Steinhart Aquarium and the Morrison Planetarium, the largest all-digital dome in the world that’s currently screening its latest original show, “Habitat Earth,” which traces routes among all the interconnected ecosystems of our planet.
Across the green, you’ll spot another destination: the de Young Museum, named for its founder Michael H. de Young, who also cofounded hometown newspaper the San Francisco Chronicle. First opened in 1895, the de Young was the midwife for what later became the Asian Art Museum, a full-fledged collection in its own right. The de Young also required some maintenance after suffering considerable damage after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The new museum, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, opened in October 2005.
Back outside, there are meadows and gardens to explore and enjoy. The five-acre Japanese Tea Garden is full of markers commemorating its century-old history and lush clusters of cherry trees, towering bamboo and meticulously manicured bonsai. The pagodas and bridges can get crowded, so plan to stay awhile or enjoy the traditional tea service in the teahouse.
The San Francisco Botanical Garden includes 55 acres, with alcoves like the Garden of Fragrance. Don’t miss the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture off to the left of the entrance. The understated library houses the largest collection of gardening and horticulture books and periodicals in Northern California and also hosts free story time for children.
Getting closer to the Pacific Ocean side of the park, you’ll pass the Chain of Lakes. One of the most popular is Spreckels Lake, where you’ll often see small gatherings of remote controlled sailboat enthusiasts piloting a cluster of ships around the pond.
Most visitors row straight for Stow Lake, where you can rent a paddleboat and enjoy cruising around the small lake. Families with young children also won’t want to miss the Koret Children’s Quarter, where the brightly colored 101-year-old Herschell-Spillman Carousel still delights kids of all ages.
Just down the road, you’ll also find what seems like a bewilderingly out-of-place compound full of wooly, lumbering bison. Golden Gate Park has boasted a bison herd since the late 1800s, though today’s herd is descended from several bison that were donated to the park in 1984 as a birthday gift to the city’s then mayor, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, from her husband. Today’s paddock residents are usually most active during the morning hours, when they often come close to the fence.
If sports are more your speed, soccer fields and a nine-hole, par-3 golf course are both nearby. You can also wander over to the Angler’s Lodge and watch fly fishermen practice their technique at the casting pools.
One of your last stops before you reach the Pacific Ocean are twin windmills. The Dutch Windmill from 1902 is augmented by the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden at its base, where Icelandic poppies also bloom in the springtime. The Murphy Windmill was completed in 1908. Like its sister structure, it is slowly being restored to its original beauty.
Creature Lookout: You may see these birds and animals along the way
- In the ponds: ducks, geese, grebes and cormorants
- On the shore: herons, marsh wrens and yellowthroats
- In the trees: hawks, ravens and a chorus of songbirds like warblers and juncos
- In the air: Allen’s and Anna’s hummingbirds