Fort Mason: San Francisco's Waterfront Playground With Cultural Appeal

Today the former U.S. Army post beckons with picnic-friendly slopes, cultural attractions and San Francisco bay views.

Set on San Francisco's northern edge, between bustling Fisherman's Wharf and the sublime meadows of Marina Green, Fort Mason beckons with picnic-friendly slopes, peaceful gardens, scenic paths and remarkable San Francisco Bay views.

The former U.S. Army post played a key role in major military events before becoming part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) in 1972. With the 2017 opening of a San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) campus, plus fresh cafes and attractions establishing themselves in the park, Fort Mason has also evolved as a significant cultural and culinary destination.

A popular cycling path connecting the Embarcadero to Crissy Field runs through the Fort Mason Great Meadow

To understand this multifaceted playground that stretches above and below a lush ridge, start at the visitor center in the GGNRA headquarters in Building 201. Here on upper Fort Mason, a self-guided walking tour explores the park’s role as a fortress under Spanish and Mexican governments, a Civil War-era neighborhood and an American military installation.

“As you look at Fort Mason’s architecture—especially the pre-Civil War homes off Franklin Street and the brick batteries overlooking the bay—you can start to imagine how remote San Francisco was back then,” says David Shaw, spokesperson for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. “This park gives you a sense of that Wild West landscape.”

Sales at Readers Bookstore support the San Francisco Public Library

Following the 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated the city, displaced residents lived in camps on Fort Mason and responders coordinated emergency efforts in today’s General’s Residence venue. By the time the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition brought exhibits to one corner of the post, the U.S. Army was also building warehouses, piers and rail infrastructure along its lower waterfront.

Fort Mason became a major military logistical center, with some 1.6 million soldiers passing through the San Francisco Port of Embarkation during World War II.

Fort Mason Center's stunning waterfront location juts into the bay.

The military eventually decommissioned the fort, and the lower park now house the nonprofit Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. Various arts groups, galleries, shops and cafes operate on the center’s 13-acre campus, including the SFMOMA Artists Gallery, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Magic Theatre, Greens Restaurant, a legendary vegetarian mainstay, and Readers Bookstore, which supports the San Francisco Public Library through the sale of vintage books.

Off the Grid brings Friday night food truck events to Fort Mason Center each summer; a year-round farmers' market also sets up there on Sundays. In August 2018, the team behind San Francisco’s Biergarten and Suppenküche opened a Bavarian-inspired Fort Mason beer hall called Radhaus. And, the recent San Francisco Art Institute opening means additional events and energy for this already dynamic destination.

San Francisco Art Institute campus at Fort Mason

“Previously, most activities here took place on weekends. Now, with SFAI on Pier 2, there are new galleries and engaging public programming on a regular basis,” says Nick Kinsey, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture’s director of external affairs.

Creating a more vibrant experience also involves reconfiguring structures built for storage, not socializing.

“These were military warehouses, so the natural design is not necessarily public-facing. But, the industrial buildings do have a remarkable design aesthetic with beautiful open floor plans,” Kinsey says. “We love making subtle updates that create a more inviting, elegant atmosphere.”

 Painting outside Flax Art & Design

Howard Flax relocated Flax Art & Design, his family’s 80-year-old art San Francisco art store, from Market Street to a Fort Mason warehouse in 2015. He calls the change “a terrific move.”

“We’re now part of a fabulous community of independent businesses and organizations operating here,” he ways. “Our building is more than 100 years old. The industrial feel is a great fit, and we’ve brought the historical components back to their original condition.”

“We’re in a beautiful building with exposed rafters, and we love the outdoor seating,” says Devorah Freudiger, director of retail for Equator Coffee & Teas. The brand brought its fair-trade brews and pastries to a former Fort Mason gatehouse in 2017. “It’s a really pedestrian-friendly, community-minded location that draws folks for weekly markets and special events. We’re also on a main thoroughfare for people bicycling to the Golden Gate Bridge or Crissy Field.”

Equator Coffee & Teas at the Fort Mason Entrance has Golden Gate Bridge views.

Kinsey recommends that first-time Fort Mason guests simply take a few hours to wander.

“Start with a coffee at Equator or a cocktail at The Interval, and don’t be afraid to poke into doors and see what’s around. Give yourself an hour in the bookstore or Flax, or visit some of our museums and galleries,” he says. “If you’re a little adventurous, there’s quite a bit of serendipity here.”

Great Meadow at Fort Mason, a popular destination for picnics and outdoor recreation

Fort Mason Favorites: What the Locals Love

Howard Flax, president, Flax Art & Design: “One of the city’s best spots is on Pier 2, where there’s public access around the San Francisco Art Institute building. Out at the end, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands are to your left and Angel Island is to your right. It’s just spectacular.”

David Shaw, vice president of communications and marketing, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy: “The community garden is a beautiful hidden gem. Not far from there is Cafe Franco (inside the HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf hostel), an affordable spot with coffee and pastries, a quiche of the day and beer and wine at night.”

Devorah Freudiger, director of retail, Equator Coffees & Teas: “The upper and lower sections of Fort Mason are both great, and so very different. I like the long set of stairs that climbs the north-facing slope to connect the two parts of the park.”

It's free to explore historic Fort Point during visitor hours.

To Explore More Visitor-Friendly Forts

Fort Funston. Windswept sand dunes distinguish Fort Funston, tucked in a southwestern corner of the city once populated with gun batteries and Nike missiles. Today, hang gliders launch from 200-foot bluffs, while hikers, horseback riders and dog owners enjoy a network of trails (including some paved, wheelchair-accessible routes).

Fort Point. Completed in 1861, this stately brick building on the Golden Gate’s southern side was staffed by Civil War soldiers and later protected the bay from World War II submarine attacks. Retired cannons and historical photos now showcase Fort Point’s military past, and guests climb to the top level to view the Golden Gate Bridge from below.

Fort Baker. Near the northern foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito, this early 1900s army post was refurbished and reopened as a park after being transferred to the National Park Service (NPS). A free NPS cell phone audio tour showcases Fort Baker’s history, ecology and evolution, and the park is a popular spot for sailing, kayaking, fishing and hiking along trails with spectacular bay and bridge views.