Initially inspired by New York City’s Central Park, Golden Gate Park quickly grew into its own complete with unique and one-of-a-kind features you can only find here in San Francisco. Plans for the project began in the 1860s but designers and developers had to completely transform the natural landscape, which consisted of ocean dunes covering three-quarters of the area, wetlands and 14 marshy lakes. By 1880, the area already had approximately 155,000 trees planted across 1,000 acres of land.
Today, Golden Gate Park is home to some of the city’s most beautiful and serene natural areas alongside landmark institutions like de Young and California Academy of Sciences. To learn more about everything you can do in all 1,000 acres, keep reading! And be sure to hop on the Free Golden Gate Park Shuttle if you don’t want to drive yourself or walk the whole way.
Take a tour of everything.
If you want to see more than 1,000 acres in one day, we recommend embarking on a guided tour. The Golden Gate Park Segway Tours follows the park’s main roads. If you prefer an electric scooter, check out Electric Scooter Tours for a two and a half hour excursion. And, to see it all by bicycle, check out Bay City Bike, San Francyclo, Blazing Saddles and Streets of San Francisco Bike Tours.
The original windmills in Golden Gate Park were built to pump groundwater and irrigate the park’s lawns and gardens to transform the rolling sand dunes. The first—the Dutch Windmill—was built in 1902 followed by the Murphy Windmill in 1907. Within just a few years, the windmills were modernized and electrified but were later taken out of service around 1935. Though the Murphy Windmill wasn’t included in restoration funding, the Dutch Windmill was repaired in 1980. Today, it stands as a landmark of the park’s history spanning more than 100 years.
Just below the windmill, visitors can also see the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden which features thousands of tulips and Icelandic poppies.
A living museum inside the park, San Francisco Botanical Garden offers 55 acres of landscaped gardens and open spaces which showcase more than 8,500 different kinds of plants from around the world. Thanks to San Francisco’s unique climate of wet winters, dry summers and coastal fog, the gardens provide a range of conditions found in very few other botanic gardens across the globe.
The Japanese Tea Garden was originally developed as a Japanese Village for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition and remains today as the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. The garden has grown from one acre to approximately five acres thanks in large part to Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara who expanded the acreage and once lived on site with his family. Today, guests can see an arched drum bridge, pagodas, stone lanterns, stepping stone paths, native Japanese plants, serene koi ponds, a zen garden and more.
Located between the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young, The Music Concourse is a landscaped, oval-shaped basin originally excavated in 1893 to create the Grand Court for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition. Today, visitors can picnic on the grounds and even attend free Sunday concerts during the summer.
On the Golden Gate Park Archery Range at 47th Avenue and Fulton Street, you’ll find a first come, first served area complete with hay bales. If you want to test your archery skills, you’ll have to bring your own targets, bows and arrows, and if you don’t have your own, swing by San Francisco Archery Pro Shop just north of the park in the Outer Richmond.
Nestled amongst the trees on the western edge of Golden Gate Park, this golf course was originally built and developed in 1951 and was shaped by the sand dunes that were once in the same spot. Today, the area offers a 9-hole, par 3 course with holes that range from 100 yards to 200 yards. For more information, like tee times and prices, click here.
Play on a playground.
There are three playgrounds in Golden Gate Park, including Koret Children’s Quarter which was opened in 1888 and renovated and reopened in 2007. Thought to be the nation’s first public playground, the park today still has original features, like the historic concrete slide, alongside new features like a climbing wall shaped like waves and a rope climbing structure. Nearby, guests can also ride a carousel and take classes in an art studio; keep reading to learn more!
Ride the Herschell-Spillman Carousel.
Since the first playground opened in Golden Gate Park, three carousels have called the area home. The current one was originally built in 1914 by the Herschell-Spillman Company. Before it was installed at Golden Gate Park in 1940, the carousel operated at amusement parks in Los Angeles and Portland then enjoyed a brief stint on Treasure Island for the World’s Fair. Today, the carousel features 62 animals—including a dragon, a camel, a goat, horses, frogs and roosters—and painted panels that depict Bay Area landscapes. To learn about operating hours and prices, click here.
The building that now houses Sharon Art Studio was once called the Sharon Building, designed for indoor play at Koret Children’s Quarter during bad weather. Today, Sharon Art Studio is San Francisco’s largest public art studio and offers classes and workshops for all ages in everything from drawing to glass blowing. To see upcoming courses and programs, click here.
Fly fish at the Angler’s Lodge and Casting Pools.
Directly adjacent to the Bison Paddock, this area of the park is home to three serene pools and the rustic, mountain-style Angler’s Lodge which houses the Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club. Both the pools and the lodge were built in 1938. Today, anyone hoping to practice their casting technique or learn the basics is invited to visit. Use of the pools is completely free and members of the club are often present to offer tips.
Play on the Golden Gate Park Disc Golf Course.
In March 2007, the Golden Gate Park Disc Golf Course opened as the city’s first. Located near 25th Avenue, the tightly wooded, 18-hole course is open to the public and free to play. Just bring your own frisbees and get ready for some challenging shots! If you’re looking for more information on the course and the local disc golf community, check out San Francisco Disc Golf Club.
Picnic in the meadows.
Much of the land in Golden Gate Park is open lawn and sprawling meadow. In these meadows, you can enjoy a picnic, play a game of volleyball, attend community events, host your own event and more. The long list includes about 15 serene spots from the quiet Bunny Meadow behind the Conservatory of Flowers to the spacious Robin Williams Meadow within walking distance of the Herschell-Spillman Carousel.
While exploring Golden Gate Park, don’t be surprised if you catch a glimpse of a huge, shaggy bison. These animals have had a home in Golden Gate Park since 1892. Back then, before San Francisco’s first zoo opened in the 1930s, bison, elk, deer, bear and sheep all had paddocks in the park. Today, the bison are cared for by the San Francisco Zoo but can still be viewed in Golden Gate Park just west of Spreckels Lake along John F. Kennedy Drive.
Cal Academy is the only place in the world to house an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest and natural history museum, as well as innovative programs in scientific research and education—all under one living roof. Exhibits include educational displays on gems and minerals, coral reefs, space, the rainforest and more.
de Young is a landmark art museum that houses collections encompassing American paintings, sculptures and decorative arts, modern and contemporary art, art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, and textile arts. And it has for more than 100 years! Be sure you make your way all the way up to the Hamon Observation Tower which offers 360-degree views of the city.
The Conservatory of Flowers is the oldest public wood-and-glass conservatory in North America and is constructed in beautiful Victorian style. The interior is home to tropical plants of all kinds, aquatic plants and the famous Amorphophallus Titanum, otherwise known as the corpse flower which blooms only once every few years and emits an odor of rotting flesh.
Located inside the grounds of Golden Gate Park and overlooking Ocean Beach, Beach Chalet is a favorite brewery and restaurant experience in the city for both locals and tourists. In addition to Prime Rib Mondays, Taco Tuesdays and a delectable menu of gourmet comfort food, the team serves their own craft beers, including a new seasonal beer every month.
Established in 1901, this historic 21-court facility hosts professional level tournaments, leagues, camps and recreational play for any visiting tennis players. Begun in April 2019, the facility is undergoing a complete renovation; when completed, the courts will once again be open seven days a week.
Find all the lakes.
Among the diverse landscapes inside Golden Gate Park, you’ll find several lakes and ponds, including the picturesque Chain of Lakes and the Waterfalls of Golden Gate Park. One of the most popular is Stow Lake, where visitors can rent watercraft from Stow Lake Boathouse and enjoy food from the cafe. But the other lakes offer beautiful scenes and plenty of other noteworthy activities, including bird watching, dog walking and nature walks.
The Chain of Lakes consists of three natural lakes and are just a few of the five natural lakes that remain in the park. All the others are man-made.
Play with your dog.
With all the walking trails, meadows and places to explore in Golden Gate Park, dog walking is always a popular activity, but the park also boasts four, off-leash dog play areas! The all-sand dog training area can be found in the northwest corner, and there are others in the northeast corner of the park just off Stanyan Street, in the southeast corner near Kezar Stadium, and in the southwest quadrant.
Stow Lake is a man-made lake in Golden Gate Park that dates all the way back to 1893. Around the banks of the lake, visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, wildlife viewing and picnicking. Through Stow Lake Boathouse, you can also rent rowboats, pedal boats and small electric boats. Then, we recommend fueling up at the Stow Lake Boathouse café.
Tucked away in the northeast section of Golden Gate Park, this horseshoe court was originally developed in the 1920s. Over the years, the court was forgotten and became overgrown, but in 2009, it was cleared of vegetation and debris to become another beloved landmark of the park. Today, anyone can play on the courts and San Francisco Horseshoe Pitching organizes games, tournaments and other events.
Peruse the groves.
In addition to the modern amenities and ornamental landmarks throughout the park, Golden Gate Park has always been defined by its natural landscape, from global gardens to open lawns to forested groves. That long lineup of peaceful groves includes the National AIDS Memorial Grove, the Colonial Trees Grove, the Heroes Grove, the Hoover Redwood Grove, The East Edge, the George Washington Bicentennial Grove and the Oak Woodlands Natural Areas. The Oak Woodlands Natural Areas is located in the northeast corner of Golden Gate Park and is home to some of the oldest coast live oak trees in the city.
The Golden Gate Park Polo Field has an interesting history that dates all the way back to 1906. Throughout more than a century of visitors, hundreds of thousands of cyclists have visited to pedal the track. Other events on the fields include rugby games, concerts and more. To find out when the track is open to cyclists, click here.
Did we miss your favorite activity?
If we missed your favorite thing to do or place to visit in Golden Gate Park, tell us about it in the comments below!