Golden Gate Park, situated in the heart of San Francisco, is a sprawling urban park with numerous attractions, including world-class museums and magnificent gardens. Exploring the park is one of the most popular activities for visitors in San Francisco.
It offers many activities, from exploring the California Academy of Sciences and strolling through the Conservatory of Flowers to taking horseback rides and seeing the stunning views from the tower. So, if you’re planning a trip there and you are wondering what the best things to do are, no worries! We’ll help you decide.
We’ve compiled a list of the 11 best things to do in Golden Gate Park to make the most of your trip to this iconic location. Let’s delve into the details!
Golden Gate Park: A Brief Overview
Golden Gate Park’s history dates back to the 1860s when San Francisco’s residents recognized the need for a green space dedicated to recreation amidst its rapid urbanization.
The park’s current area was once a landscape of sandy dunes known as the Outside Lands. John McLaren, who served as the park’s superintendent for almost five decades, was pivotal in developing its current layout.
Spanning over 1,017 acres, Golden Gate Park is so vast that it can be easily spotted from the air as you enter San Francisco. This rectangular park is 20% larger than Central Park in New York City. It is also the third most visited urban park in the United States, and an absolute must-see on your San Francisco itinerary.
For more fun, extend your California vacation to the charming coastal towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg after exploring the wonders of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. These lovely locations, only a short drive to the north, provide a sharp contrast to the urban attraction of the city.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Golden Gate Park
The ideal time to visit is in the spring when the weather is mild, there is little rain, and the Japanese Tea Garden is full of cherry blossoms and other flowers. Unlike the summer, when heavy fog can obscure park views, spring has a higher chance of providing a joyful and visually appealing park experience.
While California is generally known for its sunny and warm climate, San Francisco is often characterized by foggy conditions and colder temperatures because of its proximity to the bay. So, avoid the “June Gloom” period and plan your visit to the park for spring, when the weather is at its best.
11 Best Things To Do in Golden Gate Park
Let’s explore some of Golden Gate Park’s best things to do and see.
1. Stroll Through The Conservatory of Flowers
- Location: 100 John F. Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
- Operating Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
- Entry Fee: For adults: $10 to $12. For teenagers (12-17): $7 and for children (5-11): $3
Start your Golden Gate Park adventure with a visit to the Conservatory of Flowers. Built in 1879, it is known as the oldest structure within the park.
This Victorian-era greenhouse is known for its extensive collection of over 1,700 tropical and aquatic plant species. The conservatory features five galleries, each representing a unique ecosystem. These galleries include many aquatic and tropical plants, water lilies, orchids, carnivorous plants, and a century-old large imperial philodendron.
There’s also a spacious grassy area in front of the conservatory where you and your family can relax after your visit. It is undoubtedly one of the park’s most popular attractions.
Pro Tip: Entry is free on the first Tuesday of each month.
2. Experience a Rainforest and Aquarium at The California Academy of Sciences
- Location: 55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
- Operating Hours: Monday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thursday Nightlife (for ages 21+): 6 p.m.–10 p.m.
- Entry Fees: For adults ($43.25); for children (3-17 years) and seniors $33.75
You don’t have to be a science buff to enjoy the California Academy of Sciences. From natural history to geology and astronomy, the museum features interactive exhibits.
The California Academy of Sciences is recognized as the oldest scientific organization in the Western United States, and interestingly, it received initial contributions from none other than Charles Darwin himself.
Although many of the original structures were destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the institution was completely renovated in 2008. The new building, constructed mostly from recycled materials, repurposes rainwater for irrigation and has a 2.5-acre “living roof.” This makes it one of the most environmentally sustainable buildings in the country.
The Academy features the Osher Rainforest, a 90-foot dome filled with tropical plants and various creatures, including butterflies and tree boas.
Beyond the rainforest, you’ll find the Steinhart Aquarium. It offers an immersive experience with over 40,000 animals and 900 unique species, including an albino alligator, African penguins, and additional California coast creatures.
Pro Tip: Reserve your tickets at least three days in advance to save $3 to $5 for each ticket and ensure availability on peak days.
3. Visit The de Young Museum
- Location: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
- Operating Hours: From 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
- Entry Fees: $20 for adults and $17 for seniors; $11 for students, and free for children under 17
The de Young Museum, one of San Francisco’s oldest institutions, was founded in 1895. The museum exhibits American art from the 17th century to the present day. The de Young Museum, housed in a magnificent copper-clad structure, exhibits a vast and diverse collection of paintings, textiles, antiquities, and sculptures from around the world.
Furthermore, the Hamon Observation Tower at the de Young is open to the public and offers spectacular views of Golden Gate Park and San Francisco.
The de Young Museum is close to the famous California Academy of Sciences, allowing individuals interested in a “museum crawl” to visit multiple museums in a single day. An additional perk for Bay Area residents is free admission every Saturday. Additionally, it is open to the general public on the first Tuesday of each month.
4. Explore The Japanese Tea Garden
- Location: 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
- Operating Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. from November to February; 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. from March to October.
- Entry Fees: For adults, $12-$16; For children and seniors, $3 to $7; and free for kids under 5
The Japanese Tea Garden, a 5-acre labor of love developed by landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara, is one of San Francisco’s most well-known attractions. It was built in 1894 for the California Midwinter International Exposition and remains one of today’s most popular tourist locations.
The garden whisks visitors away to Japan with its serene koi ponds, meticulously designed zen gardens, natural Japanese flora, pagodas, and timeless architectural elements. The Drum Bridge is one of the most iconic features, providing an excellent backdrop for photography.
This garden oozes tranquility all year, but for a truly unforgettable experience, go in the spring to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom or fall when the maples adorn themselves in fiery hues. Make sure to visit the tea house, where you can enjoy Japanese cuisine and, of course, tea!
Pro Tip: If you want to explore the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the Japanese Tea Garden, get The Gardens of Golden Gate Park Pass. This pass provides discounts and the convenience of unlimited access to all three gardens for three days.
5. Take a Tour of The San Francisco Botanical Garden
- Location: 1199 9th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94122
- Operating Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- Entry Fees: For adults: $11 to $13, and for children and seniors: $3 to $7.
The San Francisco Botanical Garden, located within Golden Gate Park, is a lush haven home to over 8,000 different plant species from all over the world. The climate of San Francisco is ideal for growing plants from the Mediterranean and mild temperate zones.
The garden has many beautifully designed open spaces and gardens, such as the Rhododendron, South Africa, Magnolia, Andean, Ancient Plant Garden, and Cloud Forest. You’ll see Australian Banksias and spear lilies, a beautiful forest of California redwoods, towering wax palms from the Andean Cloud Forest, and winter’s bark trees from Chile.
Spend some time relaxing, admiring the cypress trees in the Great Meadow, or in the serenity of the Moon Viewing Garden. These areas allow visitors to immerse themselves in the wonderful world of seasonal blossoms that adorn the garden at every turn. Moreover, its expansive meadows and numerous ponds make it the perfect location for an enjoyable afternoon picnic.
6. Take a Paddle Ride On Stow Lake
- Location: 50 Stow Lake Dr, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA 94118
- Snack Bar Hours: From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
- Boat Rentals: Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
- Stow Lake Boat Rentals Rates: Rowboats (for up to three people): $26 per hour; Pedal boats (for up to four people): $32.50 per hour
Stow Lake is an artificial lake located within Golden Gate Park that provides a scenic location for picnics, leisurely lakeside strolls, and wildlife viewing. This beautiful lake is home to various waterfowl, including turtles and ducks, making it a refuge for nature lovers. Picnic tables are scattered around the lake, making it a popular spot for families looking to spend quality time in Golden Gate Park.
The Stow Lake Boathouse, adjacent to the lake, rents paddle boats for some relaxing time on the water.
Take a stroll around the lake’s one-mile perimeter and cross one of the bridges to reach Strawberry Hill, one of the lake’s two islands.
Make your way to the stunning manmade Huntington Falls on Strawberry Hill. Standing at the park’s highest point, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Mt. Tamalpais, the Transamerica Pyramid, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Don’t forget to capture the magnificent crimson Chinese Pavilion, a gift from sister city Taipei.
7. Enjoy The Melodies at The Music Concourse
- Location: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
The Music Concourse, located in the museum sector of Golden Gate Park, was originally built as the Grand Court of Honor for the Midwinter Exposition of 1894. After the exposition’s closing, park administrator John McLaren transformed it into a public venue for musical events. The concourse features an elliptical plaza on a southeast-to-northeast axis with statues and monuments honoring historical personalities such as Giuseppe Verdi and Ludwig van Beethoven.
At its center, you’ll find three lovely fountains. A 150-foot SkyStar Ferris Wheel was recently added to the concourse, providing fantastic city views.
The Spreckels Temple of Music, often known as the “bandstand,” is a significant landmark that hosts music events, including free Golden Gate Park Band concerts every Sunday from April through October.
8. Meet The Bison at Bison Paddock
- Location: 1237 John F. Kennedy Dr., San Francisco
Bison in San Francisco? Yes! The story dates back to 1890 when two bison were brought to San Francisco from Kansas and Wyoming. Over the years, additional bison arrived. Some were from Yellowstone, and others were gifted by the husband of Dianne Feinstein. (She was the former mayor of San Francisco.)
Today, the San Francisco Zoo keeps a small herd of wild American bison in a fenced paddock on the western edge of Golden Gate Park. These bison have a large grassy area where they can freely roam and graze. Visitors can observe these bison from a distance. It is an exciting and fun activity in Golden Gate Park with a good vantage point for pictures.
Pro Tip: Bison may attack, so keep your distance and avoid disturbing them.
9. Stroll Through The Shakespeare Garden
- Location: 335 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, San Francisco, CA, 94118
Known as the Shakespeare Garden, this magnificent area is a must-see for all Shakespeare fans. It’s a lovely garden packed with flowers and plants referenced in William Shakespeare’s plays. You’ll discover over 200 plants in this garden, many of which have plaques with phrases about flowers from Shakespeare’s works.
As you wander through the garden, you’ll come across a magnificent tapestry of roses, daisies, lilies, violets, and other flowers.
Don’t miss the Shakespeare bust, a gift from the English town of Stratford-upon-Avon, or the eye-catching sundial in the garden. Though the garden can be reserved for weddings and other big parties, it’s also a great place for a quiet picnic.
10. Visit The Dutch and Murphy Windmills
- Location: 1691 John F. Kennedy Dr., San Francisco, CA 94121
Located at opposite ends of the park, you’ll find two distinctive structures: the Dutch Windmill and the Murphy Windmill.
During the early 1900s, these windmills played a crucial role by pumping water into the park’s irrigation system. They have subsequently withdrawn from water pumping duties as more efficient electrical pumps have taken their place.
These windmills are officially designated San Francisco Landmarks and are worth a visit. Each of them has four sails and adds to the overall charm of the park.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget to explore the tulip garden beside the Dutch Windmill, a gift from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.
11. Beach Chalet
- Location: 1000 Great Hwy, San Francisco, CA, 94121
One of the park’s attractions is a stop at Ocean Beach, with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean.
The Beach Chalet is a Spanish Colonial-style building with stunning waterfront views. The building was completed in 1925 with its main purpose of serving beach visitors. It initially served as restrooms and a city-operated restaurant. Several murals were painted inside the building during the Great Depression as part of a job creation project, similar to the murals in San Francisco’s Coit Tower.
After a day of exploration, enjoy dinner at the Beach Chalet Brewery & Restaurant. It is one of the best oceanfront restaurants in the city.
Pro Tip: Make a reservation beforehand to ensure you get a table with a view.
Enjoy Your Trip to Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park provides a unique blend of historical, scientific, cultural, and natural experiences that are hard to find elsewhere in San Francisco. Whether you’re paying tribute to monuments, admiring stunning floral displays, observing ancient animals, meandering through different landscapes, or immersing yourself in cultural settings, the park has it all.
Make sure to refer to this list of the best things to do in Golden Gate Park when planning your visit. It’s a place where you can spend countless hours exploring and discovering wonders at every corner.
This article originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks.
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Steve Cummings is the founder of the personal finance blog The Frugal Expat. As a traveler and expat, he has learned a lot about how to save money, live frugally, and invest for the future. His mission is to help people in save, invest, and reach financial independence.