Golden Gate Park is the largest man-made park in the nation, roughly 20 percent larger than New York’s Central Park, and a must-visit for San Francisco sightseeing. Its creation in the 1870s was not just a feat of urban planning but an audacious act of transformation carried out by field engineer William Hammond Hall and his assistant John McLaren. Together they reshaped a wild, sand-swept swath of the city known as Outside Lands into the urban oasis that we know today. Through earthquakes, fires, and cultural and technological revolutions, the park has continued to thrive and transform, much like the city it calls home. Here are 10 great ways to enjoy all that it has to offer.
1. Wave to Claude, the albino alligator, at the California Academy of Sciences. At this multifaceted science museum, Claude the alligator, a cherished resident, is just one of the exotic species visitors can observe in the ingeniously designed, LEED double platinum–certified space—the largest green museum in the world. An enclosed four-story rain forest habitat brings explorers eye-to-eye with technicolor butterflies, while the mysteries of the universe are best pondered in the darkness of the planetarium.
2. Warm up with a steaming cup of Genmaicha at the Japanese Tea Garden. Originally built for the 1894 California Midwinter International Expo, the Tea Garden’s five acres today hold the honor of being the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. From the theatrical arch of Drum Bridge to the serene five-story pagoda, the gardens abound with gracefully curving walkways and meticulously tended flora. Wrap up a visit with some tea and a fortune cookie at the onsite Tea House.
3. Aim for a bullseye at the Golden Gate Park Archery Field. The park’s verdant northwest corner near the Dutch Windmill hides a surprising diversion: the city’s only archery range. Tucked neatly into a meadow, the range offers nine hay bail targets and is both free and BYOB (bring your own bow—and all other equipment, which can be rented nearby).
4. Immerse yourself in the city’s past at the Beach Chalet. In a city known for its murals, some of the finest are to be found at this visitor center and café at the park’s northwestern corner. The Spanish Colonial came to life in 1925 as both restaurant and changing rooms for beachgoers enjoying the heyday of Ocean Beach. A decade later, the Works Progress Administration commissioned a set of murals here to depict the daily life of the city’s working class. The superbly maintained frescoes by Lucien Labaudt depict some real San Franciscans of the day, most notably longtime park superintendent—and guardian angel—John McLaren.
5. Stop and smell the roses—and the 1,700 other species of plants and flowers—at the Conservatory of Flowers. This wood and glass Victorian confection was built—from a kit!—in 1879, and it remains one of the city’s most distinctive architectural icons. Inside the spun-sugar shell, visitors will encounter a riot of plant life from varying habitats, with specimens ranging from fantastical orchids to periwinkle water lilies, and even the notorious Corpse Flower.
6. Commune with nature while watching bison graze at the Buffalo Paddock. Gentle and stoic, these enduring symbols of the American West might seem out of place in a city like San Francisco, but wildlife has been a vital part of Golden Gate Park since its inception. From the 1890s until the construction of the San Francisco Zoo in the 1930s, wild bison roamed free in the park alongside bears, goats, elk, and other animals. While the zoo provided housing for most of them, the bison herds remain in the park—a symbol of their hearty, survivalist past. Find them between North Lake and Spreckels Lake, along John F. Kennedy Drive.
7. Indulge your inner child astride one of the vividly painted horses or tigers on the Herschell-Spillman Carousel. This vintage beauty, built in 1912, has a well-traveled past, having delighted revelers at the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island and in amusement parks up and down the West Coast, from Portland to Los Angeles. Today, the colorful carousel provides a welcome diversion for the park’s youngest visitors, not to mention a sweet dose of nostalgia for their parents.
8. Row your boat out onto peaceful Stow Lake, an aquatic oasis in the heart of the park. Among the lake’s most charming features are its two rustic stone bridges, its flaming red pagoda (a gift from San Francisco’s sister city of Taipei), and Huntington Falls, a man-made cascade on Strawberry Hill, the small island in the center of the lake. The historic boathouse rents out pedal, row, and motor boats, and offers a varied menu of locally sourced snacks and meals.
9. Surrender to the poetry of the senses at the Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers. If the loveliest of the Bard’s sonnets could be brought to life, they would surely look something like this secret garden. From the quiet of a bench in this unassuming corner of the park, visitors may find themselves transported to 16th-century England, surrounded by poppies, daisies, lilacs, and the other flora mentioned in Shakespeare’s great works. Bronze plaques inscribed with quotations heighten the connection between the beauty of his words and the beauty of that which inspired them.
10. Take in a panorama of the city from the Hamon Observation Tower at the de Young Museum. Earthquake damage necessitated a complete rebuild of the de Young, and one of the most welcome new features of its contemporary redesign was this observation tower and deck, free to the public with an entrance separate from the museum. Light floods the space through floor-to-ceiling glass panels, and visitors cannot help but be immersed in the sweeping, 360-degree panorama of the city.