A Visitor’s Guide to Golden Gate Park

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golden gate park map

A Great Weekend Getaway to Golden Gate Park

There is a good reason more than 13 million visitors flock to Golden Gate Park (GGP) each year. It is arguably the best city park in the USA- even when compare to New York’s Central Park. More than 1000 acres spread from the Panhandle near the historic Haight-Ashbury District, to the shores of the mighty Pacific Ocean, encompassing one of San Francisco’s most treasured and beautiful destinations.

GGP offers something for everyone from ages 2-102. Incredible play areas for the kids, excellent museums, sporting venues, and opulent gardens avail themselves daily. I’ll tell you about some of my favorites, and provide you some links to seek out your own. Whether you have a couple of hours to kill, or want a weekend full of excitement, look no further than GGP, in San Francisco.

It is important to note that several of the roads in GGP close on major holidays and weekends. A free shuttle bus is available, from the Great Highway, for those who do not wish to try to navigate on their own.

Free Activities

Stroll Stow Lake or rent a paddle boat.
Stroll Stow Lake or rent a paddle boat.

If the weather is warm, you will quickly notice the number of San Francisco natives sunning themselves in the open expanses of green grass on gently rolling hills, and pick-up games of flag football or Frisbee. I enjoy parking the car, in favor of strolling around Stow Lake, which legend tells us a mysterious White Lady haunts at dusk. You can rent paddleboats or rowboats for a fee here.

If you want tangible sights, behold the brilliant red hues of the Chinese pagoda. The city by the bay received the pagoda from sister-city Taipei in 1976. Kids, and the young at heart, enjoy a series of bridges, ripe for the crossing to an island called Strawberry Hill. A historic pioneer cabin sits at end of a more ambitious trail, which I have not yet conquered, but I have heard it is worth the effort. Feed the ducks, and sea gulls, but beware: some can be very aggressive.

Spreckles Lake is another popular attraction. Every weekend you will find model boats, expertly maneuvered along the shores. Kids enjoy spotting turtles, frogs and fish, and a picnic under the sweeping Cyprus trees. After lunch, take a walk back to the Wild West of yesteryear, at the Buffalo Paddock.

A mating pair of bison was brought to GGP from the Great Plains in 1890. Long before, bison roamed the area freely, as did elk, deer and other large animal species. The Buffalo Paddock, as it is erroneously called, has received American Bison from several locations, including Yellowstone National Park. The collection was meant to stand as a living tribute to the Old West, and the majestic beasts that once roamed freely. Did you know a bison could run up to 30 miles per hour?

The National AIDS Memorial Grove is an idyllic location for a quiet picnic. Don’t be surprised if you stumble upon a wedding, theatrical, or musical event. Dozens of little nooks and crannies hold surprises in GGP. The Shakespeare Garden is a quiet place to relax, and rarely will you have to share it. Featuring a bust of the bard, and several excerpts from his most treasured works, the Shakespeare Garden is one of secret hide-away places. Follow any of the hundreds of trails, and discover a hide-away of your very own.

Historic 1914 carousel in the Children’s Quarter
Historic 1914 carousel in the Children’s Quarter

If you are visiting with kids, you simply must find your way to the Koret Children’s Quarter. This is a children’s paradise, filled with amazing climbing structures, tunnels, and multiple levels accessible by slide. It was originally known as Sharon’s Quarter, when it was opened in 1887, as the first public playground in the nation. It has held the reputation for being the biggest, and the best ever since. The Koret Foundation funded a grand makeover on 2007, producing a visually stimulating, exciting and challenging play area, best suited for tots over three. (There is a smaller play area for younger kids, too.)

Perhaps the most splendid attraction in the children’s area is a Herschel- Spillman Carousel, built in 1914. It was moved to GGP in 1940, following the Treasure Island World’s Fair, and has been lovingly restored to its original charm and brilliance. Sixty-two of the tamest wild beasts on earth make their circular journey daily in summer, for a modest fee. The murals painted on the interior panels depict landscapes from around the bay area, with beautiful precision. This area makes me long to be a kid again, and perhaps while I visit, I am.

Conservatory of Flowers
Panorama of Conservatory of Flowers. Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

Affordable Activities

The most iconic structure in GGP is the grand Victorian Conservatory of Flowers. To me the building alone is worthy of a visit, but the gardens offer a look at many rare and endangered plants, you will not find elsewhere. You will enjoy the way the light plays on the pathways throughout the conservatory, often creating prisms of glorious color. The conservatory is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. until 4p.m. On weekends and holidays, there is no parking, but a free shuttle bus is provided by the city.

My favorite place to visit since childhood is the California Academy of Sciences. A museum triple threat, this incredible place features a large aquarium, an excellent natural history museum and an outstanding planetarium under a single roof. The exhibits change from time to time, so you will always learn something new and exciting with each visit. This one attraction can last all day, and daily programs are scattered throughout the day. I love to feed the penguins.

Art aficionados cannot pass up a trip the fabulous de Young Museum. Exhibits feature works of the great masters, famous American artists, indigenous crafts from around the globe, and so much more. On par with much larger, well-established art galleries in Europe, the de Young is a world-class venue. A truly outstanding permanent collection focuses primarily on American art from the 1600’s until today, and extraordinary textiles and art from Africa, Oceania and North and South America. An observation tower on the ninth floor provides unparalleled views of the city and the Pacific Ocean. The observation level is closed on Mondays and most holidays.

Japanese Tea Gardens
Tranquility abounds in the Japanese Tea Gardens

The oldest, public Japanese Garden in the USA, the Japanese Tea Garden, is sublime. Harmony flows throughout the grounds where tranquility and nature provide a glimpse into the ancient art form, which is a Japanese Garden. Classic elements such as stepping-stones, pagodas, stone lanterns and koi fishponds create an atmosphere that makes you forget you are in a city. Kids will get worn out climbing the high arching drum bridge. If you are lucky enough to visit in March or April, the Cherry Blossoms fill the air with the sweet promise of spring. You might never want to leave this mystical and magical place.

Getting Active

The weekend closure of several GGP roadways, allows for alternative modes of travel. Try renting a bike or roller skates for a fun filled family activity. Rental facilities are available if you do not have your own. You will quickly maneuver the paths and streets that are closed to auto traffic. Segways are also available for rent, for more ambitious groups.

How about trying a round of tennis at one of the 21 courts the park provides? All skill levels are welcome. Reservations are wise on the weekends, just in case it gets crowded. A small fee applies.

Disc Golf is a relatively new sport that has really caught on since its inception in 1976. The game consists of following a course while the participants compete to get a Frisbee (or disc) into a basket or hit a target. GGP features a 12 hole course that will soon be expanded to 18 holes. You will need your own Frisbee, but the course is free for all ages.

Depending upon what time of year you visit, any number of sports are played in GGP. An international demographic brings sports you may not have seen before, such as Rugby in the Polo Fields. Soccer is huge with games scheduled at the Polo Fields and Kezar Stadium. Do you have an aspiring Katniss in your group? Archery Fields provide nine target bales of hay free of charge. Visit the Pro Shop to rent bows and arrows, and learn a new skill together. Handball courts are free, and available on a first come, first served basis, but you will need your own equipment.

Concerts and Events

The Music Concourse, near the museums, draws crowds every Saturday from April until October, with free concerts performed by the Golden Gate Park Band, but you never know who else may show up. Local headliners and visiting performers have been known to offer a surprise performance. The acoustics from the half-dome stage are superb, filling the entire concourse without amplification necessary. Built in 1894, for a Midwinter Fair, the concourse is architecturally beautiful, with famous historical figures overseeing every event. See which ones you find.

Several Annual events bring music to GGP every year. The FREE Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival comes on the first weekend of October each year, and Outside Lands is a huge summertime event that calls some really big names. Outside Lands focuses on the fine arts, food, wine and world-class music.

Japanese Tea Gardens
Tranquility abounds in the Japanese Tea Gardens

San Francisco offers some free spirited souls who bring their music to the park randomly. Some are better than others are, but you could find an impromptu comedy show, or a lively Mariachi Band inviting people to dance. I have seen drummers, would-be opera singers, new generation hippies playing folk music, and a lovely 12-string guitarist, whose name I should have noted. GGP is always full of surprises.

Spend a few hours, or spend a few days. Golden Gate Park is an inviting destination any day of the year, rain or shine.


Kenneth Kimari Tech enthusiast, Financial Analyst, Certified Copywriter, Blogger, and a coffee addict. Kenneth has many years of experience in freelance writing. His posts have also featured in some of the high profile websites like Wondershare and Droid Turf.
Kenneth Kimari Tech enthusiast, Financial Analyst, Certified Copywriter, Blogger, and a coffee addict. Kenneth has many years of experience in freelance writing. His posts have also featured in some of the high profile websites like Wondershare and Droid Turf.