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The Best Things to Do in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco (+ Tips for Visiting!)

Located in the heart of San Francisco, Golden Gate Park is a large urban park that houses many attractions, from topnotch museums to gorgeous gardens.

Golden Gate Park came into being in the 1860s, after the residents of booming San Francisco decided they needed a green space for recreation. The land where the park now stands used to be sand dunes: they were called Outside Lands.

John McLaren, who served as superintendent of the park for over five decades, is credited with giving the park much of the shape it has today.

Golden Gate Park is spread over 1,017 acres, and is so large that it is identifiable from the air as you are flying into San Francisco. The rectangular park is 20 percent larger than Central Park in New York City.

The third most visited urban park in the USA, Golden Gate Park is a must for your San Francisco itinerary!

Considering a visit to this magnificent park? Read on to discover all the best things to do in Golden Gate Park, plus our guide for visiting!

Things to Do in Golden Gate Park: Top 5 Attractions

Conservatory of Flowers

Plant lovers will definitely want to tour the beautiful Conservatory of Flowers. Not only are the collections impressive, the building is a much-photographed National Historic Landmark.

The Victorian conservatory, with its pristine white facade, has a fascinating history. It is the oldest wood-and-glass public conservatory in North America.

Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California
Conservatory of Flowers

The glass used in the conservatory was donated by the estate of James Lick, an early California real estate tycoon, who planned to build two conservatories on his own estate but died before he could.

The donation was contingent on the conservatory being built within eighteen months, so it was built in quick time. The structure also makes use of old-growth redwoods and other locally-sourced wood.

When it opened in 1879, the conservatory quickly became the most visited sight in the park. Today the Conservatory of Flowers houses multiple galleries of rare and unusual plants.

In the Aquatic Plants Gallery, you’ll find lots of water lilies and taro plants, with their gorgeous giant leaves, and bromeliads and orchids creating a colorful display.

The Highland Tropics Gallery represents the mist-covered mountains of the tropics, with huge tree ferns, rhododendrons, orchids, and mosses. Look for the Thai Pink lipstick plant, and colorful dracula orchids.

The Lowland Tropics Gallery evokes the lush humidity of tropical jungles, with palms, cacao, coffee, jasmine, orchids, and other plants creating an exotic display.

The Potted Plants Gallery features rotating displays of rare plants from tropical places, and the containers are as gorgeous as the plants they hold!

The West Gallery is dedicated mainly to ferns, with their soothing green fronds. You’ll see a fascinating collection of ferns from all over the world: they grow on all continents other than Antarctica.

Other than the galleries inside, stop to admire the beautiful displays of flowers outside: you’ll find something in bloom in most months of the year.

The Conservatory of Flowers, 100 John F. Kennedy Drive, San Francisco

California Academy of Sciences

You don’t have to be a science geek to love the California Academy of Sciences: hands-on and approachable exhibits span many different areas of science, from gemology to astronomy and natural history, so there’s something for everyone here.

And the roof the building is super cool: rolling hills and fields cover most of the roof, providing habitat and food for wildlife!

The California Academy of Sciences in the Golden Gate Park in SF
The roof of the California Academy of Sciences

At the 90-foot dome that houses the Osher Rainforest, step into a lush environment populated by tropical plants and a variety of creatures, from butterflies to a tree boa. There’s also an incredible Amazonian flooded forest with a tunnel through which you can walk!

Visit the interactive Steinhart Aquarium, with more than 900 unique species and 40,000 animals. From the creatures that live on the California coast, to African penguins and an albino alligator, there’s a lot to see here!

Space aficionados will want to step inside the Morrison Planetarium to watch informative shows on different aspects of our cosmos. Make reservations in advance!

At the Kimball Natural History Museum, interesting exhibits showcase our planet in many unique ways. There’s also an impressive gem collection, gigantic skeletons of a blue whale and a tyrannosaurus, and a lot more.

Get your ticket to the California Academy of Sciences online and avoid waiting in line!

California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco

Japanese Tea Garden

One of our favorite SF Bay Area gardens to visit, the Japanese Tea Garden is a serene place to stroll.

The Japanese Tea Garden is one the three main botanical spaces in Golden Gate Park, and was originally created as the Japanese Village for California Midwinter International Expo of 1894.

Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, CA
The Temple Gate and the Pagoda at the Japanese Tea Garden

After the fair ended, Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese landscape architect, took on the creation of a permanent Japanese style garden at the site, making it a personal passion project into which he invested tons of his time, talent, and money.

Mr. Hagiwara lived with his family on the property until they were moved into an internment camp in 1942, during WWII. Although his association with the garden ended then, his creation continues to delight visitors to Golden Gate Park today.

Walk through the garden to appreciate the many traditional Japanese garden features you’ll find here, from a drum bridge to lanterns, statuary, koi ponds, and a zen garden.

The pagoda of the Japanese Tea Garden is gorgeous! The five-tiered structure was part of the Japanese exhibit at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Expo. The renovated pagoda features several brass bells that chime melodiously when the wind blows.

Near the main gate, look for a clipped hedge designed to resemble iconic Mount Fuji. Near the gift shop, you’ll find a beautiful waterfall, surrounded by Japanese maples, azaleas, and wisteria, as well as a small lake.

Have a cup of tea at the Tea House, along with Japanese rice crackers and a fortune cookie! The fortune cookies were introduced by Mr. Hagiwara around 1900. They were made on site at first, but eventually outsourced to a local company, who also changed the recipe from a savory one to a vanilla-based sweetish one.

Japanese Tea Garden, 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco

Planning a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area? Here are some other places nearby to put on your itinerary!

Point Reyes National Seashore, just north of the city of San Francisco, offers spectacular scenery with ocean views and a historic lighthouse. Hike the epic Tomales Point Trail and look for tule elk!

Walk among old-growth redwoods at the Muir Woods National Monument, also just north of San Francisco.

Garden lover? There are so many other beautiful Bay Area gardens you can visit, from the University of Berkeley Botanical Garden to the historic Filoli estate and gardens.

If you enjoy the outdoors, check out the most spectacular state parks near San Francisco!

San Francisco Botanic Garden

One of California’s best botanical gardens, the San Francisco Botanical Garden sprawls over 55 acres and contains both landscaped gardens and natural areas. There are thousands of plants here to admire!

The SF Botanical Garden officially opened to the public as an arboretum and botanical garden in 1940, and over the ensuing decades, the garden was further developed and expanded, and collections made more robust.

Magnolias in bloom at the San Francisco Botanical Garden in California
Magnolias at the SF Botanical Garden in March

Today the garden is a hugely popular green space in the city, not only providing endless inspiration for plant and gardens lovers but also a green oasis for residents and visitors.

You’ll find something in bloom year round at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, but it is especially known for its magnolias, the most significant collection outside China. You’ll see the magnificent blooms in the winter and early spring.

Winter is also the season to admire the garden’s impressive collections of camellias and rhododendrons, in shades of white and pink.

In the spring, you’ll still see some rhododendrons in bloom, but this is the season to celebrate California’s native plants and flowers, as poppies, lupine and many other species of wildflowers burst into bloom in the garden.

Geographic collections at the garden showcase many parts of the planet. The Mesoamerican Cloud Forest is a particularly beautiful place to visit, with plants that love the foggy San Francisco climate!

Bring a picnic to enjoy in the Great Meadow: it’s also a great place to people watch!

San Francisco Botanical Garden, 1199 9th Ave, San Francisco

de Young Museum

Get your art on at the de Young Fine Arts Museum, one of the premier museums in the western US focused on American art, the art of Africa, Oceania, and ancient Americas, and textile arts and costumes from all over the world.

The de Young is one of the most visited museums in the USA.

Although the museum itself is more than 125 years old, the unique building with the copper facade in which it is housed is actually quite new (it opened in 2005). It does retain some historic elements, including the two sphinxes and the Pool of Enchantment.

The de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California
The de Young Museum

Ascend to the top of the nine-story Hamon Observation Tower for panoramic views over the park and the city. The tower is actually free to enter so it’s worth visiting even if you do not enter the museum.

Inside the de Young Museum, you’ll find paintings by well-known modern art masters. Other than paintings, admire sculptures, photography, ceramics, murals, and more.

In the Art of the Americas gallery, look for the mural pieces from the ancient city of Teotihuacan in Mexico. The colors are gorgeous!

The Costume and Textile Arts collection includes beautiful textile pieces from around the world, from Indian silks to Turkmen carpets and French tapestries, as well as a collection of Western women’s attire, including Dior and Balenciaga gowns.

The museum offers a cafe and a gift shop.

The de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco

Other Places to Visit in Golden Gate Park

Stow Lake and Strawberry Hill

Stow Lake is a man-made lake in Golden Gate Park that offers an escape into nature for both visitors and residents. Kids and adults like will love this lovely water feature.

The Chinese Pavilion at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA
The Chinese Pavilion, seen from Stow Lake

Rent a boat at the Stow Lake Boathouse and get out onto the water! Rowboats and pedal boats that seat from one to six are available. It’s a great way to spend an hour on a nice afternoon.

If you pedal the full loop around the island, it will take you just under an hour. Look for wildlife and birds at and around Stow Lake: you may see waterfowl, and even a turtle or two!

Bring a picnic to enjoy at one of the picnic tables, walk around the lake (it’s about one mile), and stroll over one of the bridges to Strawberry Hill, the larger of the two islands on the lake.

On Strawberry Hill, walk to the top of the beautiful man-made Huntington Falls.

From the top of Strawberry Hill, the highest point in the park, you get beautiful views: look for Mt. Tamalpais, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Transamerica Pyramid!

Snap a photo of the beautiful red Chinese Pavilion, which was gifted by sister city Taipei. If you like, you can step inside the pagoda and sit for a bit.

Love ghost tours? You can join a guided haunted tour to look for the Lady of Stow Lake!

Stow Lake, Stow Lake Dr, San Francisco (East of 19th Ave)

The Dutch and Murphy Windmills

There are two 75-foot-tall real windmills in the very western part of Golden Gate Park!

Modeled after windmills in the Netherlands, they once pumped water for the park and surrounding areas. Now they serve as historic landmarks that you’ll want to admire and photograph!

The Murphy Windmill

The Dutch Windmill, also called the North Windmill, was completed in 1903, and can be found next to the Beach Chalet. The Murphy, or South Windmill, was completed in 1908.

Electric pumps made the windmills functionally redundant just a few years later, and they fell into disrepair until funds were collected for their restoration.

The restored windmills are beloved sights in Golden Gate Park, and if you are lucky, you may even see one of them turning: either for a special event, or when they are being maintained. Seeing the arms turn is quite an event!

If you visit in February or March, you will likely catch the Queen Wilhelmina tulip garden around the Dutch Windmill in peak bloom. The thousands of colorful tulips are a sight to behold!

The windmills are accessed via an easy flat trail that also goes past the Beach Chalet and the Blue Boat Playground.

North Windmill, off John F. Kennedy Drive, and South Windmill, off Lincoln Way, San Francisco

Spreckels Lake

In the northern portion of Golden Gate Park, Spreckels Lake is a man-made reservoir that offers many recreational opportunities.

Take a walk along the shore of the lake, or ride a bike around it. The lake’s setting, amidst mature Monterey cypress and other trees, makes it a nice place to relax for a bit.

If you enjoy birding, bring your binoculars! The lake attracts birds of many kinds, including gulls, mallards, cormorants, egrets, and herons, as well as land birds such as swallows. You may also see turtles!

Mallard duck in California
Look for birds at Spreckel Lake!

The lake is home to the Spreckels Lake Model Yacht Facility, and it is a well-known model boat running venue. Enthusiasts from all over the world come here to run their boats. It’s fun to watch them!

Spreckels Lake, Spreckels Lake Dr., off 36th Avenue, San Francisco

Bison Paddock

Bison in San Francisco? Yes! There’s a whole herd of them in the paddock at the western end of Golden Gate Park.

An American bison at Golden Gate Park

In the times before San Francisco got a zoo, many animals were kept in Golden Gate Park, from bear and bison to deer and elk.

Once upon a time, many million American bison roamed the great plains of North America, but the great shaggy creatures were almost extinct by the end of the 19th century, before conservation efforts were stepped up.

The herd in the Golden Gate Park was established in 1892, and the bison that still remain in the park are cared for by zoo staff.

Snapping photos of the beloved bison is a must-do when you visit Golden Gate Park!

Bison Paddock, 1237 John F. Kennedy Drive, San Francisco

Shakespeare Garden

A popular wedding venue in the city, the Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park celebrates flowers and plants mentioned in the Bard’s works and is a beautiful place to stroll when the garden is in bloom.

Shakespeare Garden Golden Gate Park San Francisco CA
Entrance to the Shakespeare Garden

The garden was established in 1928, and houses more than 200 varieties of flowers and plants, and the displays are accompanied by quotations from Shakespeare.

You’ll find roses, lilies, daisies, violets, and more. There’s also a bust of Shakespeare in the garden, donated by the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in England.

Look for the pretty sundial in the garden, and allow time to sit on one of the benches and admire the plants.

This garden reminds us of the Shakespeare garden at The Huntington: if you plan to visit the LA area, be sure to put the garden complex on your itinerary!

Shakespeare Garden, 335 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, San Francisco

Rose Garden

Visiting in late spring or early summer? You’ll likely catch peak bloom at the Rose Garden, so be sure to stop by. You’ll find flushes of bloom at other times of the year as well.

Roses in bloom in California
The rose garden looks stunning when in bloom!

Established in 1961, the Rose Garden at Golden Gate Park features numerous varieties of showy hybrid teas and dainty miniatures. Climbers are draped over a lattice fence, creating a charming display.

From deep reds and bright yellows to whites and pastel pinks, the beauty of the roses will captivate you. There are fragrant varieties here as well, so if you can reach a bloom from the path, be sure to sniff!

The roses are displayed in neat rectangular beds, with grassy pathways. Labels help you identify the rose varieties.

The garden is located just a short walk from the Japanese Tea Garden, and is free to enter.

Rose Garden, John F. Kennedy Dr, San Francisco

Ocean Beach

Just adjacent to Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach is a 3.5-mile stretch of sand free of tall buildings. On a nice weather day, it makes a great addition to your itinerary for Golden Gate Park!

Ocean Beach, San Francisco, CA
Cliff House and Seal Rocks, seen from Ocean Beach

Walk a section of the Coastal Trail. The trail winds its way through Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo counties, but walking even just a short distance of it treats you to beautiful coastal views.

The beach is sandy, great for strolling, sand play, or enjoying a picnic. Sunsets are stunning! But the currents are very rough, so stay away from the water line.

If you enjoy birding, keep your eyes peeled for the endangered western snowy plover: you are most likely to see them between late fall and early spring.

Just north of the beach is the iconic Cliff House, which overlooks Seal Rocks and the remnants of the Sutro Baths. There used to be a restaurant in the building, with views, but it closed in 2020.

Events to Enjoy at Golden Gate Park

On top of all the attractions to visit in Golden Gate Park, you can also enjoy events here through the year, from music concerts to races and holiday events. Individual museums and gardens also host events.

In August each year, the 3-day Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival is hugely popular, not just for the music, but also for the food and wine. The line-up is long, with numerous bands and artists performing each year.

In September, enjoy the annual Opera in the Park, a free event where you can San Francisco Opera orchestra perform. Come with a blanket and a picnic and enjoy the music!

Also in September, you can enjoy the free Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park, where several dozen comedians share the stage over several hours. It’s the longest running free outdoor comedy show in the country.

Each October, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is a free 3-day event that draws top performers from not only bluegrass but many other genres of music.

Holiday-themed events include an Easter egg hunt and Christmas tree lighting and illuminations.

The Drum Bridge at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, CA
The Drum Bridge at the Japanese Tea Garden

Getting to Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is located at the western end of the city, and there are a few different ways to get there.

By Public Transportation

You can take either the bus or the Muni streetcar to get to Golden Gate Park from downtown San Francisco.

The N-Judah Muni streetcar runs along Judah Street, a couple of blocks south of the park. It runs from 6 a.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. on weekends until midnight.

The 5-Fulton bus runs along Fulton Street, north of the park (see map).

By Hop On Hop Off Bus

The Hop On Hop Off Bus is an option for getting and overview of the city, plus getting to different attractions, and the tour includes Golden Gate Park.

The bus takes you past major attractions in the park, like the de Young, the California Academy of Sciences, the Conservatory of Flowers, and more.

Book a San Francisco Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour now!

Egret at Stow Lake in San Francisco, CA
An egret at Stow Lake

Driving to Golden Gate Park + parking Info

If you have a car, you can drive to Golden Gate Park. We do not generally take a car into the city, but the Golden Gate Park area isn’t too bad to drive.

From downtown, it’s about a 20-minute drive to Golden Gate Park, without traffic.

You may be able to find parking on the sides of roads in the park, and there is also the Music Concourse Underground Garage, with two entrances.

Parking spots near the major attractions in the park will be harder to find, especially on weekends and nice weather days, so you may have to do a little bit of walking.

Car break-ins are common, so do not leave anything visible in the car, and remember to take valuables with you.

Flower beds at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California
Floral displays at the Conservatory of Flowers

How To Get Around Golden Gate Park

Walk

Many of the main attractions in Golden Gate Park are within walking distance of one another. Here’s a map to orient yourself:

If your planned itinerary for the park is mainly made up of the Big Five: the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, the California Academy of Sciences, the de Young Museum, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden, most visitors can walk to these places.

Of course, you have to remember that you’ll also be walking inside these attractions!

To get to other parts of the park, you can use the free park shuttle.

Segway Tour

To get an excellent overview of the park, especially if you have limited time, join this highly-rated Segway tour!

The 2.5-hour tour is led by a local guide and will take you past the major attractions in the park, such as the Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young Museum, and the California Academy of Sciences. 

You’ll learn about the history of the park, and also take in some hidden gems along the way.

Book this Segway tour now!

Free Park Shuttle

The free Golden Gate Park shuttle runs every 15 minutes between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekends and holidays, and every 20-25 minutes from noon until 6 p.m. on weekdays.

The shuttle runs from the eastern end of the park to Transverse Drive, about the middle of the park. It will take you to all of the most popular attractions in the park.

Pathway in the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco
A serene pathway in the Japanese Tea Garden

Bike!

Biking is an easy way to get around Golden Gate Park, and there are several places near the park where you can rent bikes, along with helmets and locks.

JFK Drive, which runs through much of the park, is car free, and a great way to bike, skate, or walk through the park.

Check out Golden Gate Park Bike and Skate (they offer tandem bikes and kids’ bikes as well), Golden Gate Bike Rentals (tandem bikes and kids’ bikes available), or Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals, where you can also rent e-bikes.

This highly-rated guided bike tour of Golden Gate Park is a great way to get an overview! The 2-hour tour comes with commentary on the history of the park and the major sights, plus photo stops.
Book the bike tour of Golden Gate Park now!

GoCar Tour

The GoCar Tour isn’t specific to Golden Gate Park, but the tour includes some of the major attractions here, and you can park the car and visit a museum or garden if you like. It’s a talking tour car rental, so you’re on your own.

And of course, the car will take you to other must-see spots in the city as well.

Book the GoCar San Francisco Tour now!

Huntington Falls, Stow Lake, Golden Gate Park, SF
Huntington Falls at Stow Lake

Where to Eat in or near Golden Gate Park

Inside Golden Gate Park

There’s a cafe at the de Young Museum that offers decent choices and good quality. You don’t need to pay the museum admission to eat at the cafe.

The Cal Academy of Sciences has a cafe and a restaurant. We’ve eaten at both places and thought the food was excellent. You do have to pay the admission fee to eat here.

The Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant is another excellent option inside the park. Enjoy views of the Pacific Ocean as you eat!

The Tea House at the Japanese Tea Garden offers tea, of course, and a variety of Japan-inspired offerings such as miso soup, and the snack bar at Stow Lake offers burgers, sandwiches, and the like.

You may also find snack stalls and food trucks in the park, depending on the season.

Near Golden Gate Park

South of Golden Gate Park, you’ll find lots of great eateries, especially in the Inner Sunset area.

Try Ebisu for Japanese: the sushi is excellent! Arizmendi Bakery has breads, pizza slices, and baked goods. Manna serves classic (and tasty!) Korean food.

From Indian to Hawaiian to Vietnamese, you’ll find almost every cuisine represented here!

Pagoda and Temple Gate in the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, CA
The pagoda and temple gate in the Japanese Tea Garden

Tips for Visiting Golden Gate Park

Allow plenty of time!

Golden Gate Park in San Francisco is large, with many visit-worthy attractions, so you’ll want to leave plenty of room in your San Francisco itinerary to enjoy the park.

We suggest one full day if you can swing it.

One day in Golden Gate Park will allow you to get an overview of the many spaces in the park, visit two or three of the main attractions, go for a boat ride at Boat Lake, and perhaps attend a musical performance in the park.

Visit on a week day if your itinerary allows

Both residents of the city and visitors enjoy spending time in the gardens, green spaces, and museums in Golden Gate Park.

While it’s a large park, major attractions can get congested at the weekends and on nice weather days in the summer.

If it’s your first visit, plan on a weekday if possible: you’ll have a more relaxed time as you wander the park and tour the museums.

Music Concourse Golden Gate Park SF
Music Concourse at the Golden Gate Park

Dress in layers

San Francisco is known for its foggy cool climate, no matter the time of year.

While you may get lucky and have a warm and fog-free Indian summer kind of day when you visit Golden Gate Park, always dress in layers.

You’ll want to stay comfortable as you stroll the many outdoor spaces and gardens in the park.

Wear comfortable walking shoes!

Even if you are driving or taking one of the other means of transport as you navigate Golden Gate Park, you’ll want to wear comfortable walking shoes.

You’ll rack up the steps just walking inside the many gardens and museums, and you’ll want to walk at least a part of the park along JFK Drive to soak in the atmosphere.

Bring the kids!

Golden Gate Park is one of the most family-friendly attractions in San Francisco.

Kids will love the many hands-on exhibits at the California Academy of Sciences, walking around Stow Lake or going for a boat ride, biking in the park, spotting birds and wildlife, and more.

Turtles at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco
Turtles at the Golden Gate Park

There’s also a carousel that younger kids will love, and playgrounds scattered about the park.

Check for Free Days

Many of the attractions in Golden Gate Park that charge admission have free days in the month. And the admission fees can add up!

When you plan your trip, check to see if you can visit on a day when one or more of the attractions you want to visit is free.

Did you find this article informative? Pin it for later reference!

Discover the best things to do in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, from the Japanese Tea Garden to the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum!

Dhara

Dhara loves to explore her home state of California. With her husband Kishore, she has done numerous road trips in the state in every season. She hopes to share her love of the Golden State with you, and help you find your own exciting experiences here.

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