What to See in Golden Gate Park: A Walker's Guide
Only in Golden Gate Park can you:
see buffalo up-close,
visit a conservatory bought by a San Francisco land baron,
paddleboat a manmade lake
visit a museum named for a newspaper man who shot his enemies
experience a living green roof
stumble upon racketball and lawn bowling courts
chat with fisherman practicing their fly-fishing
smell the tulips underneath Queen Wilhemina’s windmill
and watch people pilot miniature racing boats.
To name a few.
Whether you’re visiting San Francisco for the first time, or just looking for new paths of exploration in your home town, Golden Gate Park is a must-do daytime activity. It’s a collision of greenery, history, mystery, oddities, arts and culture – not to mention sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean. (Also, there’s beer. I’ll tell you where to find beer.)
I live in Haight-Ashbury, which is right next to GGP, and my husband is a tour guide in the park. I created this guide based on my favorites in the East End of the park – it will take you from Haight-Ashbury to about the halfway point. This is the perfect amount of ground to cover as most of the site’s main attractions are clustered together in the western half. But, if you are feeling ambitious, you can walk the length of the park and arrive at the Pacific Ocean.
If it's raining, foggy, blustery, and just kind of unpleasant, don't worry! The park is amazing in any weather, and there's plenty of indoor activities. And, really the park is at its best in its natural state – cloaked in a gauzy layer of fog.
Let’s start with some brief history.
From sand dunes to urban oasis
First of all, you should know that Golden Gate Park is bigger than New York’s Central Park. Yes, we vindictively hold that honor. From end to end, it's a little over 3 miles in length, and about a half-mile wide, stretching in one long line from Haight-Ashbury to the Ocean.
Surprisingly, it's completely manmade. Back in the early 1700s, San Francisco was just a bunch of sand dunes, scrub grass, and rocky shorelines. After the Gold Rush put it on the map, the city blossomed overnight. Starting downtown at the Barbary Coast, where today’s Financial District lies, development spread westward toward the coast.
In the late 1800s, what is now the Haight Ashbury area was a 'country escape' from the city for the wealthy elite. Of course, San Francisco is only 49 square miles, and the city eventually consumed this quasi-country. In 1870, the powers that be decided that in order for San Francisco to be a truly respectable metropolis – on the same footing as New York or Chicago – it needed a magnificent park.
We tried to get the designer of New York's Central Park, but he basically said "I don't think it's a good idea to try to turn a desert into a park." So instead, we saw young upstart William Hammond Hall, a civil engineer, brought into head up the design. His assistant John McLaren would later take over as park superintendant and remain so for more than 50 years. Hall and McLaren carefully coaxed sand dunes into lush gardens and greenery. He brought in plants from across the world to grace the new landscape. (McLaren is credited with planting more than 2 million trees in his lifetime.) They sought to give the community of San Francisco something to be proud of, and to show visitors that this city by the bay wasn’t just a fledgling shanty town built on flakes of gold, but a cultural paragon on par with Paris.
McLaren called GGP ‘one of the beauty spots of the world.’ And, I agree. Because it’s so much more than a green space. As you walk, you’ll be drifting through layers of history, from Hippie Hill to the Conservatory of Flowers, to the AIDS memorial.
By the time you reach the ocean, you won’t have just walked through a city park, but through 150 years of San Francisco, and experienced what it means for a young city to come into its own.
Starting your walk: The Panhandle
There are two main ways to enter the eastern side of the park. The first is through the Panhandle, a four-block-long, one-block-wide green space, cut through with cute pathways and shaded by some of the oldest trees in the city. You’ll see locals picnicking and playing fetch with many adorable doggos (including my own). It’s also great to bike or scoot through if you’re on two wheels.
Your other option is to walk down Haight Street and experience the birthplace of the Summer of Love. Just a few blocks south of the Panhandle, Haight Street is quirky to the max (and full of many youths who are happy to sell you the finest of drugs). Don’t let them scare you, the street is tourist-friendly. Look past the gritty veneer and imagine Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and every other musician of the 60s and 70s living and playing here on Haight St. (On the dark side, Jim Jones, of the Jonestown Massacre also lived here for a time.) During the Summer of Love, reckless and rebellious youth from across the world came here to experience free love, do a shit ton of drugs, and herald in a new paradigm. Soak it in.
Walk west on Haight st. Pop into tie-dye shops, expensive skater boutiques, or grab a drink some of the great bars (Alembic is a fave.) Book-lovers, check out Booksmith. It's my favorite bookstore in the city thanks to all the great employee recommendations. Audiophiles, you may want to also visit the famous Amoeba music to pursue its insanely large collection of records and CDs. It's in a converted bowling alley, and very likely one of the biggest record stores in the world.
At the end of Haight Street, you’ll arrive at your destination.
Now entering Golden Gate Park
Where Haight meets Stanyan, you’ll have an opportunity to rent a bike, if that’s your jam. Otherwise, just keep walking west. You may need to cross a few streets depending how you enter, but after five minutes, you’ll come upon Hippie Hill. Undoubtedly there will be a few past-their-prime hippies, and rolling pot clouds. Try to picture the music festivals and gatherings here from the last 60s and early 70s. While it may just look like an open green space today, it was a place where hippies could express their sexuality, do the aforementioned drugs, and hear amazing musicians like the Grateful Dead and George Harrison. Today it's home to the huge 4/20 festival, where thousands of people come to light up and feel just a little bit of that free love flowing through them. Or something.
Now, if you don’t feel need to pay certain kind of homage (cough cough), there’s really no reason to stop. Look for an opportunity to fork to the right.
Stop #1: Conservatory of Flowers
Eventually you’ll come to a gleaming white old-fashioned building. In front, there’s a perfectly curated bed of blooms. This is the Conservatory of Flowers. You can either pay the $8 entrance fee to stroll through gorgeous tropical fauna, with butterflies flittering above your head (a great choice if it's chilly outside.) Or, just admire it from the outside. The conservatory was originally ordered by James Lick to reside in San Jose. Fortunately for San Francisco, some newspaper reporter in San Jose wrote a story denigrating Lick's choice of dress. He spitefully reneged on the conservatory deal and it remained in crates in his backyard. Lick eventually passed away and the conservatory was donated by his estate to the Golden Gate Park, where it resides today.
A few natural disasters, including a hurricane in the 90s, have required repairs and remodeling. It was eventually retrofitted with modern greenhouse technology. But the outside retains that delightfully Victorian vibe and it's well-worth your photos.
Once you’re done here, take a left directly down the middle of the flower path in front of the Conservatory. This takes you to some of my favorite greenery in the park.
Stop #2 Back in Time in the Tree Fern Dell
You’ll head under a tunnel –upon leaving it, turn right. Some days a saxophonist plays here, creating a lovely musical canopy to match the greenery as you come into the Tree Fern Dell. For the next 5minutes you’ll walk through plant life that feels very Jurassic Park, with huge leafy Australian ferns surrounded by Chilean rhubarb. It's lush and primordial. But the best part is for Star Trek fans. The last scene from Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan was filmed here – when Spock's casket lands on the Genesis Planet.
This little dell is just so different than anywhere else in the park, and it has this fabulous Star Trek connection. It always makes me happy.
Stop #3: The Rhododendron Garden and a Brief Tale of Unwanted Statues
Keep walking, you’ll eventually pass the Rhododendron Garden on the left. If your trip happens to coincide with bloom season, definitely walk the paths here for bursts of glorious color. If not, at least pop in to find the statue of an older man. This is John McLaren, the Park Superintendant I mentioned earlier.
McLaren lived and breathed this park. We have him to thank for so much about it today. He was known to be a bit curmudgeonly. (If you noticed an impressive lodge upon entering the park, that was his HOUSE. It now houses the Parks Department.) Anyhow, John McLaren hated statues, which is ironic because there are hundreds throughout the park. Each time the park received a new statue, he ordered his gardeners to place it back from roads and paths and plant trees around it to obscure the statue. Upon McLaren's 50th birthday the city gifted him an statue of himself. Whether this was an ironic joke, or someone was just really unobservant, is lost to history. Rumor has it he had his statue buried underground somewhere (though this isn't well documented.) Regardless of where it hid out, it was eventually found after his death, and resurrected in the Rhododendron Garden.
Notably, the statue is the only one in the park that doesn't stand on a pedestal. McLaren's feet are firmly planted on the earth, representing his connection to the place. He also holds a pinecone to symbolize his massive tree-planting efforts. And, if you look closely, you'll notice a saw mark on his left leg, where some unruly folks tried to steal the statue a few years back.
They should have known: McLaren can't be messed with. He belongs to the park.
Stop #4: The Museum Concourse & A Free Hack for Amazing Views
After the garden, you’ll soon reach the Museum Concourse off to your left. If you’re doing a long, leisurely day in Golden Gate, you may want to stop at one of these incredible museums. As you enter the concourse, on your left is the California Academy of Sciences. This is an incredible science museum with fun exhibits like a tropical rainforest, planetarium and an earthquake simulator. On your right is the De Young – this is an art museum that generally has a fantastic traveling exhibit going on as well as a solid permanent collections. If you don't have time, or the desire to pay, to enter these museums, you can still enjoy something amazing for free.
See the giant brownish tower on your right? It's part of the De Young, but you can go up for free, without paying museum entrance fees. Just walk right in and head up the elevator. At the top you’ll see expansive 360 views of San Francisco. Don’t miss it.
After you come down, cut to your right through the concourse. Sometimes there is music or art on display. Take a little stroll through the knobby trees dotting the grounds.(I think they look like mini-whomping willows.)
When you reach the cement band-stand thing, take a left. Behind this is coffee, food carts and segueways rentals. You do you, and all, but I’d recommend passing on both.
If you are ravenous, however, here's a better option: Go left at the bandstand, and keep going left until you reach the southern edge of the park. There’s a busy intersection here - cross through til you get to 9th and Irving. (You're leaving the park, but don't worry, it's not far out.) This is the adorable neighborhood of Inner Sunset. There are tons of great restaurants, bakeries, and bars – and commercial staples like Starbucks and Jamba Juice. If you’re looking for a quick drink (hey, you’ve been walking a lot, you earned it), I recommend The Shamrock, which is on Lincoln, right across from the park.
This pub is San Francisco's second-oldest bar, having opened its doors to chilled park-goers in 1893 during the California Midwinter Exposition. It survived the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, and in fact, you can still see a clock on the wall that stopped during the '06 quake more than 100 years ago. It's a great place for a cheap drink: "We're over 120 years old, and our prices show it!" they say. This bar is the ultimate dive, but perfect for a piece of history and a warming nip before dipping back into the park.
Stop #5, options: The Japanese Tea Garden, Botanical Garden, or Stow Lake
Now, I'm going to leave you with have some choices about your day in the park. You can’t do it all, after all. So, I want to share just a few details about three attractions about mid-way through the Park. They’re all delightful in their own ways.
- Japanese Tea Garden: If it’s foggy or cold, I highly recommend the Tea Garden. There’s an small entrance fee here, but once you get in, you’re transported to an adorable Japanese garden, complete with a fun Moon bridge that’s very Instagrammable. Walk the garden, and stop at their café for warming tea and a Fortune Cookie. They say that the first fortune cookie was made at this café. I don’t know who they is, or if that’s true. But it’s a thing they say.
- Botanical Garden: Both the garden and Stow Lake are great for temperate or warmer days. The Garden is an expansive space with lots of beautiful flowers. They don’t allow dogs, sadly, so I haven’t spent much time here. It’s pretty, though.
- Stow Lake: If you’re with your SO, and feel like doing a rendition of Kiss the Girl, stop here and rent a paddleboat for an hour or so. It’s not cheap, but the loop around the lake is truly lovely. There are always little turtles sunning themselves and cute bridges to slip under. After your ride, if you're feeling cardio, you can walk up the hill in the center of middle of Stow Lake. It's called Strawberry Hill and it has stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the top.
Now leaving Golden Gate Park
Chances are you're pretty tired now, and ready to rest those weary feet. You've earned it after your nature walk in the fabulous Golden Gate Park. If you're curious about what else resides in the park, feel free to keep walking or biking. There are certainly attractions in the western half worth your attention – buffaloes, manmade lakes, relics of the silver barons, windmills, a beer garden chalet, and of course, the Pacific Ocean! Enjoy your walk, and hopefully some amazing memories of this unique park by the sea.