Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

  • Published 2022/03/24

Golden Gate Park is a beloved and iconic urban park of San Francisco, California, a garden oasis that stretches to 1017 acres of land.

It is similar in shape and comparable to New York City’s Central Park but is about 20% larger.

It has a rectangular configuration, measuring 3 miles long east to west and 0.5 miles long north to south.

The park is the lungs of San Francisco, designed to give citizens and tourists a beautiful natural haven from the everyday buzz of the city.

Golden Gate Park first came into being in 1870, carved out of windswept sand and shore dunes by the diligent field engineer William Hammond Hall.

He and his partner, John McLaren, completely transformed the land to be a beautiful pastoral retreat in the heart of nature.

The first world’s fair, the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, took place on the park’s grounds.

In 1906, it served as the refuge for thousands of homeless residents after the great San Francisco earthquake and fire.

The park is now home to 15 miles of drives, 33 acres of lakes, 130 acres of meadows, and 680 forested acres.

Today, it serves as a lush green portal to an all-encompassing world.

At Golden Gate Park, find blooming gardens, dignified galleries, solemn memorials, sprawling groves, athletic courses, golden beaches, famous landmarks, pleasant meadows, and so much more.

Amazing things await in Golden Gate Park, so start with this list of the best things to do in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

See Living Things Bloom at the Conservatory of Flowers

Flowers in front of Conservatory of Flowers

Chris LaBasco /

You can’t miss the Conservatory of Flowers upon stepping into the park: just look out for a floral display clock and a gorgeous Victorian glass greenhouse.

The Conservatory was built in 1879, the first formal structure created in Golden Gate Park and its oldest building.

Vibrant flowers outside Conservatory of Flowers

Toms Auzins /

It is home to almost 2,000 species of tropical and aquatic plants, including a century-old Imperial philodendron, outlandish carnivorous specimens, rainbow-hued tropical plants, and gigantic water lilies.

The Lowland Tropics gallery is a heady jungle of timber bamboo, horseradish trees, strawberry guava, and other plants found in the tropical rainforest.

The Aquatic Plants gallery has water lilies and floating flowers that grow in rivers, lakes, and bogs.

Plants inside the Conservatory of Flowers

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Spy ornamental flair in their Potted Plants gallery and mountaintop orchids and moss in their Highland tropics gallery.

And observe a vibrant and creative mix of themes at their Special Exhibits gallery.

People around Conservatory of Flowers

Takako Hatayama-Phillips /

Pay Respect at the National AIDS Memorial Grove

Entrance to National AIDS Memorial Grove

Ken Wolter /

The National AIDs Memorial originated when the AIDs pandemic was at its peak.

A group of San Franciscans, struck hard by the crisis, sought to find a sacred space to honor their loved ones felled by the disease.

In the years to come, they expanded this sacred place to forever memorialize those dead from AIDS.

They sought to tell the story to future generations, dispelling silence, stigma, and discrimination.

Marker of National AIDS Memorial Grove

Ken Wolter /

The AIDS memorial grove covers 7 acres of land with thoughtful displays of stone and wood and thousands of inscribed names on the AIDS memorial quilt.

The memorial has ensured that voices from the crisis are curated and captured, documenting the different generations whose lives AIDS has affected.

It inspires hope and healing to AIDS survivors and galvanizes a new generation of activists in the fight against prejudice and hate for a better future.

Open field of National AIDS Memorial Grove

Ken Wolter /

Create Artworks at the Sharon Art Studio

Exterior of Sharon Art Studio

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Want to get the creative juices flowing during your visit to Golden Gate Park?

Sharon Art Studio is San Francisco’s largest public studio that offers an array of art courses and opportunities for children, adults, and seniors.

The studio was once a fledgling arts and crafts program.

It is now a diversity of offerings, serving people in its pursuit of artistic expression and growth.

Exterior of Sharon Art Studio

Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Every year, about 2,500 adults and 1,000 youths come to flex their artistic abilities.

Participants fuel their muses, creating watercolors, drawings, jewelry, metal arts, glass ornaments, ceramics, etc.

At their workshops, create art like whimsical bird feeders, precious metal castings, resin castings, transformed recycled materials, fused glass crafts, grid relief carvings, and more.

Join their fine arts creations of intermediate and beginner watercolors, 3D assemblage art, acrylic abstract painting, mixed media portraiture, and life drawing.

Take Your Kids to the Koret Children’s Quarter

The Koret Children’s Quarter opened in 1888, a place regarded as the first public playground in the nation.

Initially called the Sharon Quarter’s For Children, the conception of such a place for youth recreation was groundbreaking.

With generous support from the Koret Foundation, it underwent renovations and opened as the Koret Children’s Quarter in 2007.

Pretty mosaic stairs, also decorated by children, lead into the playground.

Your kids are sure to be delighted with its high-flying swings, adventurous tubes, daring planks, colorful slides, towering rope structures, and climbing walls.

It also holds the Herschel-Spillman Carousell with panels depicting Bay Area landmarks and a menagerie of 62 painted animals.

Kids will ride atop dragons, horses, frogs, camels, roosters, pigs, dogs, and goats.

Over the years, the playground has been a historical children’s treasure, providing stimulation, wonder, and laughter.

Explore New Worlds at the California Academy of Sciences

Aerial view of California Academy of Sciences

huangcolin /

The California Academy of Sciences is one of the greatest science museums you will ever see.

It is known as the most popular museum in San Francisco.

It is among the largest, most groundbreaking, and earth-friendly museums in the world.

Exterior of California Academy of Sciences

Sundry Photography /

You could say it is four museums in one, serving as an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum all at once.

Plumb the depths of the oceanic ecosystems at the Steinhart Aquarium, which has advanced exploration of the ocean’s twilight zone and contains almost 900 unique species.

Aquarium in California Academy of Sciences

Kit Leong /

Immerse yourself in the cosmos at Morrison Planetarium, which presents stunning visualizations of outer space enhanced through real-time data from NASA.

Step inside a spectacular neotropical forest housed in a 90-foot glass dome, with its exotic reptiles and amphibians, free-flying birds and butterflies, and incredible tropical flora.

And marvel at the intertwined natural world of our planet in the Kimball Natural History Museum.

Rainforest in California Academy of Sciences

Kit Leong /

Listen to the Sounds at the Music Concourse

Side view of Music Concourse

Michael Urmann /

The Music Concourse is located at the center of Golden Gate Park’s museum district.

The builders originally established it for the 1894 Midwinter Exposition as the Grand Court of Honor.

After the exposition’s end, superintendent John McLaren saw its conversion as a public venue for musical performances.

The concourse comprises an elliptical plaza built on an axis that goes from southeast to northwest.

Aerial view of Music Concourse

Sundry Photography /

Lining the plaza are statues and monuments of historical figures such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Giuseppe Verdi, and at its center are three lovely fountains.

In 1899, the plaza’s focal point, the classically-designed Spreckels Temple of Music, also known as the Bandshell, was built as a free concert venue.

In past years, artists like Luciano Pavarotti and the Grateful Dead have welcomed crowds at the Bandshell.

The 150-foot SkyStar Ferris Wheel is a recent addition to the concourse, boasting unparalleled city views.

Trees and seats at Music Concourse

Naeblys /

Go Hunting for Hidden Fairy Doors

All over Golden Gate Park are tiny wooden tree doors known as fairy doors, magical touches of whimsy on the landscape.

The creator of the first fairy door is an artist named Tony Powell.

With his young son Rio, he created a little door in a hollow elm tree, inspired by a love for mythical folklore.

They got the idea that a fantastical door in which humans may leave messages for the fairies might cheer up anyone who chances upon it.

He has since installed more doors in secret locations all over the Bay area, and they have become the delight of locals and visitors everywhere.

The doors’ visitors leave behind trinkets for the wee folk, such as bells, rocks, shells, acorns, jewelry, and tiny rolled-up letters.

Powell and his son have since started a website chronicling the messages they receive on the fairy doors and documenting the fairies’ responses.

Smell the Roses at the Rose Garden

Colorful flowers at Rose Garden

Alisa_Ch /

Here at the Rose Garden, an uncommon and diverse spread of flowers greets unsuspecting visitors.

Everywhere, there are sprays of roses in white, yellow, peach, fuschia, and red, bursting with beauty and fragrance.

See combinations of blossoming specimens planted in rectangular beds and fragile climbing roses on the lattice fence.

Two-toned rose at Rose Garden

Alisa_Ch /

Many kinds of roses bloom here all year round.

There is always something unique in the garden, with 3-4 blooming cycles on display at any one time.

The garden spills its magic continuously, with some rosebushes even blooming two times a year.

Vibrant colored rose at Rose Garden

Alisa_Ch /

Get to know the rose varieties: hold the golden-buttery Julia Child and the soft pale pink and white Sally Holmes.

Stroke the white and red-edged Cherry Parfait and the golden and red-orange Rainbow Sorbet.

Admire the lavender-pink Lavender Lassie, the fiery red and orange Eglantine, the multi-colored Joseph’s Coat, and the vibrant gold Strike it Rich.

White rose at Rose Garden

Alisa_Ch /

Discover Art at de Young Museum

Aerial view of de Young Museum

Nickolay Stanev /

The de Young Museum, named for San Francisco newspaperman M.H. de Young, is one of the most prestigious fine art installations and the oldest museum in the city.

Its sleek copper sheathed facade and modern design is a portal into the artwork of different lands.

A sculpture at de Young Museum

Lynn Yeh /

Their American collection spans four centuries and includes creations of Native Americans, later immigrants, enslaved Africans, and their descendants.

Their African collection dates from the 19th to mid-20th century, a time of political, economic, and religious change that affected culture and art.

Their Arts of the Americas works are sculptures, ceramic, and architectural remains made by indigenous artists across the Western Hemisphere.

Artworks in de Young Museum

Asif Islam /

Their Oceanic collection includes important New Zealand Maori creations and artwork from Micronesia.

Visit the Hamon Tower Observation Floor, which lifts you 144 feet in the air for panoramic views of San Francisco and Golden Gate Park.

The observation tower in de Young Museum

Wirestock Creators /

Spend an Afternoon at San Francisco Botanical Garden

A pond in San Francisco Botanical Garden

Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you were already in awe at the urban garden oasis of Golden Gate Park, wait until you see the San Francisco Botanical Garden.

It is a lush and living oasis holding 55 acres with over 8000 plant varietals, a lovely assembly of nature from everywhere in the world.

Because of its characteristic microclimate, San Francisco allows for the thriving of all kinds of plants.

They hail from areas like the cloud forests of Southeast Asia, the lush forests of New Zealand, and the southernmost limit of Africa.

Trees and plants in San Francisco Botanical Garden

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Find spear lilies and Banksias from Australia, the coast redwood grove from California, towering wax palms from the Andean Cloud Forest, and ancient peumo and winter’s bark tree from Chile.

Enjoy a riot of shapes at the Succulent Garden and please your senses at the Garden of Fragrance.

Relax and admire the cypresses at the Great Meadow and immerse yourself in the Moon Viewing Garden.

Great lawn of San Francisco Botanical Garden

Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Step into a Different Realm at the Japanese Tea Garden

Lush trees at Japanese Tea Garden

Irina Kosareva /

One of the cherished tourist spots at Golden Gate Park is the Japanese Tea Garden, constructed in 1893 for the Midwinter Exposition.

Upon the fair’s closing, an affluent Japanese landscape designer, Makoto Hagiwara, transformed the garden into a permanent park landscape, wishing to share this piece of his culture.

Bonsai trees in Japanese Tea Garden

Tupungato /

He masterminded the landscaping, erecting the Tea House, garden, and pavilions, and extending the original space to almost 5 acres.

He also imported authentic tributes from his home country, such as plants, bronze ornaments, goldfish, koi fish, and rare Japanese birds.

Hagiwara and his family were the stewards and caretakers of the garden until their tragic internment in camps during World War II.

Wooden moon bridge in Japanese Tea Garden

TaraPatta /

Their beautiful legacy lives on at this tranquil haven where anyone can get lost among beautifully shaped landscapes, pagodas, torii or gates, a moon bridge, and Japanese maples.

Spy Buddha statues, shining ponds, porcelain lanterns, stepping stone paths, and blooming cherry blossoms, and find inner peace as you wander.

A pond at Japanese Tea Garden


Stroll and Explore around Stow Lake and Strawberry Hill

Trees reflecting on Stow Lake

Noah Sauve /

Stow Lake is a pretty man-made lake, the largest and best-known body of water in Golden Gate Park.

In the middle of the lake sits Strawberry Hill, the highest point of Golden Gate Park, rising at 400 feet.

They are well-loved hotspots for relaxation and retreating, to while away an entire afternoon.

People kayaking on Stow Lake

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You can stroll along walking trails and bridges around the area, watch butterflies, birds, and turtles around the water, and explore Stow Lake on the rentable paddleboats and rowboats.

You can also meditate in the Golden Gate Pavilion, a Chinese-themed temple structure that was a gift from Taipei.

Take pictures at the lovely Huntington Falls and grab some bites to eat at the Stow Lake Café.

Hike up Strawberry Hill, and be sure to take binoculars to catch the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Mt. Tamalpais.

Huntington falls waters from Strawberry Hill

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Greet the Bison at Bison Paddock

American bison in Bison Paddock

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In the middle of Golden Gate Park, there graze a living reminder of vintage Americana.

In 1891, park superintendent John McLaren transported bison from the Great Plains to Golden Gate Park.

At this time, their species was nearing massive extinction since hunters were slaughtering them for hides and trophies.

A bull named Ben Harrison and a cow named Sarah Bernhardt gave rise to the herd that would eventually help preserve their kind.

Bisons at Bison Paddock

yhelfman /

Captive breeding saved their species from extinction: over the years, more than 500 calves were born in the park.

Today, a large and healthy herd thrives because of this triumphant repopulation.

Many of them bear the names of public figures, Shakespeare characters, and Native American personas.

You can sit on a park bench and watch these big, fluffy creatures as they buck, play, groom, and wallow.

See them as they graze on their favorite Kikuyu grass, Bermuda grass, and Kentucky bluegrass.

Watch a Water Race With the San Francisco Model Yacht Club

The San Francisco Model Yacht Club or the SFMYC devotes itself to the arts, hobby, and sport of racing and building working model boats.

Established in 1898, it is the oldest organization of its kind in the United States, a longtime part of San Francisco’s maritime tradition.

The San Francisco Parks Commission created Spreckels Lake between 1902 and 1904, specifically intending it for competition and model boat sailing.

SFMYC has two squadrons, one of which is the Sail Squadron, devoted to model racing yachts created for competitive racing.

The other is the Power Squadron, dedicated to fully functional scale models of full-sized boats in intricate details.

See the electric sail models and steam-powered boats taking off across the marine playground that is Spreckels Lake.

And watch the various events like the tug boat and barge pull, the wooden boats on parade, and the regatta and powerboat competition.

Join in the Joyful Chaos at Bay to Breakers

Starting point of Bay to Breakers

Sheila Fitzgerald /

Bay to Breakers, a running event taking place in San Francisco every May, is unlike any race you will ever see.

Here you will spot fit athletes racing west through the city – alongside superheroes, giant fruits, movie personas, cartoon characters, household objects, and other zany-costumed participants!

For Bay to Breakers is not just about striding across the finish line.

It is also about donning some of the most outrageous costumes for all to see!

This legendary race started in 1912 to lift the spirits of those downcast by the 1906 earthquake.

Participants of Bay to Breakers /

It is now one of the longest consecutively running races globally, holding a 24-year world record for the largest footrace.

It even has some longtime traditions like Tortilla Toss, during which participants fling tortillas at each other like Frisbees.

Another tradition is the Centipede Race, in which multiple runners tether themselves together and compete as a unit.

You will truly have a grand time celebrating life, laughter, and the spirit of San Francisco at this amazing race.

So throw on your running shoes, sport your craziest costume, and get ready to run and party at Bay to Breakers!

Participants of Bay to Breakers wearing costumes /

Final Thoughts

Where else in San Francisco can you salute monuments and legacies, marvel at flower spectacles, watch ancient animals, walk worldwide milieus, learn whimsical legends, soak in cultural landscapes, and do so much more?

Don’t forget to consult this list for your next stopover at the harbor of culture, history, science, and nature that is Golden Gate Park.

It is an incredible place where you can spend ages exploring, still finding something wonderful at every turn.

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