Visiting San Francisco and looking for the best things to do in Golden Gate Park? Keep on reading my friend — I’m sharing all my favorite spots! From cloud forests and man made waterfalls to Japanese pagodas and a brand new ferris wheel, you’ll never be bored over here! I mean, we’ve even got an albino alligator named Claude!
Whenever I’m craving some culture and nature, I make a beeline straight for Golden Gate Park. Yes, it’s a tad touristy, but there’s just so many little nooks and crannies if you know where to look. Tulip gardens! Outdoor skating parties! Picnic spots! BISON! I’ve been living here for years and still can’t get over just how expansive the park is!
This massive guide will showcase not only my favorite things to do in Golden Gate Park, but how to get around, where to eat, and some brief history! This sprawling green space is the third most visited park in the United States, so you know it’s a good one!
Not many know this, but Golden Gate Park is actually larger than New York City’s wildly famous Central Park (roughly 20% bigger)! You could spend an entire day in the park and still not see everything! There’s plenty of cultural museums, flowery gardens (my favorite!), grassy green spaces for lounging, and even a secret waterfall! It’s easily one of the best San Francisco neighborhoods for outdoor lovers!
Because of the park’s size, there’s obviously a ton to do here! Definitely dedicate a good portion of a day on your San Francisco itinerary to explore these things to do in Golden Gate Park. We’ve even taken a segway tour of the park once when friends were visiting; it’s that big! It really is the emerald heart of San Francisco, being an ultimate haven away from the urban chaos that is the city.
Psst → Golden Gate Park is not near the Golden Gate Bridge, so don’t expect to see bridge views here.
And if you happen to be there at the right time, you may even get to see a special outdoor public art installation! This happens from time to time. I recently saw Entwined in Peacock Meadow, a hypnotic LED-light show of illuminated tree structures. It was wild y’all! Just wild!
Brief History of Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park has been around for a while, y’all. Circa 1870 something.
I had no clue, but the park was originally created on 1,013 acres of sand dunes. By a TWENTY-FIVE year old! Of course there were skeptics who said a park could never be built atop the windswept sand dunes, but he proved them wrong! If only they could see the park now!
The main reason for the park?! SF residents wanted a green space that would give New York City’s Central Park a run for its money! And that it did! Golden Gate Park is actually 20% larger than Central Park, and yes, we’re proud of it (but we don’t brag). And of course to increase tourism → which they effortlessly did so with the 1894 Midwinter Fair (a full-on carnival with culture and outdoor activities).
Besides being a sprawling green space for those in the city to enjoy, it’s served a few purposes over the year:
- used during the 1906 massive earthquake as a refuge for those who lost their homes <3
- Birth of the Summer of Love movement (with countless stoners at Hippie Hill)
- A place for moose, caribou, antelope, and even zebras to gallop (yes, although sadly, not anymore)
How to Get to Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is located on the far West Side of the city, spanning from the eclectic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood all the way to Ocean Beach. It’s a pretty straightforward drive from most spots in the city.
Muni has convenient connections from other parts of the city as well.
How to Get Around the Park
It may seem like you can easily walk from one end to the other, but Golden Gate Park’s SO MUCH BIGGER than most people realize! The park is a whopping three miles long from east to west and about a half mile wide from north to south. It’ll take a while to get from point to point. Don’t count on walking from one end to the other (unless you’ve got super comfy shoes on and wanna get in lots of steps!).
That’s where a map comes in handy — you’ll notice that quite a few attractions in Golden Gate Park are easily walkable! The new SkyStar Observation Wheel, deYoung Museum, Japanese Tea Garden, Shakespeare Garden, and Cal Academy are all super close to each other! And you can get to the Conservatory of Flowers in about 15 minutes as well.
Download your own map of Golden Gate Park here!
Yup — there’s a FREE shuttle that runs on weekends (and holidays)! Honestly, it couldn’t be easier! The shuttle includes plenty of popular stops, including the Conservatory of Flowers, de Young Museum, Rose Garden, Stow Lake, and more! Did I mention it’s free?!
If you really wanna take advantage of all the things to do in Golden Gate Park, it’s best to have a car. Sure, the shuttle’s great and all, but it doesn’t run during the week! And plus, parking will be much easier during the week, so hopefully you’ll be able to find parking spots kinda easy!
Where to Park
If you’re visiting SF and renting a car (honestly though, not the best idea), cross your fingers that you’ll be able to find street parking. There’s time-limited free parking (varying from 2-4 hours depending on the spot) along John F. Kennedy Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
If you come mid-week you’ll have much more luck parking on side streets within the park itself. If all else fails, I typically park on Lincoln Way, which borders the south end of the park. Just be careful for no parking signs!
Really can’t find street parking anywhere? Or don’t wanna stress about it? There’s always the Music Concourse Garage near the CalAcademy, a 800-space underground parking lot (sadly, it’s not free, but you could have guessed that).
Cost of Golden Gate Park Attractions
The park is free to enter and visit, but there are a few Golden Gate Park attractions you’ll need to pay for. I can personally say that I’ve been to each and every paid attraction in Golden Gate Park and they’re all worthy of their entrance fee.
BUT that doesn’t mean you can’t have a great time if you don’t wanna pay for the extras — I get it! Don’t worry, there are tons of things to do in Golden Gate Park that are absolutely FREE!
Here’s a quick breakdown of the cost of paid attractions in Golden Gate Park (and when those elusive free days are!):
- Conservatory of Flowers: $10-$12 for general public ($7 for SF residents)
- free first Tuesday of every month!
- California Academy of Sciences: $34.95
- free “Neighborhood Free Weekends” on select dates (depending on zip code) for San Francisco residents
- deYoung Museum: $15
- free Friday nights from 6pm to 8:45pm, as well as free Saturdays for Bay Area Residents and free the first Tuesday of the month for everyone
- Botanical Garden: $9-12
- free from 7:30-9am, always free for San Francisco residents!!!, and free second Tuesday of every month
- Japanese Tea Gardens: $10-$12 (less for SF residents)
- Free admission: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9-10am
Whatever you do, always triple check if you’re eligible for discounts! A bunch of these spots offer reduced admission for students, SF residents, seniors, etc. I once asked about a teacher discount and they gave me a student discount just because (note that I actually do work in the schools — don’t pretend)! Doesn’t hurt to ask!
The Best Things to do in Golden Gate Park
H. de Young Museum
- Cost: $15
- Free entry: free Friday nights from 6pm to 8:45pm, as well as free Saturdays for Bay Area Residents and free the first Tuesday of the month for everyone
Art-lover? You’ll be impressed that one of the top things to do in Golden Gate Park is to visit the de Young Museum, one of the most prestigious fine art museums in the city. With exhibits encompassing American, African, and Oceanic art, the De Young aims to spark a conversation regarding culture, perspectives, and time periods.
Even the outside building is an artist’s dream! You’ll see what I mean as you soon as you get there — it’s all inside a dramatic copper facade! What could be better? There’s usually a bunch of special exhibits (I once visited when the whole place was decked out in flowers!), but the permanent exhibits are pretty cool, too.
At the time of writing this (Spring 2021), there’s currently a special Frida Khalo exhibit that I’m dying to see! Ever since we went to Mexico City, I’ve been obsessed with her and her artwork.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the FREE panoramic views of downtown San Francisco from the Hamon Observation Tower! Open to everyone, even if you don’t have a ticket (just follow the signs upstairs). Before you leave, check out the intriguing Three Gems Turrell Skyspace exhibit outside, too.
California Academy of Sciences (CalAcademy)
- Cost: $34.95
- Free entry: free “Neighborhood Free Weekends” on select dates (depending on zip code) for San Francisco residents
What do you get when you put fossils, sea life, tropical plants, star gazing, gemstones, and an albino alligator (named Claude) all in the same building? The California Academy of Sciences, of course. The first time I visited I honestly couldn’t believe all the different sections of the museum — there’s an aquarium, planetarium, and even a rainforest bio-dome.
If you’re a science buff you’ve got to get yourself over to the Cal Academy – what us locals call it. It’s not just a natural history museum, but also an aquarium (where the albino alligator lives and lots of jellies) and a planetarium (with showings every hour). Promise me you won’t miss the tropical rainforest in the dome (it’s really cool!) and the 2.5-acre “living roof” (one of the most sustainable buildings in America).
And get this — every Thursday night, the museum hosts themed 21+ “Nightlife” adults-only cocktail events. There’ve been events like “feel the force” Star Wars themed evenings, neuroscience focused “brain and body” nights, and even silent disco yoga in the aquarium. I’ve been to silent disco before and can’t wait to go to more! It’s such a fun way to explore the museum (for a fraction of the price) AND have a cocktail or two while wandering around! It’s such a great night out with friends or for a boozy date night!
Gardens and Lakes
San Francisco Botanical Gardens
- Cost: $9-12
- Free entry: 7:30-9am for everyone, always free for San Francisco residents!!!, and free second Tuesday of every month
Smack dab in the middle of the park you’ll find one of the most relaxing things to do in Golden Gate park → The SF Botanical Gardens! And like it says right on their website, you can really travel the world in 55 acres! There’s over 8,000 different kinds of plants from all over the world over here. It’s way larger than you’d expect, and I always discover a new spot I’d never seen before.
I love the Succulent Garden, the Redwood Grove, and the cloud garden the most. It’s all just so peaceful → there’s a lot of trails to wander around, tons of unique plant life, and oh so much fresh air. Bring a blanket, some friends, and have a picnic — it’s the perfect place for one!
And better yet, it’s completely FREE for SF residents (just bring your ID).
Visiting in late winter/early spring? Don’t miss the peak bloom of the famous magnolia trees. I literally gasped when I saw them! Those bright pink blooms against the blue sky sure are something special. There’s also white and light pink magnolia trees here as well, but I love the super pink trees the most! Peak bloom typically happens in early February and doesn’t last long, so plan accordingly if you really wanna see them. I like to follow the SF Botanical Garden’s IG for updates! And trust me, the magnolias are absolutely magnificent — go for yourself and see! :p
Japanese Tea Garden
- Cost: $10-$12 (less for SF residents)
- Free admission: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9-10am
Whether you’re craving some hot tea or just wanna say hello to the koi fish, transport yourself to Japan! There’s a bunch of pagodas resembling the real stuff in Japan, all nestled between lush gardens and manicured horticulture. It’s not huge, but so well maintained you really feel the traditional Japanese culture here. Expect wooden Buddha statues, a Shinto Shrine, porcelain lanterns, and glistening ponds with stones to walk on.
We just love taking visitors here! Don’t miss the Drum Bridge (it’s harder than it looks to climb up), the gorgeous Zen Garden, and the five-storied pagoda. And of course make sure to head to the Japanese Tea House for some mochi (and tea)!
Plan to visit in the fall for super colorful fall foliage (there’s tons of beautiful maples over here!), or the spring when the Japanese cherry blossoms are in bloom! You will see some bamboo, dwarf trees, and irises almost year round though.
And i bet you didn’t know this, but the Japanese Tea Garden is actually the oldest public Japanese garden in the US! If you’re missing Japan like we always are, make sure to add this to your San Francisco bucket list.
- Cost: FREE, just walk right in!
Looking for one of the most romantic things to do in Golden Gate Park? Look no further than Shakespeare’s Garden! It’s even a popular place to get married in San Francisco! Not getting married any time soon? Set up a romantic picnic with your honey (or best gal pals), or just get lost in a book (there’s lots of benches to rest on over here).
What’s so special about Shakespeare Garden anyways? The flowers and plants are all mentioned in his plays and poems! There’s more than 200 flowers and plants over here, including poppies, mandrakes, daisies, violets, roses, and lilies.
I recommend visiting in the spring and summer to see the plants in bloom, with trees and flowers lining the walkway. And this all leads to a sculpture of Shakespeare himself! The garden is not too far from the SF Botanical Garden and the Japanese Tea Garden, so you can easily squeeze in a quick visit!
Conservatory of Flowers
- Cost: $10-$12 for general public ($7 for SF residents)
- Free entry: free first Tuesday of every month!
One step into the Conservatory of Flowers and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a hot and humid tropical paradise.
A Victorian-era glass greenhouse with more than 2,000 rare and exotic plants and flowers?! Whoa! Expect tons of biodiversity. Like the giant lily pad room and carnivorous plants. Oh — and the orchids; they’re beautiful! It really feels like you’re walking through a jungle at times! And if you don’t wanna pay, check out the grassy area outside – it’s typically filled with colorful flowers.
Being the oldest building in Golden Gate Park, the conservatory offers an up close and personal experience with plants you may not be able to find anywhere else in the world. During the summer, the conservatory even offers you the chance to lounge in a unique beer garden while surrounded by tropical wildlife (sounds like my kinda afternoon). Aptly named “Botanicals and Brews”! 🙂
Visiting at night during the holidays? Check out Night Bloom, the new(ish) light show in the conservatory (typically runs from late November to early January).
Dutch Windmill and Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden
- Cost: FREE!
Missed out on the blooms in Holland this year? Me too. Head on over to the Dutch Windmill instead! It’s honestly one of my favorite things to do in Golden Gate Park (and probably all of SF) in early springtime!
The tulips are in full bloom then (mid-late March), meaning it’s the best time to visit! A great place for photos and to just chill out on the grass for a bit. Hundreds, if not thousands, of delicate tulips take over the surrounding area and fill it with vivid color – it’s a sight that will leave you searching for tickets to Amsterdam’s Tulip Festival!
Not many know this, but the 75m tall windmill was originally used to pump water to nearby areas! It was constructed way back when in 1903, restored in 1981, and is now one of the best attractions in Golden Gate Park! And one of my all-time favorites.
It does get busy, busy, busy over here, so aim to visit mid-week and on the earlier side. If you have more time and wanna check out another, the Murphy Windmill is on the south end of the park (although it’s not as scenic).
Stow Lake, Huntington Falls, and Strawberry Hill
- Cost: FREE!
Go for a wander around Stow Lake! We love taking little Kona here for a walk (I bet he’d say it’s one of his favorite things to do in Golden Gate Park, haha). Although Stow Lake’s actually an artificial lake, you’d never be able to tell.
You can easily lose track of time and spend an afternoon discovering everything this lakey area has to offer: hike Strawberry Hill (the highest point in the park) and marvel at the impressive Huntington Falls (yup, there’s even a waterfall over here in the middle of the city), and relax at the Golden Gate Pavilion with a picnic (a Chinese temple-like structure given to SF as a gift from Taipei!).
Looking for something a bit more active? Rent a rowboat or paddle boat and get out onto the lake yourself! Just don’t fall in like I would → that waters cold! Best on a warm San Francisco day. Such a fun date idea if you’re crafting your San Francisco itinerary with your partner or bestie! Still on my SF bucket list!
- Cost: FREE!
Take a lap around Spreckels Lake (just watch out for all the geese poop)! It isn’t as well known as the super-popular Stow Lake, meaning it’s much more peaceful over here! There’s lots of ducks on the lake, and if you’re lucky, you’ll even see some turtles.
Since the SFMYC Boathouse is right here, you’ll sometimes see remote-controlled model boats sailing around. It’s always fun to watch a race!
And plus, it’s not far from the Bison Paddock, so definitely go check them out before or afterwards!
The Dahlia Garden
- Cost: FREE!
An entire garden celebrating dahlias, which just so happen to be San Francisco’s official flower? Hey now — did you know SF had its own flower?! Every dahlia is super unique and stunning → just like SF’s residents!
If you’re hoping to see these wild beauties, visit in the summer (they start blooming around June). A great spot for flower photos — there’s every color and variety imaginable over here! These flowers are such a treat!
Other Spots Not to Miss
- Cost: FREE!
Yup, there’s real-life bison living in Golden Gate Park. And no, they weren’t randomly placed here, haha. They were brought to San Francisco (here in GGP in particular) in the 1890’s when the species was close to extinction. And guess what they did? Repopulated! Over 100 calves were born in the captive breeding program over here. Woo!
To be honest, they’re pretty lazy and don’t move around much, so don’t expect a whole lotta action over here. But if you don’t wanna go to the zoo (I get it, I’m not a fan either), don’t miss the chance to say hi to the big, fluffy bison that hang around Golden Gate Park.
Mosaic staircase at the Koret Playground
- Cost: FREE!
If you’ve got no kids this will probably be a super quick stop, but don’t miss the mosaic staircase! I may or may not have a thing about fancy steps in the city → I even wrote a whole post dedicated to my favorite mosaic staircases in SF!
Interestingly enough, Koret’s Playground was actually the first public playground in the entire country! Today, there’s 5 playgrounds for the little ones to enjoy.
The SkyStar Observation Wheel
- Cost: $18 (General Admission, must buy tickets in advance)
A giant ferris wheel in the middle of the park? Why not?! It’s one of the newest things to do in Golden Gate Park!
Take a ride on the 150-foot wheel for unparalleled views of downtown SF all the way to the Pacific Ocean! You’ll be soaring 15 stories above Golden Gate Park!
The SkyStar Wheel was placed in the park to celebrate Golden Gate Park’s 150th anniversary (in 2020), and what fun it’s been! It was supposed to stay up until late March 2021, but it’s since been extended for at least another year, and possibly even 4 more years. So, lots of time to take advantage (although go sooner than later before everyone finds out about it).
Where is it? The amusement park ride is located in the Music Concourse, right between the deYoung Museum and the California Academy of Sciences.
Tours in/of Golden Gate Park
Segway Tour of Golden Gate Park: Ever wanted to roll around the park on a segway?! We did this tour with segway-loving friends once (seriously, they take segway tours in every city they visit), and had the best time! We got to see so many highlights of the park in a short amount of time, including the Japanese Tea Garden, the Music Concourse, the National Aids Memorial, the De Young Museum, Historic Carousel, and the Academy of Sciences.
Never ridden a segway before? Don’t fret → it’s super easy! You’ll get hands-on training with an instructor, go on a short test ride, and do a skills review. Honestly? It’s all very easy once you get the hang of it. SO much faster than walking everywhere, and you’ll get lots of interesting info about the park from your guide!
Golden Gate Park Bike & Skate: Don’t feel like walking? Rent a bike, in-line skates, or fun, old fashioned skates and roll around the park instead! Safety gear is also provided. You can even rent a super-fun surrey bike (one of those multi-person “bikes” with 4 wheels, kinda like an enlarged golf cart), or go on a self-guided bike tour!
Festivals in Golden Gate Park
Ohhhh, is San Francisco known for its festivals or what?! Some of SF’s largest festivals and events are held right here in Golden Gate Park every year. Here’s some of the most popular:
Dance the day away at Outside Lands: If you happen to be in the city during August, dancing until your feet are tired at this lively music festival is one of the best things to do in Golden Gate Park. Stars such as Childish Gambino, Twenty One Pilots, Hozier, Blink-182, and Kacey Musgraves have previously taken the stage and sent crowds wild.
So slap on your most eccentric clothing, sling on a bum bag (fanny pack), and fully immerse yourself in San Francisco festival culture – featuring a wide-ranging musical line-up, world-class art, mouth-watering food, and an intoxicating selection of wine.
Run the Bay to Breakers (or just walk part of it): Be sure to throw on some sneakers (or rainbow combat boots, whatever floats your boat), sport your zaniest costume, and get ready to run (although it’s more like one giant dance party than an actual run). Shield your eyes if you’re scared of a little skin, as many runners do their thang in their birthday suit (aka nothing).
The official race takes place once a year at the end of May, but even standing on the sidelines is one for the San Francisco bucket list, as you’ll see decked out unicorns, Elvis impersonators, giant dinosaurs, and every other embezzled costume item you can think of just float on by. The route goes directly through Golden Gate Park, so if you’re not expecting it, you’ll get a surprise dash of true SF culture.
Get your country on at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (HSB): Not a fan of the typical American pop and rock music that’s all over the Top 40? Hang out on the lawn at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for a day (or all three)!
It’s a non-commercial music festival held the first weekend of October, and one of the best free things to do in Golden Gate Park! I honestly can’t believe it’s 100% free to the public! HSB started all the way back in 2001, and features an eclectic lineup of country, soul folk, and more.
And better yet, it’s absolutely FREE! I can’t stress that enough, meaning it’ll undoubtedly be wildly crowded, but that just adds to the fun!
Where to eat in Golden Gate Park
There’s not too many places to eat within the park, but you’ll find the Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant, Twirl & Dip Soft Serve (the BEST on a hot day), and food trucks like Sam’s Chowder Mobile for lobster rolls and you guessed it – clam chowder (follow on Twitter for location updates). The museums also have cafes, but let’s face it, there’s much better spots to eat in San Francisco. 😉
Are you planning a visit to San Francisco soon?! Hope this gives you an idea of all the fun things to do in Golden Gate Park!