Gardens, glades, quiet lakes—Golden Gate Park is the emerald heart of San Francisco, a classic city park where everyone, from first-time visitors to go-every-weekend locals, finds something amazing to see or do. The park’s cultural hub is in its northeast corner, surrounding a broad concourse featuring fountains and a band shell. On the north side is the de Young Museum, showcasing a world-class collection of classic art from around the world. Take the elevator to the top of the museum’s eye-catching, asymmetric tower (admission to the tower is free) for a spectacular view of the whole park, as well as the city, bay, and Pacific Ocean.
Opposite the de Young is the equally impressive California Academy of Sciences, home to a planetarium, aquarium, living four-story rainforest, and natural history museum under an undulating living roof. It’s a quick stroll to the Japanese Tea Garden, always lovely but especially breathtaking in spring when cherry trees and azaleas bloom. Other treasures abound, easily discovered by bike (rentals are available along Stanyan and Haight Streets on the east side of the park; be sure to get a lock too). Stroll among the colorful plantings fronting the giant glasshouse that’s home to the Conservatory of Flowers, explore the botanic gardens (great for birds as well as plants), and look for the surprising herd of American bison in the park’s northwest end. Visitors can even go horseback riding, whether along the park’s broad trails (for those age eight and up, advance reservations required) or as part of the Little Ranchers program for aspiring riders as young as two.
If you’re not into cycling or strolling, there’s a free shuttle on weekends and major holidays, with stops throughout the park; if you are visiting by car, there are several areas where parking is available. However you travel, you’ll see locals everywhere—playing tennis, picnicking, jogging, and rowing across little Stow Lake. San Franciscans seriously love their park.
Insider tip: Going to the park with a particular activity in mind? The park’s collection of maps can show you where to picnic, see flowers, or play with your dog.