12 fantastic things to do in Golden Gate Park

San Francisco, or the “Golden City”, has earned its reputation as the Golden Gate Bridge with golden sunsets and golden hills as the sun reflects off the mountains. But I was there in “Fogust” for a house-sitting concert, so the mist spread occasionally obstructed the view.

I was taking the BART around town on a regular basis to fill up on the city life and see what life was like out of the fog, and at that point, I stumbled upon Golden Gate Park. Surprisingly lax in its view of the Golden Gate Bridge, I was in awe of the number of glorious things there was to do, from delicious to sublime. Here are my top picks.

Advice: There is a Muni Metro light rail train under construction that crosses further east-west as Bart crosses the city further north-south. But I was in the mood to explore, so I walked from the Civic Center / UN Plaza stop past City Hall, to Painted Ladies and Alamo Park, then to the vast Golden Gate Park. From the Panhandle, the park begins as a lightly wooded area with a cycle path and central play areas through to the more wooded and populated planned entertainment sections.

William Hammond Hall designed and landscaped Golden Gate Park to be “… an urban pastoral retreat, a semblance of nature”. This park is 3.5 miles long and has everything from playgrounds and lakes to museums, two windmills, an AIDS garden, and a large stretch of beach. You could spend a whole day in one of these places.

1. Oak forests

I entered through the Oak Woodlands from Kathleen’s Corner on Fulton and Stanyan streets. These woodlands exist on the remnants of the largest inland sand dune system on the entire west coast. Almost 2 miles of trails wind through the Oak Woods and connect to Golden Gate Park’s extensive trail system and the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Many of these paths are paved and would be fine for a person in a wheelchair with an attendant, as the hills are too steep to push you.

Following the earthquake of 1906, these trees were cut down for firewood in homeless settlements, but grew back into the grove that exists today. I was impressed with the soundproofing properties provided by the grove. It was difficult to hear traffic within 100 yards of the park. Most of the time, it’s a peaceful place to let go of everyday fatigue and build enthusiasm for what’s to come.

Pro tip: Bring a picnic basket. There are few dining options in the park.

2. Children’s play area

In the children’s district of Koret, the playground opened in 1888 and is said to have been the country’s first public playground. The Sharon Building, designed for indoor play in bad weather, is now home to the Sharon Art Studio, where children and adults can take art classes.

The Herschel-Spillman Carousel, built in 1914 and installed in Golden Gate Park in 1940, contains 62 colorful animals, including horses, frogs, dogs, roosters, pigs, a dragon, a camel and a goat. If you’re not too busy greeting your family outside the carousel, you can examine the interior panels depicting the bay scenery. This carousel is the highlight of most of the Park’s children’s memories.

Gail Clifford

3. The Conservatory of Flowers and the Water Lily Pond

California’s first municipal greenhouse, completed in 1879, the Conservatory of Flowers was inspired by Kew Gardens in England. Simple glass units have been assembled in this late Victorian-style building with flower arrangements fashioned into clocks and sprawling gardens with informative panels for the budding botanist.

The water lily pond, just in front of the conservatory, reminds me of Monet’s paintings, except for a small fountain to keep the water dynamic. It is a peaceful place to relax, read, paint or meditate.

National AIDS Memorial Grove, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.
Gail Clifford

4. The National AIDS Memorial Grove

While healthcare in the 1980s was shaped by the mysterious human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and subsequently AIDS, too many people were castigated by prejudice and fear. As more was learned about the disease, greater acceptance and tolerance may have developed. This grove has become the National AIDS Memorial as a reminder to unite to continue to advance against this deadly epidemic and the value of every human life affected.

As you descend the stairs to a pasture the size of a football field, there are circles filled with the names of AIDS victims and stones where you can think thoughtfully about what it means to be here and how far we’ve come, but how far we still have to go in both medicine and compassion.

The Ferris Wheel at the Music Competition, Golden Gate Park.
The Musical Hall Ferris Wheel (Photo credit: Gail Clifford)

5. The music competition

In the center of the “Museum Quarter,” which includes the DeYoung Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, the Music Concourse was established for the Mid-Winter Fair of 1894. The (current) Spreckels Music Temple or Kiosk à musique ”is a popular place to hold musical performances with free concerts given regularly on Sundays from April to October by the Golden Gate Park Band.

Directly in front of the bandstand, in front of three fountains and low-level plantations, the Ferris wheel rises above, providing an aerial view and more family fun. You can create your own photo scavenger hunt: split into teams and look for statues of Verdi, Beethoven, Ulysses S. Grant, a Roman gladiator and a pirate nearby.

In the center of the enchanting pool near the entrance to the DeYoung Museum, find a young boy playing the flute and two California mountain lions.

Japanese tea garden, Golden Gate Park.
Gail Clifford

6. Japanese tea garden

Walking into this Japanese tea garden is a lot like one at Disney World. Originally built for the California Midwinter International Exposition in 1894, this is one of the most popular tourist stops. Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant and gardener, and his descendants were great stewards and keepers of the garden, importing many plants, birds and koi fish from Japan until their internment in camps during World War II.

The soothing sounds of an azalea-covered waterfall help every step of the way to relaxation. The smell of wisteria hangs in the air. Stop for tea and enjoy the delicacies of the taste buds to awaken all your senses. And, of course, the view. It seems unlikely, but the views of everything from bonsai and other plants to wandering trails, sculptures and religiously inspired structures are both overwhelming and heartwarming.

7. San Francisco Botanical Garden

This 55-acre living museum, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, takes the urban oasis of the Golden Gate to the next level. San Francisco’s climate provides ideal growing conditions for plants in Mediterranean and mild temperate climates. The specialized collections range from the garden of ancient plants to the cloud forest of Southeast Asia.

8. Mallard Lake

Deeper in the park, I found Mallard Lake. Watching children throw bread to a group of hungry ducks never gets old. This mess of mallards flocked to the girls by the lake for their after-school outing.

9. Polo field

The polo fields were used for children’s football the day I was there. A cycle path makes it versatile. Outside, the terrain is a great walking trail with stretching and exercise stations. Even though I did my 25K steps for the day, I couldn’t resist the first few stations.

10. Murphy's Beach Cabin and Windmill football fields, Golden Gate Park.
Gail Clifford

10. Murphy’s Beach Cabin and Windmill Football Fields

More football was on the agenda today at the Beach Chalet soccer fields with the Murphy Windmill towering over the kids and vigilant coaches.

Originally the largest windmill of its kind, the copper windmill sails became mechanized and the dome was restored in the Netherlands in early 2000.

The Murphy’s Windmill (aka the Southern Windmill) was built after the Dutch Windmill became a tourist hit

11. Dutch windmill

The 75 foot Dutch Windmill (aka the Northern Windmill) is quite easy to see from a distance, either from the park or from the beach. Spotting the two windmills together looks unusual in an American urban setting. Still, that’s part of the charm. To actually reach the Dutch windmill, it takes a bit of effort. Walk behind the Beach Chalet Visitor Center and go up the hill to reach the base.

Pro tip: Enter from the east side rather than the southwest, and admire the structure through the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden.

Apparently there are paintings housed in the Dutch Windmill, but the gallery is not suitable for visitors until major repairs have taken place. Viewing up close, even in poor condition, allows the imagination to roll back to 1902 when it was first built to pump water. Its four sails are considered the longest in the world.

12. Ocean beach

A fantastic end to a spectacular walk. I sit and watch the waves crash against the shore, families playing, couples walking, and admire the splendor of nature and consider all that I have seen in one day, but others explore a lifetime.

For a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, head north to the beach, past Cliff House. At the ruins of the Sutro Saltwater Baths, climb up and you’ll find a beautiful cypress-framed view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I am already looking forward to a return visit!

San Francisco is a city begging to be explored. To verify:

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