10 Best Parks in San Francisco
San Francisco packs thousands of streets into a compact area of only seven square miles. Although it's just a small city, San Francisco definitely has a busy urban feel. The city's parks provide a welcome escape from the street noise and congestion.
Many of the green spaces in San Francisco take advantage of the city's hilly topography, offering stunning views of the San Francisco skyline and bay. Other parks offer opportunities for relaxation and recreational activities, such as tennis and boating. Some of the parks, like Golden Gate Park, rank among the top tourist attractions of San Francisco.
Plan rejuvenating outings in the city's leafy surroundings with our list of the best parks in San Francisco.
1. Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park encompasses 1,017 acres, which makes it San Francisco's largest park. Landscape designer William Hammond Hall and gardener John McLauren transformed the area during the Victorian period, from 1870 to 1871.
Although the lush setting of lakes, wooded groves, and grassy fields looks natural, originally this space was covered with sand dunes. The park extends almost to the beach on its western end, which means that fog often floats in from the Pacific Ocean in the early morning and late afternoon.
Within this vast green space are many attractions, including unique gardens and museums. Thanks to the city's temperate climate, the gardens bloom throughout the year.
Some of the highlights of Golden Gate Park include the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden, which features over 8,000 different varieties of plants; the Conservatory of Flowers, a Victorian landmark that dates to 1879; the Shakespeare Garden, which is cultivated with flowers that are described in the Bard's works; and the Japanese Tea Garden, with its crescent-shaped bridge, ornate five-story-high pagoda, and teahouse serving traditional Japanese snacks.
Two noteworthy museums are found within Golden Gate Park: the California Academy of Sciences, a top attraction for youngsters (or anyone) curious about the natural world, and the de Young Museum, which displays a collection of American art and presents interesting exhibits.
Families with kids especially enjoy Golden Gate Park's Stow Lake, where rowboats and paddleboats are available for rent. Stow Lake also has a historic boathouse with a café that offers seasonal, organic sandwiches and salads for lunch, as well as pastries, ice cream, and refreshments.
In the middle of Stow Lake, Strawberry Hill is a great spot for bird-watching and picnics. Other good places to visit for picnicking in Golden Gate Park include Bunny Hill meadows; Pioneer East Meadow; and the shaded Sharon Meadow, which has picnic areas that you may reserve.
2. The Presidio
The Presidio covers 1,500 acres of protected land, an area that was used as a fort by Spanish colonists in the 18th century. Today, the Presidio is a national park, with hiking trails through the forest, picnic areas, two beautiful beaches, and scenic overlooks with views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
A highlight of the Presidio is Baker Beach, which is one of the top beaches in San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge provides a gorgeous backdrop for this pristine sandy beach nestled in a cove backed by cliffs and Monterey cypress trees.
Another beach in the Presidio is found at Crissy Field, an area that is popular for nature walks, biking, jogging, and bird-watching.
Well-designed to welcome visitors, the Presidio has two boutique hotels, as well as a campground. The highly rated Inn at the Presidio is a stylish hotel in a shaded corner of the Presidio forest. The Lodge at the Presidio is a historic hotel with views of the bay, the city, and the Presidio forest.
Families with kids will want to visit the Walt Disney Museum, located on the Presidio's Main Parade Lawn, and the House of Air trampoline park near Crissy Field.
3. Dolores Park
For a taste of San Francisco's social scene, head to Dolores Park in the sunny Mission District. This 16-acre open space is more of a place to relax and socialize than commune with nature. Most of the park is a grassy lawn, where locals spread out on blankets or folding chairs, enjoy picnics, or just hang out with friends.
Although Dolores Park is not elaborately landscaped, the scenery is unique to San Francisco. The park features rows of palm trees and sweeping views of the Financial District's skyscrapers in the distance.
Amenities at Dolores Park include public restrooms, tennis courts, a basketball court, and a children's playground.
Dolores Park is at the heart of the city's trendiest, most youthful neighborhood. Nearby Valencia Street is packed with trendy gourmet restaurants, and the block of 18th Street near the park between Dolores and Guerrero Streets has several foodie destinations: Bi-Rite Market, a gourmet grocery store with a deli; Bi-Rite Creamery, which makes ice cream from locally sourced ingredients; and Tartine Bakery, a locals' favorite (expect a line on weekends), which sells delicious French pastries and sandwiches.
4. Washington Square
Tourists enjoy taking a break from sightseeing at Washington Square in North Beach (Little Italy). Locals can also be spotted lounging on the grass or playing Frisbee.
This small tree-shaded park is a peaceful haven in the center of the city. Nearby is the happening Columbus Avenue, lined with busy Italian restaurants and sidewalk cafés. Since the park is right in North Beach, it's a good place to begin a walking tour of San Francisco.
The park affords views of Coit Tower in the distance and Saints Peter & Paul Church across the street, where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio had their wedding photos taken.
Throughout the year, Washington Square hosts cultural events, festivals, and movie nights.
5. Pioneer Park
Accessed by steep pedestrian staircases on Telegraph Hill, this densely wooded park affords stunning views of the San Francisco cityscape and bay.
The main attraction of this park is Coit Tower, a landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places that was built in 1933. The interior features Depression-era murals on the ground floor and breathtaking panoramic views from the top.
The five-acre park has walking trails that wind around Coit Tower and down the picturesque forested slopes.
Pioneer Park is also home to the famous wild parrots of Telegraph Hill.
6. Ina Coolbrith Park
For views of San Francisco Bay, it's hard to beat the panoramas at Ina Coolbrith Park. This little hidden gem is tucked away on a hillside in the upscale Russian Hill neighborhood above North Beach (Little Italy), and requires walking up steep stairways and paths.
The tiny Ina Coolbrith Park is really just gardens surrounding a two-part pedestrian staircase that allows access through Vallejo Street between Taylor and Mason Streets.
Benches are well placed along the paths and at the top of the park, where visitors can take in the awe-inspiring vistas of San Francisco's skyline with the Transamerica Pyramid at its center. The vantage point also looks out toward Alcatraz and Coit Tower, as well as the Bay Bridge in the distance.
7. Alamo Square
Tourists visit Alamo Square for the famous view of the "Painted Ladies," the ornate pastel-hued Victorian houses that are often pictured in postcards and were used as a set for the Full House sitcom, as well as other television and film productions. This grouping of houses, also known as "Postcard Row," look fabulous in photos taken from the Alamo Square park.
Besides its appeal for photo-ops, Alamo Square offers spacious lawns, walking paths, a tennis court, a children's playground, and a shady picnic area. Alamo Square park also has public restrooms.
8. Huntington Park
San Francisco's most elegant park is found in the chic Nob Hill neighborhood. Surrounded by classy historic hotels and facing the Gothic-style Grace Cathedral, Huntington Park has an old-world European feel with its formal landscaping and elaborate fountain. The trees are pruned in the same (pollarded) manner found in Parisian parks, while the fountain is a replica of the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of Turtles) in Rome.
Locals often take advantage of the benches placed throughout the park to relax on sunny days. Other amenities include lawn space, a children's playground, and a drinking fountain.
9. Buena Vista Park
Established in 1867, Buena Vista Park was the first park created in San Francisco. Today, this densely wooded green space is a popular spot for residents of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to relax, take walks, and appreciate the natural environment. The park sits within an expansive wild forest of coast live oak trees.
Amenities include park benches, walking trails, a children's playground, and two tennis courts. Because Buena Vista Park is perched on a hilltop, the views are spectacular. Visitors can admire panoramas of the San Francisco cityscape, as well as glimpses of the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge.
10. Yerba Buena Gardens
In San Francisco's Financial District, Yerba Buena Gardens is a popular spot for locals to take a quick lunch break during the week, or have leisurely picnics on the weekends. Tall leafy trees shade the park's spacious lawns, which makes it a pleasant place to relax.
While walking around the gardens, be sure to see the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. This inspiring memorial features a manmade waterfall and plaques inscribed with quotes by Dr. King.
This park is located next to the Metreon shopping mall, which has a food court for grabbing to-go meals. For those who have more time, there are several excellent restaurants (Tropisueño, Delarosa, Amber India) across the street on Yerba Buena Lane and a gourmet pizza place (where the Detroit-style, thick-crust pizzas feature local ingredients) within the gardens.
Yerba Buena Gardens also hosts cultural events and has a theater, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Steps away from Yerba Buena Gardens is the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Mission Street and the SFMOMA (SF Museum of Modern Art) on Third Street.
The Children's Creativity Museum, with its old-fashioned carousel (dating to 1906), is found kitty-corner to the Yerba Buena Gardens at Fourth Street.