For a city that’s less than 50 square miles in size, San Francisco has a surprising amount of space dedicated to public parks. In addition to the amazing pleasures you’ll find in the famous Golden Gate Park, you can discover treasures in parks here ranging from remote hiking areas to tiny temporary parklets. This itinerary offers you the opportunity to explore all of these gems in a one-week parks-oriented vacation in San Francisco.
Sunday: Golden Gate Park
Start your week with a visit to the famous Golden Gate Park. With tons to see, you’ll get a good start to your trip when you begin it with a full day spent here. It offers museums, indoor and outdoor gardens, windmills, sports centers and more. And of course it also offers plenty of regular park space to just walk around and enjoy.
A day spent in Golden Gate Park gives you the opportunity to check many of the city’s top attractions off of your list. Those include the California Academy of Sciences, De Young Museum, the local Botanical Gardens and aroboretum, the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Gardens.
Would you rather explore the parts of the park that are a bit more off-the-beaten-path? The bison paddock, the AIDS Memorial Grove and The South Windmill are all great less-traveled spots in this park. Learn more about all of these places and other options from our main article on Golden Gate Park:.
Here are five top tips for your day at Golden Gate Park
- Plan ahead. There is a lot to see in this park and you can’t actually get it all done in one day.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes. The park is more than 1000 acres in size and stretches across about forty blocks of the city so you will be getting your exercise as you explore!
- Consider alternative transportation. Check out San Francisco bike rentals in the park.
- Dress in layers. The temperatures will vary throughout the day and can change from one part of the park to another. Bring a sweater or jacket.
- Print out a Golden Gate Park map to take with you. The park has maps here and there but they aren’t regularly posted or easy to find so it’s smart to have one with you if you aren’t familiar with the layout of the park.
Monday: The Parks of the Mission
Every neighborhood in San Francisco seems to have at least one park to its name but The Mission is a special place when it comes to parks. This neighborhood offers a range of parks from the popular large Dolores Park to the small parklets lining busy streets. A day spent exploring the parks of The Mission will give you a lot of insight into not only the neighborhood but the city’s whole breadth of park styles.
Start your day Dolores Park. This park, located between 18th and 20th Streets and between Dolores and Church Streets, sits right on the border between The Mission and The Castro neighborhoods. It is usually one of the sunniest spots in the city and so it’s a great place to get out and enjoy a nice day in San Francisco. With stunning views of the city skyline it’s great for visitors as well as locals.
Some of the things that you might enjoy at Dolores Park:
- A relatively new and impressive children’s playground
- Courts for tennis and basketball
- Soccer field
- Ample space for picnics, Frisbee games and other park activities
- Various seasonal and holiday activities; check out the festivities on Easter Day for example
In addition to visiting Dolores Park, some of the other parks to check out in The Mission include:
- 24th St Mini Park. Mini parks are popular in San Francisco. They turn abandoned corners into beautiful little spots where kids can play. This mini-park, found at the corner of 24th and York, has bouncy rubber floors under the kids’ play area for safety. It also features beautiful local artwork including a mosaic snake sculpture called Quetzalcoatl.
- Fallen Bridge Mini-Park. Here’s another mini-park option and one with an interesting history dating back to the 1970s. Find it under the freeway at 18th and Utah.
- Garfield Square Park. This San Francisco park is home to a clubhouse with a pool, which is pretty rare here in San Francisco. It also has areas for barbecuing, which makes it popular for various celebrations. It is particularly known for Day of the Dead celebrations.
- Franklin Square Park. Located at 16th and Bryant, this 5-acre park has been designed with kids of all ages in mind. It is home to one of the favorite playgrounds in the city and is also a popular spot for playing soccer.
- Jose Coronado Playground. If you’re looking for a place to play sports then check out this small park, which has blacktop soccer and baseball as well as a basketball court and tennis court. Plus there is the playground of course. It’s locate dat Folsom and 21st.
- Parque Ninos Unidos. Want to check out a newer park in The Mission? Parque Ninos Unidos at 23rd St and Treat was recently built with a clubhouse, lawns, gazebos, a community gardening and a gated-and-fenced play area.
- Seward Street Slides. Not just for kids! Bring a piece of loose cardboard to slide down these concrete slides in the tiny tree-lined park located at the corner of Seward St. and Douglass St. Technically this is in Castro neighborhood but it’s close enough to make it park of your Mission parks day.
- La Raza Skatepark. This urban skatepark is located at 25th and Utah. It’s a great spot if you love skateboarding. Kids are welcome but parents be forewarned that this area can get a little sketchy so you’ll want to stay and supervise your kids there just in case.
- Parklets. San Francisco recently implemented a program called Pavement to Parks, which turns small areas right on main streets into little public parks. They’re located next to businesses but are open for anyone to use, no purchases necessary. Each parklet has a different style to it so it’s fun to find as many as you can. Many of them are located in The Mission; just walk down Valencia Street to start finding them.
Tuesday: Hiking Day
Put your hiking shoes on for the day, enjoy some exercise and experience some history all while enjoying beautiful ocean views!
Start your day by heading out to Ocean Beach, one of San Francisco’s best beaches. Located at the West end of this beach you’ll find The Cliff House restaurant alongside the historic Sutro Baths Ruins. Take a moment to soak in the beauty of the ocean waves crashing against the shore there as you get ready for your hike.
Before you start hiking, check out Sutro Heights Park. This 22-acre park was the home of Adolf Sutro for whom the baths were named. It has views of the historic Cliff House and the ocean. It once had beautiful gardens and statues. It’s no longer the monument it used to be but is still a great park to visit while you’re in the area. From here, head over to the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center on Point Lobos Avenue, a new visitor’s center with lots of information to help you along your trek.
Ready to hike? Head West on the Lands End trail, where you’ll have the chance to continue enjoying stunning ocean views. Keep your eye out for things bobbing in the water. If they’re moving, then they’re probably sea lions (although dolphins and sharks can also occasionally be spotted here). If they seem to be staying in one place then you might be looking at the buried remnants of the many ships that wrecked along the coast long ago.
As you walk you’ll come across the USS San Francisco Memorial. Stop here to see the statue and learn a little bit about the history here. You can detour off of Lands End Trail if you’d like and do a loop to Eagle Point Labyrinth, for some unique views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The loop will take you right back to Lands End Trail and you can continue on. At this point you’ll be located close to the Legion of Honor Museum so you might want to stop there. Even if you decide not to check out the art at the museum, it’s worth it to see the architecture of the building. Then you can continue on Lands End Trail all the way to its Western End, which is Eagles Point. When you get here you’ll be at approximately 33rd Avenue and Lincoln Highway.
If you’re ready to keep walking your next stop will be China Beach Park. This is a small park set in a cove. It has beach access and areas for picnics, making it a great place to have lunch. From here you can walk along the coast to Baker Beach. Be forewarned that a portion of this beach is considered clothing-optional.
Now that you’re at Baker Beach, you’re officially on the edge of The Presidio. There is a lot of beautiful parkland to enjoy here but you probably won’t have enough time to do it all today. For this part of the hiking trek we recommend sticking to the coast or walking along Lincoln Boulevard towards the Golden Gate Bridge. Check out Historic Foint Point. Enjoy the Golden Gate Bridge visitor’s center. If you aren’t completely exhausted by this time, you can finish your hike with an ambitious walk across The Golden Gate Bridge. When you get to the other side you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of the San Francisco city skyline. Enjoy!
Wednesday: Presidio and Maritime National Historical Park
Since you started to see The Presidio yesterday but barely got a glimpse of it on your hike let’s give it a little bit more time and attention. This home to historic army barracks is filled with trees and other beautiful nature that a park lover will enjoy. Some of the things that you will want to check out during your trek through this neighborhood include:
The Presidio has about 25 miles of hiking trails; the visitors’ center can point you in the right direction. If you’re dealing with bad weather and want to be indoors, The Presidio has some good options for you to consider. If you still want to be active check out the rock climbing gym or House of Air, located next to each other. If you’re feeling a little less active, enjoy a visit to The Walt Disney Museum. Just outside of the Presidio you’ll find The Palace of Fine Arts, offering beautiful sculptural architecture and a grassy area surrounding a lake.
If you’re up for some more hiking then a nice choice is to walk along Marina Blvd. This will take you past Marina Green and Fort Mason, through more beautiful coastal parklands all the way towards Ghirardelli Square. You can spend the rest of your day in this spot rich in tourist attractions including Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. While you’re in this area, you’ll also want to check out Maritime National Historical Park. See the historic ships here, at Hyde Street Pier and at the USS Pampanito Submarine Museum.
Thursday: Back to Nature
There are several parks located inside of San Francisco city limits that you feel remote. It’s as though you’ve truly gone into nature even though you can easily get to them using public transportation. Enjoy one or more of these parks today.
- Mount Davidson. San Francisco is a city of hills and this one doesn’t seem too special at first glance but it holds some secrets. First of all, it’s the highest natural point in San Francisco. Second, it’s located really close to the geographical center of the city, affording some great 360-degree views. And finally, it is home to a massive 100+-foot-tall historic cross; you have to see it to believe it. There are short hiking trails here.
- Glen Canyon Park. This 70-acre city park has everything you could want from playgrounds and rec centers on the edges to the more remote internal trails loved by hikers as well as rock climbers. A popular feature is Islais Creek, which flows for about a mile through the canyon. Keep your eyes out for hawks, coyotes and other wildlife here.
- Twin Peaks. These two peaks, located not far from Mount Davidson, offer a popular opportunity to see great views of the city. Other than the tourist traffic, this place feels remote because you’re so high up away from the bustle down below. Be aware that even on a nice day it’s going to be terrifically windy up here!
- Mt. Sutro Open Space Preserve. This is a 60+ acre undeveloped hilly area owned by UCSF and located near the center of the city. It Is open to the public and is home to the beautiful Sutro Forest, made up mostly of eucalyptus trees. You can enjoy hiking and biking trails here. You might also want to check out the Rotary Meadow, a garden of native plants that also has a view of the forest.
Of course if you actually do want to get out of the city and into nature you could also do a day trip to surrounding Bay Area parks. Muir Woods in the North Bay, Tilden Park in Berkeley and Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the South Bay are all great day trips.
Friday: Parks that Locals Love
Getting tired yet? Today’s a good day to enjoy some of the city’s smaller parks besides those that you’ve already visited in The Mission. Every neighborhood has a park to love so you have a lot of different options. Here are some of your choices:
- Take the City Guides SF Public Walking Tour called City Scapes and Public Places. It’s offered free most Fridays and gives you a chance to explore the Financial District’s hidden public parks and rooftop gardens.
- Do a tour of the city’s waterfront parks. Explore the parks located along the South Bay of the city. You can start anywhere along The Embarcadero and head south towards AT&T Park until you reach approximately Pier 90. Some of the parks you’ll find along the water include Bay Front Park, Warm Water Cove Park, Heron’s Head Park and India Basin Shoreline Park. From here you can head to Candlestick Point, a waterfront park in the Bayview neighborhood. This neighborhood is up-and-coming and can be considered sketchy so keep your eyes open but the park is a popular State Recreation Area.
- Pac Heights Parks. The Pacific Heights neighborhood is bordered by Van Ness and Lyon Streets and Green and California Streets. If you add in the lower Pacific Heights neighborhood it stretches down to Geary Street. This neighborhood is one of the neighborhoods rich in unique city parks including parks popular with families and dogs. Check out Lafayette Park and Alta Plaza Park, which are both large parks that have terrific views of the Bay (and sometimes even Alcatraz and The Golden Gate Bridge). You may also want to visit Allyne Park (a small corner park with beautiful plant life), Hamtilon Rec Center (which has a playground, pool, soccer fields and library), Cottage Row mini-park (bordered by historic houses pre-dating the 1906 earthquake) and Raymond Kimbell Playground / Park. If you’re visiting this neighborhood it’s also worth it to hike the Lyon Street Steps, a plant-lined staircase at Lyon and Broadway with beautiful views.
- Washington Square Park. This is a popular neighborhood park in the North Beach neighborhood. It’s located right next to St. Peter and Paul Church, made famous in part because it’s where Marilyn Monroe took her wedding photographs when she married Joe DiMaggio. This park is frequently home to music festivals during the summer months. On any given day it’s a great place to take some gelato, a picnic blanket and a good book.
Saturday: The Catch-All Day
What do you feel like you’ve missed even after six days rich in San Francisco Park explorations? There remain many options for you to check out on your last day in the city. Here are some top choices:
- Stern Grove. Many locals know about this beautiful 30+-acre park because of the popular free summer concerts held here each year. It’s a great park all year round, though, with lovely trees, a dog park section, playgrounds, places to play sports and more. It is home to Pine Lake.
- Lincoln Park. You’ve actually already seen this park if you’ve been following this itinerary but there’s more to see than what you might have noticed the first time around. This is a 100-acre park located off of Lands End and is the home to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. It is also home to an 18-hole San Francisco golf course. Check out the Children’s Theatre Association, the small playground area and The Holocaust Memorial as well.
- Corona Heights, Buena Vista and The Panhandle. Take the MUNI to the Castro Street Station and you’ll find yourself right near Corona Heights Park. This park has huge views atop an earthy hill. From here make a stop at Buena Vista Park, the oldest official park in the city. Then you can head to the popular Panhandle, a stretch of park area located between Fell and Oak Street near Masonic.
- Pioneer Park. Many locals don’t actually know that this is the name of the park at the top of Telegraph Hill. It is a small park but it’s rich in things to see. It is home to Coit Tower. Enter for free to see the historic murals made during the WPA era. For a small fee you can go to the top of the tower and enjoy terrific hilltop views. Surrounding the tower you’ll find historic statues and a small grassy area. From here you may want to walk down the Filbert Steps, which trek past many historic homes filled with wild outdoor gardens. Keep your ears open; this park is home to the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.
Enjoy your week of back-to-back park visits when you follow this week-long itinerary. Alternatively, bookmark it and use it as a guide whenever you get in the mood to check out another local park. San Francisco is rich with them.