SAN FRANCISCO’s BEST ●Attractions●Parks/Zoo
Golden Gate Park
Bounded by Fulton St., Stanyan St., Lincoln Way, & Great Highway. Free.
Getting here by public transportation: From Union Square area/Powell St., take the N-Judah streetcar that runs down Judah Street and get off at 8th Avenue.
One of the world’s great metropolitan parks, Golden Gate Park encompasses 1,017 acres. It is nearly 200 acres larger than Manhattan’s Central Park, after which it was patterned originally. Once just sand dunes, it is now one of the largest man-made parks in the world. Miles of trails wind through the park, and on Sundays many roads are closed to automobile traffic.
image courtesy of venue
●Comedy Day August-October, date varies. Free. At Robin Williams Meadow. Just bring a blanket, a picnic, and a smile. Laughs are provided by national headliners and local professional comedians, who in the past have ranged from upstarts--who just naturally seem to try harder--to such established luminaries as the late Robin Williams (he performed at the first Comedy Day and helped financially to keep it going later), Bob Goldthwait, and Father Guido Sarducci. This celebration of stand-up is the longest-running free outdoor comedy concert in the world. Robin Williams Meadow, formerly known as Sharon Meadow, is a wide, grassy lawn at the east end of park.
The uphill extension became known (and is still known) as Hippie Hill in the ‘60s.
●Opera in the Park September. Free. Designed to make opera accessible to everyone, this event is a great way for reluctant listeners to give this art form a try.
Band Concourse April-October; Sundays at 1. Free. Formed in 1882, the 30-piece Golden Gate Park Band is heavy on brass and woodwind instruments and is the oldest continuously operating municipal band in the U.S. Bring a picnic. The bandstand is situated across from the Academy of Sciences.
Beach Chalet visitor center Here you’ll see natural history exhibits as well as the Beach Chalet’s colorful restored WPA wall frescoes depicting life in San Francisco during the Depression. The Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant operates on the second floor.
Biking/Skating On Sundays, part of John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to automobiles. Car traffic is replaced with bikers, skaters, and pedestrians. Skate and bike rentals are available at shops along Stanyan and Fulton streets.
Buffalo Paddock At W end of Kennedy Dr., W of 36th Ave., across from Anglers Lodge. Free. Bison have lived here since the 1880s, when the park was a free-range zoo (elk, goats, and bears lived here then, too). Foreign visitors seem particularly impressed with viewing this small herd of authentic bison. Technically buffalo and bison are not the same animal. And it is bison, not buffalo, that are displayed here. Bison are native to the U.S. and are different than buffalo physically in that they have humps on their backs and bigger heads. Buffalo are native to Asia and Africa and have bigger horns than bison.
California Academy of Sciences
image courtesy of venue
Conservatory of Flowers 100 John F. Kennedy Dr. Fee. No pets. This impressive and rare example of Victorian prefabricated architecture was erected here in 1879. It is a tropical greenhouse with a central dome flanked by two wings, and it is the oldest remaining building in the park and the oldest surviving municipal wood-and-glass conservatory in the U.S. Its oldest and largest plant--a 35-foot-tall imperial philodendron from southeastern Brazil--has been displayed in the dome since 1901. Other noteworthy specimens include primitive cycads from the dinosaur era, a collection of 2,500 rare cool-growing orchids that are found in few other botanical gardens, and two ponds featuring giant Amazon water lilies that were displayed first in the U.S. here. A living butterfly exhibit is held November through June. A chrysalis display allows watching the metamorphosis process, and then enjoying their 3-day lifespan with them as they flit around in a small cottage garden setting. Outside, giant flowerbeds are tilted at a 45-degree angle so that their floral messages can be seen from the street. Known as “carpet bedding,” this old European gardening technique is costly and time-consuming and now almost extinct.
The Dahlia Dell is adjacent on the south end. The dahlia is San Francisco’s official flower. Someone has described the dinner-plate-size flowers as “living fireworks.” Bloom is best in August and September. Free.
de Young museum
Japanese Tea Garden and Teahouse Next to de Young museum. Fee. A stroll through this garden is pleasurable at any time of day, any time of year, and in almost any kind of weather. Climb the steep arch of the “wishing bridge” (actually a drum bridge), make a wish, and drop a coin in the pond below. Then climb the steep steps leading to a miniature red pagoda, look for an undulating dragon hedge nearby, and see if you can find what is the oldest dwarf black pine in the world. Allow time to stroll the winding paths, which are plentiful because the Japanese believe that evil travels in a straight line. A spectacular display occurs annually during the last week of March, when the cherry blossoms bloom.
image courtesy San Francisco Recreation & Park Dept
You’ll want to stop for refreshment at the inviting open-air stone tea house, where tea and Asian cookies are delivered by waitresses clad in traditional Japanese kimonos (order at the counter). It is pleasant and relaxing to observe nature while leisurely sipping jasmine or green tea and munching on exotic cookies. An interesting note: Makoto Hagiwara, who designed the garden in 1893 for the Mid-Winter Exposition, is credited with inventing the fortune cookie in America in 1909 and introducing it here in 1914. Another story has it that a Japanese shop in Japantown, Benkyodo, made traditional temple sweets for the park’s tea house and that Chinese Americans took over production during World War II.
Koret Children’s Quarter 320 Bowling Green Dr., betw. King & Kennedy drives, E of California Academy of Sciences. Free. Opened in 1888, this was the very first public playground in a U.S. park. Today it is equipped with creative modern play structures.
image courtesy of San Francisco Visitors Bureau
Located adjacent, an antique carousel makes its rounds within a protective hippodrome enclosure. Built in 1914 by Herschel-Spillman and originally powered by steam, it has 62 beautifully painted hand-carved animals--among them lions, tigers, and bears, as well as frogs, a dragon, a camel, a giraffe, and a chicken--plus its original Gebruder band organ. Fee.
San Francisco Botanical Garden Entrance adjoins San Francisco County Fair Bldg. Fee. Known for its magnolia and rhododendron collections, this 55-acre garden opened in 1940 and now displays more than 8,000 plant species—330 of which are extinct or endangered in the wild. Many are unique to this climate, and most are labeled. Noteworthy among the 24 specialty gardens are the Japanese-style Moon-viewing Garden, the Arthur Menzies Garden of California Native Plants, the Redwood Trail with its mature second-growth redwoods grove, the Garden of Fragrance, the Meso-American Cloud Forest, and the Primitive Plant Garden.
Many garden events take place in the adjacent San Francisco County Fair Building. The Mother’s Day Rose Show displays a splendid variety of climbing, miniature, and old roses. It is the largest such show in Northern California, and cuttings perfect for presenting to Mom are for sale.
Shakespeare Garden Behind California Academy of Sciences. Free. This formal, manicured garden is planted with the 150 flowers mentioned in William’s plays. An attractive wrought-iron archway marks the entrance, where a brick pathway bordered by crabapple trees leads into the garden. Benches and grassy expanses invite lingering.
Stow Lake Boathouse A boat on Stow Lake, the largest of the park’s 11 lakes, makes both an unusual, and memorable, picnic spot. Find a pleasant cove with little water movement, and then be careful about tossing bread to the ducks and seagulls because they can sink a boat with their enthusiasm. Though the water is shallow and it’s not possible to get far from shore, it is comforting to know that cushions in the boats double as life preservers. Life vests are also available upon request at no additional charge. Because boats are often wet inside, consider bringing along a blanket to sit on. A Cafe here serves fast foods such as hamburgers and hot dogs as well as cold beer and hot espresso drinks. Picnicking is nice on manmade Strawberry Hill island, where you can also get up close to Huntington Falls.
image courtesy of venue
●Dutch Windmill In NW corner of park. Completed in 1903, this 75-foot-high Dutch-made windmill once pumped up well water to irrigate the park. In February and March, the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden bursts forth in riotous color with more than 10,000 tulip bulbs.
●Murphy Windmill In SW corner of park. Built in 1905, this 6-story windmill is among the tallest in the world. It also pumped water throughout the park until the 1950s. Restoration began in 2002, and in 2011 it was recapped with a special steel dome weighing 64 tons.