Day Out in Golden Gate Park

July 1, 2012

Golden Gate Park CarouselJust across its namesake bridge from Marin County lies a perfect day-trip destination for familes: San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. This urban oasis boasts over 1,000 acres of forests, meadows, lakes, gardens, museums, playgrounds, and other attractions. There's so much to do here that you'll probably want to visit several times to take it all in.

Established in the 1870s, Golden Gate Park stretches from Ocean Beach in the west to the city's Haight-Ashbury district in the east, and is bordered by the Sunset and Richmond districts on the south and north, respectively. Whether your family wants to play at an historic playground, visit the penguins at the Cal Academy, take in some art at a world-class museum, or have lunch with a view of the Pacific Ocean, there's something for you to do here.

Museums and Attractions in the Park

Perhaps the best place to start your visit to Golden Gate Park is in the park's Music Concourse area—it's centrally located, easy to get to, and packs a lot of things to see and do into a relatively compact area. First and foremost, here you'll find the Music Concourse, with the Spreckels Temple of Music—otherwise known as the Band Shell, neat rows of distinctive pollarded trees, plenty of park benches, and three fountains. It's a great place to let kids run and play, relax, and maybe even take in some music from the Golden Gate Park Band, which has been performing there on Sundays since 1882.

The California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate ParkJapanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

Flanking the Music Concourse are two of California's most prominent museums, as well as a number of other family friendly attractions.

  • Visit the de Young Museum for rotating special exhibitions and a stellar collection of American art and art of the native Americas, Africa, and the Pacific Islands, as well as the view from its ninth-floor tower observation deck. General admission is always free for kids under 12, and many parts of the museum, including the tower, can be accessed for free, too.
  • The California Academy of Sciences (AKA the Cal Academy), features fantastic science education exhibits, a planetarium, and the Steinhart Aquarium. Don't miss the tropical rainforest exhibit with its free-roaming birds and butterflies, the living roof planted with native California vegetation, and the monthly Penguins + Pajamas sleepovers.
  • The Japanese Tea Garden offers five acres of serene traditional Japanese landscaping, complete with ponds, streams, gardens, and buildings. Take a break at the tea house for a pot of green tea and Japanese snacks and browse authentic Japanese souvenirs in their gift shop. Read about our visit here.
  • The Conservatory of Flowers, a landmark Victorian structure, houses a variety of different exotic plants, as well as rotating special exhibits like the current Plantasaurus Rex, which focuses on prehistoric plants and life-size model dinosaurs.
  • The San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum is a wonderful place to explore, with acres of gardens featuring plants from around the world. It offers a Kids Growing in the Garden summer fun program with story time, garden hikes, treasure hunts, arts and crafts, and more.

Play in the Park

What is a park without places to play? Golden Gate Park has plenty of spots for kids to run and have fun.

Koret Children's Quarter playground in Golden Gate ParkConcrete slides at the Golden Gate Park children's playground

  • The Golden Gate Park Children's Playground—official named the Koret Children's Quarter—has been entertaining local kids since 1888, and was the first public playground in the United States. The playground boasts new play equipment and climbing structures, as well as old-school concrete slides (make sure you grab a piece of cardboard to slide on) and a 1914 Herschell-Spillman carousel ($2 adults, $1 children 6–12, children 5 and under free if accompanied by an adult).
  • Stow Lake is a great place for a stroll—with bridges to cross, a hill to climb, a waterfall, and plenty of ducks, geese, and turtles to watch—or an adventure on the water. Rent a pedal boat, row boat, or electric boat at Stow Lake Boathouse and explore this man-made lake. The boat house is under new management, and is currently undergoing restoration and improvement.
  • Every Sunday John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to vehicular traffic from McLaren Lodge to Transverse Drive. Families can take advantage of this opportunity to bike, skate, ride, stroll, and play in the road sans cars. The road is also closed to cars from Tea Garden Drive to Transverse Drive on Saturdays from April through September.
  • Check out the action on Spreckels Lake as members of the San Francisco Model Yacht Club put their vessels through their paces. Races happen on weekends through the summer. Check their website for a schedule.
  • Additional playgrounds can be found across from the Music Concourse between John F. Kennedy Drive and Fulton Street, and on Martin Luther King Drive near 19th Avenue.

Dine in the Park

There are plenty of spots in Golden Gate Park to have a picnic, so packing your lunch is a great idea. If you don't bring your own food, don't fret—you'll find plenty of dining options in the park.

The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate ParkThe Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park

  • The de Young Café and the Academy Café both offer family-friendly dining in the park. They're great for anything from a cup of coffee and a pastry to lunch or even a glass of wine. Both offer outdoor dining. The de Young Café may be visited without paying museum admission.
  • Behind the Spreckels Temple of Music (the band shell) on the Concourse you'll often find food trucks, especially during the summer and on weekends.
  • Annie's Hot Dogs has stands in several locations around the park, including behind the band shell, at the corner of John F. Kennedy Drive and Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, and near the Conservatory of Flowers. They offer a variety of hot dogs and sausages (make sure you try the red onion sauce on yours), drinks, and soft pretzels.
  • For a treat, find the Twirl and Dip ice cream truck, which serves up organic soft serve, sundaes, and other goodies from its spot on Martin Luther King Drive near the Academy of Sciences on most afternoons.
  • The Stow Lake Boat House Café sells hot dogs, Russian piroshkies, empañadas, sandwiches, salads, and other drinks and snacks, including the that classic San Francisco favorite, Wright's pink popcorn.
  • At the park's west end you'll find the Park Chalet and Beach Chalet, both housed in an historic 1920s building decorated with colorful WPA murals that's also home to the Golden Gate Park visitor center. The restaurants share similar menus and brew their own beer on-site, with the Beach Chalet occupying the top floor of the structure—with views of Ocean Beach and the Pacific—and the Park Chalet the back part, which includes an expansive lawn. Both restaurants have kids' menus; the Park Chalet is a little more suitable for families, and even has a kids' Sunday afternoon summer concert series featuring Charity and the JAMband. Read our review here.
  • If all that isn't enough, the area around 9th Avenue and Irving Street just outside the park is home to numerous restaurants in all price ranges, including Gordo Taqueria, Naan-n-Curry, Pasquale's Pizza, Park Chow, Patxi's, Jenny's Burgers, Nopalito, Pacific Catch and much more—there's something for every taste.

The Golden Gate Park band shellPedal boats at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park

If You Go

Golden Gate Park is open to the public daily. Admission to the park itself is free. For admission and hours for the various park attractions, visit their websites via the links above.

To get there, take Highway 101 south across the Golden Gate Bridge, and take the Highway 1/19th Avenue exit onto Park Presidio Avenue. Follow Park Presidio and turn right on Balboa Street, left on 14th Avenue, and left again onto Cabrillo Street. Follow Cabrillo and turn right on 10th Avenue to enter the Music Concourse Garage, or continue to turn right onto 8th Avenue to enter into Golden Gate Park.

Parking is available in the Music Concourse Garage or on the street. Many street spaces are four- or three-hour zones, so keep that in mind. A free Golden Gate Park Shuttle operates on weekends and holidays from 9 am to 6 pm; shuttles arrive every 15–20 minutes and stop at various locations throughout the park.

Public restrooms are available throughout the park and at most park attractions. Weather here can vary from bright and sunny to foggy, so be prepared for anything and bring clothing to layer. Sweatshirts or light sweaters are a must pretty much any time of year.