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One of the world’s largest man-made parks, Golden Gate Park stretches for three miles on the western edge of San Francisco. It’s filled with beautifully landscaped gardens, forests and meadows. It’s home to world-renowned museums, facilities for more than 20 sports and multiple ever-evolving attractions. On Sundays all year-round and Saturdays from April through October, the park’s main road is closed to vehicle traffic so that cyclists, skaters, joggers and walkers can wander freely.
No matter when you visit, here are some of the top things to do inside and within walking distance of this legendary park.
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Ocean Beach lies just west of Golden Gate Park along the coast. While it may be the city’s most-visited beach, the throngs of tourists rarely head here, and with 3.5 miles of white sandy beach, and no high rises, there is plenty of room to enjoy the crashing waves and the seabirds. While it is ideal for strolling, beachcombing, kite-flying and Frisbee-tossing, only experienced surfers should try and catch a wave here.
In the late 1800s, self-made millionaire Adolph Sutro designed what was then the largest indoor swimming pool in the world. It was filled using the Pacific Ocean, and during the high tide, the saltwater would fill the pools with 1.7 million gallons of water in just an hour. The historic baths were part of a lavish swimming facility with six saltwater tanks, ingeniously flushed by the tides, along with more than 500 private dressing rooms, eateries and arcades that were enclosed by 100,000 square feet of glass. After Sutro died, his family maintained the baths for several decades, but it was closed down during the Great Depression. Today, you can view its magnificent architectural ruins in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at the north end of Ocean Beach where Geary Boulevard and the Great Highway converge, about a 15-minute walk from the park’s northwest corner. Walk around the fascinating and somewhat eerie ruins that are rumored to be haunted, and learn more about the history of the legendary family swimming and entertainment center.
Created in 1893 for the California Midwinter International Exposition, the Japanese Tea Garden is located inside the park and is an elegant place to enjoy a stroll, graced with beautiful gates, a picturesque moon bridge, pagodas and a 1.5-ton Buddha. This was the very spot where fortune cookies were first invented in 1914, and you can still enjoy them today in the garden’s teahouse.
One of the “New Wonders of the World” as Conde Nast Traveler once called it, the California Academy of Sciences, also located inside the park, houses an aquarium, the world’s largest planetarium, a four-story rainforest with a spectacular coral reef ecosystem and a natural history museum. It’s also known for its world-class research and education programs, making it one of the city’s top must-see destinations. Some 40,000 live animals can be viewed here, including everything from the always adorable penguins to snakes and piranhas. At the planetarium, audience members are transported through space and time for a whole new perspective on planet Earth.
Only a mile from the park you’ll find San Francisco artist Eduardo Aguilera’s labyrinth at Lands End. It sits along the rocky shoreline at the mouth of the Golden Gate and is often considered one of the city’s best-kept secrets. With sweeping vistas of the bridge, the Marin Headlands and the Pacific Ocean beyond, the location itself is worth the walk, incredibly tranquil and majestic. The work of art consists of grapefruit-sized stones and was inspired by traditional walking labyrinths from monasteries, aimed for meditation or quiet contemplation. Aguilera has said he created the small shrine to “peace, love and enlightenment.”
The Cliff House is located at the north end of Ocean Beach. First built in 1863, it burned down twice and was since remodeled in several styles, first in Victorian gingerbread, another incarnation in a somewhat tacky 1970s-style, and today, it has a modern/classical design that dates from 2004. Not only is the building impressive with its endless ocean views, but its Sunday Champagne Brunch is to-die-for. Frequently listed on or near the top of the best brunch in the city, it’s served buffet-style with a variety of seasonal fresh items enjoyed while listening to harp music and sipping free-flowing Champagne.
The de Young Museum, set within the park, is one of the city’s most popular attractions, showcasing an exceptional and extensive permanent collection of American art from the 17th through 21st centuries and highlights modern and contemporary art, photography, international textiles and costumes, as well as art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The 9th-floor Observation Level at the Hamon Tower offers breathtaking 360-degree views of the city and the ocean beyond.
One of the locals’ best insider tips is to head to Baker Beach. About 1.5 miles from the north end of Golden Gate Park at Fulton Street, walking along 25th Avenue, here you can capture a postcard-worthy photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as the Marine Headlands. It’s arguably the best spot for a view and a picture of the bridge, just be aware that if you head to the end closest to the bridge there is clothing-optional area often filled with people sunbathing or frolicking around in the nude.