April 2019: Spring is here with a bounty of warm weather, blooming flowers and people watching – which means it’s time to start exploring the best San Francisco parks. Enjoy the sun with thousands of your most raucous neighbors at Dolores Park, spread a blanket at the Presidio’s Main Post for the city’s best family-friendly food truck event, or dance like no one’s watching at Golden Gate Park’s free Sunday afternoon Lindy Hop party.
There are a million reasons to love SF, but for locals and tourists, alike, the sheer number of San Francisco parks and open spaces top the list. You’ll find not only some of the city’s best museums and attractions located inside these massive green spaces, but spectacular hiking trails, vistas and free events too. Whether you’re seeking a place to picnic or an active day outdoors, the best San Francisco parks are where you need to be.
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Best San Francisco parks
Established as a military base in the mid-19th century, today the Presidio is more than two square miles of swaying eucalyptus groves and gorgeous views. While the Presidio hosts major landmarks such as the Walt Disney Family Museum, it also has endless nooks and crannies just made for stumbling upon. Like art? Check out the Presidio’s two outdoor Andy Goldsworthy creations—the Wood Line, which parallels Lover’s Lane, and the Spire, which towers over the Bay Area Ridge Trail. History buff? Visit what’s left of the 200-year-old adobe home of Juana Briones at El Polin Springs or admire the tombstones memorializing beloved dogs and cats at the Pet Cemetery near Crissy Field. And if you seek something a little more futuristic, Yoda holds court every day from atop the fountain in front of the Lucas Film building. March through December, hit the Main Post on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons for an epic food-truck picnic with music, lawn games and a bar.
Once a Jewish cemetery, today Dolores Park is one of San Francisco’s favorite warm-weather destinations. On sunny weekends the park’s three city blocks of soft grass fills up with hoardes of people picnicking and enjoying adult beverages—even sunny weekday afternoons get their fair share of sun-worshipping Dolores Park accolytes. A recent rennovation has left in its wake shiny new bathrooms, an updated playground, tennis and basketball courts. When you’re done seeing and being seen, stop for an ice cream at the beloved Bi-Rite Creamery across the street
Twenty percent larger than New York’s Central Park and just as iconic, Golden Gate Park is 1000+ acres of rolling hills, gardens and hidden treasures. Stretching from the “Panhandle”—the long, skinny section of the park that once served as an experimental planting area—to the edge of Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park contains a number of San Francisco’s best landmarks including the Japanese Tea Garden the Conservatory of Flowers (a Victorian-era glass greenhousand) and the Academy of Science. Recreational options in the park include hiking trails, a disk golf course, bocce ball courts and a weekly Lindy Hop dance party on Sundays. If you've got little ones in tow, head for the enchanting playground at Koret Children’s Quarter and its century-old carousel.
Stern Grove and Pine Lake Park create a wide corridor of unbroken green in the outer West Portal neighborhood. Stern Grove is best known for its open air amphitheater which, during the summer, hosts free concerts (the 2019 line-up includes Digable Planets, Toots and the Maytals and the SF Symphony and Ballet). West of the stage, a huge lawn for off-leash dog play gives way to the serene Pine Lake. Stone-lined barbeques are tucked away in a small meadow beneath the trees on the east side of the amphitheater and, winding trails up the park’s steep hillside lead to an outdoor recreation complex that includes tennis courts and a children’s playground.
One of the San Francisco’s lesser known gems, Glen Canyon Park is 70 acres of dramatic vistas and sweet seclusion. At the heart of the canyon is Islais Creek, one of the only free-flowing bodies of water remaining in the city. Massive chert rock formations are popular with bouldering aficionados while maintained trails lure hikers and dog walkers. At the front of the park are recently renovated tennis courts and playground, while inside the historic recreation center a public indoor climbing wall begs to be tackled.
Alamo Square’s big break came in the late 1980s when the sitcom Full House featured the park in its opening credits. The hilltop square, however, has been a favorite among locals for much longer thanks to its spectacular views and the iconic Victorian homes, including the famed Painted Ladies, at its edges. Because it’s located on San Francisco's “fog line,” the winds at Alamo Square can pick up out of nowhere, dropping the temperature, but on sunny days, the park is full of picnickers, tourists and dog owners running their pups in the recently renovated off-leash play area.
Washington Square was established as one of San Francisco’s first city parks in 1847. Over the years, it’s seen its fair share of history, including the wedding day photos of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. These days, Washington Square remains the beating heart of this historical neighborhood, playing host to events throughout the year including the North Beach Festival in June and free outdoor movies throughout the summer months.
This hilltop park is the geographical twin of Alamo Square, located about a mile away in lower Pac Heights. Alta Plaza’s southern side is dominated by a broad staircase passing through three hillside terraces dotted with park benches. On sunny days, the views from the park’s northern green sweep all the way out to Alcatraz Island. Even on chilly days, you’ll find Alta Plaza bustling with families at the playground, athletes running the stairs or playing tennis, and dogs bounding around the north-side lawn.
Though it’s one of the city’s largest parks, not many San Franciscans have been to John McLaren Park, sequestered as it is on the southern edge of the city. But for those in the know, McLaren is just as delightful a spot for strolling, picnicking and playing as Golden Gate Park. At this 312-acre open space you'll find seven miles of trails, playgrounds, a golf course and even a reservoir for pups to swim in. The open-air Jerry Garcia Amphitheater hosts annual free Shakespeare in the Park productions and other performances in warmer months.
High above the Castro, Corona Heights Park offers some of the city’s best views from its craggy peak. In the early spring, the slopes here bloom in colorful displays of California poppies, Douglas iris and other native wildflowers. In the center of the park is a large, enclosed dog park, and, on the east side, the Randall Museum (which reopened in 2018 after a $9-million renovation) explores California’s natural history.
Located smack-dab in the middle of the city, Buena Vista holds the distinction of being San Francisco’s first park and the city’s last remaining coastal oak grove. The steep, paved trails here twist and turn beneath the canopy like the paths of an enchanted forest. Keep an eye out for fragments of marble lining some of the trails and gutters, pieces of unclaimed headstones from early San Francisco graveyards left behind when the city’s deceased were moved to Colma in the first half of the 20th century.
The four square blocks of Lafayette Park are perched on a hill in Pacific Heights, surrounded by some of the most stately mansions in the city. This classic city park was first established in 1867 and has served as an oasis for local families ever since. Lafayette Park’s amenities include a children’s playground, off-leash dog play area and tennis courts.