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Why You Should Add Golden Gate Park to Your “Must Visit” List

Ive been to San Francisco for business many times and on those trips I’ve visited many of the top sites…Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, Telegraph Hill, North Beach, Haight Ashbury, Muir Woods, Sausalito, the Golden Gate Bridge…but Golden Gate Park never entered my radar until recently. As I was planning our California trip, I started reading about this park with┬ábison, windmills, Japanese gardens, and museums and I thought, I need to visit Golden Gate Park. So when we spent two days in San Francisco in March, we planned to visit to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park to check it out for ourselves.

A History of Golden Gate Park

While it is easy enough to access the park through public transportation, we hopped aboard the City Sightseeing San Francisco tour bus, which makes four stops in the park. As we approached the park, we were given a surprising lesson about the history of the park. While San Franciscans desired a park to rival New York’s Central Park, creating a green space out of its sandy ground proved to be a challenge. Eventually John McLaren discovered which trees could flourish in this ground and ended up planting over 155,000 trees throughout the park, including eucalyptus, Monterey pine and Monterey cypress. McLaren was so passionate about the park that he didn’t want to retire and ended up living in McLaren Lodge in Golden Gate Park until his death at 96.

Conservatory of Flowers

Today the park spans over a thousand acres, larger even than Central Park, with so much to do for families. The first stop on the tour was at the Conservatory of Flowers, the oldest public wood and glass conservatory in North America. Here you can find over 1,700 species of plants from 50 countries including aquatic, potted, and tropical plants, along with special exhibits.

de Young Museum

Why you should visit Golden Gate Park when you are in San Francisco, including the de Young Museum.

Sculpture outside the de Young Museum

Just a bit further down the road is the de Young Museum. Together with the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, it is one of the largest art museums in the United States. Even if your kids aren’t into art, you can still take the free elevator ride up to the Hamon Observation Tower, which is a glass-enclosed space offering 360 degree views of the park.

Why you should visit Golden Gate Park when you are in San Francisco, including the de Young Museum.

The de Young Museum and observation tower

Japanese Tea Gardens

Right next to the de Young Museum, you’ll find the entrance to the Japanese Tea Gardens. A visit is well worth the price of admission ($8.00 for adults, $6.00 for youth 12-17, $2.00 for children 5-11.) You can visit the Teahouse for a relaxing cup of tea, but just taking time to enjoy the peaceful gardens is enough.

Why you should visit Golden Gate Park when you are in San Francisco, including a visit to the California Academy of Sciences, deYoung Museum, Conservatory of Flowers, Buffalo Paddock, and the Koret Children's Quarter.

Why you should visit Golden Gate Park when you are in San Francisco, including the Japanese Tea Garden

One of the koi ponds in the Japanese Tea Gardens

In fact, just wandering through the gardens and skipping across the stones in the koi ponds was one of my daughter’s very favorite experiences in San Francisco.

Why you should visit Golden Gate Park when you are in San Francisco, including the Japanese Tea Gardens.

A pagoda in the Japanese Tea Gardens

Just outside the de Young Museum and Japanese Tea Gardens you’ll find a beautiful plaza and fountain surrounded by benches. But if you don’t want to relax, you can also rent bikes for exploring the park.

Why you should visit Golden Gate Park when you are in San Francisco.

California Academy of Sciences

We decided to skip the bikes and went right for the California Academy of Sciences. We’ve visited science and children museums in many cities, including Boston, Baltimore, and Harrisburg, but the California Academy of Sciences was different than all of those. It is part aquarium, part museum of natural history, part zoo and part science museum all rolled up into one.

Why you should visit Golden Gate Park when you are in San Francisco, including a visit to the California Academy of Sciences.

The greeter at the California Academy of Sciences.

Our first stop was the rainforest exhibit. There were some field trips also visiting so we had to wait for about 10 minutes because they only let a limited number of people in at a time. Built in a dome-shaped aviary, there are three levels to the rainforest exhibit, where you will travel through Borneo, Madagascar, Costa Rica and the Flooded Amazon. In addition to tropical plants, you’ll encounter tropical birds and many, many butterflies. We spent quite some time trying to get a butterfly to land on us but didn’t have any luck.

Why you should visit Golden Gate Park when you are in San Francisco, including a visit to the California Academy of Sciences.

Once you’ve finished in the rainforest, you’ll take an elevator down to the aquarium. I expected just a small aquarium with a few tanks but I was surprised and delighted by the size and quality of the exhibits. We explored the Philippine coral reef, took a look at the Amazon flooded forest, and observed the vibrant ecosystems of the California coast.

Why you should visit Golden Gate Park when you are in San Francisco, including a visit to the California Academy of Sciences.

Back on the main level we marveled at the albino alligator, but didn’t have time to check out the earthquake exhibit or planetarium, because we were making a beeline to see the penguins in the African hall. The hall reminded me of the Museum of Natural History in New York, with displays of many African animals I’d never even heard of before. But better than the stuffed animals were the live penguins.

Why you should visit Golden Gate Park when you are in San Francisco, including a visit to the California Academy of Sciences.

The African Hall at the California Academy of Sciences

While you could spend hours at the museum, there is so much else that you can explore in Golden Gate Park.

There really are bison roaming free, or at least roaming around their Buffalo Paddock on the northwest corner of the park. Your kids will also love playing in the Koret Children’s Quarter, where they can use the playground, rope climbing structure, climbing wall and concrete slides, as well as an old-fashioned carousel.

With so much to do and see, you can easily spend a whole day enjoying Golden Gate Park. Now do you see why you should add it to your “must visit” list when traveling to San Francisco?

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Why you should visit Golden Gate Park when you are in San Francisco, including a visit to the California Academy of Sciences, deYoung Museum, Conservatory of Flowers, Buffalo Paddock, and the Koret Children's Quarter.

Note: San Francisco Travel Association provided my family with passes to the City Sightseeing San Francisco tour bus and CityPasses, with included entrance to the California Academy of Sciences, for purposes of reviewing attractions. All opinions are my own.

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2 Comments on “Why You Should Add Golden Gate Park to Your “Must Visit” List

  1. Japanese Garden in the Golden Gate Park was one of my kids’ favorite San Fran moment too! This Park has so much to see, thanks for all the highlights, Tamara!

      I’m hearing that from so many people, it really is a special place!

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