The 7 Best San Francisco Parks to See on Vacation
Here's where you can find an oasis in urban San Francisco.
From stunning views to beautiful landscaping, these parks have something for everyone.(Getty Images)
With more than 220 parks sprinkled throughout San Francisco, wherever you are, there's bound to be at least one green space nearby. The parks' views, flora and amenities are as diverse as the city itself, giving you seemingly endless options. But with so many to choose from, U.S. News had to tap local experts to help prioritize the very best. Here's what they said.
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco's most famous park continues to earn its hard-won reputation. What was originally a swath of sand dunes was transformed in the mid-1800s, and now more than 13 million people visit each year. Couched on the city's western edge, between the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods, this more than 1,000-acre rectangular green space houses a trove of activities.
"Golden Gate Park is beautiful no matter the time of year," says Jose Lopez, chief concierge at the Palace Hotel, A Luxury Collection Hotel. "Rent bicycles, or row boats on Stow Lake. And don't miss the bison."
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The Conservatory of Flowers and the San Francisco Botanical Garden are great for viewing endemic and exotic plants. Across the road from the botanical garden, the Japanese Tea Garden brims with native Japanese plants, tranquil koi ponds and a Zen garden. Nearby, and still within the park, the California Academy of Sciences is a spectacular natural history museum.
But one of the best ways to experience the park is to get lost on its many meandering trails that wind through eucalyptus, pine and redwood trees.
General areas of the park are free, but the botanical garden, museums, Conservatory of Flowers and Japanese Tea Garden charge admission.
Buena Vista Park
Buena Vista Park.(Courtesy of Ryan Kelly)
What this intimate 36-acre park lacks in size, it makes up for in views. Secluded trails that wind through oak groves lead visitors to surprise vistas with sweeping views of the San Francisco skyline.
Buena Vista Park's small size and central location in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood make it an option for a short but rewarding urban hike.
"Lands End is in the middle of the city but feels like you're at the edge of the Earth," says Rachel Ward, editor at Where San Francisco magazine. "Get all of your great postcard shots there."
Located on the city's northwestern crust, Lands End is a hikeable park that provides some of the city's most epic views. Start near China Beach, and follow the trail along rugged cliffs, through windswept cypress groves and small coastal meadows, pausing to admire views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands and the grand Pacific Ocean along the journey. The trail ends at the Sutro Baths, the iconic relics of a saltwater pool complex and a popular site for photo ops. Don't miss a stop at the Lands End Lookout, an unexpectedly impressive new visitor center.
Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove
Tucked away in the city's less visited southwest region is one of its most beautiful parks. This roughly 34-acre oasis, locally known as Stern Grove, is beloved for its towering eucalyptus, redwood and fir trees.
During the summer, the popular Stern Grove Festival hosts free concerts. The park also boasts a collection of outdoor recreational fields, courts and playgrounds, as well as crannied picnic areas, making it a good place to spend a full leisurely day. Pair a park day with the San Francisco Zoo, which sits 2 miles west of the park.
One of San Francisco's most popular residential parks, but still a secret to many visitors, is Lafayette Park. Perched on the summit of a hill in the ritzy Pacific Heights neighborhood, it recently underwent a major renovation, adding pristine landscaping like lavender bushes and a state-of-the-art playground for kids.
"Lafayette Park is quiet and beautiful, well-manicured, with nice plants," Ward says. "Especially if you have kids, it's a nice park, as they have a high-end new playground."
Neighbors flock to this park on sunny weekends to picnic, play tennis and admire the opulent architecture nearby. Views of the San Francisco Bay peek between mansions.
Mission Dolores Park
The popular Mission Dolores Park boasts quite the social scene on warm weekends. It's less of a park you visit to admire nature than it is a park to admire human nature. Throngs of people lay their blankets on the lawns, usually coupled with boomboxes and bottles of wine, for a good time in the sun. Frisbees whiz by while people play games and dance.
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"You'll find hidden sunshine there, and some of the best weather in the city," says Joe D'Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel Association. "Locals call it Dolores Beach, because they lay out their towels and sunbathe or play volleyball."
On the south side of the park is a new playground that's become a favorite among local families. Head to the southwest hill for amazing views of the downtown skyline in the distance – especially during sunset.
Duboce Park. (Courtesy of Mark Scheuer)
This small urban park, wedged between the Duboce Triangle and Lower Haight neighborhoods, draws solace-seekers with its well-kept lawns and quaint neighborhood setting. On any given afternoon, you'll see people walking their dogs, practicing yoga, reading a book, meditating or strolling the Scott Street Labyrinth. Which is to say, it's very "San Francisco."
To experience more of what San Francisco has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.
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