Best Parks in San Francisco

San Francisco's Many Parks Reveal Its True Nature

What comes to mind when you hear the term "city park?" Maybe a softball field for youth leagues, or a a clump of trees for shade?

While San Francisco can match any city in world-class restaurants and nightlife options, our list below reveals that it surpasses almost every US City in terms of parks. It starts with the geography that San fRancisco is blessed to be located in. What other major US city has the Pacific Ocean on one side, an enormous bay on the other, and rolling hills all around?

While most major cities might boast one or two outstanding parks, with San Francisco's unique topography, it's hard to keep the list for San Francisco to just ten. Golden Gate Park is a must visit for everyone, the living green lung that runs right through the western heart of San Francisco. And where it ends, Ocean Beach, offers some of the best sunsets around.

And if you add a ferry ride to Sausalito, a BART ride to the East Bay, or a short drive down the peninsula, your options are endless. But if you want to keep it in the city proper, here are ten can't miss parks to put the green back in your city experience.


Ocean Beach
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

During the summer months, when the inland area of California heats up, it pulls cold fog right over Ocean Beach. So those who are traveling to San francisco during the summer months need to bundle up for a true Northern California beach experience. This expansive shoreline extends from the Cliff House to Fort Funston along the glistening Pacific Ocean, making it a great spot to stroll, jog or surf. Anglers often fish the surf, and occasionally it's warm enough for sunbathing - but this is rare. The water is cold, and the rapid currents make it dangerous for swimming or even wading.

Recommended for Parks because: Ocean Beach is San Francisco's largest and most popular stretch of beach.

Tom's expert tip: Don't let the fog scare you - a walk along Ocean Beach will complete your Northern California experience.

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Precariously perched on the edge of the beautiful Pacific, Fort Funston is a reminder of what most of San Francisco used to be: sand. World-renowned for its hang-gliding and locally-renowned for dog walking, Fort Funston offers spectacular views of the Pacific. If you want to get away from the dogs and hang gliders (and are up for a steep return climb), head down to the beach, an extension of Ocean Beach but less populated and quieter. And if the drive up to Twin Peaks for the sunset is packed with traffic, then Fort Funston is a very good second choice.

Recommended for Parks because: Fort Funston is a beautiful mix of forest walks and long stretches of beach.

Tom's expert tip: Be prepared for not just fog, but dogs - this is THE place for locals to walk their canine friends.

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Although widely known - and appreciated - for its free concert summer series, Stern Grove offers an idyllic picnic setting year round. Enormous groves of Eucalyptus curtain off the noise of busy 19th avenue, and a recent renovation has restructured the grove in handsome stone. The beauty of this park is only appreciated by its nearby residents, but it's definitely worth a visit. The also overlooked but quaint neighborhood of West Portal is close by and worth exploring for its small cafes and boutique shopping. A MUNI line runs right to the park from downtown, so it's a very accessible option.

Recommended for Parks because: Stern Grove is heavily forested, so it's a great option for those rare San Francisco days when you need some shade.

Tom's expert tip: If you do happen to be in the inner Sunset on a Sunday during the summer, check out the legendary Stern Grove Festival.

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If the air on Haight Street has gotten too, well, smokey for you, head up for some fresh air and gorgeous views in little-visited Buena Vista Park. Although it's small, the park offers a healthy walk to the top. Gasp-inducing views of the Bay Area will grab visitors from time to time through its forests of eucalyptus trees. It's best visited during the daytime, since nighttime visitors to this park near Haight Street can be, well, from Haight Street. But it's a great way to build up a morning appetite before visiting Haight Street and its delicious options of restaurants and cafes.

Recommended for Parks because: Buena Vista Park is small but offers good urban hiking for those who have tired of often-crowded Golden Gate Park.

Tom's expert tip: Too many visitors flock to Haight-Ashbury but miss this gem of a park.

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Yerba Buena Gardens
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

If you need to replenish your soul with a shot of nature after hustling around downtown, a rest in Yerba Buena Gardens will do the trick. The MLK Memorial, a fifty foot high and twenty foot wide waterfall over beautifully carved granite, is the solemn centerpiece of the park. After your rejuvenation, more downtown action is right at hand, including the Metreon's IMAX theatre, the Children's Museum Carousel, and the Jewish Museum, just to name a few. In fact, what makes this park so unique is its close proximity to some of the best restaurants, cafes, and museums that the city has to offer.

Recommended for Parks because: Yerba Buena offers those who are in the heart of downtown a nice "green" respite.

Tom's expert tip: Great spot for a picnic before or after a trip to MOMA, just across the street.

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Mission Dolores Park
Photo courtesy of nguy1

Mission Dolores Park is the heart of the Mission district and offers wonderful views of downtown. This is a true city park: often crowded, usually loud, and a great spot for people-watching. Street performers and food trucks often visit the park for a real "local" feel. While it does tend to cater to the wilder side, especially during the evening and late night hours, the newly renovated children's play area has made this park one of the best options for those traveling with kids. And with the ever-popular Bi-Rite grocery (with its delicious ice cream) right around the corner, kids who are pooped from running and screaming can get their sugar charge right back up.

Recommended for Parks because: Now that the playground area has been added, Mission Dolores is a great option for those traveling with kids.

Tom's expert tip: Mission Dolores has been recently remodeled.

Read more about Mission Dolores Park →

Presidio Heights

With so many beaches in the area, you'll have plenty of choices for fun in the sun, but Crissy Field is by far one of the most unique. Visitors can enjoy both sandy expanses and plenty of grassy areas. A flat, hard-packed promenade offers a great place to walk or bike, and the well-groomed shoreline is a terrific spot for kids to play. Plus, fishing and crabbing are allowed without a license at Torpedo Wharf. If you're traveling with kids, and they need a break from the sun (or fog!), The Walt Disney Family Museum is nearby, as well as some shaded trails within the historic Presidio district.

Recommended for Parks because: Crissy Fields is the best way to experience San Francisco Bay.

Tom's expert tip: Recently restored wetlands have brought back some native birds.

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San Francisco

McLaren Park is San Francisco's second-largest park with playgrounds, picnic areas and game courts, and the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, a golf course, McNab Lake and the newly renovated Coffman Pool. Explore an immense Natural Area of scenic meadows, grassland and wetland habitat. Since most visitors who want some "park time" usually visit Golden Gate Park or Ocean Beach, that allows McLaren to be a quieter option. In fact, those who really want to get away from it all can walk the new Philosopher's Way Trail, which features beautiful snippets of moving poetry to help visitors meditate away the troubles of urban life.

Recommended for Parks because: McLaren is a great option for those who might want to avoid the crowds of Golden Gate Park.

Tom's expert tip: Be sure to walk the Philosopher's Way.

Read more about McLaren Park →

Stunning 30-mile views of the coast and great trails make Lands End a must-see site for area visitors. Its Coastal Trail winds north along the city's western edge, offering scenic vistas and fantastic photo opportunities. From above, visitors can even spot the Lyman Stewart and Frank Buck shipwrecks near Mile Rock. Drive to the lookout at Point Lobos and 48th avenues for the view without the hike, as well as the historic Cliff House, just below the park's entrance. And the newly renovated Visitor's Center offers some of the fascinating history behind this beautiful space, including the infamous "Bath Houses" right below the Cliff House.

Recommended for Parks because: Lands End offers some of the best Pacific Ocean views you can find within San Francisco.

Tom's expert tip: Golden Gate National Park Service just opened a "can't miss" Visitor's Center at Land's End.

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Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

Stretching more than three miles inland from the ocean, Golden Gate Park features more than 1,000 acres of gardens, meadows and woodlands. There are miles of walking trails, as well as playgrounds and plenty of picnic groves. You can even rent a boat and paddle around the park's biggest lake, Stow Lake. And this park is so big it has its own parks, such as the lovely Japanese Tea Gardens and the always popular Shakespeare Gardens. And for those who might not be into all this "green," some of the best restaurants, cafes and boutique shopping in the city can be found.

Recommended for Parks because: Golden Gate Park is San Francisco's living lung, offering healthy and vibrant options for kids of all ages.

Tom's expert tip: Visiting San Francisco and skipping Golden Gate is like visiting NYC and skipping Central Park.

Read more about Golden Gate Park →


Meet Tom Molanphy

The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom.

Tom has lived in the San...  More About Tom