San Francisco's Many Parks Reveal Its True Nature

Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
Photo courtesy of nguy1
Photo courtesy of used in book
By Tom Molanphy, San Francisco Local Expert

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.

10. 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.

9. Fort Funston
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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.

8. Stern Grove Park
Photo courtesy of San Francisco Days

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.

7. Buena Vista Park
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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.

6. Yerba Buena Gardens
Photo courtesy of San Francisco Days

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 Zeum 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.

5. 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.

4. Crissy Field
Photo courtesy of Crissy Field

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.

3. McLaren Park
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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.

2. Lands End
Photo courtesy of telmo32

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.

1. Golden Gate Park
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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.