San Francisco is a city full of excitement and offers numerous options to be entertained, but where can you go that is not filled with long lines or crowds of people? The Golden Gate Park is the perfect place to relax and reconnect! There is just so much to see and enjoy here. It’s a day filled with natures wonders, amazing art, breathtaking flora, quiet moments, unique creatures, and time to relax your soul.

Start with a visit to the California Academy of Sciences. This captivating science museum complex holds a San Francisco aquarium, a planetarium, a rain forest and other great displays.


California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences: Highlights of the Steinhart Aquarium

To enjoy the many features of the Steinhart Aquarium, you must purchase a ticket to the Academy of Sciences. In addition to the special exhibits and programs held at the Academy, the Aquarium is home to a collection of fascinating sea-dwelling creatures, as well as animals that live outside of the water. As you tour the various galleries, you’ll have a chance to learn about and experience the diversity of plants, creatures, and landscapes from around the world.

Galleries and primary exhibits of the Aquarium include:

 Philippine Coral Reef Gallery – As more than 4,000 vibrant-colored reef fish and other interesting creatures swim about; the 25-foot Philippine Coral Reef Tank not only accommodates a diverse collection of marine creatures with 212,000 gallons of water but is also one of the largest displays of a living coral reef in the world. In addition to the more than 100 species of fish decorating the tank (such as Skunk Clownfish and Unicornfish), other creatures found in the Philippine Coral Reef Gallery include soft and hard corals, brown-banded bamboo shark, blue-legged hermit crabs, black-tip reef sharks, and stingrays.

• Northern California Coast Gallery – In an attempt to bring visitors closer to the habitat of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, the Academy created the Northern California Coast Tank to mirror the rocky landscape of the state. Creatures calling the 100,000-gallon tank their home include eels, Swell Shark, anemones, Giant Spined Sea Star, rockfish, herring, snails, rockfish, and purple sea urchins. Nearby tanks feature a giant Pacific octopus and giant sea bass. Kids especially enjoy the Discovery Tide-pool, where visitors are allowed to touch and inspect a range of marine creatures.

• Water Planet Gallery – The Water Planet Gallery zeroes in on the role that water plays in the world and helps sustain the survival of all living things. Here, visitors encounter and can explore dozens of tanks of varying sizes– some holding up to 5,000 gallons of water. The variety of fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and other invertebrates contained in the tanks are constantly changing, and have housed the likes of the Burmese Vine Snake, Desert Pupfish, Glass Catfish, and Vietnamese Mossy Frog.

• Rainforests of the World Gallery – Not all of the creatures in the Aquarium have fins and swim in the water, the Academy is home to an exciting lineup of live animals that include exotic reptiles to free-flying birds and butterflies. There’s even a cave with bats to enter…if you dare. The Rainforests of the World Gallery highlights some of the impressive plants and animals that thrive in locales such as Borneo, Madagascar, and Costa Rica. Creatures found in the Rainforests of the World include the Blue and Gold Macaw, Eyelash Viper, Giant Owl Butterfly, Peacock Bass, and the electric eel.

• Tusher African Hall – Visitors have the chance to explore the natural setting, plants, and animals of sub-Saharan Africa at African Hall, where the star attractions of the show are the colony of 20 or so African penguins that delight visitors of all ages. Throughout the day, you can enjoy watching the penguins at feeding time. Some of the other sights at the African Hall include cichlids, Jackson’s Chameleons, Pancake Tortoises, and the White-throated Monitor Lizard.

• The Swamp Gallery – One of the features of the Swamp Gallery that calls the most attention is the albino American alligator named Claude – a rare find and favorite of Aquarium lovers both old and new. Take pleasure interacting with creatures that inquisitively stare back from an underwater window. Despite their name, take a gander at the curious-looking alligator gars, which are actually fish that look like gators. The Swamp Gallery is also home to venomous residents, such as the black widow spider and the Eastern Diamondback snake.


Programs at the Aquarium

In addition to seasonal and holiday-related activities and exhibits, Steinhart Aquarium also hosts regular programs at the Academy, such as:

  • Penguin Feedings take place daily at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. with available audio. During feeding time, visitors catch a glimpse at the intriguing behaviors of the penguins – including the juicy romantic details and family quirks of the colony, as told by staff. The Aquarium has also set up a ‘penguin cam’ to deliver wide view angles of their habitat at the Academy, as well as underwater views to see the creatures swim and dart through their liquid surroundings.

• Coral Reef Dives are held on a daily basis at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., where the Academy’s divers entertain visitors with information and tales of the reef, including coral spawning and the activities of the resident clownfish.

Address: 55 Music Concourse Drive – inside the California Academy of Sciences
Phone: (415) 379-8000 
Hours: Open daily from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sundays (11 a.m. – 5 p.m.)

It also has a Living Roof that offers an excellent view of some of the park. This place is fantastic. You’ll want to spend the whole day there but save time for some of the other choices.

De Young Museum

De Young Museum

Right across from the California Academy of Sciences is the De Young Museum. This museum showcases a mix of Contemporary Art, History Sciences and a few pieces of Fine Art. They also have “guest” displays that change seasonally.

a) Concourse Level: The main entrance of the museum leads to the Concourse Level of the building. Some of the features situated in this region of the de Young include the following collections: Art of the Americas; 20th Century and Contemporary Art; Piazonni Murals Room; and Native American Art. The café is also situated on this level, as well as an entrance to the sculpture garden. Other sections of the museum are positioned here, including an education gallery.

b) Exhibition Level: Located below the Concourse Level is where one will find the main attraction of this floor: the Herbst Special Exhibition Galleries. Entrance to this part of the museum is gained when coming from the underground garage.

c) Upper Gallery Level: Above the Concourse Level, access to the observation floor is provided. The following collections are also on display: Africa; New Guinea; Oceania; Art in America to the 20th Century; and Textiles.

the rooftop view of San Francisco

Even if you do not have time to check out all the exhibits, you should take the time to ride up to the top floor gift where an observation deck shows you an even better view of Golden Gate Park at no charge.

Japanese Tea Garden entrance


The historical roots of the Japanese Tea House were firmly planted in 1894 when the Japanese Tea Garden was established to showcase a Japanese Village for the California Midwinter International Exposition (also referred to as the World’s Fair). Today, the Japanese Tea Garden is heralded as the oldest public Japanese garden in all of the United States.

While the majority of the Golden Gate Park design and growth is credited to a man, who is said to have planted two million trees in his lifetime, John McLaren allowed another to design and groom the Japanese Tea Garden. In an attempt to share a piece of his culture, an affluent Japanese landscape designer named Makoto Hagiwara wished to transform the temporary World’s Fair exhibit into a permanent fixture of the Golden Gate Park.

The Japanese Tea Gardens is a favorite spot for locals who want to feel like they have escaped into nature. There are more than fifty acres of plant life here from all around the world, organized by region. These five acres of captivating gardens offer a serene place to sit down and drink a cup of tea.

There’s a nominal entrance fee, and you can purchase tea and snacks inside of the garden.

lake in Golden Gate Park with pedal boats

Lakes. In the western section of the park, there are six lakes:

Mallard Lake. Viewed as one of the most pleasant lakes in the park, Mallard Lake offers a place for an entertaining family-friendly outing to unfold. The local ducks welcome guests who come bearing gifts…stale slices and crumbs of bread. A nearby picnic table provides a nice spot to have lunch.

Metson Lake. Known for its pretty scenery, shady stream, and low traffic, the lake also offers an enjoyable visit from an abundance of local wildlife.

Spreckels Lake. As one of the most scenic lakes in Golden Gate Park, Spreckels Lake is home to Monterey Cypress trees, a variety of wildlife, as well as the San Francisco Model Yacht Club, which holds frequent events, competitions, and activities. The lake is highly frequented by bikers, joggers, walkers, and exercises.

The Chain of Lakes. The Chain of Lakes is named for the three small lakes in Golden Gate Park that are located within close proximity to one another – North Lake, Middle Lake, and South Lake:

• North – Known as the largest of the three chain lakes, North Lake is a quiet irregularly shaped getaway with small islands creeping out of its shallow waters.

• Middle – Delivering one of the most romantic settings in the park, Middle Lake most resembles the original marshes that once dominated this part of San Francisco.

• South – Not many people frequent South Lake as they do the other bodies of water, which is characterized by grassy slopes and blossoming trees in the early springtime.

Middle Golden Gate Park Lakes. In the middle section of the park, there are three lakes:

 Stow Lake.  Stow Lake is home to a historic boathouse and café within the park. Visitors may rent rowboats, pedal boats or motor boats on an hourly basis.

Lloyd Lake. Offering the elegant Portals of the Past, which serves as the backdrop to many wedding ceremonies over the years, Lloyd Lake delivers a tranquil setting for visitors.

 Elk Glen Lake. A pleasure for bird watchers, the lake is less frequented by crowds, even on weekends. Keep an eye out for the blossoming of the cherry and plum trees on the east side.

East Golden Gate Park Lakes. In the eastern section of the park, there is one lake:

 Alvord Lake. Natural features of the lake include ferns, reeds, and the nearby pedestrian tunnel with cavern-like detail.

Botanical Garden

A carnival of colors, scents, and vibrant visions decorate the space of the San Francisco Botanical Garden (also the formerly known Strybing Arboretum). As part of the memorable Golden Gate Park, 55 acres of land stretch across San Francisco, laying out the foundation for a symphony of plants, flowers, and trees to share the roaring sound of nature with the public. A visit to this magical display of greenery consists of more than 7,500 varieties of flora from across the globe.

Flower lovers absolutely shouldn’t miss this indoor garden. It is one of the world’s largest indoor greenhouses built of wood and glass and both the exterior and interior of the building area eye-catching. This place is like visiting a tropical Island. You are instantly transported to a space of relaxation!


The vast park has numerous different must-see gardens that allow you to enjoy a diverse array of different plant life. Those gardens include:

The Golden Gate Park rose garden is another popular spot with visitors. Late spring through early fall offer the best rose displays although a pruning demonstration each January is also interesting. Besides its beauty, this place is a wonderment of fragrant scents that instantly calms the mind.

More than 200 different flowers are featured in this garden, which is also adorned with quotes from the famous plays and poems of Shakespeare.

On the west end of the park is a giant old windmill and a beautiful tulip garden. Check out the northern windmill here as well, which is one of two windmills established in 1903 that initially fed water to landscape the park.

This beautiful memorial flower garden is worth stopping in at while you are in the park. It was set up in 1988 to recognize and honor the millions of people affected by AIDS. In 1996, Congress designated it a national memorial.

Feed the ducks or take a paddleboat ride here at this lake in the center of the park. Golden Gate Park is home to ten lakes within the more than 1,000 acres of land designated to one of the most popular places to visit in San Francisco. Throughout the year, there are plenty of sights to see and an array of activities taking place at the lakes, including model boat regattas, waterfalls, pedal boat rentals, and intriguing displays of wildlife.

How to Get to Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is located in the western half of the city, bordered on the north by Fulton Street and on the south by Lincoln Way. You can get there using several MUNI buses including the 5 on Fulton and the 71 on Lincoln (both of which you can catch near Union Square if you are staying at a centrally-located hotel). You can also take the underground MUNI N line to get quickly from downtown to just a few blocks away from the park. If you are driving then, you can look for street parking in or around the park or pay to park in the Music Concourse Garage located between the DeYoung and California Academy of Science Museums.

If you are visiting and driving in, I recommend using your car’s GPS. The last time I drove in, I thought no problem. However, with all the ‘one-way’ streets and the  ‘no left turn’ signs, I could not get to what was right in front of me. Very frustrating, which is why you should let the computer figure it out for you. 

author: Shelley Pittman, luxury travel writer and editor of A Toast to Life Magazine