San Francisco's largest park, Golden Gate Park covers more than 1,013 acres and is 3 miles long by 1/2-mile wide, larger than New York City's Central Park. Once nothing more than barren sand dunes, Golden Gate Park owes its existence to tenacious Scotsman John McLaren, who created the landscape we see today in the late 1800s, a task many thought impossible.
Today, the park is home to two of the city's premiere museums, the De Young art museum and the California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, an outdoor botanical garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, lots of open space and it even has its own resident buffalo herd.
The 49-Mile Drive passes through Golden Gate Park and an easy way to see the top spots is to just follow its signs showing a white sea gull with an orange beak and "49 MILE" in blue.
Self-Guided Tour of Golden Gate Park
Start your tour on Great Highway, just south of the Cliff House.Beach Chalet: Facing Ocean Beach on Great Highway, this is a good place to "go," or to stop for a bite to eat in the upstairs microbrewery and restaurant, which has a nice view of the beach. Windmills: Turn right east (away from the ocean) onto John F. Kennedy Drive to see Queen Wilhelmina's Windmill, one of the two honest-to-goodness Dutch windmills that stand near the west end of Golden Gate Park. In spring, tulips bloom around its base. Buffalo Paddock: Continuing east on Kennedy Drive, you'll come to the home of Golden Gate Park's small herd of American bison. Spreckels Lake is a fun weekend stop, when radio-controlled boat owners take their small-scale craft out for a spin.
Continue east across Park Presidio Drive.Conservatory of Flowers: The white, jewel-box-looking conservatory boasts a tropical area, a water lily garden and a rotating collection of potted plants. Admission charge. AIDS Memorial Grove: You can walk from the Conservatory to the grove, created as a place to honor the memory of all who have shared in the struggle against AIDS, and a quiet place to walk and reflect, or follow the signs to drive there.
Cross the park going south to Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and turn right. Park along the road or in the paid lots to explore the park's museums.California Academy of Science: Opened in 2009 after a top-to-bottom rebuild, it's home to a white alligator, planetarium, aquarium and some great multimedia exhibits. The building sports a "green" roof covered with local plants and has a nice observation deck. DeYoung Museum: San Francisco's main art museum occupies a building that locals either love or hate. Admission charge. Japanese Tea Garden: A rustic-style Japanese garden built to complement its surroundings, this is a good place for a quiet stroll and a cup of tea. Admission charge. San Francisco Botanical Garden: San Francisco's botanical gardens cover 55 acres and are home to more than 7000 varieties of plants. Free admission, guided walks are given daily.
Continue west on Martin Luther King Drive and follow the signs to Stow Lake. The road will take you in a loop drive around it.Shakespeare Garden: William Shakespeare's works and characters inspire this small garden. Stow Lake: The largest Golden Gate Park lake is popular with fly fishermen and amateur boaters. Rent paddle boats and rowboats on the northwest side.
Continue west and you will reach Great Highway. Stop at the Cliff House or Beach Chalet for refreshment. Both are good places to watch the sunset.