san francisco california academy of sciences gecko
San Francisco
Golden Gate Park

In the late 19th century, what is now Golden Gate Park was just a bunch of sand-dunes; starting in 1870, this unpromising landscape was transformed into one of the most beautiful parks. At the eastern edge of the park are museums and gardens. The western edge of Golden Gate Park ends at Ocean Beach, with windswept views of the Pacific.

California Academy of Sciences - One of our favorite places in Golden Gate Park is the new California Academy of Sciences. A museum that celebrates the natural world, it includes a superb aquarium, planetarium, natural history exhibits, and live rainforest, and living roof. Plan on spending your whole day with the kids here.
Before you start exploring the museum, take the elevator to the Living Roof . The roof is planted with native plants that don't need water or fertilizing, and the plants help keep the museum at a comfortable temperature. Plus, there are views of Golden Gate Park.
Inside the museum, two big globes enclose the planetarium and living rainforest. (The planetarium is included in your museum admission, but stop over to get a pass for the 30 minute planetarium show - shows typically appeal to older kids.)
In the Rainforest , step inside a living rainforest, where you can see blue and yellow macaws, leaf cutter ants, green geckos, sun beetles. At the top level, there are free-flying butterflies - don't be surprised if a large blue Morpho butterfly lands on your hand (and doesn't want to leave).
From the Rainforest, the elevator goes directly down into the Amazon Flooded Forest and Steinhart Aquarium . The walk through tunnel of Amazon fish is mesmerizing, with ancient-looking fish, such as arapaima.
In the Aquarium check out the tanks with marine life of the California Coast, Twilight Zone (marine life deep in the ocean), Philippine Coral Reef. The aquarium is a unique opportunity for kids to see amazing marine life, inches from your face.
Don't miss the feedings of the South African penguins in the mornings and afternoons. (Penguins are in the African Hall).
Curiosity Grove a play space for little ones (kids 6 and under) – families have fun with games, puppets, books, activities, in a California forest setting.
Another super feature of the museum, is excellent self-service cafe with a wide variety of real (not fast) food, all kid-friendly, and an outdoor area where kids can run around and play.
De Young Museum -
First stop, after you've sat on all the nice Andy Goldsworthy stone boulders at the main entrance, is the observation tower . From the observation tower, there's an expansive view of Golden Gate park, San Francisco neighborhoods, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin headlands in the distance.
Tip: While you're waiting for the elevator to the observation deck, don't miss exquisite woven artworks by Ruth Asawa , hanging from the ceiling and on the walls.
Some of our favorite pieces in the museum – Three Machines (three colorful gumball machines) by Wayne Thiebaud, clay and glass work, Pacific Northwest and Hopi Native American art, and exquisite Maya artifacts.
Japanese Tea Garden - This Japanese-style garden, created for the 1894 Exposition, was designed by Makoto Hagiwara, who is also credited with the invention of the fortune cookie. Today, explore this exquisite landscape with a beautiful red pagoda and temple gate, ponds, waterfalls and sunken gardens.
Kids will want to go over the Moon Bridge several times. Look for one deer, two wading birds, four frogs (bronze statues in the garden). Stop in the tea house for Japanese snacks, sweets, udon, mochi ice cream, green tea and soft drinks.
Heroes Redwood Grove - Near the Rose Garden is a mini-grove of redwoods. Coastal redwoods were planted as a memorial to soldiers of World War I. It's a peaceful, quiet stroll through soaring redwood trees, light filtering through the branches.
To walk through the grove, from the Rose Garden near the entrance from JFK Promenade, you'll see a dirt path through the trees. Follow the path east, it comes out on the promenade, behind the de Young Museum observation tower.
Koret Children's Playground and Carousel (Keezar Drive) - This large playground is a favorite place for local kids. Swing on the toddler swings, crawl through big tubes, climb on multi-colored structures, whoosh down the long slide, splash in the water play area and play in the sand. Little kids will also enjoy the old-fashioned carousel .
Picnics - Golden Gate Park is the perfect place for a picnic. You can spread a picnic out wherever there is a grassy spot. There are picnic tables near the Children's Playground, Rose Garden, Pioneer Cabin, and tables and bar-b-que grills in Lindley Meadow, Marx Meadow (along John F. Kenney Drive, west of Crossover Drive.)
Blue Heron Lake (formerly Stow Lake) - Blue Heron Lake is a large artificial lake with an island, Strawberry Hill, in the middle.
Rent boats at the Blue Heron Boathouse – pedal boats and row boats are available. As you boat around Stow Lake, you'll pass by the Golden Gate Pavilion, a Chinese-style gazebo with green-tiled roof, and Huntington Falls.
Rent bikes - Next the boathouse, you can rent bikes and pedal surreys for two, four, or six people. Surreys are ideal if you have little kids.
Climb up Strawberry Hill - Cross over the rustic bridge, and climb up the path to the top of Strawberry Hill. At the top, there are fine views of the Golden Gate Bridge through the cypress trees.
Fairy doors -
Look for fairy doors in Golden Gate Park. Fairy doors are tiny doors situated at the bottom of trees - "Welcome Fairies."
We've found three doors in the park - and provided maps to make them easy to find. On our blog: Fairy Doors in Golden Gate Park
Elk Glen Lake -
Small scenic lake with sandy beach, ducks paddling in the water, surrounded by trees, benches to sit down. Lake is located west of Stow Lake and Crossover Dr.
Tip: A fairy door is located on the trail around the lake. Check blog post above, for map to locate the door.
Hellman Hollow -
Looking for a place to picnic and kids run around? This is great spot to come on a holiday weekend, when other areas are more crowded and parking is difficult.
Very large grassy area with plenty of picnic tables and restrooms. Bring kites to fly, it's usually windy. and balls to toss around.
Bison Paddock - Bison, or buffalo as they are more popularly called, are long gone from the American prairies, but you can see them in Golden Gate Park. Bison have been grazing in Golden Gate Park for over a 100 years. Very homey. Tip: Often the bison are not very visible, grazing far up the field.
Beach Chalet and Dutch Windmill - Stop in the Beach Chalet , now a Vistor's Center and restaurant. In the visitor's center, there is a wonderful diorama of Golden Gate Park (complete with gobs of miniature trees.) The murals on the walls depict scenes from San Francisco in the 1930's.
Next to Beach Chalet is the "Dutch Windmill." This 75 ft. windmill was originally built to pump water for use in Golden Gate Park. The windmill has been restored and the arms move, although it no longer pumps water. Around the windmill is a garden, planted with thousands of tulips.