San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which spans more than 1,000 acres, has its roots with the early environmentalists who wanted to grow trees in sand dunes. The park separates San Francisco’s Richmond and Sunset Districts, starting near Haight-Ashbury’s iconic Hippy Hill and ending at The Great Highway across from Ocean Beach— that’s one mighty big stretch of greenery!
In fact, Golden Gate Park is the largest urban park in the US. Considering its size, it’s no wonder there’s so much inside for LGBTQ folx to discover. Where else on Earth can you find world-class museums, nightlife, music festivals, a wide range of recreational activities (hiking, mountain biking, boat racing, polo, archery, and football, just to name a few), sprawling forests, picnic-worthy meadows, bucolic lakes, and lush botanical gardens, all ending at the beach?
You could spend an entire day inside this park, and you would just be scratching the surface of what it has to offer. For those who don’t have time to see it all, here’s our list of 11 great things to experience in Golden Gate Park.
1. View queer exhibits at de Young Museum
The de Young houses a permanent collection of artwork by thousands of artists, from ancient and classical, to modern and contemporary. Its latest exhibition celebrates the career and legacy of gay fashion designer Patrick Kelly. Touching on Kelly’s experiences in the New York and Paris gay nightlife scene, Black history, and his childhood in the South, this exhibition is a must-see. It runs from now through April 24, 2022.
You will find plenty of queer artistry throughout the collection other times of the year. Visit the de Young to see the work of gay iconoclasts such as Keith Haring and Andy Warhol.
2. Take a date to the California Academy of Sciences
Across from the de Young is the California Academy of Sciences, a giant natural history museum, aquarium, and planetarium all under one “living roof.” Inspired by the very same spirit of wildlife conservation that founded Golden Gate Park, visitors can explore all the mysteries of the natural world here without leaving the comfort of city limits.
After hours, the museum turns into Golden Gate Park’s hottest nightclub. Its “NightLife” events, some of which cater to the LGBTQ community, offer admission to all of the museum’s attractions at a fraction of the standard ticket price. Frolic with butterflies in the rainforest exhibit, blow your mind watching a laser show in the planetarium, and dance yourself clean to live music entertainment. These events are great for date night or rounding out a full day of San Francisco sightseeing. Check the calendar and get your tickets in advance; they tend to sell out.
3. Cruise the Roller Rink on 6th Avenue
For those who don’t love nightclubs and bars, outdoor social activities are a great way to spy on athleisure-clad cuties and meet new people. Roller skating is having a renaissance right now, particularly with the TikTok crowd, and the rink on Sixth Avenue is at the center of it all. It’s the perfect place for Friday night cruising. Folx bring lights and speakers, there’s a DJ. It’s a full-on outdoor roller disco!
If you prefer an old-school, indoor vibe, check out the Church of 8 Wheels on Fillmore Street. This community-focused organization has turned an old church into a happening roller rink. No skates? No problem! It has rentals, and they’ll even teach you how to use them. FYI: it’s cash only.
4. Discover your new favorite band at Outside Lands
Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival is one of San Francisco’s most coveted tickets of the year, often selling out in a matter of hours. Last year’s event included top talent like Lizzo, Boys Noize, Tame Impala, Tyler the Creator, Angel Olsen, as well as lesser-known indie acts who are more than ready to be added to your next playlist.
FUN FACT: “Outside Lands” refers to an old nickname for the area west of Van Ness. Back in the day, that region had very few roads, was covered by sand dunes, and was considered largely uninhabitable.
Can’t get into Outside Lands? Don’t worry, Golden Gate Park hosts many events throughout the year that are entirely free to the public. Live music junkies should mark their calendars for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in October.
5. Rent paddle boats at Stow Lake
Wrapping around Strawberry Hill, Stow Lake gives visitors a tranquil, serene escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. The most ideal way to take it all in? Onboard a romantic paddle boat, of course.
After your aquatic tour, stop by the historic Stow Lake Boathouse for lunch. This cozy cafe offers a wide variety of fresh house-made items, using organic, locally sourced ingredients. They also have beer and wine to help soothe any lingering seasickness.
6. Find your zen at the Japanese Tea Garden
Sit at a traditional “irori” table and sip a meditative cup of tea in the oldest public Japanese Tea Garden in the United States. Nestled at the center of the garden, overlooking a koi-filled pond, you’ll create a moment of zen to remember for the rest of your life.
LOCAL TIP: We dare you to climb the impossibly steep moon bridge along the path through the gardens.
7. Ride the giant Ferris Wheel
Want a different perspective on city life? Hop in the queue for Golden Gate Park’s newest attraction, the SkyStar Wheel. Ride a private, enclosed gondola 150 feet into the air and enjoy breathtaking views of the park below, Sutro Tower, Twin Peaks, and beyond.
8. Banter over bocce ball
Nestled in an overgrown grove of redwood and eucalyptus, behind the Buffalo Paddock you will find the Golden Gate Pétanque Circles. This casual, neighborhood court welcomes all forms of lawn bowling—pétanque, bocce ball, whatever floats your boat. It’s BYOB: bring your own balls. If you’re lucky, you might find a spare set in the supply cabinet on the north side of the courts.
LOCAL TIP: This court seems remote and secluded, but just a few blocks up 38th Avenue, you’ll come across the buzzy Balboa Street corridor, with plenty of food options.
9. Hike the disc golf course
Disc golf: all the fun of golf without any of the exclusivity of WASP-y country clubs! Now that one of the most elite, professional disc golfers in the world has come out, this sport is totally cool in our books.
Disc golf is a pretty low-stakes sport. It’s more about hiking through the course and having fun than scoring points. Situated on JFK Boulevard between 25th and 30th avenues, this 18-hole course winds its way through a lush, tree-lined area of the park. Even if you have terrible aim and a bum throwing arm, you’ll probably still have a good time scrabbling in nature.
FUN FACT: Golden Gate Park’s Kezar Stadium was once home to the San Francisco 49s and the Oakland Raiders.
10. National AIDS Memorial Grove
The National AIDS Memorial Grove may be the most serene and spiritual place in the City by the Bay. It was conceived in 1989 when the city was in the grip of the AIDS epidemic. Its aim is to provide a healing sanctuary for those impacted by AIDS and the loss of loved ones. It remains a beautifully tended woodland grotto to explore and a place of quiet contemplation. As you find yourself walking beneath the fronds of giant ferns, you’ll spot the many rocks engraved with the names of those lost to AIDS. A “Circle of Friends,” formed from Minnesota flagstone, is engraved with no less than 2,500 names. It’s impossible not to be moved by what the Grove and its individual memorials represent.
11. Walk along the Pacific Ocean to Baker Beach, the gay jewel of San Francisco
Golden Gate Park ends at the Pacific Ocean. The boundless horizon makes Ocean Beach truly a sight to behold. Once you are there, make a right and find your way to the path near Sutro Baths at Lands End Park. In the early 20th century, this coastal trail was once a railroad line that connected Fisherman’s Wharf to a previously inaccessible part of the city. Head along the path to the white sands of Baker Beach, where you will find a crowd letting loose night and day (sometimes nude and always frisky).
LOCAL TIP: Around September, you may stumble upon Burning Man attendees “decompressing” (read: partying) on the nudist side of the beach.