There seems to be a park every few blocks in San Francisco, so people often favor the park closest to their apartments. We meet in parks all year to listen to music, to share food, to celebrate together. Friends of mine married atop Tank Hill near their Cole Valley apartment, and my own husband proposed at a nearby dog park with a hurricane fence and a sweeping view of the city lights. There are too many parks to list, and possibly to count, so these are a few of the standouts. I highly recommend coming to visit, so you can choose a favorite of your own.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a lot like New York’s Central Park, only larger, and you can walk on its paths at night with a reasonable hope of emerging alive. The lush, 1,017-acre expanse was coaxed from a desert of unstable sand dunes at the west end of the city. Two Dutch-style windmills once pumped water through the park, maintaining an electric-powered waterfall, several small lakes, and the running creeks connecting the lakes.
For a few years, I rose early Sunday mornings, laced my red Converse with leather glued to the bottoms, and rushed to meet the lindy-hop dancers who gather in the Music Concourse. People came from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and as far as Sweden to dance together there in the park, while a tai chi group moved in slow motion nearby. Afterward, I would walk over to the five-acre Japanese Tea Garden to read over a cup of green tea and a plate of almond cookies.
Model-yacht enthusiasts head out to Spreckels Lake (near 36th Avenue), which was specially designed for mini-yachting. We go to watch the little boats when my niece and nephew are in town, or rent paddleboats on Stow Lake and take turns directing the kids to keep their hands out of the murky water. We gawk at the herd of bison whose ancestors have called the park home since 1892, and visit the recently restored Conservatory of Flowers to hunt for geckos on the panes of milky glass.
The park is a throughway for the annual Bay to Breakers race, attracting tens of thousands of drunken, costumed revelers pushing fully operational tiki bars up and down San Francisco’s hilly landscape. Golden Gate Park is the only place to relieve yourself on the route, which means that everyone stops to pee in the bushes together. Now that’s what I call a San Francisco treat.
Ocean Beach is where Golden Gate Park meets the ocean. It’s also where everyone goes for bonfires, mostly in October and November.
After the holidays, San Franciscans are known to collect truckloads of withered Christmas trees to burn on the beach. (If you’ve never watched a Christmas tree burn, I highly recommend it. It takes about 15 chilling seconds for the entire tree to go up in a whoosh of flames, and the tinsel makes sparks!) Regular police patrols keep the fires moderate and kindly overlook the cases of beer.
Next door is Baker Beach, where a few friends met in 1986 to burn an eight-foot-tall wooden man, the humble beginning of the unabashed Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
One of hundreds of small neighborhood parks scattered throughout San Francisco, South Park has a distinctly European flavor. It feels as though you should be able to visit a butcher, a baker, and a cheese shop simply by crisscrossing the grassy oval.
But the park’s denizens, with their heavy-framed glasses and silk-screened graphic T-shirts, betray SOMA’s actual economic engine. Tech geeks flock here to meet, eat lunch, and grab a quick espresso fix.
Around 1999, I worked at a web magazine a few blocks from South Park, and I would queue up for half an hour to buy lunch at Café Centro on the edge of the park. The area was awash in dot-commers attracted by the low rents and artistic potential of the newly renovated warehouse spaces.
A few years later, the pigeons were the only company. A local artist trucked in dozens of tumbleweeds and set them out on the grass. Those of us who’d somehow survived the bust could almost hear the harmonica on the wind.
But today, my new office is just across the street from South Park and picnic tables are scarce as ever. With what some have dubbed the “re-boom,” geeks are back in force, and everyone seems to know everyone else. That makes it hard to plot secret business plans on the back of a café napkin, but easy enough to get them funded.
You may remember Alamo Square from its cameo in the opening sequence of the regrettable ‘80s sitcom Full House. The family is picnicking in the park, in front of the Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies.
Because of the Painted Ladies, Alamo Square is the park mostly likely to be seen by tourists and forgotten by San Franciscans. Buses stop at the top of the Hayes Street hill so passengers can snap a photo, and then everyone climbs back aboard—leaving the park blissfully crowd-free and ready for the locals.
I mention this park for one reason only—Pug Sunday, people. The first Sunday of each month, pug owners from all over the Bay Area gather here to unleash their pugs on hapless trees, fire hydrants, and picnic blankets.
Go to gaze upon the romping, wheezing mass, and listen to the baffled owners calling out, “Prudence?” “Winston?” “Reeeeehmington!”
Wait for the end, as the owners try to re-gather their pets. A few pugs will have shaken off their identifying bandanas and stretchy collars, making them relatively indistinguishable from one another.
When the sun is high, Dolores Hill is one of the most popular and stunning parks in the city. It boasts a panoramic view of downtown, and row upon row of achingly beautiful gay men working on their tans.
The Speedo Nation shares the park with a small population of homeless people who use Dolores as a sleeping and meeting place. You’ll also find Scrabble-playing Mission hipsters, Frisbee-tossing dog owners, and families taking advantage of the large playground and barbecue areas.
The park was a Jewish cemetery until 1894, when San Francisco outlawed burial inside the city limits. Most of the remains in the city’s graveyards were exhumed and moved to nearby Colma, where the dead now outnumber the living.
Dolores Park takes its name from the Mission San Francisco Dolores, which is up the street. On Independence Day and New Year’s Eve, I meet friends here to pass flasks and watch the fireworks, which are invariably obscured by fog.