San Francisco is a fantastic destination, but like many popular travel cities, it is overrun with tourists. I am a San Franciscan native; I absolutely love this city more than anywhere in the world. If you are interested in seeing the city like a local, here are some of my all-time favorite outdoor places to visit.
Stow lake- Located in Golden Gate Park on Stow Lake Drive. Stow Lake is a small man-made lake with a boathouse that offers rowboat and pedal boat rentals. Golden Gate Park does get tourists but they focus on other areas of the park. You may see some Segways traveling near Stow Lake but overall, it is usually free of big crowds. Go on a weekday, early in the day and it’s very peaceful. Rent a boat and ride around the lake, enjoying the wildlife, ducks, geese, turtles, and seagulls will likely accompany you.
Strawberry Hill- Boats not your thing? Located in the center of Stow Lake is an island, you can access it via two bridges located on either side. Walk along the path, you will find a waterfall, climb up the staircase that runs alongside it. At the top is Strawberry Hill.
It is a steep climb but you can take a break on a small bridge midway, where there is a good view of Stow Lake below you. Continue on to the top to see fantastic views of the Richmond District all the way out to the ocean. You can even see the Golden Gate Bridge peeking out from a nest of trees. Keep an eye out for butterflies as the area is a natural butterfly habitat, they are attracted to coastal strawberries when in bloom, that grow here.
Sutro Bath Ruins- Explore the ghosts of the past at Lands End off of Point Lobos Avenue, where windswept cliffs sit at the end of the western world. In the late 1800s, Adolph Sutro developed the Sutro Baths. Building a massive structure that housed seven pools that were fed from the ocean just on the other side of the building. The structure, sometimes called the Glass Palace for its high glass walls and ceiling, was built to impress. The pools were all various temperatures, some saltwater others fresh. In addition to swimming, Sutro’s had live music, talent shows, restaurants, and a museum with mummies Sutro brought back from his travels to Egypt.
Today the area is part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, trails run through the hillside/ View indigenous plants and animals as you walk from the top (where the sidewalk is) down to sea level. The outlines of the old pools and the foundation of the old building are still visible, giving you a glimpse into the past.
Sutro Heights- Located across the street from the Sutro Bath Ruins, explore what was once Adolph Sutro’s estate grounds, Sutro Heights. Twin stone lions from Sutro’s original estate still guard the entranceway. As you walk through the park you will see the last two standing statues, a stag and Goddess Diana. The only other Sutro era things left are a gazebo-like structure called Wells House and at the cliffs edge the remains of a parapet that boasts beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean. If you look to the left from the parapet, you can see the western edge of Golden Gate Park. Imagine living in a mansion here, perched up high with beautiful views of the ocean. Sutro developed both Sutro Heights and Baths from sand dunes to a park-like setting, planting trees to help break the strong winds off of the ocean and make for a more hospitable environment for people.
Stern Grove- You will find another park, located right off of busy 19th Avenue and Sloat Blvd. Stern Grove is best known for its free summer music festivals. Strolling through the park on a quieter day you will see people walking their dogs or exploring the hillside paths behind the concert meadow. Have a picnic in the park, throw a frisbee, or take a walk around Lake Pine. You can even rent out the clubhouse for events. This park offers a great alternate to Golden Gate Park, it truly makes you forget you are in a big city.
Fort Point- This National Historic Site is located in the Presidio on Marine Drive. Go back in time and visit this historic brick fort, situated right under the Golden Gate Bridge, admission is free. Fort Point is still a standing structure complete with canons, a museum, and even a gift shop. Bring a coat, it’s usually very chilly even inside the fort.
As you walk through the corridors and into the rooms note the pictures on the walls of days gone by. Some rooms have been set up to reflect how things looked when the fort was in use. If you climb the castle-like stairs to the rooftop you will have the unique perspective of being under the Golden Gate Bridge. The fort was built long before the bridge, soldiers of the past would see an empty Golden Gate and Marin Headlands across the water. Most days it is very windy (and chilly as mentioned earlier) especially on the rooftop of the fort, expect your hair to be windblown if you take a picture!
No matter where you go in San Francisco there is always more to see and learn. This city is truly one of endless fascinations.
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