One foggy Sunday, I took the BART into San Francisco, got off at the Embarcadero, and walked along the waterfront past the piers and vendor stands, the Exploratorium, boats to Sausalito, up the lower section’s 209 steps and the 178 top section’s steps to Coit Tower (have your inhaler– I needed mine after the 8th flight of stairs) then strolled back down Lombard Street to view the one-block section with eight hairpin turns.
Afterward, I went through Fisherman’s Wharf, the area in front of Ghirardelli Square that includes the Maritime Museum, up thru Fort Mason, stopped along the shore looking over to Alcatraz, over to the Palace of Fine Arts then across the street into the Presidio proper.
I had arrived.
Presidio, derived from the Latin praesidium meaning protection or defense, is now a Spanish word meaning “jail” or “fortification.” These fortified bases were established by the Spanish along the California coast in areas under their control.
Like Golden Gate Park, I didn’t have any preconceived notions about what there was to see or do at the Presidio. Re-purposed in 1994 by the National Park Service, this former military base is beautifully positioned with a view (when it’s not Fogust) of the south side of the Golden Gate Bridge, parks, museums, an inn… and lots of places for family fun and exercise. Covering 1,500 acres, it’d be difficult to cover it all on foot in a day, so I chose my top 11 favorite places for great experiences to use as your starting point the next time you’re thinking about leaving your heart in San Francisco.
The first stop for many, The Presidio Visitor Center was closed when I visited, but park rangers can be available on the front porch from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to answer questions.
On Saturdays, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., the Presidio Officers’ Club’s exhibits are open to the public. Better still, the admission is free. Other free things to do at the Presidio include hiking, biking, beach fun, birdwatching, viewing outdoor art installations, picnicking, scavenger hunting for iconic figures (like the Yoda statue!), seek flora and fauna, or fly a kite. And, of course, take great photos.
1. Presidio Promenade
Walking from the Palace of Fine Arts, I entered the Presidio along the Promenade Trail to continue my leisurely stroll through the Lombard Gate (the same Lombard Street that has the super curvy side at the other end), south past the Letterman Digital Arts Center, through the Thoreau Center for Sustainability, the Wayburn Redwood Grove, and onto the Main Post. While I strolled along the Promenade, I reveled in the serenity of the pristine neighborhoods, imagining how life would have been here with families with small children laughing and playing in the yards. My uncles and grandfathers were military, but we’ve never lived on a base. This one seemed… spectacular. Fitting for people who were sacrificing their time and safety on behalf of our freedoms.
2. Main Parade Lawn
This grand green space started life as a training site for the soldiers who lived in the surrounding barracks. Then it became a seven-acre parking lot. Fortunately for us, most has been returned to green gathering space where families can enjoy games, runs, rest, relax, take picnics, or delight in the versatile seating found in many other city parks, or share chairs. These truly comfy chairs are perfect to relax and watch the world go by. Just be sure to have your water and sunscreen ready! You’ll want to stay awhile.
3. The Wood Line
While the four outdoor installations created by British artist Andy Goldsworthy (Spire, Wood Line, Tree Fall, and Earth Wall) can be viewed on one 3-mile hiking loop, the one some find hardest to find is the Wood Line. Its flow seamlessly embraces Presidio’s play of nature and urban living.
On a rainy day, consider visiting the Letterman Hospital which now contains a collaborative workspace that features the Tides Converge Gallery with two galleries, The China Brotsky Gallery and the SEED Photographic Gallery. Their exhibits rotate every few months but “always focus on Tides’ four areas of focus: sustainable environment, healthy individuals and communities, quality education, and equality and human rights with economic empowerment.”
4. Lodge at the Presidio
The absolute closest lodging to the Golden Gate Bridge, this 42-room Lodge at the Presidio could be the starting point to your walk or bike across the Golden Gate or a jumping off point for the park’s 24-mile trail network that connects you to the Crissy Field, Baker and Stinson beaches.
5. The Walt Disney Family Museum
Founded by Walt Disney’s older daughter, Diane Disney Miller, The Walt Disney Family Museum opened in 2009 in a surprisingly small brick building just off the main parade lawn. Like many things Disney, however, you learn just what an illusion the “small” appearing building is when you’re still seven galleries away from finishing your tour and it’s nearly closing time. Throughout the museum (insert link to the article when it’s available**) you’ll follow the story of Walt’s parents, his childhood, his failures, and triumphs along his path to the man who created joy for so many. The interactive exhibits and galleries, especially with movies playing, keep the little ones entertained so the parents could read more.
The large model of Disneyland remained crowded the entire time I was there. The animated and live action movies and TV shows Disney created and selections of the Sunday night specials he presented were represented on many rows of TV screens, conveniently located for when the crowds will slow your movement.
It wasn’t until the end of the tour that I learned Walt died in 1966, before I was born, and before Disney World opened.
6. Society of California Pioneers
If you love untold tales as much as I do, you’ll spend hours at the Presidio’s Society of California Pioneers museum and (non-circulating) Alice Phelan Sullivan Research Library. This society is run, much like the Daughters of the American Revolution, by direct descendants of pre-1850 California pioneers. Its public mission “to share their vast collection dating from the Gold Rush to World War II, providing a richly detailed record of life in the Golden State,” proved fascinating even to a true non-Californian like me. For example, though many original items were lost in the earthquake of 1906, one surviving diary, belonging to gold miner John Sutter, details the discovery of gold. A different type of mining continues as these California pioneers search for the next great story to be shared in the rotating exhibits.
7. Korean War Memorial
In honor of those who served and sacrificed during the Korean War (1950-1953), the Korean War Memorial Foundation and the Presidio Trust, opened this memorial to share memories of the men and women that served in this sometimes described “forgotten war” that led to only 14 memorials created across the country. At the opening ceremonies, veterans from both sides of the war participated with moving results.
8. Presidio Theatre
If there’s a live performance at Presidio Theatre when you’re in the area, go! This 600-seat community venue was recently expanded and renovated to meet earthquake guidelines which allowed improvements in the size of the stage to better accommodate live dance and dramatic performances. All the original features and finishes were restored, including an awesome 1939 ticket booth reconstructed using the original WPA-era drawings.
9. Presidio Bowling Center
If you want some old-time fun, go to the Presidio Bowling Center, a 12-lane bowling alley with automatic scoring. My favorite activity is watching kids (and adults) who use the bumpers, though they ask for you to limit bumper use to children 8 and younger. It’s also a fun, quick place for a grilled meal with adult beverages available. It’s especially fun, I think, on a rainy day. There’s something magical about a child’s first strike.
10. Inn at the Presidio
Once home to bachelor Army officers, this historically restored building with bugles heralding your entry has been converted into a lovely hotel with just 26 rooms. If you make reservations far enough in advance, you may be able to claim one of the fireplace suites. And the outdoor living space is pretty perfect for s’mores, too. Nothing’s very far from Crissy Field, so you can sit around the fire and plan your next excursion.
11. Presidio Officers’ Club
From the native Ohlone tribe to the Spanish (1776) to Mexican rule (1822-1846), the U.S. Army took control over the area in 1846. Over the past 175 years, these grounds have been developed from windswept dunes to a military post to a National Historic Landmark. In 1989, congress decided to close the Presidio and it was transferred to the National Park Service in October 1994. You can see this story for yourself or exhibits ranging from Japanese internment camps to exposed adobe walls that show the changes that have taken place here. A scrapbook highlights the Presidio’s commanding officers and display of honors earned here by the U.S. Army men and women who lived and trained here.
One of the most amazing things to me was that you could rent buildings to work here and also apartments or homes to live in. Can you imagine what life would be like living on the South Side of the Golden Gate Bridge?
Here are more ideas for a trip to San Francisco: