Golden Gate Park

Park in Golden Gate Park & the Avenues

When San Franciscans refer to 'the park,' there's only one that gets the definite article: Golden Gate Park. Everything San Franciscans hold dear is here: free spirits, free music, redwoods, Frisbee, protests, fine art, bonsai and buffalo. Thanks to SF's mystical microclimates and natural eccentricity, the park is filled with flora from around the world and extraordinary sights, including the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco Botanical Garden, Japanese Tea Garden, Conservatory of Flowers and Stow Lake.

Former mayor Frank McCoppin's park project seemed impossible in 1866. Even Frederick Law Olmsted, architect of New York's Central Park, was daunted by the prospect of transforming 1013 acres of dunes into park. SF's green scheme fell to tenacious young civil engineer William Hammond Hall, who insisted that instead of casinos, resorts, race tracks and an igloo village, the park should actually showcase nature.

Today you can cover more than 150 years of SF history with a stroll through the park's eastern end. Next to the grandly elegant Victorian Conservatory of Flowers, the tiny Dahlia Garden is spikier than an SF mosh pit – and just uphill are the restored 1926 art deco Horseshoe Pits. West of Hippie Hill drum circles on Sharon Meadow are the quietly quaint Lawn Bowling Club and the contemplative valley of the National AIDS Memorial Grove. Since 1887, the park's southeastern end has hosted the city's biggest children's playground, complete with 1912 carousel and 1970s concrete slides.

Near 9th Ave are unexpected finds: Druid altars in Monarch Bear Grove behind the baseball diamond, the ruins of a Spanish monastery in the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and the Shakespeare Garden collection of 200 plants mentioned in Shakespeare's writings. Sundays, when John F Kennedy Dr closes to traffic around 9th Ave, there's roller disco and free lindy-hopping lessons in the park.

West around Martin Luther King Jr Dr are the Polo Fields, where the 1967 Human Be-In took place and free concerts are still held during Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. At the park's wild western edge, bison stampede quixotically in the Buffalo Paddock toward windmills and Ocean Beach sunsets.