What to do in Presidio San Francisco: adventure, views, history, dining
The Presidio San Francisco was once a military base and is now a 1,500-acre urban park. The Presidio is a major recreation destination with miles of hiking trails, bike routes, and scenic overlooks. Crissy Field, Fort Point, Baker Beach, the Walt Disney Family Museum, and even a Yoda Statue are all in the Presidio.
When l arrived in San Francisco for college, the Presidio was still a military base and, frankly, it was a bit of an eyesore lying adjacent to lovely San Francisco Bay. Today, as an urban national park, the Presidio San Francisco is a beautiful treasure, with enough natural wonder, museums, history and amazing views to keep you busy for days, weeks or a lifetime.
Although the Presidio’s nearly 1,500 acres were transferred to the National Park Service in 1994 after nearly 220 years as a military base, the transformation from army base to community park has been a slow and ongoing process. Every year it seems something else is renovated, constructed, or added to this sprawling urban parkland.
Today, the Presidio of San Francisco National Park is run in partnership with the Presidio Trust, created in 1996, Golden Gate National Recreation Area (NPS) and the non-profit Golden Gates National Parks Conservancy – I know, a lot of partnerships. Despite being key as a recreation and historical venue, Presidio San Francisco is the only national park that gets utterly no federal funding, according to spokeswoman Lisa Petrie. She noted that every single dime used to maintain, renovate, and expand the beautiful urban outdoor playground comes through on-site businesses and other sources of income such as gift shops or rentals, and through the partnership with the conservancy.
Know what to do in Presidio San Francisco
The Presidio’s website is deep and detailed, with maps to download and information about all its offerings. Go there prior to your visit. One trick to get to the Presidio is to take advantage of free public transit with the so-called “PresidiGo” Shuttle from downtown San Francisco. Check out the schedule and hop on. This shuttle not only takes you to the park but another one will take you around the park. That means you can hop-on and hop-off at different sights. With 24 miles of trails, 25 miles of bikeways, many roads, and 10 official scenic overlooks and vistas, you’ll want a little help to get around to see things at the Presidio San Francisco — although walking and other recreation is popular in the park.
Your first stop is the Presidio National Park’s Visitors Center on Lincoln Boulevard, part of an expanded Welcome Plaza that was being created in 2021. There, you will find information, paper maps and brochures, and friendly park rangers – not to mention souvenirs and books. Even if you don’t manage to grab paper maps and brochures, the park has excellent signage at sights and overlooks to help you learn more while you’re touring.
Whether you are staying at a hotel in San Francisco, or even if you are dropping in for the day from a stay across the Golden Gate Bridge, there is plenty to keep you busy. Remember, there are hundreds of acres here with secrets around so many corners. I’ve named just a few top picks, below, but we hope you’ll find your own, too.
Overlooks and inspiration in San Francisco
Inspiration Point is exactly what is says – an inspiration at one of the parks’ highest points. It is a mandatory stop to ooo and ahhh, not to mention that it is a great place for a picnic or snack, as the one we enjoyed from the Presidio Social Club Exchange restaurant.
The trail to the National Cemetery Overlook winds you in behind the National Cemetery from Washington Boulevard with low stone walls beside the path inscribed with lines from “The Young Dead Soldiers” by American poet and World War I artillery officer Archibald MacLeish. From above the cemetery, established in 1884, there is another great view and a couple of benches where you can spend a quiet moment staring down at the gravestones marching down the hill in the cemetery.
The Golden Gate Overlook is popular among photographers (and social media-ites). If the fog clears for you or rolls around in just right way, you’ll have a magnificent view of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. But since San Francisco’s fog has a mind of its own, you never know. See that bank of fog between the trees above the road? Yup, we hung around for an hour and the bridge stayed hidden. Also, below the overlook and along the bluffs are old military batteries (fortifications for artillery) from 1900 that you can also explore (see part of one in the photo).
Presidio San Francisco museums and historical sights
Walt Disney Family Museum is indeed a tribute to Walt Disney and his family. You will of course find Disney-esque exhibits and history. Still, the museum – founded by daughter Diane Disney Miller in 2009 – above all else is a treasure trove of family memorabilia. Here you can gain insight into the person Walt Disney was, how he began, and the background of the Disney company through the eyes of family.
Fort Point National Historic Site, although located on the promontory at the southern base of the Golden Gate Bridge, is also on the Presidio San Francisco grounds. It’s a bit of a trek to get to the fort, but it is well worth the effort. Take the time to climb to the top of the old fort where you find yourself tucked right up under the bridge across the Bay! Plan to spend some time listening to the rhythmic thump-thump of the cars crossing the span, watching the boats and windsurfers on the water, and appreciating the now oh-so-tiny lighthouse that used to actually light the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. It is such a mesmerizing location! The fort opened in 1861 but was slated for destruction when the Golden Gate Bridge was being planned in the ‘30s. Luckily, the architect saw the value in the fort’s history and designed a special arched span to protect it during construction.
The Korean War Memorial, opened in 2016, holds special significance to me since my uncle, Capt. Ara Mooradian, MIA, USAF, is memorialized there with a plaque. The war memorial, across from the National Cemetery, should be on your tour itinerary, just as other Korean War Memorials around the world should be.
The San Francisco National Cemetery dates to 1884 and was the first national cemetery on the West Coast. It was one step in the War Department realizing a coast-to-coast chain of today’s 155 national cemeteries (nine in California). There is something about historic cemeteries, especially ones with simple white headstones in lockstep across a pristine green lawn that causes one to stop and ponder. This one, with its Bay view, is particularly moving.
Getting outdoors for recreation or just chillin’
If there is one thing the Presidio San Francisco specializes in, it’s recreation. With dozens of miles of trails and low traffic “slow streets,” both locals and visitors can take on short walks or extended hikes and runs. Many may not realize that this outdoor playground even exists in San Francisco! Gander along the beaches as you meander to Fort Point, take in newly restored Quartermaster Reach tidal marsh (the photo at the top of the story), hang out on Crissy Field, watch the kite surfers from the beach, or head out along the nearly three-mile section of the still-developing California Coastal Trail within the Presidio San Francisco.
Newly under development in 2021 is an area called Tunnel Tops between Crissy Marsh along the Bay and the Presidio Visitors Center. Expected to open in late spring 2022, Tunnel Tops is just what it says – an urban park built on top of the tunnels housing Highway 101. Under construction now are playgrounds, nature areas, gathering areas and a campfire circle, all on 14 acres – all of which promises to be a gathering spot for everyone.
Dining in Presidio San Francisco with some great choices
You may not find cafes all over the Presidio – it is after all a historic site and urban park – but there are a few places to grab some awfully yummy grub.
The Presidio Social Club Exchange restaurant is a funky and laid-back restaurant tucked in behind some buildings near Lyon Street. The interior has a retro feel while a deck includes some casual seating – newly expanded during COVID for more outdoor tables — and a new shop that offers regional products and picnic goodies.
Chef and owner Ray Tang focuses on fresh, local ingredients – we truly enjoyed the new picnic offering launched in 2021, including sandwiches, charcuterie, and salads! Pack it up and take it along to a picnic spot on the beach or bluffs.
Sessions at the Presidio has a California casual vibe but with a more upscale farm-to-table flair. Tucked into an enclave of Presidio buildings called the Letterman District, we agree with general manager Joe Donohue that “you have to know it’s here.” But it is well worth making that effort to find Sessions. Think Wagyu Beef Bolognese and a Wagyu Beef Burger with a fine Skywalker Ranch rosé on a lovely spacious terrace.
Like so many restaurants post-COVID, Sessions too is revamping a bit to cater more to locals while still attracting visitors. Unique at Sessions is its partnership with Skywalker Ranch in Marin County (yes, George Lucas’ place) where it gets most of its produce, herbs, and olive oil. You can also enjoy Skywalker wines. Dare we recommend the fine Skywalker Ranch rosé that accompanied our pasta and a burger well.
There are several other cafes, including in the so-called Warming Hut on the beach walk, and even the old military post’s bowling alley has a grill we hear is a quite popular. (We visited in mid-2021 when some restaurants had not yet reopened or had just re-opened; thus, we only visited the above two.)
Art and sculptures at the Presidio
If history, Walt Disney, views, and outdoor recreation aren’t enough, you can also find art and sculptures at the Presidio San Francisco. English artist Andy Goldsworthy has several creations in the Presidio San Francisco. Wood Line, created in 2011, takes you along a trail in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Others are Tree Fall, Earth Wall, and Spire (which unfortunately was set fire and is now scarred). A 2.7-mile loop will take you past them all.
Finally, there is the Yoda Statue and Fountain in front of the Letterman Digital Arts Center, which houses Lucasfilms Ltd., among other George Lucas endeavors. Although a hidden gem in the Presidio San Francisco, the statue is a popular pilgrimage among Star Wars fans. At the top of the cascade of water, Yoda holds court, seemingly about ready to utter his famous words, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Yup, seems you could spend your entire vacation finding all these things to do in the Presidio San Francisco. To be honest, the urban playground is one of my favorite places since the views and variety are so diverse, and you feel so far away from city streets. If you have a chance to spend money in the park – either on souvenirs, books, or at a restaurant — do so, because a percent of visitor expenditures does help to fund the Presidio Trust’s operations of the national park. And we all want to keep this urban gem shiny and memorable for a very long time.
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