Top 20 San Francisco attractions

Presidio

free admission
Presidio

The breathtaking Presidio is a must-see attraction in San Francisco.

The Presidio has some of San Francisco's best vistas, a world away from the bustling city below.  

There's so much to do at the Presidio, including museums, restaurants, and trails. A minimum of two days is required to really do it justice. 

The key activities are clustered around the Main Post up the hill, on Crissy Field along the beach, and the bluff overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Review this map.

10 best things to do at the Presidio

1. Visit the Parade Ground at the Main Post.

The PresidioThe Presidio

The Main Post is the cultural heart of the Presidio, used for public events like picnics and festivals.  Spend some time relaxing on the expansive lawn at the Main Parade Ground, flanked by the Montgomery Street Barracks.  

The five stunning, Colonial Revival buildings at the Parade Ground were constructed in the 1890s, and housed soldiers en route to conflicts like the Spanish-American War (1898), and the Philippine-American War (1899 to 1902).  During the Philippine-American War, an astounding 80,000 soldiers passed through here!

montgomery street barracks at the Presidio.montgomery street barracks at the Presidio.

So what was a typical day like for soldiers stationed here?  

Soldiers were awoken at 6am by a cannon boom, and the sound of a bugle playing Reveille. They showered in the basement, then went to the mess on the first floor for breakfast at 6:30am.  Most of the day was spent practicing military drills on the Parade Grounds, but the gorgeous views must have been some consolation to them.  Any downtime was spent in a recreation room playing billiards.  

This was a highly regimented lifestyle, and lights went out at 9pm each night to the rousing sound of Taps on a bugle.  The open dormitories were located on the top floor, with 218 men in each of the five buildings.

Presidio Band BarracksPresidio Band Barracks

It's fun to do a little exploring around the Parade Ground and see different architectural styles. The Georgian Revival style Band Barracks are at either side of the Montgomery Street Barracks, and housed 37 musicians.  

Other notable buildings clustered around the Parade Ground, include the Guard House (1899), Fire Station (1917) and Hospital (1899) on Lincoln Boulevard, the Post Chapel (1932) on Fisher Loop, the Theater (1939) and Officers Club (1790s) on Moraga Avenue, and Officers Quarters (1862) on Funston Avenue.

Review this map to explore.

2. Pick up maps and browse exhibits at the Presidio Visitor Center.

Presidio Visitor CenterPresidio Visitor Center

The Presidio Visitor Center is just steps from the Parade Ground, and is a great place to pick up maps, talk to park rangers, and learn about the history of this area. It also has enviable views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Gift shop at Presidio Visitor CenterGift shop at Presidio Visitor Center

There's a gift shop inside the Visitor Center, and a useful model of the Presidio so you can get your bearings.

Presidio historyPresidio history

The Presidio Visitor Center is housed inside the old Guard House (1899), that originally acted as a stockade (jail).  It later became a post office, bank, then travel agent.

Exhibits at the Presidio Visitor CenterExhibits at the Presidio Visitor Center

The informative exhibits include the natural, native american, military, and architectural history of the Presidio, spanning 10,000 years.

The Presidio was originally an old military fort established by the Spanish in 1776, falling under Mexican, then U.S. control. During WWII it was a power hub when the Western Defense Command stationed here. This 1,500 acre site was transferred to the National Park Service in 1996 after falling into neglect. Since then roughly 75% of the buildings have been rehabilitated and put to new use.

Explore the magnificent grounds and enchanting eucalypt forests planted by the U.S. Army, and admire the nearly 800 buildings that span all eras from the Spanish occupation to the Cold War. These buildings served as army barracks, Officers' quarters, a hospital, warehouses, air hangers and stables. 

The Presidio is steeped in history, emanating from every corner of this majestic park.  

3. Visit San Francisco's first building at the Presidio Officers Club.

The Presidio Officers Club is also at the Main Post, and has a museum, restaurant, and great hall to hang out in.  It's the birthplace of San Francisco, home to a 1790's adobe from the Spanish-era occupation of Alta-Vista California (now San Francisco).  

The Mesa Room enables you a close-up look of the clay brick wall from the 1790s.  The first 200 Spanish settlers and their families, used Native Indian labor to build this wall.  It's the oldest building in San Francisco and hauntingly beautiful, and the atmosphere is strangely serene.

The Moraga Hall is the star of the show, where the top brass from the U.S. Army used to relax at social functions.  Big Hollywood names like Veronica Lake and Bob Hope performed here.  

Sit by the roaring fire in the Moraga Hall, and admire the Mission Revival architecture.  In 1934 the entire complex was rebuilt in a Spanish style, complete with heavy beams, and white-washed walls, and the results are spectacular.  

Presidio Officers Club restaurantPresidio Officers Club restaurant

There's also a Mexican restaurant next door, where you can wash down a delicious meal with margaritas and agave flights.  

Presidio MuseumPresidio Museum

Head to the rear of the building to the free Presidio Heritage Gallery.  This beautifully designed museum covers the history of the Presidio, and the shameful period during WWII where Exclusion Orders were issued by General DeWitt to intern 120,000 Japanese-Americans in camps. They were forced to leave their homes with just the clothes on their backs.

4. Learn about the Disney story at the excellent Walt Disney Family Museum.

The Walt Disney Family Museum is also located at the Main Post, inside a renovated building at the Montgomery Street Barracks.  

This superb museum has two floors of exhibits on the incredible life of Walt Disney.  It's fascinating to learn about Walt's humble beginnings, his first bankruptcy in his 20s, subsequent move to Hollywood where he was on the brink of financial ruin, then salvation in the form of the iconic Mickey Mouse character. 

Walt Disney was a risk taker and innovator, and definitely one of the most fascinating characters of the 20th century.  

No-one has ever come close to Walt's 22 Oscar wins and 59 nominations!

Walt's crowning glory was the creation of Disneyland, the first family theme park, with a main street based on his hometown of Marceline, Missouri.  It's fun to peer down at the 14-foot model of Disneyland at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

5. Take a photo at the Yoda Fountain at the Lucasfilm headquarters.

Star Wars fans are in for a treat, because the Lucasfilm headquarters is located at the Presidio, just down the road from the Main Post.  Many of the old military buildings at the Presidio now have a second life as offices and headquarters.

This isn't an official museum, but the folks at Lucasfilm are happy for visitors to poke their head around the lobby, and take a look at some of the displays like R2D2, Darth Vader, and a Stormtrooper.  

You can also take a picture of the Yoda Fountain in the courtyard, that seems to attract a lot of fans!

6. Enjoy incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge at Baker Beach.

Baker Beach

Baker Beach is on the western shoreline of the Presidio, with breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Stroll along the beach, or take advantage of the picnic tables or grills.  

This beach is so easy to get to, with parking lots steps from the sand.  A note of caution though, the riptides and cold water make it unsafe for swimming.

Battery Chamberlin San Francisco

Battery Chamberlin is set back from Baker Beach, and is part of an early 19th century coastal defense system designed to protect the Bay.  Each month there's a demonstration of an impressive 50-ton, 6-inch disappearing gun.

7. Learn about how the bridge was built, at the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center.

The Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center is in the Northwest corner of the Presidio, with some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  

Learn all about the incredible engineering feat of how the Golden Gate Bridge was built, and stop by the busy gift shop.

The exhibits inside the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center reel off some staggering statistics.  

For example, 80,000 miles of wire were used on the main cables, enough to wrap around the earth three times.  There are also 600,000 rivets in each of the three towers.  Pity the poor person who had to count those rivets!

Step outside the Welcome Center, to explore more exhibits explaining exactly how this suspension bridge was constructed.

The exhibits are situated on Battery Lancaster, part of an early 19th century defense system that guarded the Bay's entrance with three guns.  Battery Lancaster has magazine rooms for ammunition, and secret underground rooms. 

There's a cross-section of the two main cables on the Golden Gate Bridge, with an astounding 3-foot diameter. Ever seen a cable that thick before?  Each cable on the Golden Gate Bridge is 1.4 miles long, and holds the entire weight of the bridge.

The Round House Cafe is located close to the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, in a circular, art deco building constructed in 1938.  It has had many different uses, first as a diner, then a gift shop, and now a casual snack bar.

Continue along the plaza for some glorious views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Look how close you can get!  

Walk a short distance from the Round House Cafe, to the plaza overlooking the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge.  Wow!  It's so close you can touch the bridge.  

Tourists are mesmerized by this scene, spending hours watching the constant parade of cars thudding across the bridge, or cyclists riding along it. Roughly 40 million cars cross this bridge each year. 

If the bridge becomes shrouded in fog, you will hear the haunting sounds of the fog horn across the Bay to warn approaching ships.

One of the most astounding facts about the Golden Gate Bridge, is that it can move nearly 28 feet sideways, on windy days!  This is known as deflection.

8.  Enjoy soaring views along the Battery East Trail.

The Battery East Trail is a magnificent 850-foot trail, that connects the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center on the blufftop, to Crissy Field at the waterfront.  The trail starts near this overlook, just outside the Golden Gate Welcome Visitor Center.

As you make your way down the path, you'll enjoy soaring views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  

The trail ends at Crissy Field, just near the Warming Hut Cafe.  This is the sign at the bottom of the trail.

9.  Walk or bike along the 1.5 mile waterfront path at Crissy Field.

Crissy Field is an old airfield at the Presidio, now converted into a grassy, recreation area.  Park at the Crissy Field East Beach Parking Lot, then walk or bike along the 1.5 mile waterfront path that flanks East Beach, ending at Fort Point at the Golden Gate Bridge.

There are distant views of Alcatraz Island from the path.

The beach is fun for sand play, but unfortunately unsafe for swimming.

The waterfront path at Crissy Field continues to the Greater Farallones Visitor Center (991 Marine Drive), housed in the old Coast Guard building. This is a small but interesting Visitor Center, with exhibits on the marine sanctuary at the Farallon Islands, located off the coast of San Francisco.

Stop for a coffee or snack at the charming Warming Hut Bookstore and Cafe (983 Marine Drive).  There's also a fabulous gifts sections, with some great options for kids and adults alike.

The fishing pier known as Torpedo Wharf, is just outside the Warming Hut Bookstore and Cafe.  It was built in 1846 to aid in the construction of Fort Point, and rebuilt numerous times. The Army used this in the early 19th century to develop an underwater mine defense system for the Bay Area.  

10. Tour the civil-war era Fort Point, that guarded San Francisco from attack.

Fort Point once had tremendous strategic importance in fortifying San Francisco from attack by foreign powers. The red brick fortress you see today was built during the Gold Rush days of the 1850s, where there were fears about invasion from foreign rivals, and the fort was armed with a series of cannons.

The Fort is free to visit, and the views from the Barbette Tier (the roof) are incredible. 

 
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