A Visit to San Francisco’s Presidio – what to do and see at the Presidio
Best Way to See the Presidio in San Francisco
Discover the real Presidio
The Presidio spent over 200 years as a military base and is now a very large urban park – 1,480 acres (6.0 km2). After showing it to friends for many years, this is how I organize the visit to see and enjoy the Presidio. You will get a bunch of the old military sites, from civil war era Fort Point to 1990’s Officers’ Club, World War II gun batteries to Nike Missile Sites. We add the Crissy Field nature and stunning photo spots, and neighboring Palace of Fine Arts. And of course, this is the start of the Golden Gate Bridge with views of both the bridge and Nature’s Golden Gate from Baker Beach. Read on – I think you will love this visit to the Presidio
Things to do and see in the Presidio
Time – 1 ½ to 2 hours at a leisurely pace (can take longer, if you spend a lot of time in some of the attractions) –
What to do and see in the Presidio – Highlights on this visit.
- Walt Disney Museum
- Presidio Officers’ Club
- Fort Point
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Main Post
- Main Parade Lawn
- Lucasfilm Headquarters – Yoda Fountain
- Nike Missile Site
- California Coastal Trail
- Industrial Light and Magic Headquarters
- Golden Gate Batteries
- San Francisco National Cemetery
- Crissy Field
- Palace of Fine Arts
How to get to and Where to Park to visit the Presidio
The Presidio is one of the few places in San Francisco that usually is easy to find parking in. I like to start at the Main Post and I usually find street parking close to the Walt Disney Family Museum.
If you are doing this tour on bikes and have rented them in the Marina, you can still bike first to the Main Post area. Or, alternatively, you can start your version of the tour at The Palace of Fine Arts
Things to do at the Main Post – Presidio
When you stand in the middle of the Main Post Lawn, you can get the feel of stepping into the World War II era Presidio Army Base. I like to imagine the Army doing one of their parade marches in the lawn. When you have finished enjoying the base feel, head to The Walt Disney Museum in red brick buildings.
The Walt Disney Family Museum
I suggest you try this activity first, as depending on how long you are in the museum, you can adjust the timing of the rest of your Presidio tour.
Given the Disney name, I first want to say it is a museum, not a theme park, so no rides. That said, as a museum it is a fascinating ‘ride’. It presents Walt Disney and his ideas and creations in an extraordinary way. For most adults, many of the exhibits will be like reliving different parts of their lives (like first visit to Disneyworld, or first Disney animated movie). It is a 40,000 square foot (3700m2) facility, so there is more than enough to see. I have been several times with different friends, and the museum never disappoints.
Presidio Officers’ Club
It is a nice walk up to the Presidio Officers’ Club. While it looks new, that is the result of a 2104 total renovation. The adobe walls were built in 1776 (a year before Mission Delores, the oldest existing building in San Francisco). This was the location of the first fortifications by the Spanish when they established control of California and specifically San Francisco Bay (which they called Yerba Buena). The Spanish named this fort El Presidio.
Mexico got control of the Presidio when they won independence from Spain in 1821. The Mexico military moved almost all soldiers out of the Presidio fort to their fort in Sonoma. So, in 1846, when Lieutenant Fremont rowed a small crew to the beach at what is now Crissy Field, he took control of the Presidio for the United States without a fight.
Since that point this building became the Officers’ domain until 1994 when the Presidio Army Base was closed and the National Park Service took control.
The Presidio Officers’ Club now has a nice base museum and is used as a community center for all the people who now live in much of the base’s old residences. It also has a nice Mexican restaurant if you are hungry.
The Inn at the Presidio hotel is down a bit on the right. It is one of two barracks buildings at the Main Post that have been renovated into privately run, upscale, boutique hotels (the other is The Lodge at the Presidio). I think these can be great places to stay in San Francisco for families with children. When the National Park Service took control of the land from the Army, Congress mandated that the Park Service earn enough revenue to at least breakeven by 2013. They reached that goal in 2009 and have been profitable ever since.
If you have kids with you, there are a couple of old cannons to climb on in Pershing Square to the left of the Officers’ Club as you leave it.
Time to Visit Yoda – Lucasfilm, Industrial Light and Magic
Get into your car (or hop on your bike) and head to the modern office area where George Lucas, Lucasfilm, and Industrial Light and Magic make their headquarters. And yes, there is a Yoda Fountain as part of the 17-arce park around the campus.
Neither Lucasfilm (think Star Wars in case you are still confused as to why it is cool that this is in the Presidio) nor Industrail Light and Magic (the special effects team that creates all the screen ‘magic’) have tours of their facilities.
I have had meetings in their offices, and yes, Darth Vader is in the lobby, along with a bunch of the Star Wars characters. But a photo with Yoda is worth it for all of you who are Star Wars fans. Who knows, maybe the guy that walks by you is the one who creates all the sounds R2D2 makes.
Not too far up the hill are places named Bird Watching Loop and Lover’s Lane. Both fun if you have time. On the edge of the Presido is Lyon Street and at the very upper end of the park Lyon Street becomes just a set of stairs which are quite interesting. The view is great and when you get there you are in the Pacific Heights neigboorhood of San Francisco. This is probably the most exclusive/expensive neighboorhood of the city.
What to see on the way to Baker Beach
Depending on what you like to see set your GPS for Baker Beach, either follow my map or your GPS in either case you will get there. I like taking West Pacific Avenue inside the park. It feels like you discovered a road no one else knows about. When you get to the Presidio Golf Course, turn right, back into the park. The golf course is fun and open to the public if you are so inclined.
You should be on Arguello Boulevard and you will hit a nice vista point. If you are into photos, stop. Either way, continue to Washington Boulevard to get to the Nike Missile Sites.
Nike Missile Sites
These were built during the Cold War to shoot down bombers threatening San Francisco. The two here are really mainly underground, so you can walk to them, but not too much to see. The best one is a museum across the Golden Gate Bridge in the Marin Headlands. It is open on Saturdays.
From here your next stop should be Baker Beach.
What to see at Baker Beach
Baker Beach is worth a visit if for no other reason than taking a photo there with you and the Golden Gate Bridge. On a warm day, especially in September and October or a summer heat wave, you will see lots of people on Baker Beach. Please note that North Baker Beach (basically the northern end of the beach closest to the bridge), is legally a nude beach. I told my cousin from Iowa that and Baker Beach became his ‘go to’ spot for our Presidio tour.
Once you have soaked in the waves and stunning nature, hop in your car (or on your bike) and head to Lincoln Boulevard. When you get to the Langdon Court parking lot pull in and park.
What to see on the California Coastal Trail
Take the California Coastal Trail first to the lookout point and then to one of several World War II gun battery locations. You are closer to the Golden Gate Bridge and up the cliff from Baker Beach. The photos are spectacular. You also get a bit of the feeling of being stationed at Fort Scott in the Presidio and working all day at the gun battery.
Golden Gate Bridge
If you keep going north on Lincoln Boulevard, you will be getting closer to the Golden Gate Bridge. Eventually, you will go underneath Highway US 101. If you have never been across the bridge and you have time and interest, this is your moment. After going under the highway follow the signs, but basically two quick left turns and you will be on US 101 and on the Golden Gate Bridge in less than 30 seconds.
If you just want photo or want to walk on the bridge, still take the first left, but park in the Visitor Center’s parking lot. Another great photo spot.
Things to do and see at Fort Point
After enjoying the Golden Gate Bridge keep going on Lincoln Boulevard to Long Avenue (which only goes left). This is the road to Fort Point which is one of my absolute favorite places to show people.
Fort Point is a Civil War era fortress built in 1853. The point it is on is the closet point to Marin and the other side of the Golden Gate. It is as if the two pieces of land are reaching out to each other. It makes it the natural place to put forts and bridges. So, we have both. The Golden Gate Bridge (opened in 1937) was built directly over the top of Fort Point (opened 1853). There is a Civil War era museum of what life at Fort Point was like in the 1850s and 1860s. They have lots of old cannons and cannon balls. I always walk to the top of the fort to get the once in a lifetime under-the-bridge view.
If you check the photo of Fort Point here, you will see lots of white water. The waves that come around Fort Point make it a natural surf spot, not for novices. Also, I have seen windsurfers go out and circle the first tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. If you are an old Alfred Hitchcock fan, this is the spot in Vertigo that Kim Novak jumps in the Bay and Jimmy Stewart jumps in to rescue her.
If you can pull yourself away from this spectacular spot, we will head to Crissy Field with a cemetery stop. As you head back Long Avenue you will see an old wooden wharf sticking out into the bay. This is named Torpedo Wharf. The pier was first constructed in 1854, as this was always a military area and they needed their own docking area. It got the name Torpedo Wharf because in 1909 it was used as the launch spot to put anti-submarine mines into the channel to stop torpedo submarines.
San Francisco National Cemetery
Get back on Lincoln Boulevard and head to Crissy Fields. When you get to McDowell Avenue stay straight to see the cemetery, turn left to head to Crissy Fields. There are 30,000 graves here and with rare exception it is closed to new burials. Actually, in 1900, the city of San Francisco voted to ban burials within the city limits. And further, they voted in 1912 to move all existing graves to a site south of the city limits. Since this cemetery was on a US Army base, the city laws had no affect of it.
Things to do and see at Crissy Fields
Again, spectacular views, the biggest beach on the north side of San Francisco, and a nature preserve.
After the invention of the airplane the US Army built a runway here for the base. When you see it today, it looks too small for that, but remember propeller planes back then needed very little runway to get airborne.
Today, this gives a great open field to fly kites and play with your dog. This is also where may San Franciscans run, walk or bike for exercise. If you are planning to rent a bike at Fisherman’s Wharf and ride across the Golden gate Bridge, this is the trail you will be on to get to the bridge.
Some of the old airplane hangars are now stores and some are clubs and museums. One interesting one is in an old warehouse, the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center. It tells the story of 58 Japanese-American soldiers recruited to help the US Army with linguistics and culture during the war. The remained in the building 24/7, learning, working and sleeping.
Next, we are heading to a most serene and special location in San Francisco, the Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is not officially in the Presidio. It is on the Northwestern corner, just as you head into the Marina area of San Francisco. For many years it housed the wildly successful Exploratorium which is a hands-on science center. When the Exploratorium moved to larger space at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero, the Palace of Fine Arts was renovated. It is now an event center. But the Lagoon and outside structures are the site for dozens of wedding photos every weekend.
The Palace of Fine Arts was built for the 1915 Panama- Pacific Exposition which San Francisco decide to stage as both a celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal and ‘coming-out’ [party for the newly rebuilt city of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire.
The Exposition was massive in scope covering what is now the entire Marina neighborhood of San Francisco. This old aerial photo was ‘colored’ in to show all the Expo buildings that were built. The red circle in the lower right is the building that is now The Palace of Fine Arts. All of the buildings were built to tear down and almost all of them were torn down within a month of the end of the Expo in December 1915. Only the Palace of Fine Arts survived.
I hope you enjoyed your tour around the Presidio. If you have more time in San Francisco try one of other tours: