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From Military Post to National Park

San Francisco's Presidio

Photo by Jay Graham

A former army base, San Francisco’s Presidio officially received national park status back in 1994. But for years, this almost 1,500-acre green oasis has remained relatively under the radar, with few knowing much about its existence or location. The park sits in northwest San Francisco at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge and is managed by the Presidio Trust in partnership with the National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. With a new visitor center opening next month, a growing roster of family-friendly and arts programming and the Presidio Tunnel Tops debuting in 2019 (a design-driven green space by the same firm behind New York’s High Line), this national park finally gets its moment in the limelight.

While many of the Presidio’s military buildings have been transformed into offices, residences, restaurants and lodging, there’s still astonishing biodiversity and natural beauty at the park’s heart. Walk through a 300-acre forest of eucalyptus, cypress and pine trees or spot a few of the 323 bird species that have been found in the park, including great horned owls and violet-green swallows (El Polín Spring and Crissy Marsh are particularly great for bird watching). There are 24 miles of trails, including one that leads to the park’s natural lake, and 15 miles of bikeways. Start your visit at the new visitor center, named for former National Park Service director William Penn Mott Jr. and housed in a historic building. Get oriented in the sleek visitor space with interactive exhibits of the key sections and activities within the park, plus maps and a daily calendar of events.

Much of the Presidio’s programming, including lectures, dances, concerts and family crafts, takes place at the Presidio Officers’ Club building, technically the oldest building in San Francisco. The building also houses Arguello, a gorgeous modern Mexican restaurant by award-winning chef Traci Des Jardins. Snag a table and tuck into polkanes (Yucatán bean fritters), roasted carrots with Oaxacan honey and cilantro salsa or duck breast with cherry mole. Jardins’ other highly regarded restaurant, The Commissary, is also located within the park.

The grounds of the Presidio also feature a playground, swimming pool, bowling alley, trampoline park, campground and an 18-hole golf course. And who knew that the largest collection of Andy Goldsworthy sculptures in North America on public display resides here? Every second Saturday of the month, the Presidio Trust hosts a free guided art hike to the four works, including Spire (2008) and Tree Fall (2013). Visitors should absolutely take advantage of the free PresidiGo shuttle, which offers access to more than 40 destinations within the park as well as service to downtown San Francisco.

With all the Presidio’s offerings, it seems only fitting that visitors could make a weekend out of their visit here by staying at the Inn at the Presidio. Opened in 2012, the elegant 22-room hotel is housed within a historic Georgian-revival military building and feels authentic and luxurious all at once. (Four rooms are also available in the adjacent Funston House.) The Presidio Trust will soon rehabilitate a historic building on the Main Post grounds to add more lodging options within the park.

The next phase of the Presidio’s redevelopment is the Presidio Tunnel Tops, a 14-acre parkland extension (made possible by constructing the Presidio Parkway through a tunnel) that connects the Presidio’s waterfront and historic core. With a play area for children, picnic grounds and gardens with native plants, it will serve as a modern community hub with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the bay and the city skyline. The Tunnel Tops—and the Presidio as a whole—lends a sense of wilderness and refuge from San Francisco’s urban energy.


A few blocks south of the Presidio, the The Laurel Inn is a midcentury-modern boutique property, which will complete a major lobby and room renovation in March. Swathed in a color palette of blues, gold, green and ash, rooms are sprawling by city standards, and 18 of them offer espresso machines, microwaves and fridges, ideal for families. Another great option is the charming and quiet Hotel Drisco, a 48-room Pacific Heights hotel where you’ll feel like you’re staying in one of the neighborhood’s elegant Edwardian-style mansions. The top floors boast spectacular views of the city, and everything from breakfast and bicycles to evening wine and charcuterie is included. 

Within the Presidio itself and with a touch of retro, the decade-old Presidio Social Club still does a mean brunch—try the brioche beignets or burger with truffle fries—with fabulous cocktails to boot. For dinner, hipster families mob Pizzeria Delfina in Pacific Heights for its charred Neapolitan-inspired pies, antipasti and salads. Order the deceivingly simple Panna, with tomato sauce, cream, basil and shaved Parmesan. (We went back the next day, it’s that good.) 

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