Part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area and managed mostly by the Presidio Trust, the Presidio of San Francisco is a national park site unlike any other. What started in the late 1700s as a Spanish military outpost and evolved into an American Army post from 1846 to 1994 is now a public park with plenty of natural beauty — it sits on the northwest corner of San Francisco, bordered by the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, and dense forest. That’s not to mention the historic sites, commercial businesses, residential districts, and restaurants by James Beard Award–winning chef Traci Des Jardins that also call the park home. Best of all, many things to do here are free, making it a budget-friendly way to spend a day in the city.
Presidio Officers’ Club
Start your day in the Presidio at its oldest building, the revamped Presidio Officers’ Club, which reopened last October as a small museum, event space, and cultural center. Once a gathering spot for Army bigwigs and their families, the Spanish-style building dates back to 1776 and houses permanent exhibits about the Presidio’s military history and a temporary exhibit called “Operation Babylift: Perspectives and Legacies.” This multimedia exhibit runs through the end of 2015 and details the adoption of Vietnamese children at the end of the Vietnam War, an initiative based at the Presidio in 1975.
Also inside the Officers’ Club, you can see a piece of the building’s original adobe walls; have a drink or meal at Arguello, a Mexican restaurant by Traci Des Jardins; see Earth Wall, an art installation by British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy; and stop by the front desk to grab a map of the park and a calendar of events. Admission to the building and exhibits is free.
Art in the park
In addition to Earth Wall inside the Officers’ Club, the Presidio is home to three more Andy Goldsworthy pieces — the largest public collection of his work in North America. A guided art hike takes place the second Saturday of every month. The 2.5-hour, 3-mile loop is led by a docent and takes you past all four pieces: Spire, Wood Line, Tree Fall, and Earth Wall. Tours are free but registration is required.
Off the Grid
San Franciscans descend on the Presidio’s Main Parade Ground twice a week from April to November for a food truck festival with views of San Francisco Bay. On Sunday afternoons, head to Off the Grid: Picnic at the Presidio, a family-friendly affair with music, food, and drink carts. Bring your own blankets and lawn games, and relax like a true local.
On Thursday evenings, you’ll find Off the Grid: Twilight at the Presidio, a more adult event with live music, cocktail service, and cabanas and fire pits that can be reserved for a fee. There’s no admission fee to join the events, and you can bring your own food, if you wish, or buy food and drinks from the trucks and carts.
The best way to explore the 1,491-acre park is to simply hike it. There are 12 trails and walkways that range from flat waterfront strolls along Crissy Field to uphill treks that take you to scenic viewpoints like Immigrant Point Overlook. Trails are marked, often with accompanying maps, throughout the park.
If you’d rather keep score while being outside, play a round at the Presidio Golf Course, located in the southern half of the park. The 18-hole public course features a cafe and a pro shop.
Ongoing events at the Presidio are nearly endless, with opportunities to hear live music, listen to a lecture, volunteer your time, take your kids on a family hike, or learn about the park’s active archaeology department. The Officers’ Club hosts many cultural events like intimate concerts, a book club, and themed dances — these are all free. For more events around the park, visit the online calendar and filter by activity.