Explore hidden treasure of San Francisco’s Presidio
Where in San Francisco can you immerse yourselves in early California history, wander in the woods, watch sailboats fly across the bay and picnic on the grass, all five minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge? Add a Mexican lunch on a sunny patio, dinner with a Spanish flair at one of the year’s “Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants” and a romantic overnight in an historic inn, all of which come with plenty of almost free parking.
When you are in the mood for a day trip or a restorative weekend getaway with a little fresh air, culture and absolutely no traffic-parking-congestion stress, head for the Presidio of San Francisco. No matter how many times you delve into the 200 years of history here, from Native American to Mexican, Spanish and U.S. Army occupations, you can always make new discoveries. Among them are massive Spanish cannons, Civil War photos, 1906 earthquake cabins and an architectural extravaganza from pre-earthquake Victorians to photogenic rows of Queen Anne-style officers’ homes.
Nearly every building in the Presidio has been repurposed in recent decades into museums, restaurants, homes and recreational facilities.
From among 24 miles of walking and biking trails, try out a new route each time you come. Threading through the cypress, pine and eucalyptus forest is sweet, short, easy Lover’s Lane, while the Ecology Trail leads to Inspiration Point, and the Mountain Lake Trail and Bay Area Ridge Trails are popular for longer treks.
The Main Post
The heart of the Presidio is a vast Parade Ground where kites fly, families picnic and soldiers once drilled. It’s surrounded by dozens of restored buildings housing a visitor center, museums, a bowling center, an archeology lab, a hotel and eateries. Weekends are busy on the green with “Off the Grid” food truck gatherings, stargazing parties and special events.
One favorite hang out is the Moraga Room at the Officer’s Club, with armchairs by the fireplace and margaritas from the adjacent Arguello bar. A lively calendar of free musical events, dances, talks and films are held in the great hall on most weekends. Also in the club, the multi-media Heritage Gallery exhibits early California history, focusing on the rise of the American West, the fortunes and foibles of the city and the generations of soldiers who passed through the post. A short, touching film featuring descendants of pioneers, Native Americans and U.S. army families is worth seeing.
A casual restaurant and bar, Arguello was created with a Mexican-inspired menu by one of the city’s premier chefs, Traci Des Jardins, as her nod to the Presidio’s past. At her newest place, The Commissary, the eclectic menu is Spanish in origin, served in the updated former mess hall.
The Society of California Pioneers is one of several museums on the Main Post, showcasing photos, manuscripts, maps and more from the early days of the state and the city. The Walt Disney Family Museum is where families get involved in hands-on interactive displays, watch movies and cartoons and browse memorabilia. An expansive glass wall relieves the intensity of the Disney experience with lovely bay and park views.
Narrated walks and explorations
First-timers can tag along on ranger-led history and nature walks and/or on the free shuttle bus tours that stop at bay vistas and historic sites. Recalling military history from the 1770s through the 1990s are fragments of the original Spanish fort and rows of white gravestones in the National Cemetery, on a beautiful hillside above the Golden Gate. More than 30,000 soldiers rest here, having served from California’s founding through Desert Storm.
Another site with a stunning ocean view is the West Coast Memorial to the Missing, honoring Armed Forces troops who were lost in the Pacific during World War II.
Dazzling views of the ocean and the Marin Headlands are the attraction at Immigrant Point Overlook, where President Woodrow Wilson’s words are carved into the stone wall: “We opened the gates to all the world and said, ‘Let all men who want to be free come to us and they will be welcome.’” Here also is a picnic area and connection to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, the Batteries to Bluffs Trail and stairs leading down to Baker Beach.
Exploring on your own, you may encounter a hidden gem - the Letterman Digital Arts Center, home to Lucasfilm Ltd. of “Star Wars” fame - where on weekdays you can see Yoda holding forth atop a fountain and, in the lobby, Darth Vader and more movie artifacts. Tours are not offered, but you can relax and picnic here in the gardens and have a latte at Starbucks.
Culture vultures also head out to locate international artist Andy Goldsworthy’s installations derived from materials gathered on-site: Spire, a 90-foot-tall form made of cypress trunks; the meandering Wood Line in a eucalyptus grove; Tree Fall in the Powder Magazine building; and Earth Wall, in a courtyard of the Officer’s Club.
When you have the time to stay over, check into the Inn at the Presidio, which was recreated in grand style and comfort from 1903 Georgian Revival-style officers’ quarters. Rocking chairs on the porch and Adirondack chairs by the fire pit are the desired perches here. A second hostelry is underway on the Main Post in a former circa-1895 barracks, to be completed in early 2017.
Avid golfers also highly recommend the Presidio Golf Course, a hilly 18-hole, 6,500-yard course that winds through eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees.
Soon to emerge on a bluff above the newly built Presidio Parkway from the Golden Gate Bridge, the sprawling new Presidio Parklands vista point will connect the historic core of the Presidio with the Crissy Field bayfront below. The landscaped park will include a promenade, gathering places and a new plaza for the Presidio Visitor Center.
Karen Misuraca is a Sonoma Valley-based guidebook author, golf travel writer and the founder of DeepCultureTravel.com.