“If you go to Dolores Park and see it is crowded, why even step foot in that park?” asks Mayor London Breed, clearly frustrated that despite concerns about the spread of COVID-19, people choose to pack certain spots in the city. She makes a great point, and given the multitude of gorgeous, amazing, and delightful parks located all across San Francisco, there’s little reason to pick a packed (and, frankly, basic) spot for your next al fresco meal. This map of 12 great parks at which to picnic across San Francisco — each with an nearby takeout pick — will help broaden your picnic horizons, and might spare you dangerous crowds in the process. And if you’re looking for more places with goods to pack your picnic basket, we’ve got that covered, too.Read More
12 Perfect Picnic Spots in San Francisco
San Francisco’s best parks for an al fresco meal
McLaren Park is actually the second largest park in all of San Francisco, large enough for five separate picnic areas and six playgrounds, on top of the amphitheater, lake, and garden. There’s even a genuine redwood grove near one of the picnic areas toward the northern tip of the park, a place to relax and reflect on the exploratory spirit of California itself. But despite its size and beauty, the park’s southern bearings and extra hilly disposition mean it remains oft-overlooked, and even many longtime San Franciscans have still never set foot in its 300-plus acres.
What to pack: Sandwiches from Roxie Food Center
This unassuming corner shop at 1901 San Jose Avenue is SF sandwich royalty, a beloved-by-locals place to get a hot or cold sandwich packed with meat and fixings. It’s also one of the few places in SF that’ll make a hot veggie, because non-meat-eaters deserve melty cheese, too.
Heron's Head Park
Perhaps SF’s most singular greenspace, Heron’s Head Park is a peninsula flanked on either side by India Basin and Lash Lighter Basin, offering a tiny slice of reclaimed wetlands that the city has carefully restored to something very close to its natural state. There are actually over 100 types of native birds that rely on this 22-acre site — including the great blue heron whose profile resembles the shape of the park. You do have to pick your days carefully, though, as sometimes the salt marsh smell can spoil your outing. But that’s nature for you: It doesn’t always play nice, but when it does there’s nothing like it.
What to pack: Smoked wings from Cafe Envy
Cafe Envy has a lot of credibility when it comes to chicken, as owner April Spears has also been slinging fried chicken and waffles at Auntie April’s for years. Envy’s wings, which are marinated in a house secret dressing before they head to the smoker, travel well — and come with carrots and celery to make sure you’ve gotten your vegetables.
West Bluff Picnic Area
Sometimes, a classic is a classic for all the right reasons. This grassy gathering spot just northwest of Crissy Field is hardly a well-kept local secret, and on some days the crowds or the rolling fog may spoil the atmosphere for your outing. But those afternoons when the Bay warms up and the sky turns that perfect shade of blue to clash with the soaring towers of the Golden Gate Bridge nearby are a special kind of San Francisco magic, one for which there really is no substitute.
What to pack: Rillettes and salads from Routier
Before rolling into the park, hit the brakes for Routier. The beautiful new French spot from the B. Patisserie team is rich in savory provisions, including swordfish rillettes and pork rillettes, perfect for smashing on a demi baguette, with a salad and a spritz on the side.
This is hardly strictly the only place to spend a leisurely hour in Golden Gate Park, but of all the stretches of well-tended greenery to stretch out on, it’s one of the most persistently in-demand. Before a 2011 renaming, this was known as Speedway Meadow, commemorating a time when latter-day San Francsicans engaged in horse-and-buggy races through the hollow — yes, really. Now of course it’s more famous as the park’s best music venue, but those who live nearby have the privilege of enjoying the picturesque park-within-a-park anytime.
What to pack: To-go tiki drinks from Trad’r Sam
Trad’r Sam is reportedly the oldest tiki bar in the U.S., opened right “after” the Prohibition — so you know that their to-go cocktail game is strong. Walk-up orders are the only way to go, as they’re not ones for online ordering — but they serve fast, and this drinks are dangerously delicious.
South Park was San Francisco’s first public park, and it remains one of its best, provided you can prevent a certain Primus song from harrying your memory the moment anyone utters its name. The benefits of a multi-million dollar 2017 renovation made this midday getaway spot one of the most inviting and user-friendly greenspaces in the city. Less than an acre in size and surrounded by its namesake neighborhood, South Park is not a place you go to get away from the city vibes, but rather to immerse yourself in them in style.
What to pack: Kimchee burrito from HRD
Once an unassuming coffee shop known for its strong brew, 67-year-old SoMa coffee shop HRD was transformed in 2009 into a Korean/fusion spot with lines out the door. Their kimchee burritos are the star of the spot, in chicken, beef, pork, or tofu iterations.
Billy Goat Hill
Getting to the top of Billy Goat Hill will work up an appetite well in advance of your picnic, but the hillside is not so challenging that even the most sedentary amateur hiker can’t manage it. Once you’re up there, the panorama of nearly all of northern San Francisco is tough to beat — think of it as a Twin Peaks view for a fraction of the work. The rope swing here is an unpredictable variable — sometimes present, sometimes out of commission — but it makes an unforgettable finale to your outing when it does appear.
What to pack: Tamales from Buen Comer
Before strolling into the residential neighborhood, stop by Buen Comer at the top of Mission. La Cocina grad Isabel Caudillo, originally from Mexico City, is still packaging up her tender homestyle tamales.
We can sum up the abiding appeal of a walk into Stern Grove in one word: eucalyptus. The descendants of George Greene’s original Australian transplants not only provide shade and a famously mellow and relaxing aroma, but the scale of the grove’s plantings encircles potential picnic spots so completely that it feels like a world apart, a natural cradle where residents of and visitors to the city’s west side alike can meditate free of their troubles for a time.
What to pack: Korean corn dogs from Stix
Just a few blocks north on Taraval, swing by Stix, that buzzy new Korean corn dog shop. Deep-fried snacks go hand in hand with sweet boba drinks, and nothing loves a walk to the park as much as a dog on a stick.
Nearby Bernal Heights Park has the views. But if you prefer to skip the hiking and keep things on the level, Precita Park stretches across three blocks just to the north, creating an easily accessible green corridor, complete with an unbelievable, 900-piece hand-painted tile walkway. There’s a hardworking butterfly garden here providing for local lepidoptera, but those interested in SF flora might be more inspired by a recent phenomena: Now that park-goers are spending a lot of time chilling inside social distancing circles in the meadow, tiny, industrious flowers have sprouted all over the spaces in between them, encouraged by the relative lack of foot traffic through those spots. As they say, life finds a way.
What to pack: Reubens from Wise Sons
Wise Sons, the Mission’s resident Jewish deli, is only a few blocks away, and ready to pack up bagels with smoked salmon or big meaty reubens, with tubs of kraut and pickles on the side.
Lake Merced is a critical piece of SF’s natural infrastructure, beloved of both golfers and local birds and noted for its extremely dramatic foggy mornings. If you wait for the fog to burn off and the grassy shores to warm up, it’s about as isolated as you can feel while still within the city limits. The city has other lakes, but none anywhere close to these proportions — in fact, Lake Merced is actually a system of two lakes. A number of obscure landmarks dot the area, like sculptor Beniamino Bufano’s penguin statue near the southern tip, or the markers where a state senator and Supreme Court justice fought a duel in the 19th century — actually just over the line in Daly City.
What to pack: Tacos from Underdogs Too
On your way to the lake, swing west to the end of Taraval, where Underdogs Too is ready to send you off with a bag packed with surf-style tacos. Beef, pork, chicken, fish, and veggie are all acceptable answers, but the main thing to know is to order then “Nick’s way,” which will get you an additional crispy crispy corn tortilla inside the soft one, cheese, and guacamole.
This hilltop in Golden Gate Heights Park is a deceptively unusual SF landmark. Lots of city parks strive to represent San Francisco in a natural state, but some of those states are stranger than others, and this sandy, dune-covered hill recalls the desert outside lands that once carpeted the city’s entire west side. Larsen Peak is a natural wonder, consisting of sands deposited here by the currents of melting glaciers at the end of the most recent Ice Age. If you don’t feel like climbing you can have a bite in the park’s low-lying flat lands, but those who hike to the top will get a view of the Pacific like none other, atop what local writer Gary Kamiya calls “the city’s seafront balcony.”
What to pack: Salami sandwiches from Guerra Quality Meats
The closest sandwich spot is in fact a salami institution. Swing by Guerra’s, the family-run butcher shop, for outstandingly meaty sandwiches on crisp ciabatta buns.
Two years on, it remains a little hard to tell how Salesforce Park is fitting in with San Francisco, especially after the public health crisis turned the surrounding downtown blocks into a bit of a ghost town. This new arrival still feels like a visitor. Even so, its strategically positioned park perch offers what no other picnic spot can: the surreal tranquility of rising four stories above what are usually San Francisco’s busiest streets. Along with a few other rooftop public spaces, it’s a place you can go to really feel above it all.
What to pack: Wine and cheese from the Ferry Building
After a brief July gasp during which classifications closed the food hall, its 20-plus merchants, including Acme Bread and Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant are back at it. If you can’t find picnic fixings here, you should really just go back home.
Lands End (Battery Lobos)
It’s difficult to imagine a more dramatic-sounding name for any landmark than Lands End—and indeed, sitting on the cliffs overlooking the ocean spray on the rocks below Battery Lobos and staring out toward where the often gray San Francisco sky touches the stormy horizon does feel very much like coming to a remarkable stopping point. While nearby Ocean Beach is nice enough, on those days when the sun breaks through the fog, a trek up to the batteries furnishes an extra Zen-like quality for the ocean perspective that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
What to pack: Breakfast sandwiches from Devil’s Teeth
If the fresh sea air isn’t enough to revive you, a buttermilk biscuit sandwich that’s bigger than your face always does the trick. Don’t forget, Devil’s Teeth has that new location on Balboa.