San Francisco is a unique city and has something for everyone – iconic sites, outdoor space, historic landmarks, and diverse culture. When planning your trip, there is no place in the city that blends all of these things better than the Presidio of San Francisco. So, what exactly is the Presidio in San Francisco?
The Presidio of San Francisco is a large, revitalized recreation area that served as an important military base for over 200 years. Today, the Presidio is modernized with gift shops, restaurants, museums, outdoor spaces and trails, beaches, and historic buildings.
With so many things available to do at the Presidio of San Francisco, you could easily plan an entire trip around it. Whether you have a whole week or just a day, the Presidio is a must add to your itinerary when visiting the Bay Area. Continue reading for more information on why the Presidio is such a highly recommended place to visit, where to get the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and how to get there.
The Presidio – In the Past
The Presidio of San Francisco is a 2.4 square mile area of San Francisco located at the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula where the Golden Gate Bridge starts. It’s famous for having served as a defensive military location for over 200 years for three different countries.
The area was first fortified in 1776 by the Spanish to protect San Francisco Bay and the surrounding Alta California province. The base came under Mexican control when Mexico won independence from Spain in 1820. A few decades later, the United States government seized control of the Presidio at the start of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).
The United States continued to operate the Presidio as a US Army base until 1994, when the decision was made to close it. The US government turned the Presidio over to the National Park Service after 219 years of military use.
Several famous US generals served at the Presidio of San Francisco, including William Sherman, George Henry Thomas, and John Pershing.
Strategic Significance of the Presidio
The Spanish quickly recognized the importance of the San Francisco Bay as a safe haven for their fleet. This characteristic allowed the government of New Spain to quickly and efficiently transport troops and goods up and down the California coast.
Under American control, the base continued to show strategic significance as a launching point for military operations throughout the Pacific Rim. For example, the US Army used it to stage the invasion of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War (1898).
During World War II, the Presidio was known as the headquarters for the Western Defense Command that directed all US military activity in the Pacific theater. The Presidio was also home to the Letterman Army Medical Center (LAMC), which provided top-notch medical care for soldiers wounded in every US foreign conflict of the 20th century.
The Presidio Today
Today, the Presidio looks very different than it once did. After being turned over to the National Park Service, the Presidio has gone through a total transformation. The Presidio is now a mixed-use area full of parks, hiking trails, recreational areas, museums, historic buildings, gift shops, restaurants, and a golf course. It’s the perfect place to experience the history, culture, and fun activities that San Francisco has to offer both residents and visitors.
You will find many restaurants and cafes within the Presidio. Because the area is a tourist hotspot, most places are pretty casual. However, you can visit some nicer places like the trendy gastropub, Sessions at the Presidio, and the elegant Presidio Social Club.
A popular dining choice is to pack a picnic lunch to enjoy from one of the outdoor areas with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Presidio is unique because it is the only land controlled by the National Park Service that operates a formal residential leasing program. Currently, the Presidio has enough rental housing for about 5,000 people.
To get a sense of what you should expect at the Presidio, remember this was an operational military base that functioned like a small city. Today, most of the former base buildings have been converted into museums, residential housing, government offices, and recreation facilities. In addition, areas like the airstrip at Crissy Field have been converted into parks.
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Bay Area Answers Fun Fact: The US Army started to plant a forest at the Presidio in the late 1800s, and today it’s a 300-acre woodland. It’s estimated that there are around 60,000 trees in the park today.
Who Owns the Presidio of San Francisco?
One of the most notable features of the Presidio of San Francisco is the way that it is managed and funded. When the military base was decommissioned, there was a lot of pressure to auction off the land to avoid additional costs to the federal government to maintain the land.
For this reason, Congress authorized the creation of the Presidio Trust, and a US government corporation was set up to manage the Presidio. This was the first time that a trust was used in this fashion. The condition of approval was that the Presidio would be financially self-sufficient by the year 2013. The Trust was so successful that it achieved financial self-sufficiency ahead of schedule in 2006.
The responsibility of managing the Presidio is split between the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service. The Trust maintains about 80 percent of the interior area (including the historic buildings), and the National Park Service maintains the coastal areas and beaches.
What to Do at the Presidio of San Francisco
The Presidio has a variety of activities that the entire family will enjoy, including outdoor activities (hiking, biking), beaches, historic sites and museums, gift shops and dining.
I recommend starting your visit at the Main Post. This area is the hub of the Presidio that includes a visitor center, historic buildings, and parade grounds. The center is a great place to start by grabbing a map of the Presidio that highlights all the key activities.
Museums – If you can only make it to one museum, check out the Presidio Officers’ Club located a short walk from the parade grounds. This museum gives a complete overview of the park’s history. If you have time or are a Disney fan, check out the Walt Disney Family Museum located right off the Main Post Lawn that highlights the life and history of the legend himself.
Historic Sites and Monuments – While there are over 800 historical buildings found in the Presidio, most have been restored and repurposed from their original use. For this reason, you won’t have many buildings that you can go inside. However, there are notable historical sites and monuments scattered throughout the Presidio. The most popular is Fort Point, built in 1853. You can also check out other places like the Korean War Memorial or the San Francisco National Cemetery.
Trails and Hiking – The Presidio has miles of trails, walking paths, and biking trails that wind through forested areas and along coastal bluffs. Some of the trails have fantastic views of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge (which you can walk across) or pass near historical locations. Most are easily accessible and don’t require strenuous physical activity. There are also some handicap accessible paths throughout the Presidio.
Beaches – Have some fun, splash around and cool off at the beach. There are two main beaches in the Presidio – Baker Beach and Crissy Field Beach. Both are family-friendly and have views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sports and Recreation – If you enjoy golfing and want to spend an afternoon outside, book a tee time at the public Presidio Golf Course. You can also head indoors to the Presidio Bowl bowling alley or House of Air trampoline park.
Is the Presidio of San Francisco Dog Friendly?
Pet owners will be happy to know that the Presidio is dog friendly. Dogs are allowed nearly everywhere as long as they are kept on a leash. One of the most popular places for dog owners is Crissy Field. The beach there is dog-friendly for pups that want to go for a swim. Dogs are also able to run unleashed in some of the open fields at Crissy Field.
Is the Presidio of San Francisco Safe?
The Presidio of San Francisco is a highly safe area to visit. In fact, it is considered one of the safest areas in the entire city. The United States Park Police patrol the Presidio. Tourists can feel comfortable walking the area even at night as crime is extremely uncommon. Of course, common sense and basic precautions are still recommended.
Where to Stay at the Presidio
Two main hotels are available to visitors looking to stay in the Presidio. The Lodge at the Presidio is a National Park Service hotel that boasts views of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge. For visitors looking to embrace the historical charm of the Presidio, the Inn at the Presidio is also available. The Inn is a boutique hotel that is a renovated barracks building that was constructed in 1903.
For budget-friendly tourists, the hotels within the Presidio can get a little pricy. Fortunately, there are lots of other hotels available just outside of the boundaries of the Presidio at significantly lower prices. For visitors staying outside of the Presidio, you can arrive by public transportation via shuttle bus or Muni light rail line.
Add the Presidio to Your San Francisco Itinerary
The Presidio of San Francisco is a must-add to your vacation experience. It’s a great option to give you an escape from the hustle and bustle of the urban landscape. The magnificent views of the famed Golden Gate Bridge from the Presidio alone are worth the visit. You won’t regret making it a part of your California adventure.