Escape SF Without Leaving Town By Visiting These 8 Places

You could use a break.

Despite what the throngs of tourists on Tahoe beaches might have you believe, travel in the Bay Area is still technically “essential” only. If you’re a rule follower, but still need an escape (or would rather not spend eight hours in traffic), you’re in luck because SF is home to tons of spots that will transport you to another country and even another time, or just offer you refuge from the craziness that is life in 2020.

Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers

Golden Gate Park
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Turns out Shakespeare had a lot more quotes about flowers than just the one everyone knows from “Romeo and Juliet,” and you can see a bunch of those blooms he waxed poetic about in this off-the-beaten-path (a lot of people completely miss it entirely) Golden Gate Park garden that feels like it’s straight out of the English countryside. Read the floral quotations on the back wall that features a bust of the bard, or, if you want extra credit: Bring one of his plays to read while sitting on a bench.

Stockton Street in Chinatown

SF’s Chinatown is not only the oldest one in SF, but the largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia. Because of that, it’s also a very popular tourist destination, but most visitors stick to Grant Avenue where the gift shops, picturesque dragon-entwined lamp posts, and red lanterns cater to their expectations. Skip that and instead head to Stockton Street between Washington and Broadway, which is where the people who live in Chinatown shop. There, you can explore produce markets, live animal markets, herbal shops, and dim sum bakeries, and get a real sense of the local vibe. Be sure to also slip off into the less-traveled alleyways that were once home to opium dens and brothels, and where you’ll now find colorful facades, people playing mahjong, laundries, and more. (And while we definitely just told you NOT to go to Grant Avenue, we’re making an exception during COVID when the street is shut down on the weekends and filled with tables and chairs where you can enjoy takeout from a bunch of restaurants that could really use your business.)

Cayuga Park

Outer Mission
Obviously there are tons of hidden nooks and crannies all over Golden Gate Park that will help you escape from the real world, but you probably already know about most of them, so instead we’re going to highlight a park you probably don’t already know about. Cayuga Park has a baseball diamond, basketball court, tennis court, and a bunch of other stuff you’d expect to find in a SF park, but what you probably wouldn’t expect are the gorgeous themed gardens (“Garden of Eden” and “New Trail of Hope”) or the hand-carved wooden figurines (over 375 of them, all made with reclaimed wood from the park), totem poles, and other statues. This park won’t just transport you to another place, it will transport you to another time -- a mythical time when there were knights and trolls and mermaids and fairy tales came true.

Andy Goldsworthy's 'Wood Line'

If you don’t know it’s there, you’ll probably miss it, but right next to Lover’s Lane in the Presidio is a eucalyptus grove that hides one of the four pieces of Andy Goldworthy art that can be found inside of this enormous military post-turned-green space. Following the 1,200-foot zigzagging line of felled tree trunks can be meditative (depending on how many kiddos are around). It’s also very close to the Main Post, which we happen to think is a great spot to post up and enjoy a picnic with views.

Japanese Tea Garden

Golden Gate Park
Experience the tranquility of the oldest public Japanese-style tea garden in the United States where winding paths will take you across bridges and stepping stones surrounded by beautifully landscaped lush greenery (and cherry blossoms in the spring), and past koi ponds with colorful fish, a raked Zen garden, a historic pagoda, and, in non-pandemic times, an outdoor Tea House that overlooks it all. Basically, if you’re looking for peace and quiet, you’ll find it here, especially first thing in the morning.

Balmy Alley 

Museums aren’t open in San Francisco right now, but that doesn’t mean you have to live without art. This block-long alleyway in the Mission is covered in colorful street art murals that represent socially relevant issues and community activism in a way that is accessible and also beautiful. Though it’s not as well known as Clarion Alley, Balmy is actually home to the most concentrated collection of murals in the City, and, if we’re being honest, is a lot more fun than the whispered halls of a stuffy gallery.

Batteries to Bluffs Trail

You definitely won’t be metaphorically transported out of San Francisco on this ocean-side hike since it offers classic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, but you will be metaphorically transported to another time when coastal defense was a thing we needed and so the military built concrete gun batteries and bunkers (that you can still explore). This stair-heavy hike gets even better in the spring when the wild flowers are blooming, but if you can’t make it then, aim to be there for a sunset because while, duh, all sunsets are pretty captivating, on a clear night it’s extra super duper captivating at this spot. Make an even bigger adventure out of it and pack a picnic to enjoy at SF’s most under-the-radar beach, which is very secluded and, therefore, popular with nudists who somehow don’t mind the cold.

Mountain Lake Park

Richmond District
There’s only one natural lake in all 80,000 acres of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and it’s at this park. It’s a great place to take your dog and is also popular because of a built-in fitness circuit (bring hand sanitizer), but the jewel of the park is its namesake, which is home to all kinds of flora and fauna and is a great place to just sit and ponder or, if like most of us you’re all pondered out, enjoy a can of beer or wine with a buddy who’s in your social bubble. (Don’t worry: Beer and wine are allowed -- just not in glass containers.)

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Daisy Barringer is a freelance writer who moved to San Francisco when she was six, and yet is embarrassed to admit only discovered the Shakespeare Garden a few years ago. Tell her your favorite places to explore on Twitter @daisy.