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San Francisco’s vibrant park scene offers residents a cherished city-wide activity. Now that summer is here, use our guide to navigate each one like a local.

June 18, 2015

Get your Pendleton picnic blanket ready, because summer has arrived in San Francisco, and during this season, it’s all about the parks. Each grassy swath offers a particular atmosphere as diverse as the city’s neighborhoods, with varying terrain, views, and social scenes, so choose wisely. With our guide, you can navigate them like an insider.

Mission Dolores Park

This is the Holy Grail of parkland in San Francisco—it’s by far the most iconic, known for morphing into a daytime party every weekend. Now, after being fenced off for more than a year for major renovations (new bathrooms, tennis courts, and five acres of fresh Bermuda grass), the northern half re-opens today. Fittingly, the celebration kicks off with a silent disco party, where park-goers dance to the same music played through wireless headphones. On a typical weekend, hoards of young, skinny jean-clad Missionites pack in to bake in the afternoon sun, hula hoop, and ironically drink malt liquor—making the people watching better than the views. Do as the locals do and snag a jambon royale and gruyere sandwich from Tartine, and cheap organic wine from the Bi-Rite Market across the street, and bring an extra layer for when the fog sneaks in at sunset.

Lafayette Park

Since undergoing a massive $10 million renovation two years ago, Lafayette Park has become the go-to oasis for young families and couples with off-leash dogs to chill out in chichi Pacific Heights. With immaculate grass, manicured hedges, lavender gardens, and views of the bay, it feels as though you’re in one of the yards of the many neighboring mansions instead of a public park. You’ll find mellow groups of people sprawled on designer picnic blankets, picking at cheese plates and sipping Grenache rosé, as well as herds of French bulldogs waddling across the grassy slopes, and kids tumbling around the new eco-friendly playground.

Fort Mason Great Meadow

This great parcel has recently earned the unfortunate title “Frat Mason,” for the droves of beer-guzzling techies that have staked claim to it in recent years, but that name has been blown a little out of proportion. And it doesn’t change its verdant slopes abutting a picturesque harbor with Golden Gate views. On weekends the park is full of active residents setting up volleyball nets and makeshift softball diamonds, or tossing frisbees beneath the palm trees. Bring a game or don some Lululemon to fit in. Every Friday evening, food trucks and DJs takeover the adjoining parking lot for Off the Grid.

Alamo Square Park

The east side of the park is best known as “Postcard Row,” for the string of iconic Painted Ladies houses lining it that appeared on the opening to the TV show “Full House.” Despite its high-profile status, in recent years it’s become an under-the-radar spot for people who want a mellow alternative to the city’s party-oriented park culture. As such, you’ll spot solo visitors kicking back with a gourmet sandwich and their Kindle. Plus, it’s view of the San Francisco skyline from the top is beyond compare.

Golden Gate Park

It’s not just for tourists—locals of all stripes brave the city’s concrete hills to visit the titan of San Francisco’s parks, making the crowd a melting pot. The 1,017 acres that it posesses include the Academy of Sciences, de Young Museum, Japanese Tea Garden, and there are surprises around every bend in the path—such as the lesser-known buffalo paddocks where live buffalo graze in the fog. Some of the city’s best festivals take place in these eucalyptus-shrouded meadows, including Outside Lands (in August) and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (October).

Jenna Scatena is on the San Francisco Bay Area beat for Travel + Leisure. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @Jenna_Scatena.

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