Picnic at the Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco

A young child enjoys the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco www.travelswithbaby.comThis post is part of my “Cheap and Free San Francisco” series.

Just between the dazzling Romantic Revival homes of San Francisco’s Marina District and the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge lies what I consider to be one of the wonders of the modern world: The San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts. It is also one of my favorite admission-free places I recommend to anyone visiting San Francisco.

The sheer scale of its columns and landmark rotunda feel completely other-worldly given the compact architecture that characterizes most of the city around it, but that the Palace of Fine Arts still stands at all is a wonder—and an interesting story in itself. Originally built as part of San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts was, like all of the spectacular structures created for the event, not built to last.

Burning Man is one thing (which coincidentally got its start within a mile of this site), but when you take a look at these stereoscope images of the fountains and structures created to stand only 1 to 2 years, it nearly breaks the heart. Granted, San Francisco has its charms, but who among us wouldn’t love to linger in this West Coast Paris that was?

Ironically, the Palace’s architect had originally planned this stunning entrance to the Impressionist art exhibit to mimic an ancient ruin, complete with semi-obscuring vines and shrubs that were never added. And because residents fought hard to keep the structure after the event (during which time the building housed tennis courts, army jeeps…), the Palace eventually fell into inevitable disrepair. By the early 1960s, it was literally falling apart, in ruin.

As you might expect, a movement was already underway to help save the Palace of Fine Arts. Though it cost ten times more than the original construction, the Palace of Fine Arts was demolished—and rebuilt in concrete. Strolling the grounds today, and watching my children chasing each other through the colonnade before stalking swans in its lagoon, the Palace grounds feel as ancient and grand as some spectacles I’ve visited in Europe.

Suffice to say, this is one heck of a place to picnic. It’s also a favorite with San Franciscan joggers, dog walkers, and wedding photographers. Though the main building at the back is home to the Exploratorium science museum (admission required), the Palace of Fine Arts grounds themselves are open and free to the public.

Getting there:

By public transportation, you can arrive with Muni buses #28, #30, and #43. From Montgomery BART downtown (at 3rd St. / Stockton) or Fisherman’s Wharf, you can take the #30 Stockton bus to the Palace of Fine Arts. You can plan your trip online at the Transit 511 site.

By car, you can follow the directions here. The Palace of Fine Arts is part of the San Francisco Scenic 49-mile Drive, so you can get some help from the signs along the way. Arrive early if you hope to get good street parking, or use the Exploratorium’s free parking lot if you’ll also be visiting the science museum.

This post is part of the Photo Friday fun over at DeliciousBaby.com, where Debbie explains what bowling shoes have to do with Golden Gate Park.

And don’t forget – there’s still time to enter to win the Britax car seat giveaway! Ends 2/23/10.

Safe journey,

Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning guide Travels with Baby
The Ultimate Guide for Planning Trips with Babies, Toddlers, and Preschool-Age Children
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7 Comments

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  3. Shelly Rivoli

    Terry – Wow! How did I not know that?! 🙂 Very cool, and thanks for forwarding to the board.

  4. Anonymous

    Hey Shelly, Great piece! I have been on the board of the Maybeck Foundation and we are the group that has raised the money for the restoration of the PFA and managed the work. Many of the people that committed money and time to the project started with the same experience your kids had, that you so well described. Many went on to have their first date, proposed, and got married onsite.
    It warms my heart to read your blog. The board worked very diligently to restore the palace and the challenges were great and your response to being there makes it all worth the effort.
    I'm forwarding your blog on to all the board members.
    Thanks and regards Terry (Max's dad)
    http://www.maybeck.org
    http://www.lovethepalace.org

  5. Sharlene

    I love the Palace of Fine Arts. It is such an SF icon. And picnicking there is also one of our favorite SF things to do.

  6. Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish

    Great, detailed post. My in-laws live in San Francisco. I always love our visits because there is so much to explore. Adding this to our list for the next time we are in the Bay Area.

  7. Amy @ The Q Family

    I love this series. We haven't been to SF as a family yet but it's high on my list. This series will definitely come in handy when we plan our trip.

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