Everyone who visits San Francisco wants to see the Golden Gate Bridge, for the same reason that local residents are drawn to it again and again: the graceful Art Deco span is simply lovely against its dramatic backdrop of steep bluffs and the waters of the Golden Gate Strait. The bridge is also a masterwork of engineering, and the stories of its design and construction, as well as the science behind the structure, are fascinating. Then, of
course, there's the trek out onto the span itself, with its extraordinary views of San Francisco, the East Bay, and Alcatraz and Angel islands. Some 10 million people drop by for a visit every year, so don't expect peace and quiet; the bridge plaza is often very crowded and the roadway and parking lot congested.
I found the 1.7-mile roll across the bridge unnerving, with cars zooming by so close, shaking the bridge. It can also be very windy and chilly. If you do travel its length, you will end up at H. Dana Bowers Vista Point in Marin County, where a three-foot high stone wall along nearly two-thirds of the perimeter may obscure the views from a seated position. For me, the plaza at the San Francisco entry to the bridge was a more enjoyable experience, despite its crowds. Several broad, paved trails provide a variety of viewpoints, including some that reveal the Civil War-era Fort Point
nestled under an arch under the bridge's south tower. Just below the plaza you can hook up to the Bay Trail/Presidio Promenade
, which travels east to the Presidio's Lombard Street gate, and to the Coastal Trail, which travels directly under the bridge but soon becomes inaccessible. Some trail segments are moderately steep, including the ramp up to the Golden Gate Bridge walkway and the connector trails down to the Presidio Promenade and Coastal Trail; manual chair users may need some assistance.
Be sure to look for the many interactive exhibits and interpretive panels; some are clustered in an old gun battery at the plaza and a few are along the Presidio Promenade as it travels toward the Battery East parking lot. The interactive exhibits, some created by the Exploratorium science museum, demonstrate such things as the relationship between tower height and cable tension, and how the bridge vibrates in response to wind and earthquakes; on my visit, children were lined up for a turn. Near the statue of Joseph Strauss, the bridge's chief engineer, is an optical mural that is something like a hologram: depending on where you're standing, it shows the strait from 1933 to 1937, with the bridge at various stages of construction.
For additional spectacular views, you can hook up to the Coastal Trail (see trail description below) west of the bridge and visit two overlooks along Lincoln Boulevard in the Presidio.
The Bridge Pavilion, painted international orange like the bridge, has an information desk and some historical photos and exhibits, but is primarily a gift shop. Nearby, a small cafe provides snacks and beverages. Guided tours depart daily from the Art Deco roundhouse building.