San Francisco has packed in the people but provided a motley of green spaces to take a breather, writes Kris Shannon

San Francisco is the second densest city in the United States and it can occasionally feel a little crowded.

From the scores of sightseers at Fisherman's Wharf to the hordes of row houses on its hilly streets, an overwhelmed visitor may find themselves yearning for breathing room.

It's fortunate, then, that San Francisco has not only packed in the people but also made outstanding use of its relatively small space, with green patches in all corners affording tourists an opportunity to relax, explore and enjoy some outdoor drinking.

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At the heart of the city is Golden Gate Park, a sprawling rectangle that, at 4.8km long, is 20 per cent larger than Central Park in New York, the owner of America's density title.

Filled with themed gardens and varied attractions, an investigation of the park can easily occupy a day. Check out the Academy of Sciences building in the morning — home to an aquarium, an indoor rainforest and Claude, the albino alligator — then climb Strawberry Hill in the afternoon for a panoramic perspective of a city escaped.

Golden Gate Park is so vast one can wander around its expanse on a weekday and, with only squirrels and butterflies for company, almost believe they're the only living soul in the Bay Area. That's an impression than can never be replicated at Dolores Park, a piece of public land with far different charms. Located at the western edge of the Mission District, the park reflects the spirit of a neighbourhood initially settled by Spanish colonisation and still infused with Latin sensibilities.

Dolores Park is home to some of the best sights in San Francisco — in and outside its boundaries. In the distance, the city's skyscrapers loom large while, in the immediate foreground, all manner of vices are being indulged. There are prohibitive warnings posted at the entrance but the booze is free-flowing and the unmistakable smell of marijuana — medicinally legalised in California — is always in the air. With such a liberal atmosphere, it's no surprise the sloping park becomes a popular spot on a summer's day. In fact, on fine weekends in July or August, it can be tougher to procure a patch of grass than a joint of grass.

Up to 10,000 people enjoy Dolores on a sunny Saturday, after which one can stroll past the high school where Carlos Santana was educated and into the Mission for one of the best burritos in San Francisco.

Like the idea of drinks and a view but less than sure about the hedonism? Then head west to the neighbourhood of Presidio on a Sunday afternoon and aim for the main parade ground of an area that, until 1994, spent more than 200 years as a base for the Spanish, then Mexican and finally American militaries. Between April and October, the space is bordered by craft beer stalls and boutique food trucks, as multi-generation families mix with groups of young adults in lounging on the rolling lawn and staring out at San Francisco Bay.

The Presidio Picnic, as it's known, attracts all ages and, unlike Dolores, is more roomy and less lawless. The mood is cheerful and the drinking moderated, although BYO is prevalent. The park offers welcome respite to a tourist who has contended enough with the crowds at the more common attractions. And for a Kiwi, it also provides some familiar comforts, with several flourishing pohutukawa adding to the area a picturesque touch of home.

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Getting there:

flies from Auckland to San Francisco, via Fiji, twice weekly.