(Coastal Living) -- Until recently, only soldiers could take full advantage of this place. They got to wander the bluffs above the Pacific, with unforgettable views of rugged cliffs, hidden beaches and a sea-green bay rimmed by mountains.
The Golden Gate Bridge anchors one leg on the Presidio's shores.
Today, everyone can see the Presidio up close. And they can do something former residents of the army barracks could never imagine -- stroll a few steps for café au lait or a Swedish massage.
The area brims with lively, new restaurants, distinctive architecture and the same panoramas once reserved for gunmen perched in their sky-high batteries. The makeover has been a work in progress for years. The Spanish first developed the military post in 1776, and in 1846 the U.S. Army moved in. In 1994, the National Park Service took over, and the Presidio slowly became green space in San Francisco's front yard.
Almost twice the size of New York's Central Park, the 1,491 acres of sprawling eucalyptus forests and waterfront blot out urban bustle. "It's so peaceful and serene. It's hard to believe you're in the heart of the city," says the Presidio Trust's Dana Polk, the park's administrator. CoastalLiving.com: Restaurants in San Francisco's Presidio
To begin your tour, grab a map at the visitors center (located at the former Officer's Club). Hidden treasures -- a breathtaking golf course, secluded beaches -- are scattered among the park's nooks and crannies. The Golden Gate, which anchors one leg on the Presidio's shores, is probably the park's most famous site, but the Victorians, Mission Revivals, and 470 other historic military structures rank a close second. Coastal defense batteries dating from the late 1800s dot the shoreline.
Twenty-four miles of hiking and biking trails wind through sun-dappled woods and edge sea cliffs. Baker Beach, and its in-your-face view of the world's most photographed bridge, is perfect for picnics. But be warned: The northern end of the beach is also popular for clothing-optional sunbathing. For top-notch (clothed) people-watching, wander former airstrip Crissy Field's waterfront promenade. CoastalLiving.com: California's Coastal Parks
In the most recent phase of the Presidio's transformation, businesses have been moving into its historic spaces. The meticulously preserved structures, with terra-cotta roofs and creamy stucco exteriors, now house hip eateries and other draws, including a spa. More restaurants are on the way. Tom Bensel plans to open his popular French bistro, Left Bank, in the Presidio this spring. "Where else can you drink a glass of organic wine in an old airplane hangar?" he asks.
Even George Lucas pays rent here. A 3-foot statue of Yoda guards his film company's headquarters. If the Jedi Master doesn't put a smile on your face, this should: Walking among the aromatic cypress and drifting fog, remember that until a few decades ago, only soldiers had it this good.
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