It's a pretty, small beach with a calmer surf than Ocean Beach or Baker Beach, accessed by long, steep stairs or on a sloping, paved path. The elegant mansions of the super-rich Sea Cliff neighborhood look down over the beach and the ocean.
Local reviewers like China Beach and their only significant complaint is that it can be hard to find parking when it's busy. They call it "quaint" and "our special little cove." Some people say you should stop by even if you don't plan to stay, just to take a photo. And that's understandable. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge and the cliffs of the Marin Headlands across the water. You might even get a good look at container ships going in and out of the bay.
Like all of San Francisco, China Beach can be foggy all day, especially in the summer.
What to Do There
You could go swimming at China Beach. In fact, some people will say it's the only San Francisco beach where it's safe to swim, but we're not so sure about that. Strong warnings are posted about rip tides and currents. The National Parks website says there are no lifeguards, but they also mention the lifeguard station. Don't count on having one around.
On a sunny day, you can sunbathe. If it's windy, look for the small deck on top of the lifeguard equipment pick-up station.
At low tide, you can walk from China Beach to Baker Beach and find starfish, anemones, and mussels clinging to the rocky crevices of the cliffs. If you take too long, you could get stuck calling for transportation or making a long walk back on city streets. To prevent that, you can check the tide tables at the NOAA website.
You can also play games on the beach or go for a walk. China Beach is also an excellent place to bring your camera. If you stay until half an hour after sunset, the bridge lights will be on, and the sky will come out dark blue, even if you can't see the color with your eyes.
What You Need to Know Before You Go
There are no entrance fees or parking fees at China Beach. See the notes below about parking and how to get there.
The beach has restrooms and showers. However, the water supply might be shut off for maintenance and who knows how long that might take to get fixed. To be more comfortable, "go" before you go.
Alcohol, glass containers, and fires are not allowed on the beach. Neither are pets.
There's no snack bar or any place nearby to get something to eat. Stop for munchies or picnic goodies if you want to eat while you're there. Get some water, too.
Water quality is generally good at China Beach.
More San Francisco Beaches
China Beach isn't the only beach you can visit in San Francisco. You can also go to Baker Beach for one of the city's best Golden Gate Bridge views. Or check out Ocean Beach, near the Cliff House and Golden Gate Park, with a long, flat area for walking and evening bonfires. Although it's technically in Marin County, Rodeo Beach is just north of the bridge and has intriguing pebbles instead of sand.
San Francisco also has a few clothing optional beaches if you enjoy that lifestyle or would like to try it.
How to Get There
China Beach is at Sea Cliff and 28th Ave in the Seacliff neighborhood. From El Camino del Mar, follow small brown signs that say "Public Beach." If you're driving, use 455 Sea Cliff Avenue as your destination — paying attention to the fact that it's Sea Cliff, not Seacliff. That's the address of a house across the street from the parking area.
Parking is very limited at China Beach. Less than 40 spots are available, and you can't park on the neighborhood streets. To take Muni (local municipal transit), get off the #29 bus at Lincoln/Camino del Mar and 25th Avenue and walk west, or take bus #1 to California and 30th Avenue and go north. Both are about 5 blocks away.
When you get to the parking lot, you can walk on the paved road or take steps down to the beach. If you don't want to take the walk down, there's a bench near the top of the path that has great views, perfect for taking a moment to be mindful of the place.