Ocean Beach - San Francisco

  • 01 of 07

    Ocean Beach View

    Ocean Beach View, San Francisco
    ••• Ocean Beach View, San Francisco. ©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    Drop your preconceptions about sunny California beaches if you want to visit San Francisco's Ocean Beach. This northern California beach is foggy at least as often as it's sunny. The water temperature seldom exceeds 60 degrees and hovers in the mid-50s most of the year.

    Why Should You Go to Ocean Beach?

    Despite all that, this 1.5-mile-long beach is San Francisco's most popular. The waves are often strong and dangerous with riptides and undercurrents, but a few hardy surfers are often found testing their skills. Others stick to skimboarding near the shore, using a small board to "skim" an incoming wave while others go kite surfing, using the wind to pull them and their board through the waves.

    It's also the city's largest beach and it's close to the Cliff House which is a well-known tourist attraction. It's a good place for people watching and for beach bonfires.

    What Can You Do at Ocean Beach?

    With water that's cold even in summer, Ocean Beach not a...MORE popular spot for swimming. In fact, swimming is not recommended. Nevertheless, you'll still find the sand full of people on a nice day. 

    Among the things you can do at Ocean Beach without getting in the water are kite flying and walking. It's also fun to watch people in their kite buggies, zipping along the sand pulled by the wind.

    You can also have a picnic on the beach, but this may not be the best place for it. Think about it: the wind that powers so many activities at Ocean Beach also blows the sand around. If you decide to try, alcohol and glass containers are not allowed.

    Fishermen favor the area around the rocks, below the Cliff House

    Bonfires are allowed for groups of 25 people or less, between Lincoln Way & Fulton Street, with some restrictions which are outlined at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area website.

    Creature Comforts at Ocean Beach

    At the north end of the beach, you'll find restrooms at the Cliff House. You can also cross Great Highway to use the facilities at the Beach Chalet. Outdoor showers and restrooms are available near the Sloat entrance at the south end of the beach.

    You can get something to eat at the Beach Chalet and the Cliff House.

    Dogs are allowed, but keep them on a leash or under voice control. An important reason for that is so they don't disturb the endangered snowy plover which nests at the beach.

    Beachgoer Beware

    Don't think "Baywatch" when you imagine going to Ocean Beach. It can be foggy all day, especially in the early summer - and it's often very windy.

    Rip currents (swift-moving channels of water rushing from the shore out to sea), cold water and shore breaks (waves breaking directly on steep sloping beaches) have injured and killed people at Ocean Beach, even when they were just wading near the shoreline.

    Keep an eye out for large waves approaching and watch your children.

    What You Need to Know About  Ocean Beach

    Ocean Beach stretches about 3.5 miles along San Francisco's western shore, from the Cliff House to Fort Funston. It's part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

    There's no entrance fee and parking is free at Ocean Beach.

    If you're going there to play, take your beach toys, but don't think about swimming or surfing unless you know how to handle the dangerous undercurrents and sneaker waves. If you live in San Francisco, you'll know this but if you're from out of town, you need to know that you'll need more warm clothing than you think.

    More San Francisco Beaches

    Ocean Beach isn't the only beach you can visit in San Francisco. You can also go to ​Baker Beach for one fo the city's best Golden Gate Bridge views.  Or try smaller, more intimate ​China Beach with another nice view of the bridge. 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. You can find their profiles and directions for getting to them in the San Francisco Nude Beach Guide.

    Getting to Ocean Beach

    If you're visiting as a tourist, park your car in front of the Cliff House or in one of the lots uphill from it. You can walk down the hill past the Cliff House to the Beach Chalet and back and take a stroll on the sand.

    Ocean Beach is on the west side of San Francisco. Take Geary Blvd west until it curves left and downhill onto Great Highway.

    There are three parking lots at Ocean Beach, one on the south at Sloat, one across from Golden Gate Park and street parking near the Cliff House. In a pinch, use the lots above Cliff House and walk down.

    A tip for driving on Great Highway: Go 35 miles per hour and you won't have to stop. Go faster and end up waiting at the next light.

    SF Metro Transit bus #23 goes to Ocean Beach.

    More San Francisco Beaches

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  • 02 of 07

    Sutro Heights from Ocean Beach

    Cliff House from Sutro Heights
    ••• Cliff House from Sutro Heights. ©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    This picture of the new Cliff House and National Park visitor center was taken from Sutro Heights. This beautiful park was once home to Adolph Sutro who built the Sutro Baths and the second Cliff House.

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  • 03 of 07

    Cliff House from Ocean Beach

    Cliff House from Ocean Beach
    ••• Cliff House from Ocean Beach. ©2010 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    A Cliff House restaurant building has been on that clifftop since the late 1800s. The smaller building below it is the Camera Obscura. Based on a Leonardo da Vinci design, it uses lenses and a mirror to produce 360-degree images of the area.

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  • 04 of 07

    Cliff House

    Cliff House at Twilight
    ••• Cliff House at Twilight. ©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    Today's Cliff House, renovated in 2004 is the third to stand on the cliffs overlooking Seal Rock.​ The patio behind the Cliff House offers nice ocean views and a chance to see 

    Cliff House is mostly a place to eat. The informal Bistro serves basic fare and is open all day. It doesn't take reservations.​ The fine dining restaurant, Sutro's serves lunch and dinner daily. Reservations are recommended.

    Opinions of Sutro's at the Cliff House vary. Locals at Yelp give it 3.5 stars out of 5. The San Francisco Chronicle rates Sutro's 2.5 stars out of 4, but my friend Jesse of A Friend in Town tour company says his customers love it.

    Everyone can agree that Sutro's ceiling-to-floor windows offer spectacular views. Sadly, neither service nor food quality merit the restaurant's high prices. During a lunchtime visit, we found a just-delivered salad whisked away without apology or explanation, only to reappear a few minutes later with a curt comment about cheese, which...MORE apparently was missing. Our server told us seconds after arriving at the table the he was anxious to "get this over with" (meaning his day of work at Sutro's). No less than half a dozen times, someone interrupted us mid-sentence. And even worse, food was mediocre at best.

    We recommend going shortly before sunset, having a drink at the bar or just standing outside and enjoying the view, then go somewhere else to eat.

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  • 05 of 07

    Sutro Baths at Ocean Beach

    Ruins of the Sutro Baths
    ••• Ruins of the Sutro Baths. ©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    Just north of the Cliff House are the romantic Sutro Baths ruins, remains of an extravagant bathhouse built in 1896. Continue through this gallery to the Camera Obscura and Sutro Baths.

    The Sutro Baths once stood near the Cliff House. Built in 1896 and the pet project of San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro, this indoor swimming complex featured seven salt-water pools and 500 dressing rooms. If you'd like to see what the area around the Sutro Baths once looked like, take a look at this 1903 video from the Library of Congress.

    It burned down in 1966. Today, the ruins stand near the Cliff House, making a romantic backdrop for photographs and still a place that draws visitors' interest.

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  • 06 of 07

    Camera Obscura at Ocean Beach

    Camera Obscura at Ocean Beach
    ••• Camera Obscura at Ocean Beach. ©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    This camera obscura was built in 1948-49 as part of the Playland at the Beach amusement area which was once across the street from the Cliff House.

    A camera obscura is a darkened structure, an optical device using a rotating lens to project a panoramic view of the surroundings onto a horizontal surface inside.

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  • 07 of 07

    Surfers at Ocean Beach

    Surfer at Ocean Beach in San Francisco
    ••• Surfer at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Kelly Cestari / Getty Images

    Ocean Beach attracts surfers, but it's not for the novice.  Rip currents (swift-moving channels of water rushing from the shore out to sea), cold water and shore breaks (waves breaking directly on steep sloping beaches) make it a dangerous place to catch a wave. 

    This photo shows Kelly Slater of the United States surfing at Ocean Beach during the RipCurl Pro Search.