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Ocean Beach in San Francisco
Ocean Beach in San Francisco is a place where you can walk along the water’s edge watching the tiny Snowy Plover birds running through the water — or build a bonfire — or fly a kite or ride a wind-powered kite buggy through the sand. It’s the most-visited beach in the San Francisco area, and the views of the Pacific Ocean and nearby Cliff House are Instagram-worthy.
If you’re thinking about going to Ocean Beach, drop your preconceptions about sunny California beaches and think San Francisco experience instead. To start, Ocean 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. Only the hardiest swimmer and surfers dare go into the cold, turbulent water.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. In fact, you should. Know what to expect and use these tips to plan your visit.
Why Should You Go to Ocean Beach?
In spite of its drawbacks, this 1.5-mile-long beach is San Francisco's busiest. 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 is the place to go swimming. Nevertheless, you'll still find the sand full of people on a beautiful 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 you can find at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area website.
This camera obscura behind the Cliff House was built in 1948-49 as part of the Playland at the Beach amusement area which was once across the street. 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.
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.
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 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 of 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 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 one of the lots uphill from it. You can walk down the hill past the Cliff House to the Beach Chalet and back, and you can 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.
SF Metro Transit bus #23 goes to Ocean Beach.
More San Francisco BeachesContinue to 2 of 3 below.
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Cliff House at Ocean Beach
A Cliff House restaurant has been on the clifftop above Ocean Beach since the late 1800s.
Today's Cliff House is the third one. It's 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, and 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 tour local guides say their customers love it.
Everyone can agree that Sutro's ceiling-to-floor windows offer spectacular views.
If the quality of food and service are important to you, go shortly before sunset, have a drink at the bar or stand outside and enjoy the view, then go somewhere else to eat.Continue to 3 of 3 below.
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Sutro Baths at Ocean Beach
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, the 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.
The Sutro Baths burned down in 1966. Today, the ruins stand near the Cliff House, making a scenic backdrop for photographs.