Ocean Beach in San Francisco is a place where you can build a bonfire, 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 camera-ready. This 1.5-mile-long beach is also San Francisco's largest beach.
If you’re thinking about going to Ocean Beach, drop your perceptions 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 as long as you know what to expect and use these tips to plan your visit.
Things to Do at Ocean Beach
With water temperatures that range from the low 50s in winter to a max of 60 degrees in August and September, Ocean Beach is not the place to go swimming. The waves are often strong and dangerous, 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.
Things you can do at Ocean Beach without getting in the water include kite flying and walking. It's also fun to watch people in their kite buggies, zipping along the sand pulled by the wind.
The wind that powers so many activities at Ocean Beach also blows the sand around, so it's not an ideal spot for a picnic. If you decide to try, know that alcohol and glass containers are not allowed.
You can go fishing at Ocean Beach, and you'll find people doing that in the area around the rocks, below the Cliff House, a well-known tourist attraction.
Bonfires are allowed at Ocean Beach and are a favorite activity for San Francisco residents. You can hold them for groups of 25 people or less on the beach between Lincoln Way and Fulton Street, with some restrictions (including months when they are banned) which you can find at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area website.
You can also enjoy a historical oddity while you're at Ocean Beach. The odd-shaped building below the Cliff house is the Camera Obscura. It was built in 1948 to 1949 as part of the Playland at the Beach 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, giving you an eerie and oddly beautiful way to look at things.
Things to Know
Don't think "Baywatch" when you imagine going to Ocean Beach. It can be foggy there all day, especially in the early summer, and it's often very windy. If you've never been, you need to know that you'll need more warm clothing than you think.
If you're going to Ocean Beach 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. 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 be extra cautious when children get close to the water.
Cliff House at Ocean Beach
There has been a Cliff House restaurant on the clifftop above Ocean Beach since the late 1800s. Today's Cliff House is the third one in the same location.
Their 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.
Sutro's ceiling-to-floor windows offer spectacular views. Go shortly before sunset, stand outside, and enjoy the view or have a drink at the bar.
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.
Plan Your Visit
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 at the north end of the beach, you'll find restrooms at the Cliff House. Further south, you can 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.
How to Get to Ocean Beach
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. If you are going to the Cliff House, you can find street parking in front of the Cliff House or one of the lots uphill from it. If you want to play on the sand, choose one of the two lots on Great Highway, across from Golden Gate Park where Fulton Street intersects Great Highway or on the south end of the beach at Sloat Blvd.
SF Metro Transit bus #23 also goes to Ocean Beach.
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 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.