While not particularly known for its beaches—at least not in the way California’s more northerly cities are—San Francisco still sits on a peninsula with plenty of opportunities to see the ocean. We won’t sugarcoat it: The water is cold, very cold, and the currents are usually too choppy for surfing. The city’s Bay Area beaches are absolutely worth a visit, however, whether for sunbathing in the summer or simply enjoying the views once the temperatures start to cool down. Don’t be surprised if “Karl the Fog” makes an appearance. (Yes, the fog shows up so regularly that San Francisco residents have named it.) .
One of the most popular beaches in San Francisco is also one of the best spots to photograph the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Come early if you want to avoid the crowd, especially when the weather is nice; since parking is limited, we suggest biking or taking public transportation to get there. You can find Baker Beach in the Presidio neighborhood, on the northwest side of the city. Keep in mind that there’s a nude beach section on the north end—stick to the far left side or the middle if you’re not into that.
Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and just south of Baker Beach, China Beach is, well, one of the places people go when Baker is full. Offering the same view of the Golden Gate (just from further away), China Beach is technically a cove surrounded by rock walls, meaning that it's both sheltered and a bit smaller than some of San Francisco's other beachy spots. The small size causes it to fill up fast when the sun comes out, so wake up early to beat the crowds. The perk here is that the tide pools on either side make for great beachcombing, especially seeing as the water isn’t suitable for swimming.
San Francisco doesn’t have many options for surfing, but if there was an exception to that rule, it would be Ocean Beach. Over 3 miles long, it's the city's largest beach and a fantastic option if you don't want to feel crowded on a sunny day. OB is also the place to be once the sun goes down: You’ll almost always see residents using the fire rings on the sand for an evening bonfire. During very low tide, it's possible to see parts of the wooden hull of the King Philip, a clipper ship that sank in 1878 and is considered one of the best-preserved shipwrecks in San Francisco. On a similar note, Ocean Beach is known for having some of the deadliest currents around, accounting for multiple drownings each year—we suggest staying dry.
On the east side of the Golden Gate Bridge, Chrissy Field contains the only campground in the city and plenty of picnic spots, all within walking distance to Fort Point National Historic Site. Like the historic fort dating back to the Civil War, Chrissy Field was once an important site for the military. It’s been cleaned up since then, and is now a favorite recreation area for the city’s residents who don’t mind getting a face full of wind. (Did we mention it’s a popular kitesurfing spot?) For San Francisco first-timers, make sure you stop at the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center across from the Battery East multi-use trail for tourist information.
Just north of Baker Beach (yes, closer to the clothing-optional section), you’ll find a smaller section of sand called Marshall’s Beach. This beach is much more rugged and rocky, but will bless you with some pretty incredible photos of the Golden Gate on clear days and a stunning spot to watch the sunset. A short, relatively steep hike for about half a mile is required to get there, which tends to be more difficult going back up than going down. We suggest timing your visit to Marshall’s Beach during low tide to avoid the danger of slippery rocks.
All the way on the south end of SF, Fort Funston is known for its sand dunes and dog-friendly beach vibes. Its 200-foot-high bluffs make it the perfect spot in the city for hang gliders, and you’ll often see one or two above your head if you're there on a favorable weather day. Plus, there are plenty of sandy trails for horseback riding or hiking—another win for the dogs. Note that you will need to hike down in order to access the water. Pro tip: The beach at Fort Funston is a great place to go whale watching from December to May.
Mile Rock Beach
Do yourself a favor and head north along the Lands End Coastal Trail, down the scenic staircase, and make your way towards the rocky beach known as Mile Rock. This remote cove is surrounded by massive rock walls that will make beachgoers feel like they're on another planet. Perhaps the best part? Mile Rock Beach is the gateway for Lands End Labyrinth, a hidden artsy maze of stone that was designed and created by San Francisco artist Eduardo Aguilera years ago. The views from the cliff are nothing short of breathtaking. Be sure to keep an eye on the kids if you have them—there’s a massive drop from the bluff.
Aquatic Park Beach
Part of San Francisco Maritime Historic Park, the beach at Aquatic Park is part of a protected bay that’s adjacent to some of San Francisco’s sweetest attractions (literally, it’s right across the street from Ghiradelli Square). The city’s famous Lombard Street is just a few blocks away, and it’s also within walking distance of the famous Pier 39. This peaceful beach is also a popular jumping off point for the city’s boating facilities, and one of the only beaches in San Francisco calm enough for swimming when the weather is warm.
The western waterfront of San Francisco is home to the ruins of a public bathhouse that was in operation from 1896 to 1964. Shortly after the Sutro Baths closed to the public, a fire burned everything down, except for a few concrete walls and the foundations of the saltwater swimming pools. A short walk down a picturesque trail takes you straight to the ruins site and a gorgeous view of the rocky beach below. Don’t forget your camera!
Thornton State Beach
Located south of San Francisco in Daly City, Thornton State Beach is a 58-acre state park that boasts multiple beach access trails lined with succulent plants. Like many SF beaches, Thornton gets pretty windy at times, but the views will more than make up for it. Because it's located outside the city, the beach tends to be less crowded than the others, which is a huge plus. It's also great for sunsets, walking your dog, or just relaxing and listening to the waves.