Hip, happy and uninhibited, San Francisco is where America comes to let down its hair – and where better to unwind after a busy day of sightseeing than on one of the city’s gorgeous beaches? San Francisco has city beaches, wild beaches, sporty beaches, family beaches, beaches for watching the sun sink slowly into the Pacific, and, of course, nude beaches – this is San Francisco after all!
Which strip of sand you pick will depend on what you want from a day out at the beach, but wherever you go, heed the advice of locals about currents and water conditions. The sea can be cold as an ice-pop, rarely topping 60ºF even on hot summer days in September. Parking is another consideration – spaces close to the shore are in heavy demand, particularly at weekends, so come early.
Pack your beach towel and check out our pick of San Francisco’s most beautiful stretches of sand.
For sand, surf and sublime views, look no further than mile-long Baker Beach, the pick of San Francisco’s stretches of sand. This long, wave-licked strip has front-row views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands looming across the inlet. It’s a popular spot to sunbathe, splash and play ball games; if you brave the ocean, remember that this is the body of water that made Alcatraz so hard to escape from – heed the currents and the c-c-cold water.
Protected as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Baker Beach still manages to feel like a locals’ hang out. Crowds gather at weekends to picnic amid wind-sculpted pines, go fishing from the craggy rocks or frolic nude at the more northerly, naked section of sand (popular with straight women and gay men). Families in clothing stick to the southern end of the beach, close to the Baker Beach Parking Lot. Don’t forget to explore the neighboring Presidio of San Francisco, with its historic landmarks, pet cemetery, public artworks and revered Yoda statue.
War is for the birds at Crissy Field, a former military airstrip turned waterfront nature preserve with knockout Golden Gate views from its flanking beach. Where military planes once zoomed in to land, bird-watchers now huddle in the quiet rushes of a reclaimed tidal marsh, watching out for egrets, herons and visiting shorebirds. The beach beyond is a great spot for kitesurfing or just watching the play of light over the Golden Gate Bridge.
These days, in place of warplanes, you’ll find puppies chasing kite fliers, joggers pounding beachfront trails, and acrobatic kitesurfers skimming the bay waters. On foggy days, stop by the certified-green cafe Warming Hut to browse the library of field guides and warm up with fair-trade coffee. The east end of the beach is a hit with families, though the currents and winds mean it’s more a place to paddle than swim.
A tidy little locals’ beach, tucked in at the end of Lands End park, China Beach sits in a tiny, rocky cove once used as a secluded fishing spot by Chinese fishermen. Tidal pools emerge at low tide, and locals crowd the sand on warm days, admiring the views towards the Golden Gate Bridge. Come for the views and locals’ vibe rather than a swim; the water’s cold, there are currents and the beach has no lifeguards.
There’s parking nearby on the edge of the Seacliff neighborhood, so stay for the day and explore neighboring Land’s End, with its rugged hiking trails, visiting sea lions and ocean vistas. Drop into the atmospheric ruins of the Sutro Baths, made famous by the movie Harold & Maude, and wet your whistle at the park’s Lookout Café, perched above neoclassical Cliff House – a seafront restaurant that has lorded over the coast here in various forms since 1863.
Fort Funston Beach
We have to admit, Fort Funston is a great name for a fort! This retired defensive battery was named for the 19th-century general, ‘Fighting’ Fred Funston, who played a key role in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars – these days, the main reason to visit is to access wild and atmospheric Fort Funston Beach, the most southerly of San Francisco’s Pacific beaches. It’s exposed and windswept, and a great spot for long, contemplative walks and lungfuls of fresh air.
As well as strolling on the sand, there are hiking trails along the bluff and you can watch hang-gliders taking off into the windy sky from the launch pad by Fort Funston. Sand dollars often wash up on the shore here, and the cliffs are fossil-bearing (mostly shells, but a park warden found a tooth from a saber-tooth cat amongst the deposits). Just park up on the clifftop and follow the sandy paths down to the shore.
Looking past the rather unimaginative name, this blustery beach has a prime location fronting the Sunset district, which provides a clue to the best reason for visiting. On clear evenings, the sun melts dramatically into the Pacific at the end of a broad strip of gently shelving sand. There are strong riptides that make swimming risky, but that doesn’t deter the windsurfers and kite-surfers who exploit the consistent sea breezes along this exposed seafront.
A little hint of the Summer of Love lives on in the form of 16 artist-designed firepits, which are open for casual bonfires until 9:30pm (reflecting changing times, no alcohol is allowed). By day, locals stroll, skate and cycle along the esplanade – stick to trodden paths in the fragile southern dunes, where skittish snowy plover shorebirds shelter in winter. Combine a visit with a trip around the gardens and museums of Golden Gate Park.
It’s all change once you cross the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin Headlands. In place of golden sand, you’ll find colorful pebbles of red and green chert at Rodeo Beach, hemmed in by bookend crags at the mouth of the Rodeo Lagoon. It’s a lovely spot for beachcombing with kids – look out for bright orange, semi-precious, sea-polished carnelians amongst the shingle. It’s also a popular spot for surfers, with good swells at the north end of the strip.
From the parking area near Fort Cronkhite (named for Major General Adelbert, not Walter), you can follow a maze of walking tracks over the bluffs of the Marin Headlands section of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The most popular walk is the blustery tramp to Point Bonita lighthouse, which was named optimistically considering its exposed location at the end of a rocky spur jutting out into the bay. If it's clear, the views towards the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco are sublime.
It’s worth hauling yourself north of San Francisco to enjoy beautiful Muir Beach (plus it’s an excuse to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge). Follow Hwy 1 and look out for the turn-off next to the coast's longest row of mailboxes at Mile 5.7, just before Pelican Inn. Loved by locals, this small cove sits at the end of a 450-foot boardwalk, and fires are permitted in firepits on the shore, making this a great spot to enjoy the Pacific sunset.
Aside from the beach, there are wetlands, creeks, lagoons and sand dunes providing a habitat for birds, California red-legged frogs and coho salmon. In winter you might spot monarch butterflies roosting in Monterey pines, and migratory whales swimming offshore (head to the overlook on the headland for the best sea views).