Northern California may not have the sun-and-surf reputation of Southern California, but there are plenty of sandy shores and sweet beach breaks in and around San Francisco, many with postcard-worthy panoramas.
Beaches in the City
1. Ocean Beach
A vast stretch of beach spanning the western edge of San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood, Ocean Beach is a true gem. A visit here is easily combined with exploring the city’s other western destinations like Golden Gate Park and Lands End. This isn’t a casual swimming beach; the water is chilly and the currents are strong, but there is plenty of room to spread out a towel and find your own square of sand to relax with a novel or play volleyball. Bonfires are allowed in fire rings set up between stairwells 15 through 20.
2. Crissy Field
Located near the Palace of Fine Arts and where the Presidio meets the Marina district, this bayside beach includes large grassy fields, picnic areas, running and biking trails, a marsh that attracts a gaggle of birds and other wildlife, and a stretch of sand with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. The area is a popular launch spot for windsurfers, and on the west side of Crissy Field, visitors will find the Warming Hut Park Store with tea, hot chocolate, and Equator Coffee. A multiuse trail winds from Crissy Field past Golden Gate Beach, itself a pleasant swath of open sand with expansive views, all the way to Fort Point at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge.
3. Baker Beach
Below the jagged cliffs of the Presidio’s western boundary, the mile-long Baker Beach is located west of the Golden Gate Bridge and offers unmatched views of the world-famous span and Marin Headlands. Keep an eye out for harbor porpoises that splash around off the coast and don’t forget to explore the Battery Chamberlin, a military gun installation from 1904. Strong currents mean swimming is not advised here, but picnic and restroom facilities are provided and it’s a favorite of local photographers. Also worth noting: North Baker Beach is clothing optional.
4. Fort Funston
South of Ocean Beach and easily accessible with a large parking lot and multiple entry points, Fort Funston is popular with windsurfers, kiteboarders, and hang gliders, who launch from the 200-foot cliffs overlooking the sand. Dog-friendly, Funston is a hit with local pet owners who take advantage of the trails crisscrossing the bluffs and let their canines sprint along the shore. A visit to Fort Funston is also a trip back in San Francisco’s geological past: Much of the city was once covered in sand dunes, and this park holds the peninsula’s largest remaining dune field.
Beaches South of San Francisco
Locally known as Linda Mar, Pacifica State Beach is a long, wide crescent of sand where surfers flock for consistent waves. The northern end of the beach is backed by dunes and tall cliffs called Rockaway Point, with hiking trails that boast ocean vistas. A large parking lot, restrooms, and picnic facilities mean Linda Mar can get crowded on sunny weekends, but the energetic scene is part of the fun. You’ll also find a famous Taco Bell location, known for its walk-up ordering window and ocean views.
A half-hour south of San Francisco by car, Montara State Beach stretches for nearly a mile and is bound by wind-sculpted sandstone cliffs. The beach is popular for sunbathing, fishing, and hiking. Although the beach is popular with surfers, the currents here can be strong, so Montara’s waves are generally best left to experienced riders. East of the beach are the trails of Montara Mountain (also known as McNee Ranch), the northern limit of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the only undisturbed coastal mountain habitat in a 100-mile swath of shoreline.
Beaches North of San Francisco
7. Rodeo Beach
The largest and busiest beach in the Marin Headlands is a strip of land that sits between Rodeo Cove and Rodeo Lagoon. Rather than fine sand, the beach is made up of tiny colorful pebbles that give it a unique appearance. The south end, which is more narrow and rocky, is where to go to get a view of Bird Island, one of the largest roosting sites in northern California for the endangered brown pelican. Surrounding cliffs offer some shelter from wind gusts, and there are two decommissioned military forts and numerous trails in the Marin Headlands area for exploring. The beach includes picnic areas and restrooms with outdoor showers. On Sundays and holidays, San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (MUNI) offers bus service between the city and Rodeo Beach.
8. Muir Beach
A little more than 300 people live in this pleasant speck of a town in Marin County, located a few miles from Muir Woods. Redwood Creek flows down to the ocean here, forming a large lagoon, and visitors hit the calm cove and beach for hiking, fishing, sunbathing, and bird watching. Bonfires are allowed in provided fire rings, and well-behaved dogs are welcomed off-leash. In the winter, migrating monarch butterflies can sometimes be spotted in the Monterey pine grove bordering the beach. If you need a bite during your visit, the quaint Pelican Inn a short walk away turns into a party on weekends with people downing cold pints and plates of fish and chips on the grassy lawn.
In the town of the same name an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, this crescent-shaped cove is a popular Marin County getaway and can get crowded on warm-weather weekends. Surfboards and kayaks are available for rent in town, and this is one of the better swimming beaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. Activities abound, including hiking, volleyball, fishing, surfing, and various water sports. There’s an expansive picnic area with barbecues, and visitors can walk into town for several restaurants, a small grocery store, and a handful of shops.
10. Bolinas Beach
Frequently referred to as Brighton Beach (because the main road to the beach is Brighton Avenue), this beach is situated at the mouth of Bolinas Lagoon and is on the sheltered, northern end of Bolinas Bay. The waves here are buffered by the point and make the beach one of the better spots in the area for beginning surfers. The beach is also off-leash dog friendly. It’s worth noting that the community here has a reputation for discouraging tourism —to the point of famously taking down signs leading to town—so visitors should be extra attentive to parking rules and regulations.