Once you’ve seen the Golden Gate Bridge looming out of the mist from one of the best beaches in San Francisco, you’ll be hooked by the city’s romantic charms. Then it becomes a place with an appeal like few others: handsome, energetic and wild.
On its shores, that wildness comes to the fore. Although often too cold and windy for sunbathing, with currents too strong to swim, they remain ruggedly attractive.
Here, from west to east, and south to north, are the ten best beaches in San Francisco.
Fort Funston Beach
The southernmost of San Francisco’s beaches on the Pacific Coast is also the prettiest. It is named for Major General Frederick Funston, who led the army’s aid efforts during the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.
It lies at the foot of 200-foot-high sandstone cliffs, which have plenty of good walks to highlight the views. The paved Sunset Trail is the easiest and is wheelchair-friendly.
The cliffs are in regular use by hang-gliders, best watched from a wooden viewing platform near the car park. From here, you might also spot migrating whales: humpbacks in the summer and gray whales in April, May, October, and December.
Between March and August, you will also see coastal bank swallows with tiny nests burrowed into the cliffs. This is one of only two colonies in California for this endangered species that over-winters in Latin America.
The Sunset Trail tunnels under Battery Davis, a World War II harbor defense battery. It once housed two 170-ton 16” guns with a range of 25 miles.
Once on the beach, you’ll see lots of off-leash dogs enjoying themselves. Horses from a nearby riding stable are also regular visitors.
With more than three miles of sand, Ocean Beach has plenty of room for everyone. It’s a great place for long walks and, facing due west to the Pacific, even more so towards sunset.
If you feel the urge to dip your toes in the water in any of these beaches, be very careful. Not only is it cold, but there are also very strong currents and riptides.
You’d not guess that from the number of surfers and windsurfers offshore. Some of the best waves on this coast are found here, with strong winds as well.
Those currents bring fog on many days of the year, especially in late spring. In summer, the cool breezes can be a welcome relief on hot days.
At the south end of Ocean Beach is Golden Gate Park, a lovely place to extend any walk. Have lunch at the Beach Chalet and or in the 75-ft-tall North Dutch Windmill, with its beautiful springtime tulip garden.
The Japanese Tea Garden in the park serves tea and the original fortune cookie. It’s the oldest such public garden in the United States.
Mile Rock Beach
It’s a 20-minute walk to Mile Rock Beach, following the Coastal Trail, from Lands End Lookout. Take a free map from the Visitor Center, where you’ll also find a café and bookshop.
Keep an eye on the tide. When it’s in, the beach is very narrow. Aim for low tide, when you can see several shipwrecks off Point Lobos, named for the many sea lions (“lobos marinos”) once found on the rocks.
There are nearly 250 steps down to the beach. Combine that with the walk and you understand why you might not see too many other visitors.
Your reward is a small, rocky beach covered in driftwood, and another great view of Golden Gate Bridge. The beach gets its name from being a mile from the bridge.
On “Mile Rock” just offshore is the remaining base of a lighthouse built in 1906 after a major wreck. Now bearing a helipad, it also holds an automated light and foghorn.
Just above the beach is a rock Labyrinth built by artist Eduardo Aguilera. Inspired by the original in Chartres Cathedral, he dedicated it to “peace, love and enlightenment”.
Named for the Chinese fishermen who camped here in the California Gold Rush, this tiny beach is sheltered between two rocky headlands. It’s a quiet, pretty spot for picnics, couples, and sunbathing.
There are impressive views of the Marin Headlands and Golden Gate Bridge. A good lookout point is the Park Recreation Building, whose roof also offers shelter to sunbathers on windy days.
Strong currents make swimming dangerous, although that doesn’t seem to stop the regular “polar bears” taking a dip in the freezing water. Surfers also love the big waves offshore.
You might spot harbor porpoises, sea lions, and even whales in the distance. However, you will have more luck searching the rocks for sea anemones and shellfish such as mussels.
China Beach is another good jumping-off point for the Lands End walk, part of the California Coastal trail. An easy three-mile loop takes you to Point Lobos lookout and the eerie ruins of historic Sutro Baths.
This mile-long beach runs along the western edge of the Presidio towards the Golden Gate Bridge. Good views of both the bridge and the Marin Headlands are a given.
The beach—and its parking lot—can become very busy on any sunny days of late summer and fall. A shaded picnic area, hidden among cypress trees and sand dunes, adds to the appeal.
In the 1980s, the north end of the beach was the original site of the Burning Man Festival. That counter-culture attitude continues in this northernmost section with a “clothing optional” policy.
If naturism is not your thing, head south where you’ll find attractions such as Battery Chamberlin. This 1906 fortification is notable for the “disappearing” six-inch gun that can be cranked down into its casement.
Like all the beaches on this western shoreline, swimming is really not advised. Fishing or searching the rocks for crabs and other sea life is a safer way to pass the time.
Read: One Day in San Francisco
Just north of Baker Beach, even closer to the Golden Gate Bridge, this beach continues the clothing-optional policy of its neighbor. However, given the bracing weather of this western coastline, you’re just as likely to see people putting on extra clothing.
The Batteries to Bluffs Trail along the cliffs between Baker Beach and the Golden Gate Bridge takes you to the top of the beach. From there, it’s a challenging climb down endless steps, and back up again.
Pets are banned which, combined with the difficult access, makes for a surprisingly isolated experience. Only on really sunny days will you see many other people.
To have a beach this lovely almost to yourself, with such a view, makes the effort of getting here worthwhile. No surprise, then, that many visitors claim Marshall’s as the best beach in San Francisco.
Come for one of the best sunsets in the world, which you can also enjoy from the bluffs above. Add in the iconic vermillion bridge soaring across the bay and you have a very special experience.
Crissy Field East Beach
With views of the Golden Gate Bridge and distant Alcatraz, this beach is deservedly thronged with visitors. It’s one of the best family beaches in California, particularly at weekends, when the sky often fills with kites.
Those kites are a clue that you will be more sheltered from high winds here than at the more westerly beaches. The surf is less wild as well, as the many kite-surfers will confirm.
Take a snack to one of the picnic tables or just find a quiet spot under a tree to watch the world go by. Parents with toddlers, joggers, and dog walkers with their pets all provide a passing show; this is one of the best beaches in San Francisco for observing local life.
Walk to Crissy Field Marsh to spot native or migrating birds. More than 150 species have been seen here, including brown pelicans, snowy egrets and the rare western snowy plover.
Take the mile-long Crissy Field Promenade to the historic Warming Hut for hot drinks, snacks, books, and souvenirs. Then join the fisherfolk on Torpedo Wharf for the view to the Golden Gate Bridge and one of the best skylines in the world.
Muir Beach, Marin County
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge toward Sausalito to find this most westerly of three very different beaches in Marin County. South-facing and sheltered, Muir Beach is backed by Redwood Creek, which forms a small lagoon.
The meeting of freshwater and seawater attracts many different birds. The creek is also a safe haven for coho salmon and steelhead trout.
The beach is usually too sheltered for surfing but boogie boarding and kayaking are popular. Sunset walks, fishing, and breathtaking views on the coastal trails are also options.
The Tudor-style Pelican Inn nearby is a good walk destination for cold beer and English pub staples such as sausage and mash. It’s named for Sir Francis Drake’s flagship, which called on this coast in 1579.
Three miles from the beach is the Muir Woods National Monument, a shady place to hike and see 500-year-old Coastal Redwoods. As one of the most unique places to visit in California, it’s also home to rare spotted owls, as well as shrews, deer, and chipmunks.
On the way is the Muir Beach overlook, reached by a set of much-photographed stairs. In winter, it’s a good spot to see migrating whales.
Rodeo Beach, Marin County
This wide strand south of Muir Beach is a 20-minute drive from downtown San Francisco. Perfectly sited for sunset views, it is notable for its tiny multi-colored pebbles.
They have eroded from the sea cliffs here and been pounded by the surf into smooth, penny-sized stones. The predominant colors are dark red and jade green, but every tide and storm brings a change.
Offshore is the arched Bird Rock. Bring your binoculars to see the brown pelicans, then walk to fresh-water Rodeo Lagoon for cormorants, sandpipers and terns, frogs, or even a family of river otters.
Across the lagoon is the Marin Headlands Visitor Center in the former Fort Barry Chapel. Take the one-and-a-half-mile Rodeo Lagoon Loop to the center to find out more about the area’s flora, fauna, and history.
Several other trails will take you around these headlands with views over the Pacific. The five-mile Coastal Trail loop starting from the visitor center is a very popular option for its wildflowers and changing vistas.
Black Sands Beach, Marin County
You don’t need to go beyond the parking lot for this beach to see a dramatic and unusual city view. However, the steep path down with its 250 steps will also reward you with a beach you usually share with very few other visitors.
Some of those visitors will be heading for the secluded western end of the beach, which is clothing optional. Keep an eye on the tides here, as there is very little beach left at high tide.
You are still relatively near downtown but Black Sands Beach feels like a different world. Sheltered by the twin headlands, the deep chocolate-black sand is an exotic treat; this is, without doubt, one of the best beaches near San Francisco.
Picnicking is a popular option. Pick up some treats in Sausalito, one of the best small towns in California. The view takes in Point Bonita Lighthouse and Lands End on the city shoreline.
The lighthouse was built in 1855 to help navigation in the Golden Gate Straits and was the last crewed one on the California coast. Reached by a remarkable suspension bridge, it has reopened to visitors (Sunday and Monday afternoons only) after a two-year closure, so you might want to add it to your day out.
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