You don't need to take a day trip from San Francisco to catch some rays. While it's true you're more likely to see folks bundled up in blankets and hoodies than board shorts and bikinis, don't take San Francisco beaches for granted. It’s not all about languid sunbathing here: You’ll find public fire pits, rad surf shops, breathtaking sunset overlooks, sandy dog paradises and the best hiking trails. From the Pacific to the Bay, there’s a sandy stretch for every beach-going style.
Best San Francisco beaches
As with much of San Francisco's Presidio, Crissy Field used to be an Army airstrip. Now, the 4.3-mile waterfront promenade is homebase for Marina residents (and their dogs) to toss a frisbee, play in the sandy dunes and have a picnic with an iconic view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It can be a bit breezy but that just means that wind and kite surfers are likely on the water for your entertainment. If you're feeling cold, make a pit stop at the Warming Hut for organic soups and sandwiches and only-in-San-Francisco books, games and souvenirs.
Ocean Beach has a reputation for being cold and foggy—but that’s what wetsuits and fire pits are for. Located on the far west side of the city, you'll see a variety of people—from dog walkers to local college students—congregated on the 3.5-mile stretch. On the southern side, hardcore surfers brave the frigid waves, while farther north you’ll find tourists and regulars who make the waterfront trek from Sutro Baths and Lands End. Bonfires are allowed in the 16 designated fire rings, March through October. We recommend arriving early—it’s first-come, first-served and the pits get claimed early on sunny days.
Just west of the Golden Gate Bridge, this mile-long beach off the Presidio is usually packed with locals and visitors alike. Large waves, undertow and rip currents make the beach unsafe for swimming, but it does provide panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands and Lands End as well as the impressive mansions of the Seacliff neighborhood dotted on the cliffs behind you. And be warned, the northern part of the beach is clothing-optional.
Just a short ferry ride across the bay is the warm, white sands of Quarry Beach, located on the east side of Angel Island. If it’s privacy and vistas you’re seeking, this is your top choice. The quiet stretch affords panoramic views of the East Bay and San Francisco skyline, as well as wind-protected areas for easy sunbathing. Nearby, you’ll find dirt and paved roads for walking or cycling, as well as a picnic area and campsite just up the hill.
This small cove between Lands End and Baker Beach provides a welcome, uncrowded, dog-free retreat. (On clear days, you’ll still see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.) The beach is said to be named after Chinese fishermen during the Gold Rush-era, who would dock their boats along the coastline and camp out on the sand; you’ll find a stone monument devoted to them at the edge of the parking lot. Today, it’s the haunt of middle-aged swim clubs who take their frigid laps in the morning. There are several tall, craggy rocks jutting out of the water that hoodie-clad beach-goers claim as personal islands, as well as shallow, sandy caves along the shoreline. The beach isn't large, so get there early if you want a spot in sun.
Fort Funston is effectively a gorgeous, oceanfront dog park. Scamper down the steep, sandy slope to find dogs and owners alike splashing in the surf. (Be careful, though—the undertow is no joke.) Alongside pups and strolling couples, you’ll see horseback riders from nearby Mar Vista Stables. Climb up the southern sand ladder to watch experienced hang-gliders soaring off the side of the cliff; Funston is one of the best gliding spots in the country, particularly in March and October.
This rocky strip of sand is the ideal spot for active beach-goers who are quickly bored by sunbathing. Hike there from Lands End along the half-mile Coastal Trail, which is bordered by Monterey Cypress trees. From the bottom of the trail, a stairway of more than 100 wooden steps leads down to the beach. Above the beach is the Lands End Labyrinth, a small rock labyrinth with stunning views of the bridge. Below the rocky bluffs between Point Lobos and Lands End there are three shipwrecks, exposed at low tides, just waiting to be explored.
This secluded cove at the northernmost end of Baker Beach is San Francisco’s not-so-secret nude beach. It was originally established by gay men who shimmied down the steep cliff side in their skivvies to get to the private area. Since the addition of a trail and stairway nearly a decade ago, Marshall's now attracts open-minded nudists of all kinds. Some go to sunbathe and soak up the scenery, others construct stacked driftwood nooks for canoodling. The scene tends to be more risqué closer to the Golden Gate Bridge. But only at Marshall’s can you get close this close to the bridge itself.
Because Thornton is smaller and farther south, it has the effect of a miniature, less-crowded version of Fort Funston. Technically, the trails leading to the beach have been cordoned off due to erosion. But the adventurous still step over the cord and carefully clamber their way down to the surf along Mar Vista Stables’ equestrian trail. The beach is usually nearly empty, save scattered horseback riders and hang-gliders soaring overhead. And even if you’re too nervous to skirt the rules, Thornton is worth a trip; snag a park bench or picnic table at the overlook for an incredible sunset view.
Though this south-facing Angel Island beach is windier than its east-side counterpart, Quarry Beach, it’s also considerably less packed. Walk or bike one and a half miles along Perimeter Road, an old military road that originally connected the forts of the island, then veer down the unmarked path just past Battery Ledyard. There, you’ll find this lovely, wide-open beach. The breeze—and current—can be strong, but views stretching from the Golden Gate to the Bay Bridge make it all worthwhile.