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Golden Gate Bridge looking north from Marshall's Beach, San Francisco
Photograph: Shutterstock

The best San Francisco beaches

Whether the sun is out or Karl the Fog is on the loose, the best San Francisco beaches are always worth a visit

Written by
Lauren Sheber
&
Sarah Medina
Contributor
Scott Snowden
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When you’re surrounded by the hustle and bustle of downtown, it’s easy to forget that San Francisco is a beachside city, but if you head west or north, then you'll soon start to see golden expanses of sand kissed by lapping blue waves. 

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 the best San Francisco beaches for granted. It’s not about languid sunbathing here—instead, you’ll find public fire pits, rad surf shops, breathtaking San Francisco views, sandy dog paradises and some of the city’s best hikes. From the Pacific to the Bay, there’s a sandy stretch for every beach-going style.

RECOMMENDED: The best day trips from San Francisco

Best San Francisco beaches

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  • Presidio

Just west of the Golden Gate Bridge, this mile-long beach off the Presidio draws 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, the Marin Headlands and Lands End, as well as the impressive mansions of the Seacliff neighborhood. Be warned, the northern part of the beach is clothing-optional.  

Rodeo Beach sounds like it belongs in an expensive suburb of Los Angeles, but the reality is far from it. Located two miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, it's a bizarre, but beautiful little stretch of beach that separates Rodeo Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean. It's a perfect spot for a stroll or a picnic and features free entrance, free parking, wheelchair-accessible public restrooms, showers, and picnic tables. Dogs are allowed, but they must be kept on a leash. You'll more than likely spot  jasper, carnelian, black agate, and jade stones on the beach, but you must not take any to prevent cumulative erosion.

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  • Outer Richmond

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. From the bottom of the trail, a stairway of more than 100 wooden steps leads down to the water. Above the beach is the Lands End Labyrinth, a small maze made of stone with stunning views of the bridge. Below the rocky bluffs between Point Lobos and Lands End three historical shipwrecks are exposed at low tide and just waiting to be explored. 

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  • Seacliff

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. The beach isn't large, so get there early if you want a spot in sun. 

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Once you've carefully made your way through the cypress, eucalyptus and pine trees, a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay awaits. The steep, mile-long trail to the cove begins at the parking area above Battery Spencer on Conzelman Road and as you gradually descend, you'll eventually find yourself at sea level. There is a reservable day-use site and five overnight campsites, with each one being able to accommodate up to 10 people. The amenities have been deliberately kept basic and there are toilets, barbecue pits, picnic tables,and fire rings  available, but there's no fresh water.

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  • Walks and tours
  • Presidio

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 picnic in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. It can be a bit breezy but that just means that wind and kite surfers are likely to be providing waterfront 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.  

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Just a short ferry ride across the bay are the warm, white sands of Quarry Beach on the east side of Angel Island. If it’s privacy and vistas you’re seeking, this is your best bet. The quiet stretch affords panoramic views of the East Bay and San Francisco skyline, as well as wind-protected areas for 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.

Located on the Pacific Coast three miles west of Muir Woods, Muir Beach is a quiet cove, beach and lagoon favored by locals. It's accessed over a 450-foot long pedestrian bridge connecting the parking lot to the beach, the Coastal Trail and Kaashi Way. The beach was formerly called Big Lagoon after a freshwater lagoon that was located where the parking lot is now. Be mindful if you decide to take a dip as there are no lifeguard here and you'd be surprised at how cold the water temperature can get. Weather permitting, the views of sunsets over the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking.

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  • Lake Merced

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. 

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  • Tiburon

Though this south-facing Angel Island beach is windier than its east-side counterpart, Quarry Beach, it’s also considerably less busy. Walk or bike the mile-and-a-half along Perimeter Road, an old military road that originally connected the island's forts. Veer down the unmarked path just past Battery Ledyard to pop out on 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.

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  • Outer Richmond

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 find a wide variety of Bay Area residents relaxing on the 3.5-mile stretch of sand. On the southern side of the beach, hardcore surfers brave frigid waves, while farther north you’ll find tourists and regulars who make the waterfront hike from Sutro Baths and Lands End. Bonfires are allowed in 16 designated fire rings between March and October. We recommend arriving early—it’s first-come, first-served and the pits go fast on warm days.

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  • Presidio

This secluded cove at the northernmost end of Baker Beach is San Francisco’s not-so-secret nude beach. Originally established by gay men who shimmied down the steep cliff side in their skivvies, the addition of a trail and stairway nearly a decade ago has led open-minded nudists of all kinds to frequent the beach. 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.

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  • Lake Merced

Because Thornton is smaller and farther south, it's like 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 boundary to carefully clamber their way 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 still worth a trip; snag a park bench or picnic table at the overlook for an unbeatable sunset.

The Sutro Baths was a large, privately owned public saltwater swimming pool complex with an amazing glass-roofed structure containing seven swimming pools, fed by the powerful tides at the entrance to San Francisco Bay. It was built in 1894, but the structure burned down to its concrete foundation in June 1966. You can climb all over it—it isn't "maintained" but can be a bit treacherous, so be careful... but that just adds to its mystique.

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