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The best San Francisco beaches

Ten of the best San Francisco beaches for bonfires, picnics, surfing and sunbathing

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Orin Zebest
Baker Beach

San Francisco doesn’t offer the stereotypical Californian beach scene. When the fog flows in, our notorious microclimate can turn chilly on a dime. But because a true, sun-drenched, hoodie-free beach day is such a rarity, we don’t take our San Francisco beaches for granted. It’s not all about languid sunbathing here: You’ll find public fire pits, breathtaking sunset overlooks, sandy dog paradises and killer surf waves. From the Pacific to the Bay (and just beyond), there’s a sandy stretch for every beach-going style.

The top ten San Francisco beaches

1

Crissy Field

Of all San Francisco’s beaches, postcard-perfect Crissy Field may be the most visited by tourists. It’s for good reason: the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz from this former military airfield are stunning. Runners, walkers and bikers can mosey along the Golden Gate Promenade, a four-mile paved pathway that runs along the beach from Fort Mason to the Golden Gate Bridge. (Visit early to watch the crabbers and fisherman at Torpedo Wharf, on the west end of the beach.) All along the kid-friendly stretch, you’ll see boaters, kayakers and paddleboarders splashing around the bay, as well as lawn games aplenty. The field offers two casual cafés for sandwiches and snacks, the Warming Hut and the Beach Hut Café, and there’s ample parking just west of the Marina gate.

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Presidio
2

Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach has a reputation for being cold and foggy—no matter, that’s what wetsuits and fire pits are for. Located on the far west side of the city, this beach has a community feel like no other, where local surfers, artists and old-timers know each other (and each other’s dogs) by name. The 3.5-mile beach spans the far west side of the city, from the Outer Richmond district to the Outer Sunset. The southern side is home to hardcore surfers who brave the frigid waves, while farther north you’ll find tourists and regulars who make the beautiful 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 staked out early on sunny days.

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Sunset
3

Baker Beach

On Indian Summer days, this mile-long beach off the Presidio is packed with locals and visitors alike. With the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, it’s also a popular spot for engagement and wedding photos. Gray-green serpentine cliffs rise behind you, dotted by the impressive mansions of the Seacliff district. Several trails lead down to the beach from the Presidio, including Bluff Trail, Bay Ridge Trail and Park Trail, and dogs are allowed. Take the sand ladder stairway for a birds-eye view of the beach and, if you’re lucky, a glimpse of dolphins playing in the surf.

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Presidio
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4

Quarry Beach

Take a short ferry ride across the bay and you’ll find the warm, white sand beach of city-dwellers’ dreams. Located on the east side of Angel Island near Fort McDowell, this stretch affords panoramic views of the East Bay and San Francisco skyline. And because it’s protected from the wind, it makes an excellent destination for sunbathers fed up with San Francisco’s more blustery beaches. Nearby, you’ll find dirt and paved roads for walking or cycling, as well as a picnic area and campsite just up the hill.

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Outside San Francisco
5

China Beach

If you’re overwhelmed by the scantily-clad masses at Baker Beach, 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, tiny 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. During low tide, you’ll find starfish, mussels and sea anemone dotting the rocks.

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Outer Richmond
6

Fort Funston

This fort used to be a harbor defense station in the early 1900s; now the protected preserve is effectively a gorgeous, oceanfront dog park. The sprawling site is backed by 200-foot-high sandy bluffs, crisscrossed with trails and laden with wildflowers and native plants. Scamper down the steep, sandy slope to the beach to find dogs and owners alike splashing in the surf. (Be careful, though—the undertow is no joke.) The black sand beach is dotted by crumbling concrete outlooks tagged in colorful graffiti. 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.

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Outer Richmond
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7

Mile Rock Beach

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. The stone-laden sand is dotted with fort-like remnants covered in graffiti. It’s adjacent to a rock labyrinth overlooking the water, which has been destroyed and reconstructed over the years. Because of the uneven terrain, the beach is a crowd-free hidden gem.

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Outer Richmond
8

Marshall's Beach

Nicknamed “Bad Boy Beach,” 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, but since the addition of a trail and stairway leading the way nearly a decade ago it 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—an impressive sight.

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Sunset
9

Thornton State Beach

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.

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Outside San Francisco
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10

Perles Beach

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.

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Outside San Francisco

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