There are so many things to do in San Francisco that going to the beach may not even make it onto your itinerary. If you have time to spare, though, I absolutely recommend checking out some San Francisco beaches during your visit. This city may be best known for its hills and the colorful painted ladies, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the funky culture, but it also has some beautiful stretches of coastline that are just perfect for playing and relaxing between visits to San Francisco attractions.
Just remember that the water at most San Francisco beaches will be pretty cold. Go to bask in the sunshine on the warm sand, take in the gorgeous scenery and maybe having a picnic. Of course, I know from experience that when you’re visiting San Francisco with kids, keeping them out of the water may be impossible (where it is safe to swim). So, bring sweatshirts and thick fluffy towels to warm up chilly children after a dip.
As to which San Francisco beaches are best, I have some favorites that I’ll share below.
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1. Aquatic Park
This bay beach is located in the heart of the city, close to Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square, which means it’s easy for tourists to check out with tickets for the San Francisco Big Bus® Tours or City Sightseeing® San Francisco tours.
It’s a protected cove with fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, and you can walk right out into the water, which is usually very calm. That said, as is the case with many San Francisco beaches, there are still sea lions and harbor seals in the cove, so wading and swimming in groups is recommended.
2. Baker Beach
One of the most famous San Francisco beaches, Baker Beach becomes a local hotspot whenever the sun is shining. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands can’t be beaten. It is dog-friendly, and it really is a nature lover’s paradise.
On any given day, you might spot a red-tailed hawk, brown pelicans, sea stars, native wildflowers, harbor seals, and even dolphins frolicking in the surf. Swimming isn’t advised (the water is cold, and the rip currents are strong), but conditions are just right for barefoot strolls and picnicking. Note that the north side of this mile-long stretch of beach is clothing-optional, so if that’s not your thing, head south.
3. China Beach
This tiny San Francisco beach is a less-crowded alternative to Baker Beach. You’ll find the same gorgeous views, a picnic area with grills, ample street parking, and protection from San Francisco’s strong coastal winds, thanks to the steep cliffs that shelter this strip of sand.
There is also a cool monument to the Chinese fishermen that once made their camp here, which is how the beach got its name.
4. Crissy Field East Beach
This is one of the prettiest spots in San Francisco, with sprawling dunes and great views of the Bridge, Angel Island, the Marin Headlands, Alcatraz, and the downtown skyline. Crissy Field East Beach is very popular with windsurfers and kiteboarders because of the thermal winds that buffet the area, but it’s also a safe place to swim (though cold).
The sand is particularly nice here, and on weekends, families will set up and stay the whole day.
5. Clipper Cove Beach
Getting to Clipper Cove Beach on Yerba Buena Island is half the fun. You can park at the Treasure Isle Marina and walk down a flight of wooden stairs to the tiny beach, or you can stop here for a little rest and relaxation when you’re paddling around Yerba Buena and Treasure Island.
Because this San Francisco beach is a cove, it has more wind protection than other beaches so that it can be warmer and the water is calm. That said, plan to visit in the morning when the beach gets full sun.
6. Coyote Point Recreation Area
While not the biggest beach in the city, it’s worth checking out Coyote Point Recreation Area if you’re visiting San Francisco with kids. In addition to a nice stretch of gravel beach that’s perfect for swimming and wading, it’s also home to a family-friendly science museum called CuriOdyssey and the Magic Mountain playground, which boasts one of the longest enclosed slides in the whole state.
This beach is also a great spot for watching windsurfers do their thing.
7. Crown Memorial State Beach
If you like dipping your toes into the warmer waters of the bay but not the muddy bottom, this beach is for you. The two and a half mile stretch of sand at Crown Memorial State Beach in Alameda on the bay was created by bringing in sand from other San Francisco beaches, and the water is shallow for some distance out from the shore.
It’s a good swimming spot for families with younger kids. There are tide pools to explore, and it’s also home to the Crab Cove Visitor Center, which has an 800-gallon aquarium system and interactive exhibits that let kids see sea life up close.
8. Fort Funston Beach
You’ll see a lot of people splashing in the surf here, but be careful because the rip currents can be strong. Instead of wading in the water at this beach, hike the trails along the bluff, search for sand dollars and fossils on the shore, and check out the newest tags on the graffiti-covered concrete structure.
Make sure you look up frequently, as this is a great spot to watch hang gliders soaring off of the bluff. Fort Funston is part of the Golden Gate National Park and was once a harbor defense facility.
9. Marshall’s Beach
To the north of Baker Beach, you’ll find this beautiful but narrow San Francisco beach that’s secluded enough to make nude sunbathing a regular occurrence. Part of the fun of visiting Marshall’s Beach is finding your way there. You can only get to the beach by parking at the Golden Gate Overlook parking lot and hiking down the steep footpaths and staircases that wind down the bluffs.
Swimming here is not recommended. At low tide, you can trek across the rocks until you’re almost at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.
10. Mile Rock Beach
This rocky beach is located in a secluded cove in the Lands End recreation area. It’s tiny, but there are panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, it has vibrant tide pools to explore, and it’s connected to the Coastal Trail, making it a perfect resting spot for anyone who likes a strenuous hike.
You’ll find the Lands End Labyrinth right above Mile Rock Beach. Three shipwrecks also reveal themselves here at low tides between Lands End and Point Lobos.
11. Ocean Beach
If you like a beach with some space, head here to San Francisco’s longest and widest beach. You can spread out on the soft sand without having to worry about other beachgoers infringing on your space, and unwinding is easier because there aren’t a lot of high rises or commercial properties along the waterfront.
Ocean Beach is the perfect place to walk, jog, fish, watch the windsurfers and kiteboarders, or take in some sun. If you’re not a super strong swimmer, it’s probably best to stay out of the water entirely.
12. Oyster Point Beach
If you’re searching for a safe, protected place to swim, the two-acre stretch of sand at Oyster Point Park is a great choice. While this San Francisco beach doesn’t have lifeguards on duty, its location in a small cove protects it from the waves. There are also plenty of shade trees and picnic tables on this artificial peninsula.
What are your favorite San Francisco beaches and why do you love them?
Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).
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