×

11 Top-Rated Beaches in the San Francisco Area

Written by Lisa Alexander
Sep 24, 2019

Along a dramatic, craggy coastline, the beaches in and around San Francisco have a rugged quality and moody weather better suited to nature walks than sunbathing. Swimming is out of the question at most of the beaches due to the unforgiving ocean conditions and dangerous riptides. Instead, visitors can admire the spectacular vistas, breathe in the salty sea air, and relax to the soothing sound of crashing waves.

Despite the urban setting, the beaches within the San Francisco city limits are surprisingly natural, with protected sand dunes and windswept cypress pine trees. Ocean Beach is San Francisco's longest stretch of shoreline, while the Baker Beach boasts the most stunning views.

Some of the best beaches in the area are outside of San Francisco, but scenic journeys and incomparable coastal hideaways make the effort worthwhile. Nestled in the rolling hills south of the city, Half Moon Bay is a popular day-trip destination. Continuing farther south leads to Pescadero State Beach and the unspoiled San Gregorio State Beach.

North of San Francisco in Marin County are the hidden paradise of Muir Beach and the expansive Stinson Beach, the only destination on the list with a bonafide "beach town."

A note about the weather: Tourists are often disappointed when they arrive in San Francisco in July or August only to discover that it can feel colder than wintertime. Damp, drizzly fog shrouds the Northern California coastline in the early mornings from late springtime and through the summer.

Even on the days that start out sunny, without a cloud in the sky, at any moment, a blanket of fog can roll in suddenly and mysteriously, creeping over the Santa Cruz Mountains to the south, floating past the Marin Headlands in the north, and through the Golden Gate Bridge, adding a special romance to the scenery.

Discover the best stretches of sand and sea along this rugged coast with our list of the top beaches in the San Francisco area.

1. Baker Beach, San Francisco

Baker Beach

Baker Beach boasts a setting that is unlike any other place in the world. The Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands form a postcard-perfect backdrop for this beach that is tucked away behind serpentine-rock cliffs. This beach is one of the best places to visit in San Francisco for photo ops.

The one-mile sandy beach invites scenic strolls along the shoreline. Tourists are dazzled by the panoramic views, and romantics will be especially delighted by the breathtaking sunsets. Nature lovers relish the chance to spot wildlife such as harbor porpoises frolicking in the surf and California brown pelicans glide above the shore. Fishing is also possible.

Mediterranean shrubs, native flowers and a grove of Monterey cypress surround Baker Beach. Outdoorsy types can hike a 2.4-mile section of the California Coastal Trail that begins just beyond the Battery Chamberlin, a historic military site. The trail continues alongside the coastal bluffs and ends at the Golden Gate Bridge. This hike takes about one hour and offers vantage points of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay.

Safety Precautions: Do not swim or wade in the surf at Baker Beach. The water is not safe for swimming due to rip currents, powerful waves and sudden undertow. There are no lifeguards at Baker Beach.

Facilities include a large picnic area with BBQ grills. However this spot (behind the parking lot) is quite far from the beach and does not afford views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Besides the picnic area, the beach has public restrooms and a free parking lot. Arrive early on sunny summer days and weekends, before the parking lot fills up.

Address: Bowley Street and Gibson Road, San Francisco

2. Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Ocean Beach with the Cliff House above

San Francisco's Ocean Beach is a wild beach with powerful waves and a wide expanse of fine white sand. Offshore rocks add to the striking scenery. The shoreline backs up against undulating expanses of sand dunes that are carpeted with low-growing shrubs and ground-hugging succulent plants. During wintertime, the threatened western snowy plover birds make their home in the sand dunes (this area of the beach is protected by the National Park Service).

Extending for 3.5-miles, Ocean Beach is the city's longest sandy stretch, so it rarely feels crowded, even though it's very popular. Nearby residents come here to go jogging or walk their dogs. Kids enjoy making sandcastles. On those rare warm nights, locals gather to socialize around bonfires.

Ocean Beach is San Francisco's foggiest and chilliest beach due to its open exposure. On typical days, the mists give way to sunshine around midday for a moment of calm, only to be ruffled by prevailing gusts from the Pacific Ocean in the afternoon or evening.

The brisk weather makes Ocean Beach ideal for an invigorating walk along the promenade. Beach walks are rewarded with vistas of waves breaking against the shore while seagulls soar overhead.

Safety Precautions: Ocean Beach does not have lifeguards. Signs posted at the beach clearly indicate that swimming and wading are prohibited. Swimming is not safe due to the hazardous rip currents and frigid water temperatures. Only experienced surfers should enter the water wearing wetsuits and with the skills to handle the rough ocean swells.

Facilities: Visitors can park free of charge at the lot located on Sloat Boulevard or park on a residential street in the Sunset neighborhood. There are also public restrooms. For dining, two favorite spots within easy walking distance are the Beach Chalet with a gourmet restaurant overlooking the Pacific waves, and the Cliff House, which is renowned for its cuisine, as well as its ocean views.

Nearby Attractions: A short detour from Ocean Beach leads to the Golden Gate Zoo, one of the top San Francisco attractions for kids. Inquisitive children adore the Fisher Family Children's Zoo, a six-acre park within the Golden Gate Zoo that features a butterfly garden, interactive exhibits, and a nature trail. The zoo's miniature steam train appeals to youngsters, as well as the young-at-heart.

3. Stinson Beach, Marin County

Stinson Beach in Marin County

Getting to Stinson Beach is half the fun. The mountainous Highway One route delights with marvelous ocean views from every hairpin turn. Not for the faint of heart, this six-mile drive along a winding two-lane road (from Muir Beach to Stinson Beach) is as challenging as it is exhilarating.

On sunny weekends and summer days, the traffic slows to a turtle pace. Without any congestion, it's possible to get to Stinson Beach from San Francisco (23 miles away) in one hour. With traffic it can take almost twice as long.

The lengthy journey happily leads to an idyllic coastal setting. Wooded rolling hills enclose Stinson Beach, giving the place a secluded feel. Thanks to its sheltered location, the waters of Stinson Beach are usually safe enough for swimming when lifeguards are on duty (from July through Labor Day). Be sure to check first that the conditions are safe for swimming.

This sublime white-stand beach stretches for 3.5 miles, ideal for long seaside walks. Other favorite things to do include beach volleyball, surfing, fishing, and picnicking. In a shaded pine grove, Stinson Beach has a picnic area featuring barbecue grills and tables.

A beachside snack bar, the Siren Canteen (near the main lifeguard tower) is open during the summertime. Steps away from the beach, the Parkside Cafe offers gourmet California-style cuisine. From the restaurant's pleasant outdoor patio, you can dine while listening to the sound of the ocean waves.

Stinson Beach is the only real "beach town" in the San Francisco area. The charming rural community has an offbeat vibe, revealing Marin County's still-intact hippie culture. The town has a grocery store, unique local shops, family-owned restaurants, and a few hotels. An excellent choice of accommodation is the Sandpiper Lodging at the Beach, a short walk away from the beach.

Facilities: Stinson Beach has well-maintained facilities, including picnic areas, public restrooms, and free parking lots. On crowded weekend and summer days, the parking lots can fill up.

Nearby Attractions: The most visited tourist attraction in the area is Muir Woods. It's possible to hike from Muir Woods to Stinson Beach on the seven-mile Dipsea Trail, an advanced hike with sensational ocean views. Bordering Stinson Beach, the Mount Tamalpais State Park offers 60 miles of hiking trails and panoramic views of the coastline.

4. Crissy Field Beach, San Francisco

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field Beach

When the weather is sunny, locals flock to Crissy Field Beach for recreation and relaxation. Windy weather (which is common) brings out windsurfers and kite-boarders, who glide across the waves propelled by their colorful sails. During the week, residents from the Marina neighborhood come here to go jogging, push baby strollers, or walk their dogs.

With the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay framing Crissy Field Beach, the scenery is hard to beat. Tourists will appreciate the iconic vistas, along with the sandy shoreline and sheltered waters, which are generally safe enough for wading and swimming. However, there are no lifeguards at Crissy Field beaches, and "Swim at Your Own Risk" signs are posted.

Crissy Field is a historic army airfield dating to the 1920s that has been converted into a national park. A wonderful place for outdoor activities, the park is especially prized for its waterfront Golden Gate Promenade walking/biking path. The Golden Gate Promenade actually begins outside of Crissy Field at Fort Mason and ends near the Golden Gate Bridge; the two-mile route incorporates part of the regional Bay Trail. Along the way are amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as overlooks onto a tidal wetland preserve, the Crissy Marsh, which is home to 135 bird species.

Facilities: Crissy Field is well-designed for visitors, with parking lots, public restrooms, and changing rooms (near the Crissy Field East Beach), as well as a picnic area in the nearby Little Marina Green.

At the opposite (western) end of Crissy Field past Crissy Field South Beach, the Warming Hut café sells snacks, coffee, hot chocolate, and light meals. Also next to Crissy Field South Beach is the West Bluff picnic area, which offers front-row seats to admire the Golden Gate Bridge.

Crissy Field East Beach is about a half-mile walk away from Crissy Field South Beach, and the Warming Hut is another one-mile farther. Alternatively, visitors can drive and park in a closer parking lot. Just a stone's throw from the Golden Gate Bridge, the Crissy Field South Beach delivers the most photogenic panoramas.

Nearby Attractions: The Golden Gate Bridge is a short drive or walk from Crissy Field. To get to the bridge by foot, you must take the pedestrian Crissy Field Avenue Trail. Also within walking distance from Crissy Field is the Marina district, a picturesque residential neighborhood. Locals frequent the Marina's Chestnut Street for boutique shopping and dining at trendy restaurants. This street has something for everyone with its wide selection of upscale dining, casual eateries, cafés, and bakeries.

Tips: If you want to avoid the wind, visit Crissy Field Beach in the morning. The winds tend to pick up around midday. If the wind and fog roll in, head to the Warming Hut to grab a snack and stay warm.

5. Aquatic Park Cove, San Francisco

Aquatic Park Cove

Tourists need only walk a few steps away from Ghirardelli Square to find a tiny beach at Aquatic Park Cove. The narrow sandy stretch is sheltered from waves, so it is safe to swim here. In fact, the cove is so calm that it almost has the feel of a swimming pool.

Aquatic Park Cove is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, which has a harbor for Fisherman's Wharf boats and other recreational vessels. From the cove, tourists can see historic ships docked at the nearby Hyde Street Pier. For fabulous views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, tourists can take a walk along Aquatic Park's municipal pier.

Facilities: Amenities are limited at Aquatic Park Cove. Visitors can make use of benches to sit and soak up the views. There are no public restrooms. If driving, you must use metered street parking.

Tips: Take the cable car to get here because parking is difficult. The Hyde & Beach cable car stop (the last stop on the Powell/Hyde Cable Car line) is just steps away from the Aquatic Park Cove beach.

Across the street, kitty-corner to the cable car stop, is The Buena Vista, an atmospheric restaurant that decades ago catered to dock workers at a Sardine Cannery nearby. Today, the restaurant serves classic American fare, including local seafood specialities.

Nearby Attractions: On the same day, plan to visit Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman's Wharf. Both attractions are within easy walking distance. Right behind the beach at Aquatic Park Cove is the Maritime Museum, housed in a converted 1830s bathhouse.

6. Muir Beach, Marin County

Muir Beach in Marin County

A little slice of seaside paradise is found north of San Francisco in a quiet sheltered cove enclosed by sheer ocean bluffs. To arrive here, you must drive beyond the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. Another scenic portion of the drive includes a meandering stretch of Highway One through chaparral-covered hillsides as you approach the Pacific Ocean. Because of its pastoral setting, Muir Beach appeals to nature lovers and outdoorsy types.

Muir Beach is a small but wide swatch of sandy shoreline, concealed behind a protected wetland (the Redwood Creek Lagoon). The "entrance" to the beach is a 225-foot pedestrian bridge that leads through a canopy of leafy laurel trees and over a babbling freshwater brook. The recently restored Redwood Creek Lagoon nature preserve was created to provide habitat for the endangered Coho salmon, as well as other threatened species.

Visitors will enjoy the picturesque setting and pristine environment of Muir Beach. The refreshing sea air is tinged with scents of seaweed that has washed onto the shore and aromatic sagebrush that grows on the surrounding hillsides. Besides the scenery, Muir Beach also attracts visitors for outdoor activities, including beach volleyball and hiking. Several nature trails begin at Muir Beach either going inland on a tree-shaded path toward the Zen Center or westward following the coastline.

A challenging nine-mile roundtrip hike begins at Muir Beach and continues along a portion of the California Coastal Trail until reaching the Tennessee Valley, where you catch glimpses of a small beach cove in the distance. The hike follows the steep ocean bluffs, affording awe-inspiring views of Marin's verdant rolling hills and the deep-blue Pacific Ocean along the way.

Safety Precautions: There are no lifeguards at Muir Beach. Swimming and wading in the water are not recommended due to the dangerous undertow and rip currents. If you're hiking along the coastal bluffs, stay away from the cliff edges.

Facilities: Very basic public restrooms are available, although the facilities are not always well maintained. The picnic area includes two tables next to the parking lot, but it's not the most appealing spot. Most visitors bring their picnic provisions to the beach, which requires lugging your supplies on the walk over the pedestrian footbridge.

Tips: Arrive early on weekends and during summertime. Parking is very limited, and the lot fills up quickly. The small lot is the only place to park, so sometimes this creates a situation where you must idle in the parking lot while waiting for spaces to become available. Bring your own food and drinks. Except for the Pelican Inn, Muir Beach does not have any snack bars, eateries, or grocery stores nearby.

A short walk from the beach, The Pelican Inn is a romantic bed and breakfast hotel that resembles a 16th-century English country house. It's a wonderful place to spend the night or to dine at its candlelit restaurant (open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). The Pelican Inn restaurant serves authentic pub fare made with ingredients from local organic farms.

Nearby Attractions: Muir Woods is a three-mile drive from Muir Beach. The peaceful Green Gulch Zen Center is an easy 1.6-mile walk from Muir Beach. Stinson Beach is only six miles away, but the drive is challenging and in traffic can take 30 minutes from Muir Beach.

Address: 200 Pacific Way, Muir Beach

7. San Gregorio State Beach, San Mateo County

Beautiful San Gregorio State Beach

This wild driftwood-strewn beach is prized for its wide, sandy shoreline and unspoiled natural environment. Grass-covered ocean bluffs enclose San Gregorio State Beach, while the shoreline is backed by a protected estuary that is home to seabirds and animals. San Gregorio State Beach is about a one-hour drive (40 miles south) from San Francisco.

Facilities include a parking lot, public restrooms, and a picnic area.

Safety Precautions: Swimming and wading are not advised due to large "rogue waves," dangerous rip currents, and frigid water. Lifeguards surveillance is limited.

8. Half Moon Bay State Beach, San Mateo County

Half Moon Bay State Beach

The charming country town of Half Moon Bay is nestled in the green rolling hills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. A patchwork of small farms surrounds the congested commercial center of town. Half Moon Bay State Beach includes four miles of sandy beaches, tucked in between rugged ocean bluffs and steep cliffs. The California Coastal Trail traverses the ocean bluffs alongside the beach.

Safety Precautions: Lifeguard surveillance is limited. Swimming and wading are not usually advised due to the extremely cold water and dangerous ocean conditions (large rogue waves and rip currents). When hiking the Coastal Trail, be cautious and stay away from cliff edges.

Facilities include a parking lot, public restrooms and picnic areas.

9. Pescadero State Beach, San Mateo County

Pathway to Pescadero State Beach

Just a short drive (17 miles) south of Half Moon Bay, the tranquil community of Pescadero draws many visitors to its quaint rural town and superb sandy beach. Tucked in between rocky ocean bluffs, the two-mile-long shoreline features undulating sand dunes where western snowy plovers nest.

Across from the beach is the 500-acre Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve, a fabulous spot for bird-watching. Guided walking tours of the marsh take place (free of charge) on the first Sunday of the month at 10am and the third Sunday of the month at 1pm.

Safety Precautions: Lifeguard surveillance is limited. Swimming and wading are not usually advised due to the extremely cold water and dangerous ocean conditions.

Facilities include paid parking lots, public restrooms and picnic tables.

Tips: First visit the town of Pescadero (a five-minute drive from the beach) if you want to pick up picnic supplies or grab a bite to eat. The downtown (one block of Stage Road between North Street and Pescadero Creek Road) has a grocery store, small locally owned shops, cafés, and restaurants. The award-winning Duarte's restaurant is famous for its artichoke soup, seafood, and Portuguese specialties.

10. Linda Mar Beach, Pacifica

Linda Mar Beach

Fitting of its Spanish name, this beautiful long stretch of sandy shoreline is sheltered in a crescent-shaped cove. Surfers love Linda Mar Beach because of its consistent waves. When the conditions are right, kayakers enjoy exploring the cove.

Linda Mar Beach is a popular getaway for residents of San Francisco, since this beach in Pacifica is only 15 miles south of the city. The drive only takes about 20 minutes from San Francisco.

A walking trail leads from the beach up to the top of an ocean bluff, an excellent vantage point to soak up the dramatic coastal views.

Safety Precautions: Lifeguard surveillance is limited. Swimming is not recommended due to dangerous rip currents and poor water quality (contaminants at this location are a health risk). Before kayaking or surfing, always check with a lifeguard or ranger about ocean conditions.

Facilities include a paid parking lot, water fountains, outdoor showers, women's changing rooms, and public restrooms. Near the beach is a busy commercial district with many shops, cafés, restaurants and grocery stores. Surprisingly, there is a Taco Bell right on the beach, and its outdoor terrace features ocean views plus front-row seats to watch the surfers in action.

11. Tennessee Beach, Marin County

Tennessee Beach in the Golden Gate Recreation Area

You have to walk almost two miles through the countryside to get to Tennessee Beach, but this scenic jaunt is often the highlight of a visit. The 1.7-mile Tennessee Valley Trail begins at the parking lot and traverses flowering meadows until reaching Tennessee Beach.

During springtime, bright purple lupine, cheerful honey-colored buttercups, and emblematic orange California poppies enliven the landscape. In the summertime, Tennessee Valley's meadows flourish with golden grasses, sagebrush, and blackberry bushes.

Enveloped by sheer rocky cliffs, the secluded Tennessee Beach offers an escape to nature. This soothing coastal hideaway is ideal for picnicking or hiking. Nature trails lead up into the hillsides above Tennessee Valley.

Tennessee Beach is a short drive (six miles) past the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. This pristine natural beach is found within the Golden Gate Recreation Area of Marin County.

Safety Precautions: Swimming and wading are not safe due to extremely cold water and dangerous rips. Lifeguards do not survey the beach.

Facilities include public restrooms and a free parking lot.

Tips: Be prepared to walk 1.7 miles each way to and from the beach. Bring your own water and food for a picnic. This is a natural beach without any snack bars or eateries nearby. If exploring the cove on Tennessee Beach, make sure to avoid high tides, which can cut off access to the beach.

Address: Tennessee Valley Road, Mill Valley

Tips for Your Visit to San Francisco Area Beaches

  • Check Ocean Safety Conditions: Before going in the water, always read safety information posted at the beach and confirm with a lifeguard that it's safe. At most beaches, swimming and wading are prohibited due to hazardous ocean conditions. Except for Stinson Beach, none of the beaches on this list are regularly surveyed by lifeguards.
  • Facilities: Public restroom facilities or portable toilet facilities are available at all beaches. However, the facilities are not always well maintained.
  • Be Prepared with Beach Gear: Be sure to bring blankets, sun umbrellas, and beach chairs. None of the beaches have sun parasol or beach chair rentals.
  • Pack a Picnic: Keep in mind that amenities are limited at most beaches. There are no cafés or snack bars at the beaches in the San Francisco area, with the exception of Stinson Beach. It's a good idea to shop for picnic provisions beforehand, since most of the beaches are not located near a grocery store.
  • Wear Layers: Take a tip from the locals who always dress in layers, in case of quick changes in the weather. Various microclimates of the San Francisco Bay Area make weather prediction difficult. It can be perfectly sunny in the southern portion of San Francisco at the same time it's completely overcast at the city's oceanfront. Sometimes the weather changes during your drive to the beach.
  • Expect Overcast Weather: Fog usually covers the San Francisco area beaches in late spring and summer; temperatures can be in the 50s Fahrenheit. Sometimes the fog burns off around midday.
  • Visit in September or October: September and October are the hottest and sunniest months, when San Francisco often experiences Indian summer, with daytime temperatures in the 70s Fahrenheit. On the occasional days of heat waves during this period, daytime temperatures can reach the 80s and 90s Fahrenheit.
  • Springtime is Beautiful but Breezy: It's often sunny at the beach during the months of April and May, but it can get very windy. The strong Pacific gusts tend to pick up in the afternoon.
  • Avoid the Rainy Season: The rainy season is from November to March. Depending on the year, rainfall can be very heavy especially during December, January, and February.

Where to Stay in San Francisco near the Beach

Unlike other California cities, such as sun-drenched Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, foggy San Francisco is not a beach town. However, it is possible to stay near a decent beach in San Francisco if you choose a hotel in the Fisherman's Wharf area or in the Marina district. Fisherman's Wharf hotels are within walking distance of the tiny sandy beach at Aquatic Park Cove. The beach at Crissy Field is a long yet picturesque walk from the heart of the Marina district.

Learn more about where to stay in San Francisco, so that you can choose the best location and best accommodation for your vacation.

More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com

More California Beaches and Beach Towns: Warm, sunny beach days are few and far between in San Francisco because of its chilly climate. Sun-worshippers will prefer quintessential California beaches and beach towns, such as Santa Cruz, with its beach boardwalk and fun-loving seaside resort vibes. On the Central California Coast, some of the must-see day trips from San Luis Obispo are the cute beach towns of Pismo Beach and Avila Beach. Framed by the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara offers gorgeous sandy beaches and perfect balmy weather.

Discover destinations, find outdoor adventures, follow the journeys of our travel writers around the world, and be inspired.

More on California