The Best Beaches in San Francisco

by Daisy Barringer | Thrillist

Marshall's Beach | December35/Shutterstock

San Francisco’s beaches aren’t exactly somewhere you go to swim or sunbathe, since the water is extremely frigid and the fog shows up way more than the sun. Still, they’re some of the most beautiful beaches in the world thanks to their stunning views and staggering cliffs. There’s also an odd amount of nudity on a bunch of them considering the low temps, but hey, this is SF and this is who we are.

The strange thing about our beaches is that even though the city is surrounded by water on three sides, residents tend to forget they even exist at all. We figured if we shared our favorites, it might inspire people to go feel the sand between their toes for a change. Just don’t forget a jacket. But, you knew that already.

Melanie Hobson/Shutterstock

Baker Beach

Amazing views of the bridge, as well as naked people who are impervious to the cold. Baker Beach is the most popular beach in San Francisco, and this is never more evident than on a rare sunny day when it’s impossible to find parking and the beach is dotted with pale white bodies in desperate need of some vitamin D. The reason for its popularity? Well, the fact that the north end is clothing optional would probably win out, if not for the “this is why we live here” outside-the-Gate views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands. The best is when the two crowds mingle and you see brides taking wedding photos while a butt naked old man stretches in front of the sea. Baker Beach also has a picnic area with grills tucked away in a Cypress Grove by the parking lot, is dog-friendly (off-leash north of Lobos Creek and on leash south of it), and is home to Battery Chamberlin, which holds the last “disappearing gun” of its type on the West Coast. Go on the first weekend of the month to see a demonstration. And not like you were planning to go into the freezing cold ocean anyway, but swimming isn’t advised because the currents and riptide are no joke.

Where to eat/drink: Baker Beach is in a bit of a bar and restaurant no man’s land, but take advantage of the fact that you’re all the way in the Outer Richmond for once and hit up Pizzetta 211 for some of the best pizza in the city or Tommy’s for what are absolutely the best margaritas in town. They’re both about a five-minute car ride or a 20-minute walk. If Pizzetta 211 has a long wait ‘cause of the whole there are only four tables thing, Fiorella is also an excellent spot to grab a pie and is just three blocks away.


China Beach

An under-the-radar beach for when you want the Baker Beach views without the crowd. On a warm weekend day, everyone and their uncle flocks to Baker Beach for the picnic area and Instagram opportunities. And though Baker Beach has its perks, if you want to beat the crowds, head to China Beach, a tiny sheltered cove between Lands End and Baker Beach. The views of the Marin Headlands and Golden Gate Bridge are just as amazing (if not more so) than from Baker Beach, and during low tide, you can even walk between the two. Above the beach, there’s a picnic area with grills and a monument to Chinese fisherman that’s worth checking out, but unlike Baker Beach, no pups are allowed.

Where to eat/drink: Those same Baker Beach recommendations apply, but you can also hit up Hard Knox for fried chicken and waffles before you head to the beach (‘cause it’s not like you’re about to actually be in your bathing suit) or pop in Mr. Banh Mi for a super tasty and super affordable ($4.95 or $5.95) banh mi to take with you to the beach.


Clipper Cove Beach

A “secret” dog-friendly beach with calm (but still cold) water. You’ll need to go to the east side of Treasure Island and walk down a flight of wooden stairs to access this crescent-shaped beach with a view of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge. Well, unless you want to kayak there. If you do want to kayak, but paddling all the way across the Bay seems like a thing you need more upper body strength to achieve than you have, just rent a kayak or SUP from Treasure Island Sailing Center. The “cove” part of Clipper Cove Beach means it’s relatively protected from the wind, which makes it a good place to learn and practice both. You’ll want to head there early because much of the beach ends up in the shade in the afternoon, but that actually works out perfectly because when the shadows start to creep across the sand, that’s the ideal time to head to Mersea for crispy tacos and beer.

Where to eat/drink: There are only two restaurants on Treasure Island, so it just depends on if you’re in the mood for comfort food in a restaurant made of shipping containers (Mersea) or a romantic spot known for its elevated brunch fare (Aracely). Can’t decide? Aracely is often closed on the weekends for weddings, so that might make the decision for you.

Patrick Civello/Shutterstock

Crissy Field

One-hundred acres of ceaseless beauty. What was once a US Army airfield is now a generously portioned slice of heaven and a San Francisco gem. If you’re new to SF, you may not know, but it wasn’t always like that. In fact, it was literally toxic thanks to the dumping of hazardous materials by the aforementioned Army. However let’s not dwell on the past. The National Park Service did a tremendous job bringing what they described as “a derelict concrete wasteland” back to its original glory and then some, and now it’s one of the prettiest places to visit in the city, thanks to dunes, a tidal lagoon, excellent bird watching, kiteboarders and windsurfers, and views of Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island, the Downtown skyline, and the Marin Headlands. Even better, you can actually get in the arctic waters at this beach, if you dare. If not, take your dog off of his leash (as long as he’s under voice control) so he can frolic in the surf.

Where to eat/drink: Crissy Field has two picnic areas with barbecue pits, so if you’re willing to get there early to claim one, all you need to do is stop by Safeway and pick up some meat and beer. If you’re more into sleeping in than grilling out, grabbing sandwiches at the Warming Hut is definitely the easiest option, but if you can muster up the energy for one stop on the way, stop off at Lucca Delicatessen (seven-minute drive; 20-minute walk) for one of the best sandwiches in SF and everything else you need for a gourmet picnic.


Fort Funston

A former harbor defense installation that’s now a windy paradise for dogs and the people who love them. If we were a dog, then Fort Funston would be our favorite beach in SF without hesitation. That’s because this former harbor defense installation is the most off-leash dog-friendly beach in the city and has lots of trails to explore, including the very steep one down to the beach that’s fun and games walking down, but a small form of torture climbing up. There are always dogs running on the beach, playing fetch, and generally living their best lives. Non-dogs also go there to hang glide, parasail, peep the WWII ruin Battery Davis, hike through the dunes, appreciate native plants, and pet every single dog.

Where to eat/drink: Fort Funston is way out there, so either take this opportunity to go to Daly City and get In-N-Out (12-minute drive) or skip the food or head to White Cap for a quality cocktail.

Eva Hawker/Shutterstock

Marshall's Beach

One of the best vistas in all of SF. Marshall's Beach is the most secluded beach on this list and is like a mini Baker Beach but without the crowds -- the nudists, on the other hand, are prevalent. The beach has great views, perhaps one of the best of the Golden Gate Bridge from outside the Gate and is hidden amongst steep cliffs, which is one of the reasons it’s so popular for people who want to literally let it all hang out. This beach is particularly well-liked by the gay community, but anyone who isn’t averse to seeing the full monty is obviously welcome. It’s also a great spot for bird watching, probably because dogs aren’t allowed. Lastly, the beach can be totally submerged during high tide, so check the tide times first.

Where to eat/drink: This beach is in a pretty remote part of the Presidio, so a picnic from wherever you love near your house is probably your best bet, but if you want a drink and bite afterwards, Presidio Social Club (comforting Northern California fare and cocktails), Sessions at the Presidio (small plates and over 100 beers, including 24 on tap), and Arguello (fancy Mexican food and drinks from Traci des Jardins) are all about an eight-minute drive away.


Ocean Beach

SF’s best beach for surfing, and the only one with fire pits. This 3.5-mile-long beach favored by very experienced surfers (seriously, don’t paddle out unless you know what you’re doing) spans from the zoo on the south to the Cliff House on the north -- and is also SF’s widest beach by far. Like almost all of SF’s beaches, you should not go in the water due to dangerous rip currents, but you can let your dog play off leash from stairwell 1 to stairwell 21. Just make sure he’s on a leash between Fulton and Sloat because tickets are a common occurrence for beach-goers who break the rules. Ocean Beach also has 16 fire rings where you can have fires from 6am to 9:30pm from March 1 to October 31. They get snatched up quickly on the weekends, but if you get there by 6pm during the week, there are almost always a couple available. Also, don’t worry if you see some black sand; that’s not from pollution, but rather particles of magnetite that wash ashore during storms. And if you go to OB when the tide is very, very low, walk to Ortega Street and try to see the ribs of the hull of “King Philip” sticking out of the sand just offshore. It’s one of 20 ships that wrecked on the beach between 1850 and 1926. It’s a rare occurrence, but it’s very cool when it happens.

Where to eat/drink: Ocean Beach is LONG, so it kind of depends what part of the beach you’re at, but if you’re on the north end then Cliff House is always fun for playing tourist; closer to Fulton, you can’t go wrong with fish tacos and beer on the lawn at Park Chalet; near Lincoln, you’ll want the cinnamon toast at Trouble Cafe, duh; close to Noriega, The Pizza Place on Noriega ‘cause you can get it by the slice or the pie; and if you’re all the way down by Sloat just get whatever you like on your drive home.