San Francisco Beaches Beaches to see on the occasional sunny day
When you think about beaches, images of sun, sand, and skimpy bikinis probably come to mind. However, this general definition does not really apply to the beaches in San Francisco. Northern California ocean water is not really warm enough for swimming, and the chilly ocean breeze makes it too cold to sunbathe most of the year. Here in SF, we swap out bathing suits for wetsuits, and beach towels for blankets. We may have to hunker down and bundle up, but the beaches here are definitely still worth visiting. No matter what the temperature, there is no substitute for the scent of salt water and the soothing sound of waves lapping at the shore. Whether you are searching for a romantic date spot or need to relax and unwind, read on to discover some of the most beautiful landscapes within city limits. (and if it’s a warm and sunny day, then you may want to grab some of the best ice cream in San Francisco, because…well, ice cream is delicious and every hot day is technically a cheat day)
Baker Beach, in my opinion, is the place to find the most traditional SF beach experience. It is also well-known as San Francisco’s very own nudist beach. Due to its location underneath the Presidio’s western cliffs, this beach can be warmer & sunnier than most of the other spots in the city. The weather makes for excellent sun-bathing, which in turn leads to nudity (apparently). Yet the clothing-optional portion of the beach is contained to the northernmost end, near the Golden Gate Bridge, and the rest of the beach is much more conservative. There is a picnic area with tables and barbecue grills, the water clean, the sand is smooth and the beach is dog-friendly. On clear days you will have incredible views of the Golden Gate and ocean waves, so lie down your beach towel and prepare to soak up the rays!
Keep in mind that on sunny days, you can also expect big crowds, so don’t come here if you are looking for privacy. Also, sunny days do not equal warm water – this is still NorCal, after all.
China Beach is one of San Francisco’s hidden gems. This well-kept secret is a small, sandy beach surrounded by cliffs. You can get to the beach from the parking lot found at the west end of the Seacliff neighborhood. Walk down the stairs (or use the accessible ramp) and you will find yourself on a secluded beach cove that was named for the Chinese fisherman who used to camp here. The beach is surrounded by breathtaking rock formations and close-up views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Even on the foggiest of days, China Beach is an undeniably beautiful spot to experience majestic cliffs, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the hills of Marin county. It is intimate and romantic, just be sure to prepare for strong winds (I promise you, the view is worth it). The spot has well-maintained public bathrooms & showers, plus hiking trails that lead into and out of the beach. China Beach is a must-visit for those looking for an off-the-beaten path San Francisco beach experience!
Ocean Beach is a must-visit if you want to truly experience San Francisco (cold breeze, fog and all). This strip of beach, directly west of Golden Gate Park, provides compelling views and experiences no matter which way you turn!
Standing on the beach looking East, you will see the cityscape rising up beyond the graffiti-splashed seawalls. In contrast to this urban beauty, face West and your horizon will be filled with deep blue ocean, and possibly a far-off cargo ship or a surfer making his way to shore. Looking to the North yields a view of striking cliffs that jut out into the water, and up the hill, you can see historical landmarks like the Cliff House. To the South, you will see sand dunes following the Great Highway as it leads down to the San Francisco Zoo.
On a sunny day, you can spend hours doing some quality people-watching. There are drum circles, dog-owners, surfers, families, and folks of all kinds. Alternatively, participate in the action yourself by walking, running, or biking along the shore path. One of my favorite features of Ocean Beach are the fire pits. Make a night of it by assembling a group of friends, snagging a fire pit, and watching the sunset next to a massive bonfire. Don’t forget to bring some beers and marshmallows for s’mores!
Fort Funston Beach
Located at the southernmost area of the city, Fort Funston Beach is a great place to spend a sunny day. It’s also the most popular dog beach, so grab your doggy goggles and put your pooch in the car for a great day of running in the sand. This is also a popular place for hang gliders due to the 200-foot bluffs that for a beautiful backdrop behind the water and sand. Oh, and if you are looking for a place to bring your horse on a sunny day, you can do that here as well.
There is a parking lot located at the top of the cliffs, so it’s really easy to drive here. Once you park, you can follow the steep path down to the beach. Keep in mind that you will need to walk back up this path to get back to your car, so you may want to re-think the amount of stuff that you want to carry down. Anything more than a backpack and a small cooler will make the trip a tough one…
As far as beaches go, this one is definitely worth the trip. Keep in mind that there will be a lot of dogs running around, so if you don’t like dogs, then steer clear.
Originally a privately-owned saltwater swimming pool, The Sutro Baths opened to the public on March 14, 1896. It was built by Adolph Sutro, a former mayor of San Francisco, who also owned the Cliff House. The baths survived for years, but eventually ran into financial troubles before being converted to an ice skating rink in 1964 and eventually burning down due to arson in 1966.
Nothing was ever built on the plot of land after the fire, despite plans for an apartment complex, and you can still see remnants of the old facility today. It became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (operated by the United States Park Service) in 1973, so the land is now protected, which is good news for beach lovers. A truly unique spot, it offers amazing views, a gorgeous secluded beach and amazing views of the Pacific Ocean.
Getting to the Sutro Baths is easy, with plenty of parking at the Lands End Visitors Center. You can get to the baths down a path next to the Cliff House Restaurant (the perfect place to grab food or a drink after exploring the area).
Mile Rock Beach
Not too far from the Sutro Baths is another lesser-known beach, which is a little bit more difficult to get to, but absolutely worth the trip. Starting from the Lands End Visitors Center, you will embark on a 1 mile trail walk to get to the area. You also have to walk down a fairly long set of stairs, but you will be greeted with a welcoming beach with amazing views. The good thing about being difficult to get to is that you don’t get the massive crowds that you might see at Baker Beach and Ocean Beach.
Aside from the water and sand, this beach has a few surprises in store. Besides some cool balanced rocks and logs situated along the beach (the perfect place to grab a seat and enjoy some food & wine), there is also the Land’s End Labyrinth, which is a man-made “labyrinth” of rocks situated right on the edge of a cliff. If you must interrupt the perfectly serene surroundings by pulling out your phone, this would be a place that is definitely Instagram-worthy.