Ocean Beach
San Francisco

Ocean Beach San Francisco is a wide expanse of sand and dunes that faces the Pacific Ocean, stretching for three miles along the entire western edge of San Francisco. Here are some tips for enjoying your visit to Ocean Beach: things to do, how to get there, where to park and where to eat.

ocean beach san francisco
Ocean Beach, northern end

This is where San Franciscans come to feel the cool breezes and breathe the clean, salty air that comes in off 6,000 miles of open ocean. Too much City? Come out to Ocean Beach and reconnect with nature; listen to the cries of the seagulls and sounds of crashing surf.

ocean beach san francisco, sand dunes
Ocean Beach, dunes at southern end

History of Ocean Beach

City residents have been coming out to Ocean Beach San Francisco for over 100 years, from the time the western area was just a wilderness of sand dunes. A street car line brought visitors out here to eat at the Cliff House, swim at the Sutro Baths and go on the rides at the Playland amusement park (which closed in 1972, alas).

The Cliff House was first built in 1863, burned down twice, and has gone through many different styles, from Victorian gingerbread and tacky 1970's, to the attractive classical/modern combination built in 2004 that stands there today.

playland san francisco 1918
Playland, Ocean Beach 1918

Between 1850 and 1926, 20 ships were wrecked along Ocean Beach; at very low tides, you can occasionally see the hull of the unfortunate ship, King Philip, which ran aground in 1878, off the beach at the foot of Ortega Street.

What To Do At Ocean Beach

Whether you come to walk in the invigorating air or just sit in the sandy dunes and think, you'll feel refreshed by the beautiful expanse of sea and sky.

There are usually a few people fishing, and others picnicking on the beach, while kids and dogs play in the sand, and people walk and jog along the water line. Except for a few really warm days, the beach is surprisingly uncrowded for being in an urban area.

The sand looks black in places, not because of oil spills or pollution, but due to particles of magnetite, a magnetic rock that washes up after storms. (It will cling to a magnet.)

A sandy path runs along the tops of the dunes, through the ice plant, which is perfect for strolling, and a paved path lies just across the Great Highway, very popular with walkers and cyclists.

ocean beach san francisco, path along the beach
Path through the ice plant

An esplanade, built in the early 1900's, follows the seawall along the upper half of the beach, and leads up to the Cliff House.

cliff house restaurant, ocean beach san francisco
The Cliff House

Sunny days are gorgeous, but Ocean Beach San Francisco is a also great place to walk when the fog is rolling in (which is most of May, June and July, our foggy months in the Avenues).

When the surf's up, dozens of surfers pull on their wetsuits and paddle out to wait for that perfect wave. Ocean Beach is considered one of the better surfing beaches.

ocean beach san francisco, surfers
Surfers at Ocean Beach

What not to do: don't go in the water! This beach has very dangerous rip currents, so unless you're an experienced surfer, and know what to do if you're caught in one, don't go in. Not even a little wading. People drown here every year. See tips on rip currents for more info. It's way too cold, anyway! Ocean Beach is just not a swimming beach.

Bonfires are allowed in the fire pits provided, between Stairwells #15 and 16, and #21 through #28. (See list of stairwell locations further down)

Alcohol and overnight camping are not allowed at Ocean Beach.

Dogs at Ocean Beach

There has been a tug-of-war ongoing between dog-owners and environmentalists about dogs running free on Ocean Beach. The Snowy Plover has been listed as a threatened species and it spends most of the year at Ocean Beach. As a result, dogs can run free on the northern part of Ocean Beach (roughly adjacent to the Richmond District), but must be on leash most of the year on the southern portion of the beach (adjacent to the Sunset District).

Dog in off-leash area

Specifically, dogs are allowed off-leash all year between the Cliff House at the northern end of the beach and Stairwell #21 (just south of the Beach Chalet restaurant, near the windmill in Golden Gate Park). South of the Beach Chalet, dogs are only allowed off-leash from May 16 to June 30, when the Snowy Plovers are not wintering at Ocean Beach. I believe the current fine is $50. (Off-leash Heaven is at Fort Funston, the next San Francisco beach down the coast.)

Snowy Plovers are small sea birds, about the size of sparrows, that live and feed on Ocean Beach for most of the year, leaving briefly during the summer months to nest in less-populated areas like Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County to the north.

snowy plover
Snowy Plover

Image thanks to Mike Baird, under CC-BY-SA license.

These little birds are on the Threatened Species list; they are the ones you will often see running in and out just at the water line, dodging the surf. Unfortunately, dogs love to chase them and although the dogs can't catch them, this tires out the birds and makes it harder for them to build up their strength for the nesting season. People wanting their dog to run on the beach should therefore use the section north of Golden Gate Park.

Insider Tips:

  • Most Important! Swimming is really out of the question at Ocean Beach because of the dangerous rip currents. Also, the water is so cold you would be numb in seconds! Before you go, please read these safety tips. The water temperature is 53 to 57 degrees F (12 to 14 C) year round, so if you're surfing, you'll need a wetsuit.
  • Weather: The fog is more likely to be present in the early morning and late afternoons, so midday is usually the best time to come. The winds usually pick up in the late afternoon as well.
  • It is generally cooler and windier at the beach, so dressing in layers is a wise move.
  • On a hot, sunny day (very rare!), the northern end of the beach near the Cliff House is more crowded. Head for the southern end, near the San Francisco Zoo.
  • Parking: There are some parking lots (free) at the northern and southern ends of Ocean Beach, but the street that runs parallel to the Great Highway along the beach has lots of spaces also, as do the streets running perpendicular to the beach. Parking is pretty stress-free at Ocean Beach, another reason to come!
  • The neighborhoods next to Ocean Beach have lots of places to eat: cosy cafes, Chinese eateries, and upscale restaurants. When it's time to warm up and come inside, you won't have to go far to find something tasty.(see below for list and map)
  • Be sure to go to the northern end of the beach and visit the Cliff House, an historic restaurant on the rocks overlooking the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Gorgeous views and tasty cuisine! Even if you don't eat there, it's definitely worth seeing. More on the Cliff House.
  • If you have time, explore the ruins of the Sutro Baths near the Cliff House, once an amazing bathhouse. More on the Sutro Baths.
  • There are only three public restrooms at Ocean Beach, spaced at large intervals, on the other side of the Great Highway, from Sloat Blvd. to Judah Street. Find them at Sloat, Taraval and Irving Streets.

sutro baths, san francisco
Ruins of the Sutro Baths

Eating Suggestions

(all are marked on the mapbelow)

Restaurants Right on Ocean Beach

At the northern end of Ocean Beach:

The most scenic choice would be the Cliff House restaurant at the northern end of Ocean Beach. It's a bit expensive, but the food is excellent, as is the service, and you can look out at the Pacific Ocean and the seal colony at Seal Rock.

This is a long-time local favorite; a classy restaurant has been sitting on that cliff since 1800, and San Franciscans have been enjoying the food and views there for a hundred years. Check out the beautiful setting, even if you don't plan to eat there. More on the Cliff House.

view from the Cliff House restaurant, san francisco
View from the Cliff House

Just up the road is a homey (and less expensive) diner with great views and comfort food, Louis' Restaurant, just above the Cliff House on Point Lobos Avenue.

Another popular spot is the Beach Chalet, a more casual restaurant overlooking Ocean Beach on the Great Highway at John F. Kennedy Drive, where Golden Gate park meets the water. For a beach view, eat in the upstairs section, or eat downstairs with patio seating looking out on the windmill on the western edge of Golden Gate Park (great selection of beers).

There is a comfortable little cafe, the Java Beach Cafe, at the Great Highway and Judah Street: good salads and sandwiches, breakfast menus also.

ocean beach surfers, san francisco
Surfers headed for the water
Java Beach Cafe up ahead

At the southern end of Ocean Beach:

There is a good cafe on Sloat Boulevard, a couple of blocks from the beach, across the street from the San Francisco Zoo:

  • Java Beach at the Zoo (sister to Java Beach Cafe above)

(Unfortunately, a local favorite, John's Ocean Beach Cafe, is no more)

Restaurants near Ocean Beach

Not far from the beach is a fun Egyptian restaurant, Al Masri, at 4031 Balboa Street (between 41st and 42nd Streets), open for dinners only, Thursday through Sunday. The inside is designed to look like an open-air Egyptian marketplace; the food is excellent and they have belly dancing (tasteful!) on certain nights (contact them: 415 876-2300).

The two neighborhoods adjoining the beach, The Richmond and Sunset Districts, are now majority Asian and have so many Chinese and other Asian restaurants it's hard to know which ones to pick, but here is a suggestion:

  • The Noodle House at 1507 Sloat Blvd in the shopping center: delicious Thai food, clean and friendly. Decor is basic. Tends to be hot unless you tell them otherwise.
Other dining options:
  • El Burrito Express: Heading back to town after the beach and want some great Mexican food to fill you up? There is a little, hole-in-the-wall place at 1601 Taraval at 26th Ave, that serves some of the best burritos I've found in the city: fresh ingredients, huge and cheap. It doesn't look like much, but there is a usually a line waiting to order. You can eat there on stools, but it's really better as take-away.

San Francisco Attractions
Near Ocean Beach

Golden Gate Park runs right up to Ocean Beach, dividing the western part of San Francisco into the Richmond District above the park and the Sunset District below the park. Explore the museums, ride bikes or wander through the gardens.

The San Francisco Zoo borders on the ocean as well, at the southern tip of Ocean Beach. You can hear the peacocks calling, and the whistle of the little steam engine, while you're sitting in the sand.

Staying Near the Beach

ocean park motel, sf

Most visitors to San Francisco stay in one of the downtown hotels or at Fisherman's Wharf, but if you are interested in an alternative to staying in the urban setting, there is a charming, art deco style motel, the Ocean Park Motel just a block from Ocean Beach and one block from the zoo.

It's a really quiet neighborhood: not exciting, but peaceful and safe (I know, I live nearby).

How to Get to Ocean Beach

By Car

By car, it's effortless and parking is easy out here. The streets in the western part of San Francisco are laid out like a grid; all of the east-west named streets (as opposed to numbered) run out to Ocean Beach, which forms the western edge of San Francisco. The Great Highway runs all along Ocean Beach, north and south.

Parking at the Beach

There are several free parking lots at the beach: one at Sloat Boulevard at the southern end of the beach, one across from the Beach Chalet at the end of Golden Gate Park, and another one near the Cliff House at the northern end. These can fill up on sunny summer days and weekends, but otherwise you can find a spot.

The easiest parking I think is along the next street in from the Great Highway, running parallel to it (also called the Great Highway- who knows why!). There is always lots of parking there, as well as on the streets that run into the beach, and you can park anywhere along the five mile stretch.

mounted police, san francisco, ocean beach parking lot

SFPD on horseback
Ocean Beach parking lot near Golden Gate Park

By Public Transportation

Ocean Beach is easy to get to by public transportation as well. The street car Muni lines, N-Judah and L-Taraval run from Embarcadero downtown all the way out to Ocean Beach. Also the 38-Geary bus runs from Market Street downtown (stops at 3rd and 1st streets on Market) all the out to the beach near the Cliff House.

If you're headed to the Cliff House (north end), either the N-Judah or the 38-Geary will get you there (the N-Judah is more pleasant to ride than the bus, IMO). The L-Taraval will take you to the southern end of Ocean Beach, near the SF Zoo.

Map of Ocean Beach
(with nearby restaurants)

View Ocean Beach and Restaurants in a larger map

Overview of the San Francisco Beaches

san francisco beaches map

Information on the Numbered Stairwells at Ocean Beach

The rules about dogs off-leash and where bonfires are allowed, as well as routes for various runs and races, etc, often reference the stairwells leading down to the beach by number, but often the numbers are nowhere to be seen on the stairs themselves (they tend to come and go) and I couldn't find this online, either. But a helpful park ranger gave me the following info:

There are 28 numbered stairwells between the Cliff House and Lincoln Boulevard, with #1 the most northern.

  • Stairwell #1: north of Balboa Street.
  • Stairwell #4: at Balboa Street.
  • Stairwell #9: at Cabrillo Street.
  • Stairwell #13: at Fulton Street.
  • Stairwell #15: at JFK Boulevard.
  • Stairwell #17: across form the Beach Chalet.
  • Stairwell #21: halfway between the Beach Chalet and Lincoln Way.

The stairwells across from the Beach Chalet have numbers at the moment.

The Sunset District Neighborhood

The Sunset District residential area near Ocean Beach isn't one of the more charming San Francisco neighborhoods, but it is quiet and safe.

sunset district, near ocean beach san francisco
Typical street scene near the beach.

Where are the Victorians? They're not out here! Most of these houses are 2 or 3 bedroom single family row-houses, built in the 1940's on the sand dunes.

For the latest on rules and regulations regarding use of Ocean Beach San Francisco, check the website of the National Park Service.

More to explore...

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Ocean Beach Map and Restaurants

ocean beach thumbnail map
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