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, 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, dunes at southern end
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of all the beaches in San Francisco, Ocean Beach is the most dangerous. This beach has some monster rip currents because of its size and location, and the huge quantity of sand on the continental shelf here. Storms and currents mold the sand into the sand bars and channels that create the rip currents.
Added to this problem is the flow of water coming into the ocean from the Sacramento River. The river flows into San Francisco Bay and out the Golden Gate. After the river empties into the ocean, the water flows north and south along the coast. A lot of it flows south past Ocean Beach, creating a strong current parallel to the beach just past the breakers.
Hopefully you won't be caught in an Ocean Beach rip current after reading this (!), but if you do, swim south (away from the city) parallel to the beach to escape the current. That way you won't be fighting the offshore current heading south.
There are no lifeguards at Ocean Beach.
Most of the people who have drowned here were inexperienced swimmers who were only wading in the water and were knocked down unexpectedly by a large wave and pulled out to sea.
Surfers rarely drown, but one did in 2008. Most surfers are aware of the rip currents and know how to handle them. Seeing all those surfers out there on a beautiful sunny day makes it look safe to swim, but it's not.
Don't even go wading; besides, the water's so cold your feet will be totally numb within 30 seconds!
In spite of all the fatalities, over the years, the city has done very little about warning people. Ocean Beach is where many people come from all parts of the city and bring their children; this is the most heavily used of all the beaches in San Francisco.
There was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle back in 1998 discussing this problem and explaining why Ocean Beach is so dangerous.
Until very recently, only a few of the beach access points had warning signs, and most were really wimpy. Small signs warning of "dangerous surf" doesn't begin to convey the danger. Most access points had no signs until August of 2016, when small signs were added to all but two of the main beach entrances.
The area with the best warning signs is one of the most popular access points: the large parking lot in from of the Beach Chalet Restaurant, at the northern end of the beach.
There are about a dozen stairways leading down to the sand, and each one has a rip current warning sign. However, if someone doesn't already know what rip currents are, and what to do about them (don't go in the water!), it may not help prevent the kind of tragedy we witnessed in April 2016 when two teenagers drowned. This was the exact spot where the drowning occurred; five young men waded into the surf here, and two were pulled out to sea.
My impression over the years is that most of the drowning victims are young people from an immigrant background who don't swim well. The Spanish version just says "dangerous currents", which doesn't really tell you to stay out of the water.
There are beach patrols that drive along the beach periodically and tell parents to get their children out of the water, but a drowning can occur in a matter of minutes.
On any warm day, you'll see scenes like this: kids playing in the water at Ocean Beach.
The beach access at the end of Taraval Street has one of the newer signs, but you can see how small it is. This is where the L-Taraval muni street car brings visitors from Market Street downtown. Warning sign is on the left; not very noticeable.
The access points at Pacheco and Rivera Streets still have no warning signs; they are both major entry points to 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.
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.
Ruins of the Sutro Baths
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
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).
The Beach Chalet is worth a stop to see the excellent murals in the lobby, created as part of the Depression Era public works project.
There is a comfortable little cafe, the Java Beach Cafe, at the Great Highway and Judah Street: good salads and sandwiches, breakfast menus also.
Surfers headed for the water
Java Beach Cafe up ahead
There is a good cafe on Sloat Boulevard, a couple of blocks from the beach, across the street from the San Francisco Zoo:
(Unfortunately, a local favorite, John's Ocean Beach Cafe, is no more)
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
City Sightseeing had added a route for their double-decker tour buses that takes visitors out to this part of the city. The Park and Beach loop is available on their 2-day and 3-day passes; it stops just above the Cliff House, at the northern end of Ocean Beach. There's also another stop near the San Francisco Zoo, at the southern end of the beach. See Hop On Hop Off tours for more info and booking.
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.
The stairwells across from the Beach Chalet have numbers at the moment.
The Sunset District residential area near Ocean Beach isn't one of the more charming San Francisco neighborhoods, but it is quiet and safe.
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.