San Francisco isn't perhaps as famous for other parts of California for its beaches. The southern part of the state, with its balmy sun-drenched climes, can give you the always-perfect weather of San Diego, or the sparkling opulence of Santa Barbara, to name but two. Those heading off to San Francisco's beaches, on the other hand, might want to leave out the sun cream and pack a few sweaters and other warm clothes instead. The water temperatures tend to be less than perfect, while the threat of sharks can also add teeth to a gentle paddle. Beach bunnies and golf nuts, then, might find it better to head further south, or to embark on a Pacific Coastal cruise that journeys along California's gripping coastline. However, for those who want their stay in the sands a bit moodier, rugged and, frankly, more exciting, San Francisco's arresting landscape, culture and wildlife gives it a vibrancy unmatched elsewhere in the state. Let's see if we can't tempt you with a few of San Francisco's most fascinating beaches.
Ocean Beach and Golden Gate Bridge
So, let's start at the beginning. And there's no getting away from it. For many, Frisco is all about that ubiquitous Golden Gate. If you want to see this most iconic of icons set within the jagged local landscape, you might as well start with Ocean Beach. Even by San Francisco standards, this beach tends to have a particularly thick coating of fog blocking out the sky - the contrast here between Ocean Beach and the rest of San Francisco is particularly notable in the summer. You do, though, tend to get quite spectacular views of the famous gate, fog permitting. (Baker Beach is another that affords superb views of the bridge.)
Despite the poetic name, Ocean Beach isn't really about swimming, and the perilous rocks and bitterly cold waters would seem to preclude that activity - although intrepid surfers may chance their arm (and other body parts) on the torrid waves. Instead, this 3.5-mile stretch is about the potential for a darn good walk. The beach isn't just very foggy, but also very doggy, with a large designated off-leash zone attracting dogs (and, occasionally, their owners) from all over SF - although Fort Funston is even more famous for its crazy free-walking dog population. At some point you'll probably want to stroll down to the Cliff House, a historic restaurant with great food and great views. And, after all of this, if you're still around when the sun starts to set over the waters, you'll see some breathtaking views that provide the perfect curtain-raiser to a day that is a bit more exhilarating than you might expect from a trip to the beach.
Hiking, Birds and Bobcats
If it's true hiking that you want, though, you should set your sights on Stinson Beach instead. Another long strip of land, you can enjoy a good few hours on its sands. But why limit yourself to that when you have so much impressive scenery around you to explore? Muir Woods takes you under canopy upon canopy of redwoods, and the smell of the pines can turn to the allure of the educational, as helpful signs and markers bring you up to speed on the growth cycles of these most awe-inspiring of trees. Then there's the mountainous landscape, and Mount Tamalpais gives you commanding views of the surrounding area - and yes, you'll get a remarkable view of that Golden Gate Bridge from here. Plenty of wildlife (including deer, raccoons and bobcats) frolic here, although animal lovers may find even more to engage them at the Martin Griffin Preserve, with its array of eye-catching birds and seals, or at the rich whale-watching spot by Point Reyes Lighthouse.
Illuminating coastline views
If you really want to see San Francisco and the surrounding area in all its glory, you could do a lot worse than take a cruise down its fascinating shoreline. A well-chosen itinerary will allow you to see the delights of San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Monterey, and other absorbing locations within seven days. There's no other way of looking at California that highlights so much of its mysterious beauty. Yet, if you don't have the time to do the whole works, you might want to explore just a little bit of the coastline. Only a few miles outside San Francisco itself, Half Moon Bay is a gorgeous enclave that lets you take in the splendors of the coast while enjoying total serenity and calm. From its sumptuous beach and lovingly constructed golf course, to the nearby Main Street, with its art galleries and historic shops, Half Moon Bay really is the way to see the area in full technicolor. You can even embark on the Coastal Trail, so as to be sure of capturing every aspect.
Surf, Swimming and Science
These areas are all very well, but does nobody in San Francisco surf or swim? Well yes, and in spectacular style. Pacifica Bay has some great areas for swimming and sunbathing. The southern half is populated mainly by the impassioned local surfing community. Generally referred to by them as 'Linda Mar', this part of the beach is a haven for those who wish to hit the waves as often and in as death-defying-style as possible. If you're a surfer in San Francisco, this is the area you'll be unable to tear yourself away from. It'll have much the same effect on those who like their Taco Bells, too, and Pacifica is famous for having the 'greatest Taco Bell' in the world. That proud claim is actually inspired by it being the only restaurant of its kind on a beach, but we can't deny that it makes a fantastic place to enjoy some fast food. Part of San Francisco's charm is that you get a little bit of everything mingled together. Nowhere is that more true of than East Beach. This wonderfully scenic patch of land allows you to take in all of those film-friendly landmarks (the Bridge, Alcatraz etc.) while also casting your eye out across picturesque buildings and mountains. You can swim, surf and walk your dog, and the child-friendly Crissy Field makes it a great place for the entire family. You can even venture across to the brain-bending Exploratorium.
Photos, from top: Half Moon Bay, famous Golden Gate bridge
Photos by CARY ORDWAY