Blog · San Francisco · 12 Places To Visit for Waterfront Fun in San Francisco

12 Places To Visit for Waterfront Fun in San Francisco

February 24, 2023
San Francisco Bridge

The San Francisco Bay Area is a mecca for waterfront activities. San Francisco itself is packed with natural beauty, and it’s often hard to believe that so much of it lies within the city limits. 

From the east to the west, San Francisco is sprawling with waterfront scenery, from the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge to the west to the ships crossing the bay to the east. Over the past several years, I’ve made it my mission as a resident of the Bay Area to explore every inch of waterfront in San Francisco and beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. These are some of my favorites, from the tourist spots that live up to the hype to the lesser-known corners. 

Waterfront geography of San Francisco

Part of what makes San Francisco so unique is the fact that it’s surrounded by water on three sides. To the east lies the San Francisco Bay, separating San Francisco from neighboring cities across the Bay Bridge like Oakland and Berkeley. 

To the north, the Golden Gate Strait (which runs directly under the Golden Gate Bridge) separates the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean and divides San Francisco from the northern county of Marin. 

The west side of San Francisco meets the Pacific Ocean, where the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary protects much of the area from the Bay Area down to Cambria.  

Waterfront activities in San Francisco

As mentioned above, there’s loads of waterfront fun to be had in San Francisco. If you’re wondering where to go while visiting on vacation, here are my top recommendations.

1. The Embarcadero

The Embarcadero

The Embarcadero is a long boulevard that spans much of the east end of San Francisco’s waterfront. This area is perfect for a long walk, with its wide walkway and designated bike lanes and nonstop views of the Bay Bridge. 

Stop at the Ferry Building and browse the many shops and food offerings (don’t miss the pastries at Acme Bread) and walk out to the end of Pier 14 for some of the best views of Yerba Buena Island and ships crossing the bay. 

To the south, you’ll find the larger-than-life statue of a Cupid’s arrow amidst a bustling dog park, and to the north, you can walk all the way to Pier 39, where the Embarcadero officially ends and Fisherman’s Wharf begins.

2. Alcatraz


Along the Embarcadero is Pier 33, from which tours for Alcatraz — the famous prison turned national park — depart.Visiting requires advanced planning, as ferry tickets can sell out ahead of time. Purchase ferry tickets online combined with a tour of Fisherman’s Wharf. You’ll take a 15-minute boat ride to the island. Upon arrival, you can tour the island at your own pace.

When you reach the jail house, an audio tour is offered that guides you through the rooms that used to hold some of the most notorious prisoners. Alcatraz often tops the list of SF tourist destinations, and it’s worth a visit for visitors and locals alike. Bring your camera — the views from the island are hard to beat.

3. Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf, located on the northern waterfront of San Francisco, is one of the city’s most popular and busiest tourist areas. 

The area has several waterfront restaurants and food stalls, an aquarium, museums, and the city’s famous sourdough bread bowls. There really is something for everyone at Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Ghirardelli Square offers chocolate tastings, boutiques, and restaurants, while a colony of sea lions lounge at Pier 39. You can also embark on sailing or boating trips around the bay from Fisherman’s Wharf, or hop on a cable car ride.

This is one of our favorite places in the city, and our local guides would love to show you around on a Fisherman’s Wharf Walking Tour.

4. Fort Mason

Fort Mason
Photo by Emma Webster

Fort Mason is a former military installation that’s now home to a huge meadow, Golden Gate National Park headquarters, and Fort Mason Center. Belonging to over 30 cultural and arts organizations, Fort Mason Center is an event hub, where any night of the week might bring you an improv show, a theatrical production, an art gallery, great food, or something else entirely. 

Fort Mason’s 1,200-acre waterfront expanse offers views of the Golden Gate Bridge, a center for frequent food and art fairs, farmer’s markets, and more.

5. The Presidio

The Presidio — an almost 1,500-acre park on the northern tip of San Francisco — is the ultimate designation for waterfront activities in San Francisco. 

What was once a military post is now home to hiking trails, small beaches, and iconic views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Tunnel Tops, The Presidio’s newest attraction built on top of the Presidio Parkway tunnels, offers picnic sites, an expansive lawn and gathering space, and plenty of room for kids to run around.

Local tip: The Batteries to Bluffs Trail is a 1.3-mile trail that offers a great and active way to see much of the coastline The Presidio has to offer. 

When it comes to outdoor activities, the Presidio is home to several go-to waterfront destinations like Crissy Field, the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point, Baker Beach, and Marshall’s Beach.

Because these are destinations in their own right, I’ll cover each in more detail below.

6. Crissy Field

Crissy Field was once a military field, and today, offers a large green on which to walk, bike, or play with your dog. 

A peaceful trail runs through Crissy Field leading to Fort Point, and there are plenty of places to stop and take it all in, including its very own beach. 

7. Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Overlook

The most iconic part of The Presidio is, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere within The Presidio that doesn’t offer views of the famous red bridge. 

Fort Point National Historic Site is a popular photo opportunity for those looking to get close to the bridge. You can also visit the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center and even walk or bike the 1.7 miles of the bridge. 

8. Baker and Marshall’s beaches

Baker Beach

What would waterfront fun be without a beach? The Presidio has two of the best in San Francisco.

Marshall’s Beach can be accessed from the Battery to Bluffs Trail, and though the path down to the beach can be steep, it’s well worth the effort. The beach itself is lesser-known, making it one of the more secluded destinations in San Francisco, and it’s one of the closest beaches to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Just south of Marshall’s Beach is Baker Beach. Though it only occupies about a mile of shoreline, Baker Beach is one of the prettiest places in the city. With even more views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Baker Beach is a great spot to spend the day combing for sea stars, watching the sunset, or suntanning nude (yes, this beach has a clothing-optional area). On a clear day, you can even see out to the Marin Headlands. 

9. Land’s End

Land's End

Occupying the northwestern corner of San Francisco’s waterfront is appropriately named Land’s End, a park within the Golden Gate Recreation Area. Though only a few miles from the city center, Land’s End truly makes you feel fully immersed in nature. 

Land’s End is marked by stretches of cypress trees, cliffs, and the waves of the Pacific. Walk along the Coastal Trails to take it all in, from the remote MIle Rock Beach, where you can sometimes spot whales in the distance if your timing is just right, to the historic war memorials and landmarks like Battery Lobos. 

Finally, end at the Sutro Baths — home to what was once a 25,000-person swimming area. The meandering trails here, and around Lands End Lookout, offer some of the best sunsets in the country.

10. Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach
Photo by Emma Webster

Ocean Beach marks the intersection of the city and the ocean and is one of the more popular beaches in San Francisco. Spanning six miles, Ocean Beach attracts surfers, beachcombers, sunbathers, and dog walkers. 

The beach itself is famously wide, making it feel vast and expansive even on the warmest and most crowded of days. 

For a perfect and quintessential San Francisco day, grab a coffee at Java Beach Cafe and stroll Ocean Beach with your drink in hand. 

Local tip: Stick around after dark for a bonfire at one of the Ocean Beach fire pits — just be sure to claim yours early as the fire pits are incredibly popular and fill up fast.

11. Fort Funston

Photo by Emma Webster

Just south of Ocean Beach, Fort Funston is a dog lover’s heaven and one of San Francisco’s rugged and least crowded beaches. Fort Funston sits 200 feet above the ocean on sandy bluffs with trails leading down to the water. 

Some of the trails can be steep, but they’re well worth the scramble to make it down to the sand and see dogs running happily and freely. Fort Funston is also a popular place for hang gliding, and you can watch fearless adventurers take off from the cliffs at the top.

The beach itself is about a quarter mile long but has enough to offer to fill a whole day. Make sure you save energy for the vertical walk back up to the parking lot, though!

12. Marin Headlands

Marin Headlands

While not technically in SF, the Marin Headlands are an incredible waterfront destination close to the city.

Just across the Golden Gate Bridge, the headlands are a highlight of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. They’re a haven for outdoor lovers and home to sweeping views, ample hiking trails, surfers, winding roads, and coastal fog. From camping or visiting the Point Bonita Lighthouse to the endless stairs of Hawk Hill and the hidden coves of Tennessee Valley, you’ll find that a day in Marin Headlands is a day well spent. 

More in San Francisco

Looking for more to do in San Francisco? Learn about all there is to do on Fisherman’s Wharf or read about our best tips for activities and attractions in Golden Gate Park.

And of course, we’d love to show you around our city on a public or private tour of San Francisco. See you soon!