How to Surf in San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Rice A Roni, cold summers. San Francisco is famous for many things, and it’s only recently that you’re able to add surfing to the list. Because despite the cold water, grueling paddle outs and the occasional white shark, the City By The Bay is a great place to be a surfer. Because, first and foremost, there’s never not waves. 

Want to know the best place to surf in San Francisco? There are countless options within a 30-mile radius, but your best bet is to set up in the city’s relatively sleepy Outer Sunset District, which extends south from Golden Gate Park and east from the Great Highway. This neighborhood is known for great coffee shops, authentic Asian cuisine and fog, but has the added benefit of running the length of Ocean Beach, an incredibly surfable stretch of sand. And after you’ve coffee’d, surfed and dumpling’d in the ‘hood, you can hop on the N or L line and take the train into San Francisco proper. From there, your options are nearly limitless.

Surfing San Francisco at a Glance

Fly into: SFO, 20 mins from Outer Sunset 
Drive from: Los Angeles, 6 hours; Portland, 10 hours
Wetsuit: 4/3 with hood and booties. 
Best season for surf: October – January
Ideal swell direction: Northwest
Ideal wind direction: Anything with east in it
Ideal tide: Low
Budget for a long weekend: $500
Nearby Awayco locations: Avenues SF, Proof Lab, Sonlight Surf Shop
SF Fun Fact: The Golden Gate Bridge is named not for its golden color (it’s actual hue is called “International Orange”) but because it spans the Golden Gate Strait, which connects to the Pacific to the San Francisco Bay.

Ocean Beach—Jimmicane
Photo: Jimmy Wilson

Where to surf in San Francisco

If you want to surf big waves
Ocean Beach, San Francisco can hold surf up to 15-20 feet (on the faces), and it happens frequently between November and March. Look for a big northwest swell and easterly winds. The waves are typically biggest in the middle of the beach (between Taraval and Moraga), but can be more manageable north of Lincoln or south of Sloat.

If you need a board to handle that kind of surf, try this Christensen Carrera from Avenues SF on Taraval or a Pyzel Paddilac from Proof Lab over in Mill Valley (25 min drive). Awayco has plenty of other options if neither of these suit you. 

If you want playful waves
Kelly’s Cove on the north end of Ocean Beach is typically smallest, but can host a cagey local crowd, so going there isn’t always worth the vibes. Better to venture down to Pacifica and surf Linda Mar, which is always more manageable than OB. There are countless board options at both Avenues and Sonlight Surf Shop, in Pacifica. Just hop on  and pick what’s best for the conditions.

If you want tiny waves 
If there isn’t much swell, Linda Mar in Pacifica is often tiny, as is the jetty in Half Moon Bay. If you want legit, perfect longboard waves, your best bet is driving to Bolinas or Cowells, in Santa Cruz. We think you’ll enjoy this custom log from Chris Christnesen, which lives at Proof Lab (on your way to Bolinas). 

If you just want to surf under the Golden Gate Bridge
We don’t blame you, it’s a worthy novelty wave. To surf Fort Point (the wave under the GGB) you’ll want a decent northwest swell (over 6’) and a low tide (below 2.5’). Careful getting in and out on the rocks, and be sure to keep a close eye on the current, which will be going out to sea if the tide is dropping.

Where to stay

To be close to surf, you’ll want to look for Airbnb’s in the Outer Sunset from 40th Avenue to the Great Highway between Lincoln and Sloat. If you want an affordable hotel near Ocean Beach, they just redid the Rodeway Inn & Suites. It’s not fancy, but you’re a surfer with a stinky wetsuit, so do you really need fancy?

What to pack in your carry-on

4/3 and booties. Hood is recommended, but plenty of people go without. Bring layers of clothing and a decent jacket, no matter the season. This is San Francisco, where the dress code is very fluid. Staying warm should be your goal.

Smith Brothers
Alex Smith and Evan Mock go by foot on Taraval.

Car or no car? 

If you’re staying in the Outer Sunset and are confident you’re only surfing Ocean Beach, you do not need a car. Uber or Lyft from SFO ($35), walk to the surf and take Muni (train or bus) around the City. If you’re not sure where you’ll be surfing, get a car (and don’t leave anything valuable in it while parked in the city). 

WHERE TO EAT

Hook Fish Co on Irving makes incredible, quick fresh fish dishes. They’ll even tell you what boat caught it, and where. (“I’m gonna ask you again is it local?”

A HOLE-IN-THE-WALL

The Kingdom of Dumpling on Taraval is incredible. If Lee, the owner, is working, you’re in for a delightful culinary experience.

Best place for post-surf beer?

Nice: White Cap on Taraval, next door to Avenues.
Fewer frills: Flanahans on Noriega.
No frills: Grab a beer at the liquor store and go watch the sunset from the dunes. 

Avenues SF

BEST PLACE FOR A COFFEE? 

Avenues SF brews delicious Verve coffee and will have your Awayco booking waiting for you. If you’re on the other side of the neighborhood, Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club will serve you coffee and cinnamon toast, with or without a smile. (Their story is epic.)

Recommended book to get a feel of the area? 

William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Barbarian Days has a wonderful section on surfing in San Francisco. Or, grab City Surf for your coffee table. 

If you feel like doing something selfless

Volunteer to take underserved youth surfing with City Surf Project or MeWater Foundation. Both these organizations rule.

What else do I need to know? 

The general rule is that if the tide is dropping, the current along Ocean Beach runs north to south, and the opposite if it’s rising (though this can vary with local rips). If you hop in at one street and get out somewhere else, you can easily find your way back because the streets run in alphabetical order, north to south from Irving to Wawona. Surfing behind the dunes will typically be less crowded. When parking along the Great Highway, make sure you’re not going to overlap with street sweeping. That’s an expensive ticket.

Lastly, know your limits. The entire Central Coast of California is exposed to a lot of swell and wind, and few lifeguards. If you’re questioning whether or not you can handle surfing in San Francisco or surrounding areas, it’s probably best to pass on that session. 

More to explore

How to Surf on Oahu

Four coastlines. Four swell directions. Though Oahu isn’t the largest island in the Hawaiian chain, it certainly has the widest variety of 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *