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Where to hit the surf in San Francisco

Just about seven-and-a-half miles from downtown San Francisco the city meets the Pacific Ocean. Waves rush the shore, joggers run the Coastal Trail, and those looking to hit the surf navigate dunes and wander across the Great Pacific Highway to Ocean Beach. Along these blocks, it’s more Southern California beach town – minus that chill in the air – than Gold Rush Town. San Francisco’s trademark Victorian houses are swapped out for 1940s and 1950s-era single families and the cry of seagulls drown out the clatter of public transit. Welcome to Surfrancisco.

When the Cliff House first opened in 1863 at Lands End, near the mouth of San Francisco Bay, it truly was its moniker. From the core of the city right up to this spot were mostly sand dunes; it was a long stagecoach ride. While much of those dunes are now gone, still remaining – though in its third iteration – is Cliff House. At the turn of the 20th century, a millionaire named Adolph Sutro purchased the cliff-side property and also built a recreational indoor swimming palace with seven pools, trapezes and springboards. You can see the ruins of Sutro Baths next to the neoclassical Cliff House, where you can also get a bite to eat. Its location is enviable, with views out to Seals Rock and to the sands at Ocean Beach. A scenic trail, Lands End, starts here.

Part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Ocean Beach is where those looking for advanced surf in San Francisco come to test their mettle. Not the place for beginners, with riptides and strong undertows, the water is also a bracing 14 degrees. Watch the pros as you walk along the beach, which stretches from The Cliff House south about three-and-a-half miles. During low tide, at Noriega St., you may see the shipwreck King Philip, which foundered there in 1878. Prime surf watching can also be had at the southern part of the beach near Sloat Blvd., a higher vantage point.

If you get the urge to hit the surf in San Francisco, Aqua Surf Shop rents boards and other necessary equipment, like the ubiquitous wet suit. However, you’ll need to bring that board 80 miles farther south. The owners recommend Santa Cruz for beginners. For a fun browse, The Mollusk Surf Shop carries some of the best-crafted boards as well as clothing and works by local artists.

On the edge of Golden Gate Park facing Ocean Beach, is the Beach Chalet, a two-storey Spanish colonial-style building that was a changing room back in the 1920s. It now houses a restaurant on the top floor as well as a brewery. On the ground floor, you’ll find a series of WPA (Works Progress Administration) frescoes by Lucien Labaudt, finished in 1936. Visit during off-peak hours (such as 2pm on a weekday), to score a seat by the window with full ocean views.


Written by Christine Ciarmello

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