The Ultimate Guide to Surfing in San Francisco

by Tom Sanchez

Surfing in San Francisco takes you to some pretty exposed sections of California coastline, where W and NW winter swells can really get kicking.

Surfing in San Francisco at a glance

We might use affiliate links in this post. Basically, you click em’ and we get a little something from your booking or purchase. They help us keep offering more and more in-depth surf guides to awesome places all around the globe. So, thanks for that!

The good

  • Breaks within reach of one of America’s coolest cities
  • Access to Maverick’s/Half Moon Bay
  • Really gorgeous coastline covered in redwoods (especially to the north)

The bad

  • Ocean Beach is a board-breaker of a shore break
  • The waves aren’t in the most fun part of San Francisco

This guide is just one part of our complete guide to surfing in California and surfing on the West Coast

What’s in this guide to San Francisco?

An introduction to San Francisco

Surfing in San Francisco

Okay, so surfing in San Francisco might come pretty far down the list of things to do in the so-called Paris of the West. There are waves here, though. It’s just that they tend to lack a little of the quality, consistency, and – crucially – shape of their southern Californian compadres. Most surf travlers won’t even untie the fish or the minimal from the roofrack when they pull up. The Golden Gate and Alcatraz often seem like better prospects after watching the back-breaking shore pounders of Ocean Beach. Nah, not worth it.

But that’s a dim view of a city that actually has some cracking surf. Cue this guide, which will run through the best of the San Fran spots. They spread between the opening of the Bay Area, creep down the side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and beckon north across on Point Reyes. This isn’t going to be the highest quality Golden State surfing, folks, but it’s character building and fun. What’s more, you have the cafe bars and cool eateries of Mission and Haight-Ashbury to return to once it’s all done and dusted.

A guide to San Francisco surf spots

Surfer Ocean Beach

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz was one of the birthplaces of surf in modern America. It’s still an A-lister on the wavecraft scene of the USA. Spots like Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point are pretty epic, with right-hand points that are usually up there with the finest in the Golden State. There are also lots of nice logger waves and plenty for groms. It’s just a shame about all that localism.

We’ve got a complete guide to Santa Cruz surfing. Read that right now for extra info…

Half Moon Bay & Mavericks

Don’t even think about coming this way if you’ve not cut your teeth on the North Shore or capable of tubing Teahupo’o. Maverick’s is the big beast of the West Coast. Winter time swells pummel the shore here with XXL waves that do fine impressions of Nazare. Get caught on the inside and its graveyard stuff. Hit it and you’re a surf legend thanks to one drop in.

Linda Mar (Pacifica State Beach)

Pacifica State Beach, also called Linda Mar, sits in an almost-perfect winter-swell location on the Cabrillo Highway. Facing NW it can grab lots of incoming swell. Thankfully, it’s no Maverick’s because the dominant groundswells are tempered by the headland and the shape of the bay, which usually leaves lots for beginners to enjoy. The best days for learners will be with waves of 3-5 foot. Be ware of jellyfish blooms and always wear surf booties.

Rockaway Beach

Lovely Rockaway Beach gives way to some high cliffs and ocean rocks that can form a nice left-hand point break when it works. Rarely glassy and pretty challenging. There’s also an A-frame in the middle that works in both directions but it’s often crumbly and messy mush once its through into the bay.

Ocean Beach

OB is the original spot for surifng in San Francisco. It’s a notoriously fickle break, though, that’s all but ruined thanks to rips that go cross shore and offshore without warning. The truth about the vast majority of Ocean Beach’s five long miles is that it’s generally mediocre shore pounders that adore a close out. Catch it on midtide and study the rips a little and you can find some neat lefts and rights, but they’ll usually ask for fall swells and a morning wind haitus to match.

Stinson Beach

Tucked into Bolinas Bay on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge, Stinson Beach is San Fran’s premier intermediate+ break. It’s hard to sum up the character becuase it’s all at the mercy of the sandbanks. Some years its glassy left-rights that get tubular. Other seasons its pure mush. We’d say it’s mainly the latter but we’ve had some lovely sessions on Stinson when it’s working.

Bolinas

Some great shortboard performance waves form at the entrance to Bolinas lagoon on W swells. They’re peaky but also suffer from undercurrent rips that can come without warning. There’s a more mellow peak that the loggers love. That’s called the patch, it’s decent for anything egg-nosed and over 7″, and always best surfed on the push.

What we’d take on a south California surf trip…

WETSUITS (Men):

  • SUMMER: XCEL Comp 2mm Short Sleeve Springsuit | A high-performance spring suit for men that has the Channel Flex tech we LOVE from Xcel. Perfect for longer sunset and sunrise sessions in SoCal between June and August. 
  • SPRING/FALL: Men’s Xcel Comp 3/2  FA19 | A solid 3/2 to carry you through the Cali shoulder seasons, the Comp is one of our forever favs. It’s got Plush Thermolite insulation and is super stretchy. 
  • WINTER: Vissla 7 Seas 4​/3 Chest Zip Wetsuit | The 7 Seas is one of the top all-rounders. We like it for SoCal because the 4/3 feels like a 3/2 and you often don’t need to go the whole hog here. Solid and versatile suit for whatever San Clemente can muster in winter. 

WETSUITS (Women)

  • SUMMER: Rip Curl 2mm Dawn Patrol Long Sleeve Springsuit | By June and July the south swells will have brought some warmth to the SoCal waters and there’s a three-month window when you can usually get away with a shorty. This is corker for the ladies – it’s got the E5 neoprene (warm and flexy) along with blind-stitched seams. 
  • SPRING/FALL: Sisstrevolution 3​/2 7 Seas Print Back Zip Wetsuit | Sisstrevolution are making some awesome suits right now, and this 7 Seas is no different. Good tech and looks fantastic too. 

BOARDS:

  • LibTech Nude Bowl | The dream of a one-trick quiver, this versatile board offers some extra volume but also a real party on the rails. For us, there’s not much that can beat it at the intermediate level. 

SUNSCREEN: Salt & Stone SPF 30 Lip Balm | Super important stuff – take this to SoCal and reapply like every 20 minutes. Summer surfing here can burn!

Where to stay when surfing in San Francisco

Surf hotels and cool surf stays by Ocean Beach combine with happening inner-city hostels in the vibrant city of San Fran. You’ll never be short on cool hotel options. Here are just a few we can reccomend, mainly because they put you right next to some of the top surf spots in the city (sorry if they’re a little too far from the sights, but priorities, hey).

Anchor Inn Pacifica ($$$)

Surf-hotel-top-pick

Anchor Inn Pacifica is a true surfer’s stay. Perched on the bluffs right by one of the top beginner-friendly beaches in the city, it’s a little down the Cabrillo Highway from the Golden Gate (20-30 minutes’ drive in normal traffic). The pay off? You’ll have waves crashing right outside the front of your timber-built shack and uninterrupted veiws of the Pacific. Units are super modern and clean with some surfer-sailor vibes to them. Pretty cracking spot if you’re after surfing in San Francisco to be honest!

21 Calle del Sierra Home 2 Bedrooms ($$)

Groups looking to surf together in one of the less-busy breaks on the north side of San Francisco could do a whole load worse than the 21 Calle del Sierra Home 2 Bedrooms. We mean to say that it’s a stunner! Sea views and a huge terrace are the main draws. The property can sleep up to four guests at any one time.

Inn At Rockaway ($$)

The Inn At Rockaway is another option down on the south end of Ocean Beach where the left-hand points of Rockaway Beach roll in. It’s well-maintained, spacious, and modern.

When to surf in San Francisco

We’d say pick fall or winter to plan to come surfing in San Francisco. They are unquestionably the most reliable times of the year. That’s mainly because they bring strong and consistent NW swell elements.

Santa Cruz waves

Summer (June-August)

The summer is windy and often swell-less on the San Francisco coastline. The dominant S element that brushes up the California coast tends to lose most of its punch by this point and you can be left wanting for any decent waves for months on end. Beginners can find mushburgers towards the south end of Ocean Beach, but it’s not really the finest surf season, especially as Santa Cruz is just down the Cabrillo and probably working a charm.

Fall (September-October)

Surfing in San Francisco really hits its best during the fall months. The main reason is that the wind turns roughly offshore then, which is key to adding punch to Maverick’s and OB, which desperately needs the gust to keep shape. Swells start to turn NW then too and it’s a dream for the W-facing bays that roll all the way up the side of the Santa Cruz Mountains (lots and lots of secret points and sandbars to discover there).

Did you know that surfers are three times more likely to develop melanoma than non surfers? Yikes…

A good block is totally essential!

We’ve got the complete lowdown on the best surfer’s sunscreens on the market right now, focussing on the creme-de-la-creme. AKA: Zinc-infused blocks that are easy to pack and apply.

Winter (December-February)

It’s cold in the water and almost certainly not okay for totaly beginners – and that’s true of any months after November. The reason? Halloween heralds the turning of the swell origin from the S to the NW channel. Maverick’s comes alive and Ocean Beach will get strong front-on swells. It’s a good time to surf in SF if you want to brave some ganrly northern California waves. The rewards will be high but the paddle won’t be easy.

Spring (March-May)

Spring can be windy AF on the San Francisco beaches. Or, it can be a balmy day when you’ll be reaching for the sunscreen before you reach for the surf wax. Basically, think unpredictability; added fickleness to waves and spots that are already pretty darn fickle. Santa Cruz is a short drive and almost always a better shout during the spring months!

Surf shops in San Francisco

The best place to look for surf shops in San Francisco is unquestionably Ocean Beach. Alternatively, you could cruise down to Santa Cruz where there’s a positivel overload of places to shop gear, boards and steamers.

Mollusk Surf Shop

Now with a trio of locations in California (in Venice, San Francisco, and Silver Lake), Mollusk Surf Shop has risen to become a trusted name in the Golden State surf. This outlet in Ocean Beach is a great drop-in for retro boards, locally shaped boards, and bespoke surf wear.

Aqua Surf Shop

Aqua Surf Shop looks super duper cool behind its retro frontage on Ocean Beach. The guys here are lovely. They offer surf rentals, yoga lessons, casual chit chat – you name it. Good board selection with some pin-nosed guns out there for those heading down Half Moon way.

Where to eat and drink in San Francisco

We’ve listed just two of our favourite places to stop for lunch or coffee after surfing in San Francisco. There are many, many more.

Andytown Coffee Roasters

Call it the trace of Gaelic blood in us, but we had a thing for Andytown Coffee Roasters. There’s a really friendly vibe, a good location just a stone’s throw from the Ocean Beach waves, and some of the best beans in the city for sure.

Devil’s Teeth Baking Company

Arguably the BEST cinnamon rolls and sweet pastries await at the Devil’s Teeth Baking Company. They also do healthy sandwiches and hot drinks. We love the surfboard sign on the surfboard rack above the door. Right up our street.


We might use affiliate links in this post. Basically, you click em’ and we get a little something from your booking or purchase. They help us keep offering more and more in-depth surf guides to awesome places all around the globe. So, thanks for that!

This guide is just one part of our complete guide to surfing in California and surfing on the West Coast

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