Choosing a portrait location for your engagement session in the Bay Area can be a tough decision. We’re very fortunate to live in a diverse place with a multitude of parks and preserved natural spaces in every direction; there are a ton of beaches, parks, forests, rugged coastlines, lakes, hills, meadows, and mountains to choose from which can make narrowing down your options a bit overwhelming.
Generally speaking, my advice for choosing an engagement location is to consider the following:
Does it have a diverse range of backgrounds?
How crowded will it be?
Is it meaningful to you as a couple?
I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite spots as well as iconic locations to compare the pros and cons of each. Hopefully after reading through the list, you’ll have a better sense of your options and what to look for in a location even if it’s not on this list.
Lands End and the Sutro Baths ruins
Lands End and the Sutro Baths ruins may be my favorite place in San Francisco. There’s plenty to explore and it doesn’t hurt that this gorgeous stretch of coast is walkable from my house! What I really love about it though is it offers a wide range of backgrounds all in one location. What used to be the word’s largest indoor swimming pool, the Sutro Baths were built in the late 1800s and burned down in 1966.
You can head down to the stairs from the main parking lot to explore the ruins and play by the water. The ruins themselves can be pretty popular so don’t expect to have this spot to yourself, even on a foggy day. To escape the crowds, walk up the stairs to enjoy being under the towering Cyprus trees, out of the sun and wind. The trails throughout Lands End are beautiful and rugged and offer stunning views. Also, for a popular destination, the trails rarely feel crowded (or at least you can find quiet spots) which is a major win in my book.
Parking tip: the main parking lot can be packed on weekends, so I recommend parking along El Camino Del Mar instead. You get the double perk of avoiding the busy parking lot and getting to enjoy a short walk on the trails.
The weather can be unpredictable here. Be prepared for fog, even on forecasted sunny days, and lots of wind.
Parking is free. There are also no fees to visit this area.
The Lands End Lookout has great amenities including a visitors center, restrooms, super cute museum store, and a cafe.
Best reasons to choose this location: diverse background options, iconic San Francisco, easy access, and crowds can be strategically avoided
Golden Gate Park and the Japanese Tea Garden
While most people have heard of Golden Gate Park and may be familiar with the iconic Japanese Tea Garden within, the bulk of the park skips many people’s minds when it comes to choosing potential locations for their engagement photos. There are so many amazing locations within the park: Stow Lake, the Botanical Garden, the Shakespeare Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, redwood groves, and endless trails to explore and play in. Arguably the most popular location for photos within Golden Gate Park is the Japanese Tea Garden.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m extremely fond of the Japanese Tea Garden (this is where my husband proposed to me!) and it’s an absolutely beautiful spot for photos, but there are definite limitations to consider. First and foremost: this is a very popular tourist destination. If it’s a nice sunny weekend, odds are this tiny garden will be packed with visitors which can make getting snuggly with your fiancé challenging. If you’re not comfortable with crowds or patient enough to wait while groups of people walk through, behind, or directly in front of your shot, then this place may not be the best choice for your engagement photos.
Another consideration is they have fairly short operating hours which can make scheduling a weekday session tricky. I usually recommend weekday engagements to avoid the crowds, but I know it can be difficult for some to leave work early. On top of that, the Japanese Tea Garden closes at 5:45pm everyday providing an additional timing challenge.
Parking tip: The roads immediately outside the Japanese Tea Garden offer very little parking when the weather is nice. Either park in the garage under the Music Concourse (paid) or park along Stow Lake where there are usually more spots (free).
Golden Gate Park is enormous so be sure to wear comfortable shoes and be ready to do some walking if you’re hitting up more than one area.
Be prepared for sudden fog — have layers on stand by.
Parking and access to Golden Gate Park are free. There is a fee to enter the Japanese Tea Garden (varies on residency: $3-$9 per person).
A great rainy day alternative in Golden Gate Park is the Conservatory of Flowers.
Best reasons to choose Golden Gate Park: lots to explore, crowds can be strategically avoided especially in other parts of the park
Baker Beach and the Golden Gate Bridge
Baker Beach is probably the most iconic beach in the Bay Area and for good reason. There’s lots to take in here: views of the headlands across the water, waves crashing on the beach (I’ve seen dolphins many times!), the Golden Gate Bridge looking majestic, dogs playing in the surf, and oh yes, lots of naked people. I always joke that you’ll find three things at Baker Beach: photoshoots, fishermen, and nudists. Without fail.
Being the popular nudist beach that it is aside (or maybe you’re into that? I’ve had couples who got a kick out of it), Baker Beach is still a beautiful setting for photos. The nudists tend to hang out on the North side of the beach, which also happens to be where you can get closest to the bridge with fewer people in the background. Any day around sunset you will certainly run into other photographers and their subjects, whether they be couples, families, or the landscape itself.
What about Crissy Field for photos with the bridge, you ask? Nothing against the folks who love it, but to me, there are so many better locations with more interesting surroundings and smaller crowds if you want to capture an iconic Golden Gate Bridge photo.
I’m not going to spill all my secret locations for bridge shots, but I’ll give you a hint: they’re in the Presidio. I really like combining shooting at Baker Beach with my semi-secret bridge location. They’re very close together and can really maximize having different backgrounds for your photos.
Parking tip: Baker Beach parking can be impossible on a nice sunny weekend. Consider taking a Lyft or better yet schedule your engagement session on a weekday. Try to park in the northernmost lot to get closer to the bridge.
Parking and access to this area are free.
Be prepared for wind and changing weather conditions. Always bring layers.
Bring shoes that you can either take off or can handle sand.
Best reach to choose Baker Beach: you love the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge
Bernal Heights Park
Bernal Heights Park is one of my favorite spots for views of San Francisco itself. Many people think of Twin Peaks for iconic views, but you’re much more likely to run into crowds there and, oh yeah, car thieves. Best to avoid if you can.
Offering views in every direction, Bernal Heights Park is great spot to visit and explore. It’s also in one of the sunnier neighborhoods in SF so even if Twin Peaks is shrouded in fog, chances are you’ll have sunshine at Bernal.
Some other great parks with views in the area include:
Mount Davidson (also has a great forest, often foggy)
Corona Heights Park (must love dogs!)
Tank Hill (cute little neighborhood park)
Parking tip: Neighborhood street parking only. Be prepared to search for parking and possibly walk a bit.
Bernal Heights Park is in a sunny part of the city so sunset is really the best time to be here.
Don’t miss out on the swing at the top of the park for a unique experience.
Parking and access to this area are free.
Best reason to choose Bernal Heights Park: the view and the sunshine
The Presidio: Lovers Lane and Wood Line
Often overlooked, the Presidio offers lots of stunning natural backdrops in a quieter setting than most of San Francisco’s other parks. As a former military post, it’s easy to get turned around on the windy roads (it’s intentional!), but you’ll also be treated to fewer crowds and architecture unlike other parts of the city.
One particularly recognizable spot is Lovers Lane and Wood Line. Lovers Lane is the oldest foot path in the Presidio (from the 1700s!) and is a straight shot from the edge of the park in Pacific Heights all the way to the center of the main buildings in the Presidio (the Main Lawn Post, the Walt Disney Family Museum, and the Inn at the Presidio). Noticeably the only straight road or path in all of the Presidio, it presents a nice vanishing point in portraits and is particularly nice in the early evening when the lamps are lit.
In the corner of the Presidio, and running alongside Lovers Lane, is Andy Goldsworthy’s Wood Line: a 1200 foot long sculpture made of winding eucalyptus tree trunks laid end to end. Set in the middle of a eucalyptus grove, Wood Line is definitely a unique experience and a gorgeous background for photos. I have been here many times and usually have the place almost to myself. Occasionally there will be groups of kids or trail runners, but most often it’s nice and quiet.
Parking tip: I have a secret spot I really like to park in for the Wood Line and Lovers Lane. Message me if you really want to know!
This is also a great spot to take wedding day portraits, especially for a City Hall wedding!
The Presidio is often foggy (great for photos!!) and it will definitely be shady under the trees so be prepared for chilly temperatures.
Wear good walking shoes (no high heels) to be able to enjoy the trails in and around Wood Line.
Parking and access to this area are free.
Best reason to choose the Presidio: avoid the crowds, lots of shade under beautiful trees
First question: Do you love dogs? Like, a lot? Like, a lot of dogs? Then this is the place for you! Set above the ocean on breathtaking cliffs is Fort Funston, home to all the doggos and plenty of hang-gliders, too. Fort Funston is a super fun place to bring your dog to socialize and it also has a fantastic array of photo backgrounds. There’s sandy bluffs, shaded groves of trees, stunning views of the ocean, and long stretches of beach to explore.
Fun fact: I used to come here before I adopted my two dogs just to get my dog fix.
It’s also a great place to watch the hang-gliders do their thing, as you can see in the photo below.
Parking tip: Fort Funston can definitely be busy on a sunny weekend. I usually park in the lot off of Skyline Blvd rather than along the road where John Muir intersects Skyline.
Fort Funston can be very windy, hence it’s popularity for hang-gliding.
Be prepared for lots of off-leash dogs running around. It’s super fun if you love dogs and don’t mind some drive-by drool.
Be extremely careful if you’re walking along the cliffs and bluffs area. There are warning signs which people (and definitely dogs) ignore, but remember: safety first!
Best reason to choose Fort Funston: you love amazing coastlines with lots of doggies
Palace of Fine Arts and the Legion of Honor
I know, I know — these two iconic San Francisco locations are not geographically next to each other, but I’m lumping them together because they have one very important thing in common: CROWDS. While beautiful, I have never been to either location without seeing at least half a dozen other photo shoots happening simultaneously. I’m not strictly opposed to shooting here, but I give my couples fair warning of what to expect when they choose either of these locations for the engagement session.
lots and lots of people who may not be shy about watching what you’re up to
other photo shoots going on around you, which may mean waiting your turn for a specific spot
people in the background of your photos
Parking tip: The Palace of Fine Arts has its own paid parking lot. Street parking is available, though very limited. Might be a good idea to Lyft. For the Legion of Honor, there are lots of spaces in their two parking areas, but can fill up quickly on the weekends.
If you’re at the Palace of Fine Arts around sunset, I recommend walking over to Crissy Field at the end of your session for a sunset shot with the Golden Gate Bridge (fog permitting).
The Legion of Honor closes at 5:15 pm so if you have your heart set on taking photos in and around the columns, get there early before they close the gate to that whole area.
There are lots of beautiful nature trails and views all around the Legion of Honor. Be sure to check those out too to give yourself lots of background options.
Best reason to choose the Palace of Fine Arts or the Legion of Honor: you want iconic San Francisco and don’t mind crowds
Whenever I need a break from busy city life, I head across the Golden Gate Bridge and immediately feel relief to see the uninterrupted rolling hills of the Marin Headlands. Framed by the ocean, this gorgeous area boasts wildflowers in the spring and epic views in every direction.
Hands down my favorite location for getting a fresh perspective, taking in a view, getting outside, hiking, exploring, and just having a good time. Oh, and it’s great for taking photos, too. There are so many unique areas to explore here. I’ve been coming here year after year and am always discovering new places.
Some favorite places to visit in the Headlands:
Point Bonita Lighthouse (not to be missed!)
Headlands Center for the Arts
Parking tip: Viewpoints and parking lots closest to Golden Gate Bridge fill up quickly with tourists. Better to go a bit farther afield if you’re looking to avoid the crowds and have an easier time parking. Hawk Hill usually has parking and is a great spot to explore.
The Marin Headlands can be very exposed so be prepared for sudden weather changes, especially strong winds and fog.
This is a place you’ll want to explore on foot so be sure to wear or bring comfy walking shoes.
There are no fees for entering the Marin Headlands.
Best reason to choose the Marin Headlands: lots to explore, gorgeous scenery, avoid the crowds
If you’ve never been to Slide Ranch, you are majorly missing out on a Bay Area gem! Do you like goats? How about baby goats? (I love baby goats!) Home grown gardens, gorgeous stretches of rugged coastlines, ducks and chickens, wildflowers, a farm to table teaching center, and great people coming together with a mission to educate kids about nature?? You can see why I’m a fan.
All of the good that the wonderful team at Slide Ranch does and then on top of that their location is a dream to shoot? I mean, c’mon! (They’re a sweet wedding venue, too, just sayin’.)
While Slide Ranch is fun to explore in and of itself, I love walking down to the yurt and then continuing on the southern trail there that goes to the beach. In the spring there are lots of wildflowers and a higher chance of sunshine than in the summer.
Other cool nearby places to check out:
Muir Beach Overlook
Green Gulch Farm + Zen Center (I got married here!)
Parking tip: There’s a parking lot directly on the turn off from Highway 1. Drive slow.
Double check Slide Ranch’s event calendar or call and make sure you won’t be interfering with any scheduled activities.
Slide Ranch is right on the water so be sure to bring a jacket!
They offer lots of volunteer opportunities if you’re interested in helping out!
As with any natural area you’re exploring, be sure to check yourselves for ticks once you get home. And definitely throw your clothes in the dryer.
Best reason to choose Slide Ranch: gorgeous coastline, avoid the crowds, unique experience
There are so many wonderful small towns sprinkled around the Bay and Tiburon might be my favorite. I love Sausalito too, but it can be a bit more overrun with tourists. Tiburon is probably best known for the ferry that takes you to Angel Island (which leaves from an adorable dock I might add, see below). Main Street is super cute and looks straight out of a movie set.
Set alongside the water of the Bay, taking a walk down Paradise Drive (aptly named) and Shoreline Park is a must.
Parking tip: I usually park along Main Street or there’s a paid parking lot on Main as well.
Tiburon is typically outside the fog bank so prepare for sunshine!
The surrounding area is beautiful and inviting so be sure to save time before or after your engagement session to explore. Lots of options for dinner with a view.
If you’re there on a Sunday afternoon, pop in to the Tiburon Railroad and Ferry Depot Museum to see some cool models. (Yes, I’m a dork and think this is cool.)
Best reason to choose Tiburon: you’re itching to get out of the city and want to experience some small town charm
Redwood Regional Park in Oakland
Don’t underestimate the East Bay when it comes to gorgeous scenery because this area is full of lesser known gems. Granted, as an SF resident, I don’t spend as much time there as I’d like (damn you Bay Bridge traffic!) but just know there is a ton to explore.
My favorite place has to be Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills. Muir Woods in Marin has exploded in popularity to the point where they’ve privatized their parking lot and it requires reservations?? Hard pass. When you need your redwood fix and don’t want to deal with crowds, Redwood Regional Park has your back. Popular with trail runners and off leash pups, this stunning redwood forest is easily accessed with very little fuss.
Parking tip: Park along the road at the Redwood Glen Trailhead.
Redwood forests are shady all day long so the trails can be damp.
Be sure to wear appropriate footwear and be prepared to get a little dirty.
There’s so much beautiful hiking in this area, be sure to come back and explore more!
Best reason to choose Redwood Regional Park: serene redwoods without the crowds
Half Moon Bay
Alright, folks, last one on the list! Half Moon Bay gets extra bonus points in my book because regardless of which direction you’re coming from, you’re in for a gorgeous drive. Since I’m usually coming south from San Francisco, I get the special treat of driving on Highway 1, passing through Pacifica, Devil’s Slide, and Montara State Beach — all worth a stop if you’re taking that route.
While there are lots of beautiful spots for photos in and around Half Moon Bay, my favorite has to be the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. This little park packs a punch with a stunning forest, beautiful beach, tide pools, and harbor seals taking naps in the sun, all within a small walkable area.
Parking tip: For the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, park in the lot where Nevada Ave meets Lake Street. No fees for parking.
This area is prone to fog so bring layers!
For the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, wear closed toed shoes as the trails are loose dirt and sand in sections.
As the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is a protected place, your dogs are not invited (sorry).
Another popular spot for beach photos is the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. This location isn’t so near and dear to my heart because it is almost always extremely crowded. Parking can be difficult here as well; the hotel has limited spots available for non-guests. Expect a long line of cars waiting to enter if you come on a sunny evening. The last time I was here, I actually turned around and drove to Wavecrest Beach instead, the next beach over to the north. There’s a walking path that connects to the Ritz-Carlton if you don’t mind an extra ten minute walk, but be sure to factor that in to your timeline, especially if you’re trying to catch the sunset.
Best reason to choose Half Moon Bay: you want an excuse for a beautiful drive and you love when epic trees meet gorgeous coastline
One Last Thing..
To wrap this up, the locations I’ve listed above all have their pros and cons. I’ve tried to include some of the more popular engagement spots here so you get a sense of what to expect. That being said, don’t let this list limit you.
There are lots of untapped locations throughout the Bay Area and beyond. I absolutely love exploring and finding new photo spots and there are so many locations I didn’t even cover. The most important thing is to have fun with your engagement session and pick a place where you and your partner can enjoy yourselves!