The 6 best surf cities on the planet

These surf cities offer the best of both worlds: the fun, excitement and work opportunities of a major metropolis combined with great waves and a coastal lifestyle.

From San Francisco to Sydney, the following urban environments provide for the city slicker who has saltwater in their veins.

Cape Town, South Africa

The blue waters and great waves of Llandudno. Photo by Cape Town Tourism
The blue waters and great waves of Llandudno. Photo: Courtesy of Cape Town Tourism
This South African city is the prettiest in the mix, its blue Atlantic waters framed by the majestic trio of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak. The sophisticated city beaches of Clifton (known as Cape Town’s St. Tropez), Llandudno and Camps Bay provide fun beachbreaks, while for the more adventurous the Kalk Bay, Dungeons and Kommetjie breaks offer some of the biggest, and best, reefbreaks in the world.

When the waves are this good, the city is this beautiful and the food and wine is so cheap, it’s almost possible to forget the twin presence of the extreme cold water and big sharks. Almost.

Sydney, New South Wales

Sydney's Manly beach with the harbor and city in background. Photo by Visit Sydney
Sydney’s Manly Beach, with the harbor and city in the background. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Sydney
With more than 70 surf beaches (and many more harbor-side ones), Sydney is unrivaled in the world for the number and quality of beaches available in a metropolis. There are three distinct surf zones, with the Northern Beaches, the Eastern Suburbs and the Sutherland Shire offering a mix of isolated sandy coves, stunning tourist-filled meccas and a smattering of world-class reefbreaks.

Despite the population, both the beaches and the water are remarkably clean. Add a warm climate and notoriously friendly vibe and you have a surf city that has no peer.

San Sebastian, Spain

Zurriola in San Sebastian. Photo San Sebastian Tourismo
Zurriola in San Sebastian. Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Tourismo
One of the smallest places on the list, but one that packs more fun per inch than any other, the Basque city is famous for its traffic-free old quarter, packed with pintxos (tapas) bars. It is also well known for holding more Michelin stars than any other city in the world.

Now the waves may not be as world class as the gastronomy, but the city beach of Zurriola is consistent all year round, and the more protected La Concha serves up fun beginner waves even in the winter storms. If you can stay away from the restaurants, bars and nightclubs, a great surfing experience awaits.

Honolulu, Hawaii

Honolulu, where the city meets the sea. Photo by Twenty20 / amber collett
Honolulu, where the city meets the sea. Photo: Courtesy of Amber Collett/Twenty20
Hawaii’s capital (and only) city is a bustling hybrid of laid-back surf town and tacky tourist trap. Still, the waves centered on Waikiki are where surfing first started, and despite the malls, mega hotels and apartment blocks, it still provides some of the most fun, warmest and easiest waves to ride on the planet.

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In winter, the towering waves of the North Shore (less than a 45-minute drive away) end up wrapping into Honolulu’s south-facing reefs and roll languidly for hundreds of yards. In summer, it receives more swell, and the famous waves of Ala Moana and Queens come to life. Either way, there are few cities that offer as much surfing heritage and warm-blooded pleasure as Honolulu.

Tel Aviv, Israel

Tel Aviv beach. Photo by Mark Cooper
The unexpectedly good-for-surfing Tel Aviv Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Mark Cooper
A little left field, perhaps, and Tel Aviv isn’t the most consistent wave hub on the planet, but what it lacks in clean groundswell, it makes up for with its curious mix of geopolitics and hedonism. Situated on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, its many and keen surfers rely on long-fetch windswells to light up the city’s 25 miles of beaches and sand-covered reefs.

The surfing hubs are centered on Tel Aviv Beach, with its breaks of Hilton Beach, Maravi Beach and Dolphinarium Beach (just) far away enough from the hotspots of the Gaza Strip, Lebanon border and the West Bank. Tel Aviv also has a well-deserved reputation as one of the great party spots, with nightclubs and beach bars open 24/7/365.

San Francisco, California

A winter swell hits Ocean Beach. Photo by Dean Dampney
A winter swell hits Ocean Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Dean Dampney
There are big cities with better surf than San Francisco, but few can match its charm, energy, industry and natural wonders. Despite being the hub of the Internet revolution, it is still very much a surfer’s city.

No matter how deep you are in the middle of San Francisco, the ocean is never more than 10 minutes away. There are even (rare) waves directly under the Golden Gate Bridge, while Ocean Beach, located in the heart of the city, offers world-class tubes on the right day. Mavericks, one of the best big-wave spots, is also only a short drive away. For city sophistication and a real surfing heart, it’s hard to go past San Francisco.

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