Northern California is full of amazing places, many of which are located right outside San Francisco. Embrace your adventurous side and check out some of the Bay Area’s best day trips.
From tech-savvy Silicon Valley to surf central Santa Cruz, there are plenty of things to do and places to visit just outside San Francisco. If you find yourself with a spare day or two, here’s where to go.
You don’t need to stray far from downtown for a wild, wave-lashed coastline and invigorating hikes. Residents love pounding the bracing trails around Lands End. Start at the Sutro Baths, a 19th-century former ocean pool, and take the Lands End Trail for stirring lookout points and cypress groves. Detour to the Lands End Labyrinth, a piece of public art perched above the foaming surf, and press east along the trail. From here, continue to Baker Beach for some of the city’s best views of the Golden Gate Bridge or dip south to Richmond for delicious restaurants and Russian delis, such as New World Market – a trove of pickles, candy and Eastern European wine.
With bike trails and half a dozen wineries, Treasure Island is increasingly tempting San Francisco residents for an out-of-the-ordinary day trip, and it’s only a 20-minute bus ride away. Blending in with the history of this former naval base, the wineries on this artificial island tend to have an industrial-maritime vibe. The original is Treasure Island Wines, turning out exceptional zinfandel since 2007. Another must-visit is Sottomarino Winery, where you can sip pinot grigio in a converted training vessel.
Though it feels a little polished compared to characterful San Francisco, Sausalito offers small-town charm and a stunning waterfront that is located right across the Golden Gate Bridge. Known as a hotspot for early-morning endurance athletes, Sausalito has excellent running and biking routes as well as kayaking, rowing and sailing clubs. After getting your sweat on, make sure to refuel at one of its great restaurants, perhaps local institution Fred’s Place or upscale Mexican joint Copita.
With a hive of edgy nightlife, pretension-free bars and out-there cultural events, find your next great passion in Oakland. De-stress from a long day with a trip to Oakland First Fridays, a celebration of art, music and food held on the first Friday of every month. Can’t wait until then? Every Friday is a party at the Oakland Museum of California, complete with food trucks, live music and an outdoor bar in the museum gardens. Weekend events include lots of farmer’s markets, such as the Jack London Square Farmer’s Market and Temescal Farmer’s Market (both on Sunday mornings). On sunny days, take a stroll by Lake Merritt, and on any night of the week, sip a greyhound (vodka, grapefruit juice and a wedge of grapefruit balanced on top) at Cafe Van Kleef.
From UC Berkeley athletic events to quirky shops up and down Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley offers a wide variety of attractions in a manageable package. Residents descend on Wat Mongkolratanaram on Sunday mornings for the legendary brunches served at this active Thai temple. Buy tokens, and then join the lines for pad thai, green curry and khanom krok (miniature coconut-milk and rice-flour pancakes). For tranquility, head to Tilden Park for a swim in Lake Anza, or hike up to Grizzly Peak for an epic sunrise or sunset.
San Franciscans have mixed feelings about Silicon Valley, the world-famous hub of technological innovation south of the city. The tech industry here brought a cultural change to the city, and with it, sky-rocketing rent. The Silicon Valley phenomenon is laid bare at the comprehensive and surprisingly gripping Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Step inside to marvel at gigantic old processors and state-of-the-art self-driving cars. Nearby, take a guilty selfie at the colorful Google Android lawn statues. Though the neighboring town of Palo Alto doesn’t have the character of downtown San Francisco, there’s a reasonable restaurant scene – try Burma Ruby (and ask for it spicy). You can even take a Silicon Valley Tech Tour here if you’d like to go into even more detail about the world’s best tech city.
The 3,849-foot (1,173-meter) summit of Mount Diablo has spectacular 360-degree views of the Bay Area; on a clear day, you may even be able to spot the Golden Gate Bridge. Whether you decide to hike, bike or drive up the mountain, you won’t regret the journey. Blooming wildflowers make spring a rewarding time to visit, and the Mary Bowerman Interpretive Trail is ideal for first-timers. Finish up by refueling on Asian-influenced California cuisine at Bridges in Danville.
If you’re a fan of long walks on the beach, Half Moon Bay is the place for you. This fun beach town is known as a great surf spot, and there are cliffside walking trails and bike paths that weave through redwood forests. After hitting the beach, dine at one of Half Moon Bay’s many great seafood restaurants, such as award-winning Sam’s Chowder House, crowd-pleasing Flying Fish Bar & Grill or the effortlessly chic Sushi Main Street.
To get to Stinson Beach from San Francisco, head north on the picturesque California 1 Highway. Once you arrive in town, go straight to the beach and dip your toes in the Pacific Ocean. With Siren Canteen, there’s no need to leave the beach for shrimp tacos, or you can venture to Breakers Café for one of its tasty breakfast specials, such as the Mt Tam Paleo with poached eggs, avocado, bacon and spinach. If you’re looking for adventure, hit the trails and hike up Mount Tam to enjoy miles of beautiful and lush mountain terrain. For mental stimulation, head to Stinson Beach Books.
San Franciscans tend to give expensive Napa Valley a wide berth in favor of the fabulous wine tastings (sometimes free, if you buy) of Sonoma County, which also has restful spa getaways and boutique galleries to explore. While the 2019 wildfires had a devastating impact on Sonoma, visitors shouldn’t stay away – sensitive tourism is crucial to help the community get back on its feet. With shaded outdoor tables and a history dating to the 19th century, Buena Vista Winery is an excellent choice, while family-run Portalupi Winery has Italian flair and outstanding zinfandel. Some wineries permit picnics; otherwise, you can grab French bistro dishes at The Girl & The Fig, followed by local produce prepared in Italian style at Glen Ellen Star.
Point Reyes National Seashore is a protected area that is home to many different plants and animals. One of the most popular spots in Point Reyes is the Phillip Burton Wilderness, an area with 33,373 acres (13,506 hectares) of magnificent California coastline named after a congressman who dedicated much of his life to creating the National Park System. This rocky and often stormy area has a dark side as well and was the final resting place for over 50 shipwrecks. The town of Point Reyes Station, located slightly inland, is home to the Tomales Bay Ecological Reserve and a dozen oyster farms and restaurants where sustainable farming is prized. Take away some oysters from Tomales Bay Oyster Company or slurp them on-site at Saltwater Oyster Depot.
Known for big waves, striking rock formations and charming cafés, Santa Cruz is another laid-back beach town located about an hour and a half outside San Francisco. With dozens of great surf spots along its beautiful coastline, Santa Cruz is the perfect town for adventurists; get up on that board with a little help from Club Ed. For a spooky insight into the past, Evergreen Cemetery is the resting place of Santa Cruz’s gold-rush pioneers. After a long day of hiking, history and catching waves, visit the much-loved Pizza My Heart.
With great kayaking, fishing and food, Bodega Bay is a superb day trip for anyone with an adventurous spirit. This popular spot has also secured a place in Hollywood history, as it has served as a filming location for blockbusters such as The Birds (1963) and The Goonies (1985). Feast on fried oysters or fish and chips at The Boat House or seasonal soups and pastries at Wild Flower Bread. If you prefer to catch your own meal, visit Doran Beach in the winter to test your crabbing skills.
Monterey is touristy, but it’s the kind of guilty pleasure in which even residents indulge. The world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is excellent; it’s a huge venue where sea otters frolic, sunfish loom in enormous tanks and visitors stand hypnotized by backlit displays of lion’s mane jellyfish. Sign up for SMS alerts while you’re here so that you get a nudge when it’s the sharks’ and octopuses’ feeding times. When you’ve worked up an appetite, Old Fisherman’s Grotto is a stalwart of Monterey’s food scene, a 1950-established purveyor of creamy clam chowder and seasonal dungeness crab. Dessert has to be Revival Ice Cream, which offers a spectacular array of frozen desserts (complete with vegan and gluten-free options) made from locally sourced ingredients. The seasonal flavors are often the standouts, but its signature flavor is the honeyed Bees’ Knees.