The Most Beautiful Cities and Towns in Northern California

From Sausalito, you can enjoy great views of San Francisco across the bay
From Sausalito, you can enjoy great views of San Francisco across the bay | © Steve Tulley / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Lauryn D'Angelo
2 September 2021

Centered around the vibrant hub that is San Francisco, these cities and towns in Northern California provide some of the most spectacular vistas over the Pacific Ocean. Take a deep breath and enjoy.

Interested in visiting California but not sure where to start with planning your itinerary? Consider joining Culture Trip’s specially curated seven-day Northern California tour, led by our local insider.


Architectural Landmark
The San Francisco Bay and hill in Sausalito, California.
© Jon Bilous / Alamy Stock Photo

Sausalito is a picturesque waterfront town with some of the best views looking back into San Francisco. After developing rapidly during World War II, it became an artistic, affluent area, as well as a popular tourist destination, characterized by beautiful homes nestled in the hills lining the bay.


Architectural Landmark
A surfer walks off a small road onto a trail between coast redwoods in search of surf. Gualala Redwood River Park, Sonoma County, California_T2XE1R
Gualala Redwood River Park | © Hudson Fleece / Alamy

Situated in Mendocino County, Gualala lies three hours north of San Francisco. While many escape to this small town for the waterfront views and redwood trees, others opt to take in the impressive art and culture scene; Gualala Arts showcases local artists’ work, and offers music, theater and photography classes for adults and children.

Bodega Bay

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark
California coast, Bodega Bay
© Andrew Zarivny / Alamy Stock Photo
Drive 70mi (113km) north of San Francisco and seek out Bodega Bay, a small town in Sonoma County with a perfect view of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a popular area for hiking, birdwatching, and observing gray whales from Bodega Head. You’ll also love the beaches, where you can surf, kayak or simply take in the view.


Natural Feature, Historical Landmark
Big Sur, a popular touristic destination, famous for its dramatic scenery. Stunning view of Pacific Ocean, Rocky cliffs, and beautiful sandy beach. Monterey County, California_2BKYAM6
Stunning view of Pacific Ocean, Rocky cliffs, and beautiful sandy beach Monterey County | © Hanna Tor / Alamy
Roughly 100mi (161km) south of San Francisco, Monterey is an easy getaway from the city. Home to whales, seals and sea otters, it has a stunning shore lined with 36 breathtaking parks, each of them perfect for hiking or a morning run along the ocean. If you’re more in the mood for sauntering through some woodland, you don’t need to venture too far inland in Monterey to hit the forest, either.

Tahoe City

Architectural Landmark
Unique boulders and colorful blue and turquoise water near Chimney Beach, Lake Tahoe, Carson City, Nevada
© focqus / Alamy Stock Photo

Tahoe is an outdoor-lover’s paradise all year round. Situated right on the border between Nevada and California, it has activities for just about anyone. Whether it’s skiing in South Lake Tahoe during the winter, hiking Mount Tallac in the summer, or spending time on the sandy beaches around the 192sqmi (496sqkm) lake, there’s no shortage of breathtaking views from nearly any viewpoint.


Architectural Landmark
morning fog and due at sunrise in a colorful vineyard in Calistoga California due to seasonal changes in autumn
Vineyard in Calistoga California | © Charles Wollertz / Alamy

Calistoga is less well-known than the neighboring towns of Napa and Sonoma, but the drive north of San Francisco is well worth the trip. Calistoga has geothermal hot-spring pools, geysers, mud baths, and picturesque vineyards with incredible wine.

Santa Cruz

Natural Feature
View of the rides on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and the beach from the Wharf, in Santa Cruz, California.
© Jon Bilous / Alamy Stock Photo

Home to the University of California Santa Cruz, this college town has just about everything: beautiful, busy beaches; a coastal redwood forest; trendy restaurants; and a classic boardwalk with carnival games and rides. Natural Bridges State Beach isn’t to be missed either; it’s a marine-protected area conserving ocean wildlife and natural ecosystems.

Half Moon Bay

Natural Feature
Half Moon Bay California shore ocean cliffs off of the Ritz Golf Course with waves sand at Half Moon Bay Golf Links G8R09B
Half Moon Bay California shore ocean cliffs off of the Ritz Golf Course with waves sand at Half Moon Bay Golf Links | © Bill Bachmann / Alamy
Just 25mi (40km) south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay makes for an excellent day trip down the coast of California. There’s beautiful Pillar Point Harbor right in the center of town, where you can enjoy fresh fish and views by the water. Also, make sure you hike the forested hills nearby. One of the best views is from the Ritz-Carlton.

Fort Bragg

Architectural Landmark
Beautiful sea glass in a variety of colors with blue waves and sky in Fort Bragg, California
© Charles Wollertz / Alamy Stock Photo

This California Historical Landmark was founded before the Civil War as a military garrison. Today, it’s popular with tourists thanks to the breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, as well as the rugged beaches, sand dunes and coves. The town is small, stretching for just over 4mi (6km) along the coast, but well known for Glass Beach. It’s appropriately named for the abundance of sea glass – natural frosted glass. Don’t forget the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens either, cozied up right along the coastline.


Architectural Landmark
Rugged Coastline and Sea Foam at Rockaway Beach 2DA2023
Rugged Coastline and Sea Foam at Rockaway Beach | © Yuval Helfman / Alamy

Pacifica, a 6mi (10km) stretch of city in San Mateo County, lies on the coast between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay. A popular surfing destination, it is made up of several small valleys. You’ll probably spend most of your time at the scenic Rockaway Beach, where you can sunbathe, shop or dine at one its many restaurants.

These recommendations were updated on September 2, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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