Take in some of the best the Bay Area has to offer, from the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to lively cities, the celebrated Wine Country and thrilling amusement parks. The 10-stop trip will take two or three days and provide your taste buds with plenty of stimulation.
Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, Michelin-starred cuisine, a beautiful waterfront and a soaring crimson bridge, San Francisco—a.k.a. the “City by the Bay”—is where we begin. Explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a park, or head into Golden Gate Park to visit museums or row across a secret gem, Stow Lake. Continue along the flat Embarcadero to the bustling Ferry Building Marketplace, the Exploratorium science and learning museum and colorful Fisherman’s Wharf. Take a cable-car ride to the high-end shops in elegant Union Square. For more nightlife and dining, stroll Valencia Street in the Mission, a trendy and eclectic hotbed of restaurants and bars, as well as awesome late-night scoops at Bi-Rite Creamery.
Next up is Oakland, which has seen an influx of young locals who, drawn by the vibe, have moved into downtown lofts and condos. With them came the single-pour coffee bars, cafés, galleries and clubs. Lower costs in the East Bay have also lured chefs—both established big names and new-gen whiz kids—to open restaurants here. When the sun’s up and shining, paddle a kayak around the adjacent Oakland Estuary, especially lively during the fall bird migration. Post-paddle, stroll the square and tour two historic vessels: the lightship Relief, a floating lighthouse that aided navigation along various U.S. coastlines from 1951 to 1974, and the historic USS Potomac, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s yacht. (Insider tip: Ask about bay cruises.)
Jack London Square, an inviting complex perched on the edge of San Francisco Bay, mixes outdoor fun with indoor diversions. The square is named after the intrepid adventurer and author of The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf, a book allegedly inspired by tales told by folk who frequented the legendary—and still open—Heinhold’s: First and Last Chance Saloon. Near the sloped entrance to the historic watering hole, the hands on the clock haven’t budged since April 18, 1906—the moment a massive quake struck the Bay Area and jolted the building so much the timepiece stopped ticking.
1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley
When it reopens, make a reservation for lunch at Café at Chez Panisse (more casual than the downstairs restaurant, which only serves dinner). The legendary eatery was created by farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters, the first woman to win the James Beard Award in 1992. She has often been touted as the visionary chef who took California cuisine in a bold new direction.
A haven for backyard artists and coffee-shop philosophers, Berkeley has deep roots in the Flower Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s. But while California’s spirited city of free speech still stands strong, Berkeley can also boast of a booming food, wine and craft-brew scene sprinkled throughout with arts and culture. Add an easy-to-use public transit that makes San Francisco a quick light-rail ride away, and Berkeley rates high on any Bay Area must-see list. Along the main drag of University Avenue, you can buy an Indian outfit at Sari Palace, or enjoy house-roasted beans at Algorithm Coffee Co. Stop by the visitor information center a block north of the downtown Berkeley BART station (the hub for the local light-rail system that accesses San Francisco and other Bay Area towns).
1001 Fairgrounds Drive, Vallejo
There’s no hiding what’s the big draw at this popular attraction in the East Bay city of Vallejo. Even before you park your car you’ll see the giant loop-de-loops, spirals and white-knuckle descents of the park’s trademark coasters and thrill rides, such as Superman: Ultimate Flight and Medusa. Get your fill of these adrenaline pumpers, then retreat to the calming beauty of the Butterfly Habitat. Once your blood pressure is back to normal, see African lions, mountain lions and Bengal and Siberian tigers in naturalized enclosures, or feed a giraffe.
Napa Valley reigns as the land of grand estates, expansive tasting rooms, quaint towns and elegant resorts. Roughly an hour’s drive north of San Francisco and boasting more than 400 wineries, Napa Valley is a connoisseur’s paradise, inviting visitors to explore beyond the region’s signature Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The area boasts coveted wines, including those produced at To Kalon Vineyard, in operation since the 1860s, plus contemporary cult bottlings like Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. Napa Valley cuisine has come into its own, as well, with multiple Michelin-starred restaurants offering meals on a par with the vintages served alongside them, such as Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and Christopher Kostow’s The Restaurant at Meadowood.
This quaint fishing village has an interesting past and a vibrant present. Alfred Hitchcock shot his 1963 classic, The Birds, here and in nearby Bodega, and tourists flock to the area to see familiar locations from the film, including blufftop Bodega Head, which offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Bodega Bay is big on birds in general, offering three separate ways to spot our feathered friends, including the Bird Walk Coastal Access Trail. Looking to the skies is a bit of theme here: Bodega Bay boasts two kite shops, Second Wind and Candy & Kites—how many towns with a population of around 700 can say that? (Insider tip: Be sure to take advantage of the ultra-fresh seafood options in Bodega Bay, and if you see an open table at the Spud Point Crab Co., grab it!)
Point Reyes National Seashore
Jutting dozens of miles out into the sea, Point Reyes is loaded with amazing discoveries, including remarkable wildlife, deep forests, dramatic sea cliffs and remote beaches. To orient yourself, stop by the outstanding Bear Valley Visitors Center, with kid-friendly displays, maps and helpful rangers. The fairly flat, stroller-friendly Bear Valley Trail makes a popular leg stretch or bike ride.
No matter what time of year you visit, there’s something extraordinary to see and do. In winter, travel to the tip of the point (a shuttle takes you the last few miles) to look for migrating gray whales passing remarkably close. In spring, walk the trail to Chimney Rock to see countless wildflowers (look for puffins nesting on oceanfront cliffs), or follow a trail lined with irises into a rare bishop pine forest. In summer, watch the cool fog tumble in, then have a cup of tea in the cozy village of Point Reyes Station. And in fall, listen for the eerie bugle of tule elk that can be spotted in small herds in the Tomales Point preserve area, at the tip of the park.
Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods National Monument, one of Marin County’s premier parks, protects the last stand of uncut, old-growth coast redwoods in the Bay Area, which loggers had all but denuded by the late 1800s. Originally established as a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it was named for revered naturalist John Muir, who declared the site “the best tree lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.” Even on busy summer days, there is a remarkable hush here, especially if you arrive in early morning. Follow raised boardwalks, built to protect the trees’ sensitive root structure, to see the arrow-straight redwoods, some more than a century old, soaring 250 feet overhead. For an unforgettable experience, check the park’s activities calendar to go on a guided walk at dusk. (Insider tip: Due to high visitation and limited parking, reservations are required to visit Muir Woods, so plan ahead.)
Golden Gate Bridge
With towers soaring 746 feet into the sky, its span arcing across the mouth of San Francisco Bay, and all of it painted fire-engine red, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge is a dramatic landmark. Yes, you can simply drive across the bridge, but biking across is another fun option. Rental companies abound (two local favorites are Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals). Most bikes come with route maps detailing where to ride from San Francisco across the bridge to towns like Sausalito and Tiburon, in neighboring Marin County. Back in the city, there’s a nice gift shop and a café, and paths let you wind down to historic Fort Point, completed in 1861 as a military outpost.