8 Great Day Trips from San Francisco
Whether you’re visiting San Francisco for a long weekend or a week, there are more than enough diversions within city limits to fill any itinerary. But even more worthy adventures await those who venture outside the urban landscape, from quirky small-town haunts to world-class wining and dining and natural wonders you won’t find anywhere else. Here are eight easy day trips to check out on your next SF getaway.
Jen has been a staff editor at Architectural Digest, Travel + Leisure, and Martha Stewart Weddings, and her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Afar, and Elle Decor. When she's not snowmobiling in the French Alps or tasting scotch straight from the barrel in Scotland, she's at home in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
On your way to sampling some of the region’s most quaffable pinots in the Russian River Valley, make a pit stop at the quaint waterfront town of Guerneville to enjoy its simple pleasures. Throw down a towel at Johnson’s Beach, where you can rent canoes or inner tubes to drift along a lazy bend of the river, then grab a takeaway lunch of artisanal sandwiches at Big Bottom Market.
Finish with the handmade organic ice cream (lavender honeycomb, plum bourbon swirl) at Nimble & Finn’s, in the revamped 1921 Guerneville Bank Club. Or hit the town on the ride back from tastings to slurp fresh happy-hour oysters at Seaside Metal before a dinner of flash-fried Brussels sprouts and chili-braised pork at Boon Eat + Drink.
Driving south down the cliff-hugging asphalt of Highway 1 feels a bit like cruising along the Amalfi Coast. But on arrival, Carmel-by-the-Sea has a feel all its own. Bohemian-chic boutiques stand alongside cottages that look straight out of a storybook in its picturesque downtown, and the beach is an ideal place to dolphins and sea lions playing. If your agenda calls for quiet reflection, stroll through the gardens and chapels at the 1770 Spanish-colonial Carmel Mission.
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If you’re the active type, the world-renowned links at Pebble Beach are just a few miles away. When hunger strikes, don’t miss the Mexican-inspired specialties (chicken tinga tacos, epazote quesadillas) at Cultura Comida y Bebida.
For the platonic ideal of boardwalks, complete with nostalgia-tinged carnival games and roller coasters (the Giant Dipper and Looff Carousel have been designated National Historic Landmarks), look no farther than the family-friendly seaside diversions of Santa Cruz. Once you’ve had your fill of popcorn and cotton candy, wander down the wharf to watch surfers catch the waves in Monterey Bay, or hike or walk the coastal trails of Wilder Ranch State Park’s Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve, where you may even spot monarch butterflies during the fall and winter months and whales and otters in the distance. Prefer to see your wildlife up close? You can reach out and touch the sea urchins, starfish, and anemones at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center’s aquarium.
The towering Giant Sequoia trees of Muir Woods, the boho houseboats of Sausalito, the forested canyons of Mount Tamalpais—some of San Francisco’s most famous sites aren’t in the city at all, but rather in nearby Marin County. If a break from the urban buzz is all you need, opt for the small-town pleasures of Tiburon, with its volunteer-run Corner Books store and quaint railroad museum.
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Head farther northwest to Bolinas Bay for swimming and body surfing along the white shores of Stinson Beach, or to hike to the historic 1870 lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore. On the way back to San Francisco, hit up Instagram favorites like Hog Island Oyster Co. on Tomales Bay and Cowgirl Creamery before snapping one of those iconic pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge and the cityscape beyond.
California’s most famous stretch of Highway 1 runs straight through the wild, windswept cliffs of Big Sur, an 85-mile area so admired it often attracts tourists in droves. But braving the crowds is worth it, so long as you venture off the beaten path. You’ll want to see the highlights, of course, among them McWay Falls and Pfeiffer Beach, and grab wood-fired pizzas and heirloom tomato salads at the equally celebrated Big Sur Bakery.
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But if you had something more leisurely than hiking in mind—not to mention more luxurious—head to the Post Ranch Inn for the best Pacific Coast views and decadent prix-fixe lunch (Monterey squid with chorizo and pepper, carrot risotto with fresh garden herbs) at Sierra Mar. (Note: This stretch of Highway 1 is currently closed for roadwork after mudslides but is expected to reopen later this summer.)
When the fog is thick in San Francisco proper, locals book it to the sunny side of the bay. In Oakland, start by foraging for breakfast at the Grand Lake Farmer’s Market, then enjoy your provisions on the banks of Lake Merritt, where you can share a romantic gondola ride. Get your culture fix at the Oakland Museum of California, or cruise for vintage finds and pieces by up-and-coming local designers in the trendy Temescal neighborhood’s boutiques.
Hungry? Head to Berkeley, home of Alice Waters’s incomparable Chez Panisse. Can’t snag a reservation? The house-made chicharrones and hen-of-the-woods mushroom empanadas at Comal should hit the spot. End your evening with a little night music during an outdoor show at the Greek Theater before embarking on the 20-minute ride back into the city.
Half Moon Bay
Surfers already know Half Moon Bay for its world-class waves and annual Titans of Mavericks competition, golfers for its coveted fairways and greens, but there’s also plenty for regular folks to do in this cozy hamlet by the sea. The Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail runs along four wide, sandy swaths of beach that are perfect for strolling and sunbathing (if not swimming thanks to strong currents), and hiking paths crisscross the forested cliff sides of Montara Mountain. If that sounds like too much effort, you can wander the quirky shops that line downtown’s historic Main Street, sample your way through a bevy of fresh fruit stands (the area is known for its abundance of organic fresh produce), or simply kick back and savor the citrusy amber ale at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company’s waterfront patio.
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Serious oenophiles need no introduction to the wine meccas that surround the city, but if you’re looking for a low-key way to experience the region’s best varietals, consider the less crowded vineyards in St. Helena. Taste the cabernets in the LEED-certified showroom at Hall Wines, fill your glass in the stylish lounge at Sinegal Estate Winery, or opt for a flight on the alfresco brick patio at Cosentino Winery. After a day of sipping, fuel up with the almond- and cherry-fired steaks at Press or the hearty New American fare (artichoke risotto, lamb tartare) at Goose & Gander. If you want to make a night of it, the ultra-luxurious, neutral-hued rooms at brand new Las Alcobas ensure sweet dreams—and a spa where you can work off your hangover the next morning.
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