Day Trips and Vacation Side Trips from San Francisco

01 of 12

Active Outdoors: Hiking, Biking, Water Play

Bicycling at the Golden Gate Bridge
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Ideas for an Active Day Out in San Francisco

Active Day Trips Out of Town

  • Castle Rock State Park: One of the area's most popular places for rock climbing and hiking.
  • Half Moon Bay: Plenty of beaches for all kinds of activities, ocean kayaking, hiking, horseback riding along the coast.
  • Healdsburg: Wine country backroads around Healdsburg are especially popular for bicycling.
  • Mission Peak, Fremont: On a busy weekend morning, it may seem like half of Silicon Valley is on the trail up the peak. When you get to the top, you'll see why.
  • Kayak Elkhorn Slough: The water's calm and the wildlife abundant.
  • Mount Diablo, Danville: Hike up or down one of the area's tallest peaks.
  • Pinnacles National Park: An ancient volcano left behind monoliths, spires, sheer-walled canyons and caves.
02 of 12

Arts, Architecture, Science and the Unusual

Xanadu Gallery (formerly VC Morris Gift Shop) Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
©2005 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

If you're curious and like arts, architecture, science or the unusual, these ideas for a day trip or a vacation side trip from San Francisco may appeal to you.

Ideas for a Curious Visitor's Day Out in San Francisco

Unique Day Trips Out of Town

  • Audi Driving Experience, Sonoma Raceway: If you've ever dreamed of driving a fast car on a real race track, the Audi Experience may be just the thing for you.
  • Charles Schulz Museum, Santa Rosa: There's too much reading here to interest the kids, but adults who love the comic strip will have a great time.
  • Computer History Museum, Mountain View: If you remember punched cards or know what an Amdahl is, you may enjoy a trip down memory lane here.
  • Eugene O'Neill's Tao House, Danville: The Nobel Prize-winning playwright wrote his most personal works here.
  • John Muir House, Martinez: Home of the famous naturalist.
  • Kelley Park, San Jose: A collection of buildings from San Jose's past.
  • Lick Observatory, San Jose: It was the largest refractory telescope in the world when built and they still do some great science on the mountain.
  • National Steinbeck Center, Salinas: Devoted to the famous author and the history of the Salinas Valley.
  • Stanford Linear Accelerator, Palo Alto: Graduate students will take you on a tour of the "atom smasher."
  • USS Hornet, Alameda: This retired ship has a singular history.
  • Ca'Toga, Calistoga: Artist Carlo Marchiori's Palladian villa near Calistoga is filled with his whimsical art.
  • Cantor Museum, Palo Alto: Home to one of the finest collections of Rodin sculptures in the western U.S. They also have some great special exhibits.
03 of 12

Cute Towns

Downtown Los Gatos California
©2010 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

​Cute Towns Near San Francisco

  • Berkeley: If you live in the Bay Area, you may overlook Berkeley, but it's got a lot going for it.
  • Calistoga: The less-crowded northern end of Calistoga has lots of hot springs spas and a cute downtown.
  • Capitola: This seaside town's pastel-colored buildings make it look like a bag of salt-water taffy.
  • Los Gatos: Full of well-preserved Victorian-style houses, with a cute downtown and a weekend farmers market.
  • Palo Alto: Besides the university, there's a lively downtown with a wonderfully restored classic movie theater.
  • Pescadero: Don't miss the artichoke soup at Duarte's Tavern or a peek at the antique shops and artisan's studios before stopping at Arcangelli Bakery for a loaf of bread. Just across the highway is one of the best places for tide pooling.
  • San Juan Bautista: The still-intact 1800s town square is a slice of California history and downtown has a pleasant selection of shops for browsing.
  • Santa Cruz: We live the lively feel of downtown Santa Cruz and its individualistic attitude.
  • Sausalito: It's an easy ferry trip across the bay, but if you drive you can see its unique Floating Homes.
  • Sonoma Backroads: So cute you just want to hug them, these tiny Sonoma County towns enchants everyone who wanders in.
04 of 12

Family Adventures

Outer Bay Exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Tom Magliery at Flickr under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Ideas for a Family Day Out in San Francisco

  • Alcatraz: Kids seem to think this old prison is pretty cool.
  • Angel Island: You can hike and bike, and there's lots of room.
  • Exploratorium: The area's best science center for hands-on fun.
  • Ocean Beach: A broad, sandy beach with plenty of room to fly kites or build sand castles.
  • San Francisco Zoo: An old standby.

Family Day Trips Out of Town

  • Amtrak to Reno: If the kids have never been on a train trip, the one-day ride from Emeryville to Reno can be fun. To do it in a single day, you'll have to fly home from Reno - or stay overnight and take the train back the next day.
  • Bay Area Discovery Museum, Sausalito: A fun place for kids.
  • Benziger Winery, Sonoma: Everyone likes Benziger's tractor-towed, open-air tram tour.
  • Children's Museum, San Jose: Tons of interactive things to do and fun special exhibits.
  • Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Healdsburg: Food, family pool, a glass of wine for the parents.
  • Gilroy Gardens: Fewer screaming roller coasters, shorter lines and pretty surroundings.
  • Gizdich Ranch, Gilroy: Besides offering pick-yourself produce, a bake shop and an antique shop, Gizdich says it's alway kid season at their farm.
  • Half Moon Bay: Beaches, tide pools, family-friendly hotels and a visit to the farm.
  • Jelly Belly Factory: The appeal of watching specialty jelly beans being made is universal and if you don't mind coping with the sugar rush, their seconds (called "belly flops") are a great bargain.
  • Kelley Park, San Jose: Kids love the antique trolley and the old fruit processing barn in this historic park and they have an old-fashioned soda fountain, too.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium: This place is everything it's said to be, with lots of fun things for kids to do.
  • Petrified Forest, Calistoga: Trees turned into stone are the big draw.
  • Roaring Camp Railroads, Felton: If your kids like train rides, this trip is one of the area's best.
  • Rodeo Beach, Marin Headlands: A pretty beach full of colorful pebbles is the feature here, better for walking or kite-flying than for sand castles and also a popular place for skimboarding.
  • Safari West, Calistoga: It's like a trip to the zoo and a mini-safari all in one at this wildlife park/bed and breakfast outside Calistoga, a great stop for animal-loving young'uns.
  • Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: Pay-as-you-ride for a less-expensive alternative to the big theme parks.
  • Winchester Mystery House, San Jose: A little pricey for the amount of time you spend, the Winchester House is nevertheless a favorite of many kids. It's better for pre-teens and older. Little ones may be frustrated with having to stand still.
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05 of 12

Indoor Activities

The Exploratorium is Fun for the Whole Family
Courtesy of Amy Snyder ©Exploratorium, All rights reserved.

Ideas for an Indoor Day in San Francisco

  • Cable Car Museum: The big machinery that runs the cars is fascinating, and downstairs you can see the cables in action.
  • Exploratorium: The grand-daddy of hands-on science museums is still one of the best, with lots of interesting exhibits to play with.
  • Museums: You've got dozens to choose from.
  • Rainy Day San Francisco: Try a few of these ideas if it's rainy outside.

Indoor Day Trips Near San Francisco

  • Amtrak to Reno: In a single day, you can ride Amtrak's California Zephyr from Emeryville to Reno, Nevada - but to make it a day trip, you will have to fly back home. It's a trip over the top of the Sierras that's especially scenic in the winter.
  • Jelly Belly Factory Tour: Everyone loves to see how these sweet confections are made.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium: It's dry inside but wet in the tanks, and here are plenty of them to keep you entertained for hours.
  • Winchester Mystery House, San Jose: Sarah Winchester may have been a haphazard architect, but her house is plenty big.
06 of 12

Lunch, Brunch and Foodie Destinations

Fresh Oysters from Northern California
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Places for Lunch or Brunch

  • Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Station: One of the best area cheesemakers offers their products at Tomales Bay Foods, a great place to pick up picnic supplies.
  • Mission Ranch, Carmel: Live jazz, great views and an extensive brunch buffet are great any time, but when the weather is nice and you can sit on the patio, it's pure pleasure.
  • Nepenthe, Big Sur: Some people grumble that it isn't gourmet cuisine, but frankly, we don't think it matters. With some of Big Sur's best views and a laid-back ambiance, this place can't be beat. Don't get in a hurry and settle for less. Only a spot outdoors will do.
  • Ritz Carlton, Half Moon Bay: Weekly Vintner Series wine/food pairings and wine tasting experiences featuring a new set of wineries every month, a lavish Sunday brunch buffet and an annual Fire & Wine Experience weekend give foodies plenty of reasons to keep going back to the Ritz Carlton.
  • Healdsburg: Top-rated restaurants and award-winning chefs cluster around Healdsburg, and there's plenty of great wine, too.
  • Takara Sake Tasting Room, Berkeley: If you're tired of traditional wine-tasting, try a little sake instead.
  • Tomales Bay Oysters: First come, first-served seating make Tomales Bay the best choice for an impromptu oyster picnic. Bring your own shucking knife, accompaniments and don't forget the charcoal if you'd rather have them barbecued than raw.
  • U-Pick, Near Santa Cruz: Pick your own strawberries, ollalieberries and kiwi fruit.
  • Wine Tasting in Napa Valley: If the plethora of wineries befuddles you, we've compiled a selection of the ones that offer the most enjoyable tasting experience.
07 of 12

Natural Beauty

View of Half Dome from Glacier Point
©2011 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.
  • Amtrak to Reno: You can't beat the scenery when you take the California Zephyr over the top of the Sierras. To make this a day trip, you will need to fly back home.
  • Angel Island State Park, San Francisco Bay: Panoramic views, a rich history, and a super-fun Segway tour are just a few of Angel Island's attractions.
  • Big Basin State Park, Santa Cruz Mountains: Some say it's just as nice as Muir Woods but a lot less crowded.
  • Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing: Birds and sea otters abound at Elkhorn. Kayak on your own or take a guided tour in a pontoon boat.
  • Mount Diablo, Danville: You can see more from here than almost anywhere else on the planet.
  • Mount Tamalpais, Marin County: You can see all the way to San Francisco from here on a clear day.
  • Muir Woods, Marin County: One of the easiest places to get to for a short walk in the redwoods.
  • Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel: Rocky coastline, windblown trees, and abundant wildlife help make Point Lobos one of the state's most beautiful coastal parks.
  • Point Reyes National Park, Marin County: Views are extraordinary, it's home to a herd of tule elk and a dramatically-situated lighthouse.
  • Go Bird-Watching: We're not talking about tiny things in a far-away tree here. This guide tells you where to find the big, beautiful Great Blue Herons and snow-white egrets.
08 of 12

Nice Drives

USA, California, Pacific Coast, National Scenic Byway, Big Sur, Bixby Creek Bridge, California State Route 1, Highway 1

Excursions in San Francisco

  • 49-Mile Drive: You don't need to drive all 49 miles and this guide highlights the ones worth your time.
  • Vertigo Movie Tour of San Francisco: Use our self-guided directions to visit some of the most famous spots in Alfred Hitchcock's classic film.

Day Drives Out of Town

  • Drive South on the Coast Highway: Follow the directions going south for a drive down Highway One from San Francisco to Monterey and Carmel (or further).
  • 17-Mile Drive: If you want to visit Pebble Beach or have lunch at Roy's in Spanish Bay, it's worth the admission. Or try our admission-free alternative if you're just looking for pretty views.
  • Big Sur: California Hwy 1 from Carmel south is one of the state's most beautiful drives. Add a stop to tour the Point Sur Light Station and it makes a nice day out.
  • Mad Maps: These maps are perfect for the curious wanderer, with several routes perfect for an old-fashioned Sunday drive.
  • San Francisco to Santa Cruz on Hwy 1: This often-overlooked section of Hwy 1 is just as pretty as Big Sur, less crowded and a lot closer to the city.
  • Sir Francis Drake Blvd: Follow US 101 north out of San Francisco, then go west in San Rafael toward Olema and the drive is almost as pretty as your destination on the coast. Return via Hwy 1.
  • Valley of the Oaks: Head south to King City on US 101 then go west into one of the least-changed landscapes in central California.
Continue to 9 of 12 below.
09 of 12

Rest and Relax

The Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
Curtis Fry/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Relaxing in San Francisco

  • The Labyrinths, Grace Cathedral: A meditative walk through the labyrinths is a great way to focus and shed stress.

Relaxing Day Trips Out of Town

  • Calistoga Mud Baths: There's nothing more relaxing to this harried travel writer than a soak in the Calistoga mud.
  • Cavallo Point Spa: Located just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, with a wide range of relaxing services.
  • Hot Springs in Big Sur: It's a hike to one and the other two have unusual schedules, but they're worth the trouble.
  • Mercey Hot Springs, Hollister: A small, no-frills place with relaxing hot waters.
  • Osmosis Spa, Sonoma County: A massage in one of their outdoor pavilions is about as relaxing as it gets.
  • Spa at Carneros Inn, Napa: We love the Inn, and their spa is top-notch, too.
10 of 12

Seasonal Events, Festivals and Things to Do

Monarch Butterflies in Pacific Grove
logjayge at Flickr Under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License

These day trips are seasonal things, available only during specific times of the year. Check your calendar.

Ideas for a Seasonal Day Out in San Francisco

Seasonal Day Trips Out of Town

11 of 12

Shopping Jaunts

Shopping at Santana Row
Architecture, Food & One Little Beautiful Girl/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Places to Go Shopping in San Francisco

  • Chestnut Street: One of the city's most enjoyable shopping streets features blocks of interesting shops, restaurants and boutiques.
  • Fillmore Street: A good mix of coffee shops, boutiques, restaurants and a small movie theater make this a lively street.
  • Haight Ashbury : An eclectic mix of wares and generally affordable prices make the Haight one of our favorites.
  • Hayes Valley: Local San Franciscans rave about the fun shops you can find in this area.
  • Union Square: One of the largest shopping areas in the western United States, with a large variety of shops.
  • Valencia Street: The Mission District's main shopping street offers lots of fun options.

Places to Go Shopping Out of Town

  • Fourth Street, Berkeley: High-end outlets, some yummy restaurants and food shops and local artisan galleries make for a fun time, even if your shopping bags stay empty.
  • Gilroy Outlets: It's so big they have a trolley to take shoppers from one side to the other and you'll find all the standard outlet stores here.
  • Santana Row, San Jose: At times it seems a little too contrived, but you'll find good restaurants and nice shops. Weekends, there's a farmers market and any day, the nearby movie theaters offer plenty of diversions.
  • Solano Avenue, Albany: One of our favorite places for recreational shopping, withe some of the Bay Area's most interesting shops.
  • Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley: Located near the university, Telegraph has lots of great bookstores, some interesting shops that cater to a young clientele and a lively weekend street market.
  • Vacaville Outlets: Another big outlet mall, between San Francisco and Sacramento.
12 of 12

Vacation Side Trips

Welcome to Napa Valley
Courtesy of Visit Napa Valley

This page is mostly for out-of-towners. The places listed below are some of the most popular for a side trip during a San Francisco vacation.

  • Sacramento: The state capitol has an interesting Old Town and some great museums. Learn about all the best things to do in Sacramento.
  • Big Sur: Many of your iconic ideas of California probably came from pictures taken in Big Sur, with sweeping coastlines and towering trees.
  • Monterey and Carmel: The peninsula's bookend towns couldn't be more different: a former cannery town and an upscale artists' enclave.
  • Napa Valley: The Wine Country you've read about.
  • Santa Cruz: There's the old-fashioned seaside amusement park and some great beaches in this little place.
  • Sausalito: Just across the bay, with pleasant views and some nice art galleries. A ferry ride away from Fisherman's Wharf.
  • Sonoma County: Less pretentious than Napa, with great scenery and friendly tasting rooms.

Guided Day Trips

A few San Francisco tour companies offer personalized, small group tours, which are the most enjoyable way to go. They include A Friend in Town and Blue Heron Tours.

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