While you can easily spend days exploring San Francisco, from museums like the SFMoMA to the many offerings of Golden Gate Park, sometimes it's nice to get away. The Bay Area has so much to offer both residents and visitors alike: picturesque coastal towns, endless culinary delights, and loads of local history. Are you ready to start exploring? Here are 11 day-trip options to get both your literal and metaphorical wheels turning.
For an SF day trip that's both educational and easily accessible—not to mention one boasting spectacular views—Angel Island is hard to beat. The largest island in San Francisco Bay is just a boat ride from the SF Ferry Building and once served as the “Ellis Island of the West” for millions of U.S. immigrants. It became a state park in 1962, and today is a popular spot for hiking, bicycling, and even camping. Both regular bikes and e-bikes are available for rent at the island's Ayala Cove (which is also a great perch for watching Fourth of July fireworks) or you can bring your own. Be sure and visit the restored Angel Island U.S. Immigration Station, a now museum that tells the story of the many immigrants detained here—often under very harsh conditions—due to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
Getting There: Take the Blue & Gold Fleet from San Francisco's Pier 41 at Fisherman's Wharf, or the Angel Island Ferry from Tiburon. Frequencies vary throughout the year, but service is daily in summer.
Whether it's kayaking in the placid waters of a protected bay dotted with harbor seals or tackling the waves of the Pacific, Half Moon Bay offers the active day-trip you've been craving. This laid-back coastal town is home to Mavericks—the annual one-day big wave surf competition—as well as tide pools brimming with starfish and sea urchins and ample hiking trails, including a 4.7-mile paved portion of the California Coastal Trail. There's also Half Moon Bay State Beach features four miles of beaches, as well as overnight campsites for longer stays. Food and drink includes the burgers and craft beers at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, HMB Distillery's small-batch vodka and gin tastings, and Sam's Chowder House—an authentic New England-style seafood eatery where lobster rolls reign supreme.
Getting There: Just a 45-minute drive south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is easiest to reach by car, though buses do run from SF to the South Bay's Hillsdale Station, where you can transfer to HMB.
Travel Tip: A half-hour drive south of town is Costanoa, an eco-adventure resort sporting luxury tent bungalows, an onsite spa, and opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, stargazing, and horseback riding. It's the perfect spot for turning your day trip into a weekend getaway.
There's plenty to love about Alameda, an island-city with a small town vibe. An easy ferry ride from San Francisco, Alameda was at one time home to a massive shipyard and a popular amusement park known as Neptune Beach—where the original Tarzan Jonny Weissmuller once performed—though is better known today for its bustling (and walkable) downtown and Spirits Alley, a stretch of distilleries, craft brewing establishments, and wine tasting rooms that have completely transformed its former Naval Air Station. While away an afternoon imbibing at spots like St. George Spirits and Rock Wall Wine Company while taking in great views of the San Francisco skyline, then head downtown for a selection of restaurants ranging from Burma Superstar to homestyle diners, boutique shops, and events that include May's annual Spring Festival and July's Art & Wine Faire.
Getting There: Alameda is reachable by car from Oakland via a connecting tunnel, or is a 20-minute ferry ride from San Francisco's Ferry Building aboard the SF Bay Ferry. Bring your bicycle along to get around town easier.
Travel Tip: Alameda is home to the USS Hornet, a former aircraft carrier that was the primary recovery ship for Apollo 11, when it splashed back down into the Pacific. Today it operates as an air, sea, and space museum, with displayed aircrafts like the TA-4J Skyhawk and the Vietnam War era F8U-1 Crusader supersonic fighter, and memorabilia from both the Apollo 11 and 12 missions.
It's considered the San Francisco North Bay's more approachable wine country, a region of rolling vineyards, family-run wineries, and relaxed feel that sits in contrast to neighboring's Napa's more opulent offerings. Stroll the leafy plaza of Sonoma city, where you'll find a range of art galleries, tasting rooms, and delicious eateries, or spend the day sipping vino at homegrown wineries like Balletto Vineyards—known for its cool-climate wines like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—and Larson Family Winery, featuring its own bocce court. Hot air ballooning over the vineyards is a popular Sonoma pastime, or pay a visit to Safari West, a 400-acre private wildlife reserve and “Sonoma Serengeti” where you can safari among hundreds of animals that include cheetahs, hyenas, lemurs, and wildebeest. Plan a tubing trip along the Russian River from the quirky town of Guerneville, enjoy a dinner to remember in Healdsburg, or visit Snoopy and his friends at Santa Rosa's Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center, home to the world's largest collection of Peanuts comic strips.
Getting There: The town of Sonoma is approximately 44 miles north of San Francisco. Car is the easiest way to reach and explore the area, though Golden Gate Transit runs buses throughout Sonoma County as well.
Travel Tip: One of the best times of year to visit is in autumn, when Sonoma's annual grape harvest is in full swing. Celebrations during this time run the gamut from grape-stomping events to the two-day Sonoma Harvest Museum Festival, with performers like Lauryn Hill and Death Cab for Cutie.
Berkeley: A Free-Thinking, Counter-Culture and Culinary Hub
The East Bay's home of counter-culture and progressive thinking, Berkeley has a lot to offer SF day-trippers—whether it's wandering along the pathways of one of the West Coast most legendary universities, UC Berkeley, or hiking up to the top of Grizzly Peak in 2,0790-acre Tilden Regional Park—known as the “jewel of the East Bay Regional Park system”—for spectacular views, especially at sunset. The Berkeley Marina is a great place to hone your skills at water-sports like sea kayaking and paddle-boarding, or spend an afternoon kite-flying at the marina's Cesar Chavez Park. Berkeley museums include the Lawrence Hall of Science and the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMFA), where film screenings and artworks by Paul Kos and Jackson Pollock are par for the course, though for prime people-watching Telegraph Avenue is where it's at.
Getting There: Berkeley is just across the bay from San Francisco, and easily reachable via car or BART.
Travel Tip: Berkeley is the home of “California Cuisine” and most notably Chez Panisse, Chef Alice Waters's bastion of organic, locally grown foods and social consciousness. The legendary restaurant is located within North Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, where delicious eats are par for the course.
A bit further south from Half Moon Bay, the coastal city of Santa Cruz boasts a similar laid-back vibe but one that's much more artsy and eccentric. Spend an afternoon getting to know this NorCal “Surf City,” with prime surfing spots like Four Mile and Pleasure Point, and home to the Bay Area's only boardwalk—a stretch of classic pay-as-you-ride amusements like the Giant Dipper wooden coaster and a historic 1911 Looff carousel that still has its original ring dispenser. Play a round or two of mini golf, splash down on the flume-style Logger's Revenge, and nosh on decadent boardwalk treats like Dippin' Dots, and deep-fried Twinkies. The nearby Santa Cruz Mountains are home to spectacular views, wineries, and California's oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods. Be sure and keep an eye out for colorful banana slugs as you hike.
Getting There: Take the two-hour scenic drive down US-101 S, or opt for the Caltrain to San José Diridon Station/17 Santa Cruz Metro bus transfer, a three or so hour journey.
Travel Tip: At well over a century old, family-run Duarte's Tavern in nearby Pescadero has established quite a loyal clientele. Crowds pour in for a tavern menu of American country cooking with Portuguese flare, and Duarte's beloved cream of artichoke soup, a soup so popular it requires artichokes from three different gardens.
The Central Coast: Sea Life and Storybook Homes
From Monterey's Steinbeck country to Carmel-by-the-Sea's fairytale houses, there's plenty of ways to spend your day along California's Central Coast. Embark on Monterey's Path of History, a self-guided walking trail linking dozens of historic downtown sites, including an adobe where Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson once lived, then step inside the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium to see sea-life such as giant Pacific octopus and spiny dogfish up-close. Browse Carmel-by-the-Sea's many art galleries, or explore the tide pools of Pacific Grove, plentiful with sea anemones and starfish. Later, extend your visit with a road tour of Pebble Beach's popular 17-Mile Drive.
Getting There: Monterey is an approximately two-hour drive from San Francisco south via either U.S. 101 or Interstate 280.
Travel Tip: From October through February, witness the annual migration pattern of thousands of Monarch butterflies who've come to nest in the tree branches of Pacific Grove's Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary.
There's maybe no better place to decompress in the Bay Area than Calistoga, a spa town at Napa Valley's northern end brimming with mineral springs and mud baths all believed by the area's original Wappo tribe to have healing powers. Set against a backdrop of vineyards and mountains, this small town is the perfect spot for a day trip or an entire weekend's worth of pampering, from soaking in nature's own hot waters to indulging in hand and foot massages. There are also farm-to-table eateries, wine tasting rooms, and ample art galleries to explore, not to mention resorts ranging from casual clothing-optional spots to luxury high-end experiences. Calistoga's claim-to-fame is undoubtedly its rich volcanic ash mud, which helps sooth the skin and remove body toxins while providing one of the Bay Area's most unique natural offerings.
Getting There: Calistoga is about a 2.5-hour drive north of San Francisco via U.S. 101. You can also catch BART to the El Cerrito Del Norte BART Station, then transfer to a bus.
Travel Tip: A Calistoga landmark, the 16-acre Indian Springs Resort & Spa dates back to the mid-19th century. It's known for its Mission-Revival style architecture, numerous mineral pools, and four thermal geysers that provide a constant water stream. Mud baths are also a prominent feature.
Whether it's catching a concert at the SAP Center or a San Jose Sharks hockey game, exploring neighborhoods like Little Italy or the walkable and oh-so-charming Willow Glen, or perusing the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, home to the largest collection of exhibited Egyptian artifacts in the U.S. West, San Francisco's much sunnier NorCal neighbor San Jose is a destination all its own. The city is both the cultural and economic center of surrounding Silicon Valley, where tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Netflix call home. To delve more into the area's many technological riches, a visit to San Jose's Tech Interactive center is a must. Whether it's a Michelin-starred dinner you're craving (Manresa in nearby Los Gatos is a perennial favorite) or a delicious dive (try the iconic Falafel's Drive-In), you'll find it here in California's third-most populous city.
Getting There: San Jose is approximately an hour-drive south from San Francisco via U.S. 101., or a 2.5 hour journey via Caltrain.
Travel Tip: Don't miss a chance to explore the Winchester Mystery House—a Victorian mansion once belonging to Sarah Winchester, whose deceased husband's family founded the Winchester Repeating Arms rifle manufacturer. Construction on the widow's mansion—which has 10,000 windows, 47 stairways and fireplaces, and plenty of “doors to nowhere”—went on continuously from 1886 to 1922, a fact that many attribute to Winchester's efforts to ward off the ghosts of those her husband's rifles killed.
Marin County: Nature's Bounty, from Redwoods to Oysters
From its rolling headlands to the pristine shorelines of Tamales Bay, Marin County makes for a relaxing and easy city escape, whether it's just for a few hours or for an entire day. Just over the Golden Gate, you'll find bayside Sausalito, with its boutique shops and restaurants, and natural wonders such as Muir Woods, home to towering redwoods and a portion of the 9.5-mile Dipsea Trail, a popular hiking trail that winds through groves of redwood and fir trees, and opens onto spectacular views of both the San Francisco skyline and the Pacific Ocean before dipping down into Stinson Beach. Mount Tamalpais State Park offers many more hiking opportunities, as does Point Reyes National Seashore and lesser-known Samuel P. Taylor Park. Marin County's also known for its ample cheesemakers, including Cowgirl Creamery and Marin Cheese Company.
Getting There: Marin is both an easy drive (or bicycle ride) north over the Golden Gate Bridge, and also reachable via Golden Gate Transit.
Travel Tip: One of Marin County's top culinary highlights are its oysters, and there are plenty of places where you can enjoy them. Swing by Nick's Cove Restaurant and Oyster Bar on Tomales Bay for its BBQ'd oysters or the nearby Marshall Store, for raw oysters served waterside. Bring your cooler along to the Tomales Bay Oyster Company, fill it up with bivalve mollusks and then head to a nearby beach like Heart’s Desire State Beach for picnicking.
Lured by the prospect of endless riches, California Gold Country once sparked the largest mass migration in U.S. history. The mid-19th century brought more than 300,000 intrepid souls to this stretch of Sierra Nevada foothills just each of Sacramento, and today many of its Old West architecture and overall mystique remain—albeit with boutique wineries and charming B&Bs spread throughout. Spend an afternoon exploring towns like Nevada City, Sutter Creek, and Murphys, try your hand panning for gold at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, or marvel at the awe-inspiring Giant Sequoias—the most massive tree on the planet—of Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
Getting There: It's a little over two-hours drive from San Francisco to Angels Camp in Gold Country, via I-580 E and CA-88 E. You can also take the Amtrak from Emeryville (accessible via Amtrak bus from SF) to Sacramento and rent a car from there.
Travel Tip: Every May, California's longest-running county fair—the Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee—hosts an annual frog jumping competition inspired by Mark Twain's short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The lauded storyteller's first successful work of fiction stems from a tale Twain overheard one night at a bar in the Angels Camp.