There’s so much more to San Francisco than cable cars and Lombard Street; and if you’re willing to venture a few miles outside of the city, there are many ways to see all of what Northern California has to offer.
I’ve been living in California’s Bay Area for over a decade, and since then, have explored much of what this area has to offer. This post is more than just a list of the best Bay Area cities—it’s a collection of experiences and must-sees for locals and visitors alike.
Table of Contents
Places to Visit in San Francisco & The Peninsula
1. Golden Gate Park
San Francisco’s largest park stretches over 1,000 acres and includes several museums, a Japanese garden, and a golf course! It’s also home to Outside Lands, a music festival that takes place in the city each summer.
Don’t Miss: Kennedy Drive on Sunday’s, when the park blocks off all vehicle traffic and the road is filled with bikes and rollerblades all afternoon.
The Chinatown in San Francisco is the largest and oldest of its kind in the U.S. Be sure to enter from Bush Street, where you can snap a photo of the famous Dragon Gate.
Don’t Miss: The acclaimed egg tarts at Golden Gate Bakery. The owners are known for opening and closing the shop at their leisure, so be sure to check out this site before making the trip out there.
3. Lands End
Head west and you’ll find a rugged shore and beautiful views. There’s an easy hiking trail, a wave organ, and plenty of sea caves to explore. You’ll want to bring a jacket, as it gets windy.
Don’t Miss: The stone labyrinth, with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
4. Pier 39 & Fisherman’s Wharf
The northeastern edge of the city is home to plenty of famous, Bay Area attractions—The Exploratorium, Ghirardelli Square, and Musée Mécanique, among others. Be sure to fill up on plenty of clam chowder!
Don’t Miss: Candy Baron, at the end of Pier 39. It’s a vintage candy shop with an endless variety of salt water taffy to choose from!
Alcatraz is one of the most famous prisons in the world. While it no longer acts as a correctional facility, several tours are held each day on the island to educate visitors on its history.
Don’t Miss: The night time tours. They’re also the most popular, so be sure to book in advance.
6. Twin Peaks
At nearly 1,000 feet, this hilltop serves up some of the best views of the city. It’s a winding road up to the top and notoriously chilly (even by SF standards), so be sure to dress warmly.
Don’t Miss: The views at sunset, obviously. 😉
7. Treasure Island
Treasure Island is an artificial island that was built back in the 1930’s in preparation for the Golden Gate International Exposition. Today, visitors enjoy wine tasting, or visiting events like the Flea Market and the Treasure Island Music Festival.
Don’t Miss: Tammy’s Chicken in Waffles stand. She also rents beach cruisers for exploring the island.
8. Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay is settled right on the western coast of San Mateo County, but feels much further due to its isolated location. That’s one of many reasons why couples, families, and companies choose to come here for weekend getaways and retreats. Visit the historic town center, or spend some time hiking through the redwoods.
Don’t Miss: The Ocean Course, a golf course right on the edge of the water!
Places to Visit in East Bay
9. Lake Merritt
While not all of Oakland is necessarily scenic, Lake Merritt is one of the few places where locals and visitors can be found laying around on a sunny Saturday, enjoying the nice weather. It’s a great place to take a stroll or go for a run. Don’t forget to check the Off the Grid schedule to score some food truck fare for dinner.
Don’t Miss: Children’s Fairyland, a small theme park located just north of the lake that’s great for families.
10. Grizzly Peak (Fish Ranch)
Located just behind UC Berkeley, you can see in every direction over the Bay from the top. Just be careful driving up—the roads are narrow, steep, and twisting. It’s one of my favorite things to do in East Bay.
Don’t Miss: The graffiti logs, if you’re looking for a place to rest your feet.
11. Mission Peak
This hike is located just east of Fremont and takes about two hours to complete. While the ascent is tough at times, it’s worth it—if you’re looking for views, this is one of the best places to visit in the Bay Area!
Don’t Miss: The stake at the very top, which hikers line up to take a photo with.
12. Livermore Wineries
With over 60 vineyards to explore, Livermore serves as the perfect off-beat alternative to the crowded wineries up in Napa.
Dont Miss: Wente Vineyards on a nice day.
Berkeley is a quirky Bay Area city steeped in history. Check out the shops along Telegraph, or take a self-guided tour through the UC Berkeley campus.
Don’t Miss: Wat Mongkolratanaram‘s Sunday brunch. This Thai temple serves up delicious dishes like khanom krok and beef noodle soup, all to be enjoyed in their back patio.
14. Mt. Diablo
This 3,000+ foot peak soars over the East Bay and is filled with hikers, bikers, and campers all throughout the summer. You can get a sneak peek of the summit hike experience here.
Don’t Miss: The Visitor’s Center at the top—you’ll be able to stand on the actual “summit” of the mountain up here.
Places to Visit in South Bay
15. Santana Row
While there’s plenty to keep you busy in and around San Jose, most of the action takes place in Santana Row. Whether you’re eating, shopping, or looking for a night out, this area has so much to offer.
Don’t Miss: The Counter, a build-your-own burger restaurant with the absolute best fries.
16. Palo Alto
Home to the world-renowned Stanford University, Palo Alto is a perfect town to spend an afternoon in. Check out the campus, then take a stroll through downtown.
Don’t Miss: Evvia, for an upscale Greek dining experience. Order the galaktoboureko for dessert.
Saratoga exudes small-town vibes, even though it sits square in the middle of the Silicon Valley hustle. Outdoors enthusiasts will find numerous opportunities to reconnect with nature. It’s one of the more low-key places to visit in San Jose and the surrounding area.
Don’t Miss: Sanborn Park, where you can get a taste of the famous redwood trees.
18. Santa Clara
You’ll find lots to do here: a rose garden, a technology museum, and even an entire theme park—Great America.
Don’t Miss: The Winchester Mystery House, where the original owners renovated the house with strange features (like a stairway leading to nowhere) to confuse ghosts.
19. Santa Cruz
Head further south and you’ll find Santa Cruz, a small beach town with a slow pace of life. Take your time exploring downtown, or make your way towards the famous boardwalk—and spend the afternoon eating corndogs and riding roller coasters. It’s one of the best Bay Area day trips out there!
Don’t Miss: The Mystery Spot, for an out-of-this-world experience.
Capitola is Santa Cruz’s little sister, the one with less crowds and a more serene beach to frolic around in the summer. It’s also a perfect place for photos, with a unique row of colored houses sitting right on the water.
Don’t Miss: Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, the town’s best brewery, with a great selection of sours.
While not everyone may agree that Gilroy serves as a part of the Bay Area, it’s still worth a visit! As the world’s garlic capital, there are all sorts of weird, garlic-themed inventions to discover (garlic ice cream and garlic wine, to name a few). And don’t forget the annual Garlic Festival.
Don’t Miss: The produce stands located all around the highway. Some sell as many as 7 or 8 avocados for a dollar!
Places to Visit in North Bay
No North Bay list would be complete without mentioning the world-famous Napa Valley, which regularly competes with France, Spain, and Italy for top winery spots. There are numerous vineyards to choose from and tons of ways to explore (like a wine train).
Don’t Miss: The gondola at Sterling Vineyards, for stellar views of the area.
Thirsty for more? Calistoga, another small town located in Napa Valley, is most famous for its local Castello di Amorosa winery, which literally sits in a castle.
Don’t Miss: The take-home bottles from Castello—their usual corks are replaced with a faux wine drip.
The third and final Napa city on our North Bay list, Yountville is known for one thing, and one thing alone: The French Laundry, a three-starred Michelin restaurant famously coined by Anthony Bourdain as “the best restaurant in the world”. It’s a must-have dining experience for foodies, if you can manage to snag reservations.
Don’t Miss: A hot air balloon ride over the valley.
San Francisco locals love Sausalito for a quick-but-effective escape from the city, featuring a walkable downtown, an interactive museum, and an alternative view of the famous Golden Gate Bridge. It’s one of the best Northern California coastal towns.
Don’t Miss: The 30-minute ferry journey that sails from the San Francisco Ferry Building to Sausalito’s port.
Looking for a more laid-back wine country experience? Sonoma is your best bet. Located just west of Napa, you’ll find a similar atmosphere with less of the snobbery and crowds.
Don’t Miss: The TrainTown Railroad, especially if you have kids.
27. Santa Rosa
Located in Sonoma County, this area is perfect for anyone looking for a relaxing weekend getaway. Get the classic North Bay experience with sprawling wineries, peaceful hikes, and quaint museums—it’s definitely one of the more easygoing places to visit in the Bay Area.
Don’t Miss: The Charles M. Schulz Museum, which celebrates Santa Rosa’s most famous local.
28. Point Reyes
This National Park spans over 70,000 acres and boasts more than 1,500 species of plants and wildlife. Whether you’re looking to take a day trip hike or an overnight camping adventure, be sure not to miss this gem.
Don’t Miss: The famous lighthouse overlooking the water.
29. Muir Woods
While you can find redwoods in pockets all over the Bay Area, Muir Woods might just be the best place to see them. Head north to this acclaimed National Park for an outdoor adventure you won’t forget.
Don’t Miss: The 15-minute tree talk tours!
30. Stinson Beach
Looking to have a beach day with family or friends? This famous stretch of shore in Marin County has you covered. Come for volleyball, surfing, swimming, or just hang out by the water and have a picnic.
Don’t Miss: The cabin-camping experience at Steep Ravine.
Home to a variety of museums, galleries, and parks, this tiny Sonoma town has much to offer visitors.
Don’t Miss: The Annual Petaluma Salute, a nod to fans of classic cars and American Graffiti.
Have you been to any of these places? What’s left on your Bay Area bucket list? Comment below!
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