First in a series of articles exploring opportunities for day trips near popular destinations.
Within two hours of San Francisco, day-tripping visitors can find expansive views of the cold Pacific, thousands of acres of vineyards, a vast array of native wildlife, and restaurants that rival those found in any city.
It’s easy to turn a San Francisco vacation into a regional adventure without unduly inflating trip expenses. Here’s how to make the most of five greater Bay Area day trips.
Time: 15 to 30 minutes by car; 25 minutes by ferry from the Ferry Building in San Francisco
A popular stop on the ferry, Sausalito is tucked into a cove in the North Bay, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. Art galleries, upscale shops, and waterfront restaurants line the main street, and San Francisco city views give visitors the chance to appreciate the skyline from a distance. With a car, it’s easy to explore nearby family-friendly options such as the Bay Area Discovery Museum for children, and the Bay Model, a miniaturized version of the Bay complete with tides and currents. From Sausalito, it’s a short drive to Muir Woods, Mount Tamalpais, and other Marin County hiking destinations.
On the ferry, there are discounted fares for children and seniors. And on weekends and holidays, children under 12 travel free when accompanied by full-fare adults. From San Francisco, day-trippers can avoid the steep parking fees at the Ferry Building by taking the BART train to Embarcadero station and then walking towards the water, or by hopping on a historic F Line MUNI streetcar that travels down Market Street and along the Embarcadero.
Those who come by car should know that parking in Sausalito can be limited, and that parking meters are enforced 365 days a year. In addition to street parking, there are five city lots that charge hourly rates. Note that coming back into San Francisco the toll on the Golden Gate Bridge is $5. Those who want to bike one-way and ferry back can rent bikes from one of many rental companies.
Time: 15 to 30 minutes by car; 25 minutes by BART train to Downtown Berkeley station
Berkeley’s two enduring legacies are countercultural and culinary. It’s still easy to find tie-dye and political bumper stickers for sale at stands along Telegraph Avenue, and the Free Speech Movement cafe on the UC Berkeley campus is a good stop for coffee and a pictorial primer on the past.
Alongside free speech rose chefs who believed in celebrating fresh food. That idea has evolved into today’s mania for seasonal ingredients and innovation that’s apparent at restaurants throughout the city. And the exceptional dining isn’t constrained by borders: neighboring Oakland has its share of notable restaurants as well. Citysearch lists many of the restaurants in the area, and a local’s opinion can help with a final dining decision.
Since the school year sees an influx of 32,000 students, summers are a quieter time to explore Berkeley. Parking is easier, and bars and restaurants are less crowded. The Downtown Berkeley BART station is within walking distance of Gourmet Ghetto (home to Chez Panisse and a host of other restaurants and food shops), the UC Berkeley campus, Telegraph Avenue, and downtown. Visitors who want to explore more of the city’s smaller neighborhoods should consider driving.
Time: 40 to 50 minutes by car
Coastside is a series of coastal communities south of San Francisco. The small, welcoming towns along Highway 1 are separated by beaches where it’s easy to spot the intrepid surfers and avid tide pool explorers who frequent the area. Coastside is a good spot for whale watching, and elephant seals take up residence at nearby Ano Nuevo, where it’s possible to watch the giant mammals from a safe distance. Just inland, visitors will find wineries, pick-your own produce farms, and beautiful hiking.
Though Coastside is close enough to be an easy day trip from San Francisco, those who stay overnight will find a remarkable variety of accommodations. In addition to many B&Bs and inns, there is Costanoa, a resort with options in every price range, from luxury lodge rooms to heated tent cabins, and even tent sites with buffet breakfast included in the rate. And guests stay in the shadow of a lighthouse at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse and Point Montara Lighthouse hostels. Some lodgings charge lower rates from November to March, and many offer discounts for weeknight stays.
Napa and Sonoma
Time: 1 hour to the southern end of the valley by car
Wine countries may be a dime a dozen these days, but the Napa and Sonoma valleys have been viticulture superstars for more than a century. The two neighboring valleys both produce well-known wines and draw visitors from all over the world, but each offers its own unique approach to the good life.
Sleek wineries, impressive art collections, and a finely tuned tourist infrastructure characterize the Napa Valley. It is home to some of the country’s best restaurants, stately manors and villas, and almost 400 wineries. At the north end of the valley in Calistoga, spas and hot spring pools are plentiful along the main street.
In contrast, Sonoma to the west feels a little more down-home. In addition to its 260 wineries, Sonoma County has farms, historical adobes, and a mission. The Russian River is a popular summertime destination, and at its western edge Sonoma is bordered by the Pacific. Along the coast, visitors can find towns like Bodega Bay, where boats sail past ocean-view restaurants with the fresh catch of the day and salt water taffy is pulled in candy store windows. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” will also recognize some locations from that film in and around Bodega Bay.
The Napa and Sonoma Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau websites have extensive lists of discounts and special offers at wineries, hotels, spas, and other attractions. The free Wine Country This Week magazine is full of coupons, activity ideas, and wine-related articles. Online, it’s easy to check which Napa and Sonoma wineries offer complimentary tastings, and which charge a fee. And those who find winery prices too steep may be interested in a few of the 90 Napa and Sonoma wines for sale under $25 a bottle at the Wine Garage in Calistoga.
Time: 1 hour by car to Point Reyes Station
Point Reyes National Seashore is a local favorite, and offers countless reasons to visit throughout the year. Extending 10 miles into the Pacific, it’s a good place to get the sense of standing at the edge of a continent. Broad biological diversity means that there are chances throughout the year to see any number of the area’s almost 50 species, including elk and gray whales. Visitors can see the Pacific at its wildest at the ocean-facing beaches, or head to the calmer, shallower Tomales Bay for wading, swimming, or kayaking.
Point Reyes Station has a grocery store and bakery, as well as a variety of reasonably priced restaurants. In Inverness, the grocery store sells good, cheap sandwiches to those on their way to the beaches and bluffs.
Get the most out of a visit by stopping at the Bear Valley Visitor Center, where knowledgeable rangers offer suggestions, and visitors can wander through exhibits about the area’s history and wildlife. And though combining visits to both would be a lot to do in a single day trip, it’s worth noting that Point Reyes is less than an hour from Sonoma.
More so than many metropolitan areas in the U.S., the San Francisco Bay Area is as much about what surrounds San Francisco as the city itself. Venturing beyond the city limits offers visitors the chance to turn a single vacation into two or three trips without adding airfare costs. With so much to see and do within two hours, day trips are an ideal way to sample local flavor during a San Francisco vacation.