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Photograph: Courtesy Visit Carmel

The best day trips from San Francisco

From pristine beaches to mountain woodlands, there’s so much to discover on the best day trips from San Francisco

Written by
Radhika Rathinasabapathy
Clara Hogan

With so many things to do in San Francisco—including world-class restaurants, amazing bars and beautiful beaches—it’s easy to stay within the city limits and never leave. That said, every Bay Area local gets a little stir-crazy now and then. Sometimes you just need to get away and a day trip is just the thing. The best day trips from San Francisco offer a little fun, relaxation and the chance to experience something new.

Fortunately, all you have to do is hit the road—or hop on a train, bus or ferry—to explore the many wonders of the region; this means there are plenty of enticing day trips to choose from at any time of the year. From San Francisco’s perch in the Bay, you can easily access completely different worlds in under two and a half hours. Explore the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, a historic lighthouse, an elk preserve, quaint towns, a thrilling coastal drive with incredible views and much more.

Escape the city for a day and you may find your favorite new cafe tucked away on a small street or an amazing bookstore that has just what you want. Hike a trail to gain a new perspective and reconnect with nature, or visit the home base of local purveyors who supply the city’s restaurants and grocery stores. After exploring the immediate region, go a little farther and plan a weekend getaway.

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Best day trips from San Francisco

Big Sur
Photograph: Courtesy See Monterey

1. Big Sur

With winding mountainside roads, sweeping beaches and breathtaking sunsets, is it any wonder the Big Sur is the subject matter of so many songs? (The Thrills and Buckethead, we're looking at you.) Ok, so it's pushing it on the day trip scale from San Fran, but if you head out at the crack of dawn, or thereabouts, the drive will be totally worth it. Plus, the high quality of relaxing and eating that can be done there is sure to send you back singing. Make your way in on Highway 1, lap up the crazy beautiful views, and beeline for the beach—Pfeiffer is the stretch of shoreline where you can see the arched rock that forms a stunning light tunnel at sunrise/set. Then wander up to the vantage point at McWay Falls to admire the tropical island-like vibes, before swanning off for lunch.

Sierra Mar, the restaurant at Post Ranch Inn offers a three-course prix fixe lunch with a view of the Pacific. Or stop in at Nepenthe amid the trees for 'The Famous Ambrosiaburger'—a ground steak sandwich, served on a French roll with housemade ambrosia sauce. After that, you'll likely want to relax a bit before the hefty drive back, so chill out at Ventana Inn, a wooden-lodge-style hotel that welcomes day guests at their spa. Don't forget to stop in at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, where they host a range of events like Philip Glass’s Days and Nights Festival in late September, before heading back up the coast.

Distance from San Francisco: 2 hours 45 mins

Point Reyes and Tomales Bay
Photograph: Courtesy National Park Service

2. Point Reyes and Tomales Bay

With an enormous 71,000 acres of nature preserve on the Pacific Coast, Point Reyes is a dramatic windswept land populated by elephant seals, old-growth Douglas-fir forests and a 145-year-old lighthouse. Start your trip at the Bear Valley Visitor Center to pick up trail maps then make your way to Chimney Rock, where a five-minute walk from the parking lot takes you to a cliff's-edge vantage point. If you're visiting between January and April, keep your eyes peeled for the Pacific gray whale migration which passes just off the coast on the journey between Baja California and feeding grounds in Alaska. At the Tule Elk Preserve, hike or take a ranger-led tour to get a glimpse of these majestic animals (July to September is rutting season), or visit the historic Pierce Point Ranch at the trailhead. If you want a dip in the water, Heart’s Desire Beach in neighboring Tomales Bay has shallower and warmer waters than the open ocean.

Food options abound in nearby Point Reyes Station, a small rustic town at the mouth of the bay. Cowgirl Creamery churns out its award-winning artisanal cheeses on site—in a restored hay barn—and the Cowgirl Cantina has creamy tomato soups, cheddar toasties and the classic organic ham and Mount Tam sandwich. Point Reyes Books deserves a look-in while you’re here. This winsome little independent bookstore has respectable collections on wildlife and the environment, and routinely hosts events involving the local artists’ community. Just up the bay, feast on classic oyster and Dungeness crab delights with a view at Hog Island Oyster Company's farm and the Marshall Store.

Distance from San Francisco: 1 hour 30 mins

Stinson Beach and Bolinas
Photograph: Courtesy Marin Parks

3. Stinson Beach and Bolinas

For friendly, laidback beach vibes, venture north to Stinson Beach and Bolinas. These two points, which bookend Bolinas Bay, boast a rugged coastline, stretches of white sand and water-based activities. Newbie surfers can book lessons at the 2 Mile Surf Shop, while keen swimmers should look out for Bass Lake, a body of freshwater situated a short drive up Mesa Road followed by a near-three-mile hike (trust us, it's worth it).

Reenergize with some fresh seafood or pop into the hillside Coast Cafe for a chunky sandwich at lunch or something more substantial from their dinner menu. And if you're planning to have a swift one before driving back, try out Smiley’s Schooner Saloon, which is popular with the locals and offers games and live music with your drink.

Distance from San Francisco: 1 hour

Skyline Boulevard (Hwy 35) and Woodside
Photograph: Courtesy Thomas Fogarty Winery

4. Skyline Boulevard (Hwy 35) and Woodside

Escape into the cool blue mountains via Skyline Boulevard in Woodside, which offers nature trails, spectacular ocean and valley views and wine-tasting without the traffic. When you reach town, you'll see a wooden cabin in a clearing at the intersection. This is Alice’s Restaurant, the place to stop if you like to have your burgers and BBQ paired with the rumble of Harleys. Popular with bikers and cyclists plying the mountain roads, Alice’s offers breakfast until 2pm, Texas-style BBQ (brisket and pulled pork smoked in-house) and cheesy (both literally and figuratively) motorbike-themed burgers. This is still the Bay Area, though, so the burgers are made with hormone- and antibiotic-free beef patties, and there’s gluten-free beer on the menu.

After lunch, continue southeast on Skyline. Ten minutes away is Thomas Fogarty Winery—it’s a short drive, so don’t miss the few unmarked vista points along the way—where you can catch panoramic views of the ocean across rolling hills. In the winery's tasting room, try a flight of five signature wines or buy a bottle, borrow some glasses and sit out in the romantic wooden gazebo. For a different kind of unwinding, visit the Jikoji Zen Center. Founded by Kobun Chino Otogawa, Steve Jobs’ mentor, the center welcomes visitors to meditate in its zendos or wander its tranquil grounds. From the front gate, it’s a winding dirt track down to the main building, so make sure your suspension’s in place. Ring the aging bronze bell at the entrance to let them know it’s your first time.

Distance from San Francisco: 45 mins

Photograph: Courtesy Sonoma County Tourism

5. Sebastopol

Unlike Healdsburg, Sebastapol is still the authentic, laid-back Sonoma outpost it was a generation ago. Dive right in beginning at Aubergine Vintage Emporium, a hangar-like space where you might pick up anything from a broken-in aviator jacket to a Soviet Army-issued canvas belt. Hidden behind the clothing racks are a cavernous live music venue and a bar with an open patio. If you’re of a spiritual rather than spirits bent, wander up to Many Rivers Books & Tea, a cozy bookshop stacked high with New Age and philosophical tomes and figurines. In the tea shop at the back, pick up a bag of Monk’s Blend, a smooth malty mix of Assam, Darjeeling, Keemun and Nilgiri. For a light lunch, head to The Barlow, a cluster of restored warehouses once home to an apple processing plant. Sit out on the patio at Woodfour Brewing Company and try one of their Belgian farmhouse-style sours, mashed and boiled in the copper-plated tanks right behind the bar. Snack on cheeses from Petaluma, bratwurst, or Miyagi oysters.

Across the street, browse Scandinavian-inspired ceramics at the Passdoor. A small detour to nearby Guerneville would be worth your while if only to check out Guerneville Bank Club, a historic bank building now housing the INIZI wine tasting room, a corner store specializing in handmade crafts, and the Nimble & Finn's ice cream parlor. Grab a cone of Bulleit Bourbon with chocolate-covered pretzels if it’s available. Take in the Russian River Historical Society’s exhibit at the back of the building, cataloging Guerneville’s early days as a logging town. Wrap up your evening with a digestif at the Hopmonk Tavern, a vast space with a red banquette bar, concert venue and a Tuscan-inspired garden strung with lights.

Distance from San Francisco: 1 hour 15 mins

Gold Country (Sierra Nevada Foothills)
Photograph: Courtesy Visit California

6. Gold Country (Sierra Nevada Foothills)

The Gold Rush pretty much jolted San Francisco (along with the rest of California) onto the world map, so a list of day trips would be incomplete without a visit to Gold Country. Much of it is further away than you’d want to travel in a day, but for a quick escape into the past, head to Columbia. This historic town set in the Sierra Nevada foothills features shops and restaurants preserved to evoke the 1850s Gold Rush-era.

Walk into Parrott’s Blacksmith Shop and get yourself a memento forged in their coal oven. For lunch, hit up Columbia Kate’s Teahouse. Sit in a tiny red 1880s-style barn and enjoy rustic fare like chicken pot pie made from scratch or spinach and ricotta quiche. For a taste of old-style candy-making, visit Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen, which still makes their confections in copper kettles and cools them on 100-year-old marble-topped tables. On the way back home, stop at Parrotts Ferry Bridge, under which ferries once carried passengers between mining towns, which offers dramatic views over New Melones Lake and the adjoining hills. 

Distance from San Francisco: 2 hours 30 mins

Santa Cruz
Photograph: Courtesy Visit California

7. Santa Cruz

Beyond the surf and boardwalk amusement park rides that Santa Cruz is best known for are mountain ranges, treetop walks, butterflies and indie bands. The adventurous should beeline for Mount Hermon, where you'll find all sorts of activities ranging from an ecology tour in the trees to a two-hour zipline, railroad riding and Bigfoot hunting. Those who prefer to remain on terra firma (and are visiting during the colder months) should try and catch the impressive butterflies residing in the eucalyptus trees at Monarch Grove, in Natural Bridges State Beach.

Music lovers will be satisfied with a night at Moe's Alley, where they regularly host local and international bands. Foodies and craft beer aficionados can treat themselves to a slap-up meal and drink at Cremer House, the restaurant in the 19th-century Grand Central Hotel. The menu has upscale pub food (think reuben pastrami, yam chips, or tuna melt with aged cheddar on griddled challah) and there are 25 craft beers on tap.

Distance from San Francisco: 1 hour 30 mins

Pescadero and Half Moon Bay
Photograph: Courtesy Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay

8. Pescadero and Half Moon Bay

Pescadero boasts stunning bluffs and sandy beaches next to a small country town with a laid-back main street. Start your day by exploring the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve, a 243-acre wetland habitat popular with hikers and bird watchers. For a short, relaxed stroll, take the Butano Trail up to a picturesque iron bridge over the creek. More intrepid hikers will enjoy the Sequoia Audubon Trail, which winds past coastal scrub and Great Blue Heron nesting sites up to a pretty eucalyptus grove. After your workout, head to Arcangeli Grocery in Norm’s Market, where you can get made-to-order grilled sandwiches from the deli in the back. For dessert, amble down the street to the James Beard-anointed America’s Classic Duarte’s Tavern for a slice of their olallieberry pie. Afterward, head to Downtown Local for a cup of Sightglass coffee and browse their eclectic collection of vintage items, including two café racer motorbikes (look out for the 1949 Nimbus in the window).

End your day at Pescadero State Beach: Park at the northernmost parking lot if you want long sandy beaches, or at the southernmost lot if you’d like to clamber over rocky outcrops, inspect tide pools and watch the surf from the top of a sandstone bluff. As sunset approaches, join the locals in camping chairs and blankets on the sand. If you’re in the mood for a little pampering, head up the coast to Navio at the Ritz-Carlton, score yourself a window table, and watch the sun set beyond the ocean over a glass of pinot noir.

Distance from San Francisco: 1 hour


9. Point Lobos

With miles of hiking trails across cliffs, coves and forests, plus a rich marine habitat of giant kelp forests and darting sea lions, Point Lobos offers a great day out for photographers, hikers and scuba divers. Park by Cannery Point and start at the Whaler’s Cabin (temporarily closed), a museum on the site of a former whaling station displaying the personal effects and diaries belonging to the Chinese, Portuguese and Japanese whalers who once lived here. You'll also see harpoons and learn the grisly process of harvesting blubber. Parts of humpback and gray whale skeletons lie somewhat gruesomely scattered outside.

If you’re oceanically-inclined, the neighboring Whaler’s Cove is the place to scuba dive, kayak or do some stand-up paddle boarding. Otherwise, find your way to Sea Lion Cove, where California sea lions and their pups can be spotted during the springtime pupping season, packing the beach nose to tail. A walk along the Sea Lion Point Trail will show you some of the best views of the reserve, with its characteristic lashing waves and craggy outcrops. Stop at Piney Woods for a picnic lunch with a view. Before you head home, make your way to the famed tide pools on what is now called Weston Beach. Large sandstone slabs jut out of the ground, creating an awesome display of colors and patterns, all composed of sand that settled in underwater beds millions of years ago.

Distance from San Francisco: 2 hours 30 mins

Photograph: Courtesy Visit Carmel

10. Carmel

Carmel’s Ocean Avenue and its environs are a great place to feel the European village vibe the town is famous for. A worthwhile stop is the elegant Harrison Memorial Library, which occupies a building designed by Bernard Maybeck (École des Beaux-Arts alumnus and architect of San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts). The reading room captures the charm of the quintessential small-town library, with heavy tables flanked by tall windows. Outside, the flagstone courtyard is a pleasant place to sit back and people-watch. For a cultural stop, and to sample works rooted in this historic artist's colony, visit the Weston Gallery. In addition to a vintage photography collection (including prints by Carmel’s own Edward Weston and Ansel Adams), the gallery also has regular exhibitions of contemporary work.

When hunger strikes, drop into Casanova, a charming French restaurant with a trellised outdoor patio. The eponymous Ocean Avenue leads directly to the ocean, and Carmel Beach is a lovely spot to kick back with locals on the fine white sand. Dog walkers and couples stop by in the afternoon to enjoy the view from the sheltered cove. History buffs will appreciate a trip to Carmel Mission, the second founded in Alta California. On the grounds is a shrine to Junípero Serra, a member of the Portolà expedition which brought the first European settlers to the Bay Area.

Distance from San Francisco: 2 hours 15 mins

Los Gatos
Photograph: Courtesy Los Gatos

11. Los Gatos

With its affluent tone and charming yet eclectic main street, Los Gatos weekends sees well-heeled locals having relaxed brunches or cruising boutique shops, all at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains. If Michelin-starred Manresa feels excessive for the day, drop in at Manresa Bread and take home a loaf of their signature sourdough levain. For lunch or an early dinner, stop in at Oak & Rye, a popular bistro with a wood-fired oven and a rye- and bourbon-laced cocktail list (best with the bistro's pretzel bread, made from 2-year yeast grown in-house). Pull in to the Powell Sweet Shoppe for some old-school candy store nostalgia. Their selection is vast, with beer-flavored jelly beans, bacon candy stripes, an ice cream counter and a cotton candy machine. There's even a screen in the back showing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in front of a row of old movie theater seats.

Bay Area history buffs shouldn’t miss a trip to Quicksilver Country nearby: Mercury was being mined in New Almaden before the Gold Rush, and the New Almaden mines were the most valuable in the state, attracting Cornish, Chinese and Mexican settlers. The New Almaden Mining Museum is housed in the Casa Grande, built in 1854 as the official residence of mining supervisors. If you’re feeling energetic, hike up to English Camp in the County Park next door for an aerial view of the remaining mine buildings.

Distance from San Francisco: 1 hour

Photograph: Courtesy Visit Berkeley

12. Berkeley

Almost everyone has heard of Berkeley, even if they've never actually been there. This legendary university town is set in an incredibly beautiful location, perched on a hilltop with views of the bay looking west. To the east, there are lush green parks, redwood trees and eventually reservoirs. The campus itself is made up of tasteful, contemporary architecture incorporating the iconic Sather Tower. More commonly known as 'The Campanile' for its resemblance to the Campanile di San Marco in Venice, it stands 307ft tall, features clocks on its four faces and affords amazing views of San Francisco Bay from its observation platform.

This university, arguably more than any other, has featured prominently in recent American history. Berkeley, with its Bohemian counterculture, gained a worldwide reputation for political activism in the 1960s with the Free Speech Movement, student protests and rallies against the Vietnam War. Once you've soaked up some important history, take a wander around and explore the bookstores, quirky shops and casual eateries that serve all kinds of ethnic cuisine and quick bites.

Distance from San Francisco: 30-minute drive

Tiburon and Angel Island
Photograph: Courtesy Angel Island Company

13. Tiburon and Angel Island

In Tiburon, you'll get that small-town vacation vibe less than an hour away from the city—and with fewer tourists than in Sausalito. Rent a bike from Demo Sport and ride a segment of the Paradise Drive Loop (download a map from or let serendipity take you past the town's pretty houses and impressive bay views. Hop on to the Angel Island-Tiburon Ferry and visit the museum at the Angel Island Immigration Station, which documents the experiences of the many immigrants who crossed the Pacific Ocean stopping first at the "Ellis Island of the West." Look out for poetry scrawled on the walls when the station was used as a detention center.

For lunch, we recommend a picnic at one of the many scenic spots scattered around the island. When you head back to Tiburon, make a stop at Luna Blu, a waterfront Italian restaurant that serves English afternoon tea. Indulge in scones with Devonshire clotted cream and mixed berry jam, together with traditional English cucumber sandwiches. Before you head home, take a leisurely stroll through Shoreline Park for a glimpse of the San Francisco lighting up the evening across the bay.

Distance from San Francisco: 40 mins by car, 20 mins by ferry

Photograph: Courtesy Visit Gilroy

14. Gilroy

Unlike the frenzied outlet shopping malls typically plonked near industrial parks and parking garages, Gilroy offers outlet bargains in more quaint surrounds. It's also famed for its farmstands and markets, where you can pick up all manner of fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, juices and preserves—not to mention the famed Gilroy garlic. Pop over to Garlic World on Monterey Road to immerse yourselves in all things vampire-repelling—from seasonings to dips to garlic-flavored almonds.

After all that garlic action, you might want to air it out before heading home. The rambling woodland of Henry Coe State Park is a good place to do this; covering 250 miles of land, it's the largest in California.

Distance from San Francisco: 1 hour 30 mins

Yosemite National Park
Photograph: Courtesy National Park Service

15. Yosemite National Park

The Sierra Nevada Mountains are truly a wonder of nature. This geological wonder runs 400 miles in length and ranges from 50 to 80 miles wide. It started to uplift about five million years ago as a result of the Oceanic tectonic plate slowly slipping under the North American tectonic plate. However, Mother Nature wasn't finished and during the last Ice Age, which ended only approximately 11,000 years ago, retreating glaciers carved out giant, granite monoliths with sheer rock walls that surround the seven-mile-long Yosemite Valley.

There are 750 miles of nature trails in six different areas and the UNESCO-listed, 1,200-square-mile Yosemite National Park contains 1,000ft waterfalls, crystal-blue lakes, flower-covered meadows and sequoia forests with sky-scraping trees that are hundreds of years old. As such, this makes for one of the most spectacular sites for outdoor activities, including camping, rock climbing and hiking.

Distance from San Francisco: 3 hours and 15 minutes 

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