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The 13 best day trips from San Francisco

Get out of town for the day with these easy, affordable day trips from San Francisco to beaches, wineries, spas and more

San Francisco is a great city, and it’s not like there isn’t enough to do here on the weekends. But sometimes you just need to escape for a few hours, and luckily, this lovely city is surrounded by spectacular scenery, beautiful beaches and small towns perfect for day trips. Whether you’re looking to unwind after a long week or want a proper change of scenery, this list will introduce you to new destinations or show you old favorites in a new light. From wine-tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains to vintage-hunting in Sebastopol or feeling the sand between your toes in an old Portuguese fishing town, you’re sure to find a short trip worth taking.

Tiburon and Angel Island
Photograph: Courtesy Angel Island Company
1/13

Tiburon and Angel Island

40 mins by car; 20 mins by ferry

In Tiburon you'll get that small-town vacation vibe less than an hour from the city—and with fewer tourists than in Sausalito. Rent a bike from Demo Sport and either do a segment of the Paradise Drive Loop (download a map from marinbike.org) or let serendipity take you past numerous pretty houses with 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 and reached Angel Island as their first stop. 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 picnic areas 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 spectacular views in the evening light of San Francisco across the bay.

Skyline Boulevard
Photograph: Courtesy Thomas Fogarty Winery
2/13

Skyline Boulevard

1 hr by car

Escape into the cool blue mountains via Skyline Boulevard, which offers nature trails, speactacular 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 to the healthy 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 ageing bronze bell at the entrance to let them know it’s your first time.

Pescadero
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Ray Bouknight
3/13

Pescadero

1 hr by car

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. Or for a longer hike up to a pretty eucalyptus grove, take the Sequoia Audubon Trail past coastal scrub and great blue heron nesting sites. 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 vintage collection, 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. Or 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.

Stinson Beach and Bolinas
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Markus Spiering
4/13

Stinson Beach and Bolinas

1 hr by car

If you want a quiet ocean town vibe with some rugged coastline thrown in, head to Bolinas Bay. Stinson Beach offers three miles of white sand at the edge of the bay, where you'll find windsurfers, rafters and body-boarders negotiating the waves. Right behind the beach’s eastern end, on the Shoreline Highway, a clutch of restaurants and cafes serves a relaxed, local clientele. Sand Dollar Restaurant has a friendly seaside inn vibe, with bartenders chatting up regulars. Further west lies the reclusive artists’ town of Bolinas, where the family-run Coast Cafe serves brunch on weekends. Beginners can book surf lessons at the 2 Mile Surf ShopSmiley’s Schooner Saloon is a locals’ bar with games and live music. For a dip in a freshwater lake, the southern end of the vast Point Reyes National Seashore is just 15 minutes away from downtown Bolinas. A drive up Mesa Road takes you to a trailhead, and a further 2.7-mile hike brings you to Bass Lake, one of the best spots in the area for a swim.

Sebastopol
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/
5/13

Sebastopol

1 hr 10 mins by car

To dive right into Sebastopol's uncontrived vibe, drop in 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 spiritual guidance 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 an ice cream parlor and a corner store specializing in handmade crafts. 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, cataloguing Guerneville’s early days as a logging town. For dinner, make your way back to Sebastopol and to Peter Lowell’s for a farm-to-table menu of seasonal, rustic Italian fare. Wrap up your night 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.

Los Gatos
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Don DeBold
6/13

Los Gatos

1 hr 10 mins by car

With its affluent tone and charming yet eclectic main street, Los Gatos on the weekend sees well-heeled locals having relaxed brunches or shopping at their local Apple Store, all at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains. If Michelin-starred Manresa feels excessive for the day, drop in at ManresaBread instead 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. Thre's even a screen in 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.

Point Reyes
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Brent De Vries
7/13

Point Reyes

1 hr 30 mins by car

With an enormous 71,000 acres of nature preserve on the Pacific Coast, Point Reyes offers a windswept, dramatic backdrop for elephant seals, an 145-year-old lighthouse and old growth Douglas-fir forests. Start your trip at the Bear Valley Visitor Center to orient yourself and pick up trail maps. Make your way to Chimney Rock, where a five minute walk from the parking lot takes you to a cliff's-edge vantage point. Watch a colony of Northern elephant seals on the sandy beaches below, or if you're visiting between January and April, catch the Pacific gray whale migration between Baja California and feeding grounds in Alaska. Take a ranger-led tour to watch Tule elk during rut season (July to september) or visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse to learn about its 6,000-pound Fresnel lens, constructed in France in 1867. 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. A worthwhile place to browse away an afternoon among pine bookshelves under a vintage chandelier.

Gilroy
Photograph: Courtesy Gilroy Welcome Center
8/13

Gilroy

1 hr 30 mins by car

The self-proclaimed garlic capital of the world offers more than just farmsteads and fruit stands. It’s also home to Gilroy Premium Outlets, offering a less intense form of outlet shopping that isn’t next to industrial parks and car dealerships. (Looking at you, Petaluma.) If garlic is your thing, however, the annual Garlic Festival, held the last weekend of July, should keep you happy. With three days of cooking demonstrations, garlic-infused edibles (even ice cream), music and craft shows, the festival will likely satisfy any craving for this powerful allium. Outside of festival time, check out Garlic World, where you can find all manner of garlic products and quirky kitchen gadgets. For some fresh air after all that pungency, head to nearby Henry Coe State Park. This is California’s largest state park and offers some 250 miles of hiking and biking trails through a varied, rugged terrain of lakes and canyons. It can get hot, so fall or spring is the most comfortable time for a visit.

Santa Cruz
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Thomas Hawk
9/13

Santa Cruz

1 hr 30 mins by car

Santa Cruz is justifiably famous for its surf, but there’s more to this town than its packed beachfront boardwalk and glittering amusement park. Get up to Mount Hermon, north of the city, where you can take a 2-hour zipline and ecology tour 150 feet above the ground with Redwood Canopy Tours. After you’ve zipped your way down the mountain, head for some lunch at the Cremer House, set in the erstwhile Grand Central Hotel, built in 1874. 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. Try a tasting flight including lagers, ales and a belgian wit brewed with hibiscus flowers and coriander. In the winter, catch the annual spectacle of some 100,000 monarch butterflies roosting in the eucalyptus trees at Monarch Grove, in Natural Bridges State Beach. This is also a college town with a thriving indie music scene, and one place to try is Moe’s Alley, an intimate venue with a varied program of local bands as well as internationally renowned acts.

Carmel
Photograph: Courtesy the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea
10/13

Carmel

2 hrs by car

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 art that has roots in Carmel, visit the Weston Gallery. In addition to a vintage photography collection (including prints by Carmel’s own Edward Weston and Ansel Adams), the gallery halso as 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 mission 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.

Gold Country
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Kai Schreiber
11/13

Gold Country

2 hrs 30 mins by car

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 cooks candy in copper kettles and cools it on 100-year-old marble-topped tables. On the way back home, stop at Parrotts Ferry Bridge, which offers dramatic views over New Melones Lake and the adjoining hills. Imagine that you can still see the ferries that once plied the lake, carrying passengers between mining towns during the Gold Rush.

Point Lobos
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Ray Bouknight
12/13

Point Lobos

2 hrs 30 mins by car

With miles of hiking trails across cliffs, coves and forests; plus a rich marine habitat of giant kelp forests with sea lions darting through them, Point Lobos offers a great day out for photographers, hikers and scuba divers. Park by Cannery Point and start at the Whaler’s Cabin, a museum on the site of a former whaling station displaying 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 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.

Big Sur
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Steve Dunleavy
13/13

Big Sur

2 hrs 40 mins by car

If you set out for Big Sur early enough, you can have a full day of relaxing, lounging, eating well and having your breath taken away by some of the most majestic landscape the state has to offer. Wind your way down Highway 1, and if it isn’t enough to simply drive over the Bixby Bridge (the backdrop for almost every CGI car commercial), make the obligatory stop for photos. Having sampled the heights of Big Sur, make your way to the ocean. Stop at Pfeiffer Beach to kick at the surf on its sandy shores and admire the imposing arch rock, or take an easy walk to the McWay Falls overlook. Afterward, head to the Post Ranch Inn’s restaurant, Sierra Mar, and enjoy their 3-course prix fixe lunch with a view of the Pacific. For some relaxation, the nearby Ventana Inn, a wooden-lodge-style hotel, welcomes day guests at their spa. For a more in-depth and holistic relaxation experience, there is the Esalen Institute, though the property is famously off limits unless you have a treatment booked, or if you schedule a late-night visit (we're talking 1-3am) to their cliffside hot springs. Before leaving town, don’t miss the Henry Miller Memorial Library. This amazing library and bookstore also has a range of events, like Philip Glass’ Days and Nights Festival in late September. For an early evening cocktail (just one, the roads around here are precariously curvy), stop at Nepenthe for a tipple and one of the best sunse views in the country.

 

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