Wondering what are the best day trips from San Francisco? San Francisco is one of America’s most beautiful, beloved and visited cities. Despite its compact size, 7 x 7 miles, it packs a big punch when it comes to iconic sites, many of which are known the world over. This includes Haight-Ashbury, hotbed of the 60’s counter-culture revolution; the Golden Gate Bridge, an enduring symbol of the city and one of the most famous bridges on the planet; and historic North Beach, the preferred haunt of Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who immortalized this traditional Italian neighbourhood in their writings.
Sightseeing in San Francisco can take up much of your trip to the Bay Area. There’s Golden Gate Park and its more than 1,000 acres filled with lakes, meadows, gardens, groves and bison paddock (yes, there are real-life buffalo in the park); Chinatown, one of the oldest and most established in the United States, with its labyrinth of mystical lanes; the Exploratorium, a museum of science, technology and the arts; and the Presidio, a former military post that is now a 1,500-acre park comprised of forests, trails, a golf course, views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Lucasfilm. And don’t forget Alcatraz Island, which can make for an entire day trip from San Francisco.
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Day trips from San Francisco
Due to its aforementioned size, San Francisco can be a bit overwhelming, as the City by the Bay is not only crammed with buildings but densely populated and overflowing with visitors year-round. Fortunately, there are a number of nearby day trips from San Francisco to ease the congestion and stress of trying to see all the city has to offer, such as the Napa Valley, one of the world’s most acclaimed wine regions; celebrated Sausalito, a quaint yet upscale getaway just across the Golden Gate Bridge; and the Marin Headlands, a bucolic wonderland across the San Francisco Bay that seems miles away from the city scene.
Looking for the perfect day trip from San Francisco? Sausalito is only a 15-minute drive from San Francisco, or 1-hour ferry ride, but feels like you travelled 50 years back in time and to another country. This walkable, Mediterranean-looking village is lined with restaurants, outdoor cafes, ice-cream parlours, art galleries and trendy boutiques housed in historic Victorian buildings. Here you will find locals and visitors alike strolling Sausalito’s picturesque streets sipping a cappuccino or eating artisanal ice cream.
Don’t let Sausalito’s humble size fool you, though, as there are a plethora of things to do here. You can start your day trip from San Francisco at Sausalito’s SF Bay Model Visitor Center, home of an enormous 1.5-acre working model of the whole San Francisco Bay, which might also inspire more day trips from San Francisco. The SF Bay Model is located in the same building as the Marinship Shipyards Museum, and up the street from more than 500 iconic Marin County houseboats in five floating home marinas.
If you are an art-lover you will want to visit one or more of Sausalito’s numerous art galleries and/or working studios. If travelling with children then check out the Bay Area Discovery Museum, a “space for imaginations to run wild” where each exhibit brings creative thinking to life for all stages of childhood. But if you just want to relax and escape the hectic city life across the water, take a seat along the Sausalito boardwalk and marvel at the majestic, sweeping views of San Francisco and its namesake bay.
The rural Marin Headlands are located just a few minutes from Sausalito. In fact, Sausalito is sheltered by the Marin Headlands. One of the first stops you should make if visiting the headlands is Golden Gate Bridge and Vista Point. From Vista Point you will be so close to Golden Gate Bridge you’ll feel like you can reach out and touch it. As its name implies, Vista Point allows for views of not only San Francisco but sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay, from its mouth to Alcatraz to Oakland and beyond.
The Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, also has a plethora of secluded beaches along five-mile Conzelman Road hidden in a string of alluring coves, of which you will have to hike to but it’s well worth the effort. The hilly Headlands actually possesses miles of trails where you can experience its biological diversity and wildlife, including deer, rabbits, coyotes and bobcats. Other Marin Headlands must-sees include Bird Island, located off Rodeo Beach, one of the biggest roosting sites in Northern California for the endangered brown pelican; historic Point Bonita Lighthouse, built in 1855; and Fort Cronkhite, home of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, Marine Mammal Center and Headlands Center for the Arts.
Have you ever wondered what life is like at a prestigious American university? If so, head east across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley for a truly collegiate day trip from San Francisco. The University of California, Berkeley, the oldest campus in the University of California system, is the birthplace of the 1960s Free Speech Movement. Today, free speech is still sacrosanct here, as attested to by the Free Speech Monument in the campus’ Sproul Plaza, a paving stone that reads, “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.”
In addition to Sproul Plaza, a major centre of student activity at the university is Berkeley’s Campanile (clock tower), the third-tallest bell and clock-tower in the world. In fact, on a clear day, you can see the Campanile from the city of San Francisco from certain vantage points, and from the top of the tower a commanding view of the Bay Area. The University of California, Berkeley is also home to the Greek Theatre. The 8,500-seat amphitheatre hosts concerts and addresses by noted speakers, which in the past has included President Theodore Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama.
But Berkeley isn’t just about the university. The city of Berkeley also has a lot to see. Take a hike up Grizzly Peak for more majestic views of the Bay, or a leisurely stroll down historic and iconic Telegraph Avenue, revered as “the place where the counterculture came to Berkeley.” Telegraph is lined with hip bookstores, record stores, cafes, restaurants and clubs. Punk rock aficionados, or music lovers of all kinds, won’t want to miss 924 Gilman Street. This Berkeley punk rock institution, a non-profit, all-ages, collectively organized music club, launched the careers of such punk rock luminaries and Bay Area locals as Green Day, Rancid and Operation Ivy, and is still going strong.
California’s Great America
If you’re travelling with kids, California’s Great America, Northern California’s premier amusement park, is the perfect place for a day of family fun. It is located in Santa Clara, just 45 miles south of San Francisco.
California’s Great America features thrill rides and live entertainment. If you plan on visiting in the summer of 2020 you will be on time for the debut of the park’s South Bay Shores Waterpark, which will have seven brand-new water attractions, cabanas and a sandy beach play area.
If roller coasters are more your speed, California’s Great America is home to the double-corkscrew Demon, visitor-favourite Flight Deck, the modern wooden roller coaster Gold Striker and Patriot, the park’s first floorless roller coaster. California’s Great America also has a plethora of fun rides geared for families and kids.
Half Moon Bay
The small beachside hamlet of Half Moon Bay is a mere 30 miles south of San Francisco. It is one of the most beautiful beach towns in Northern California and a popular day trip from San Francisco.
Half Moon Bay is home to world-famous Mavericks, a big wave surfing Mecca. If you’re here at the right time of year you can catch some of the best big-wave surfers on Earth tackling some of the planet’s tallest rideable waves, or brave the big surf yourself if you have what it takes to ride giants.
Other Half Moon Bay attractions include the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and its tide pools that are teeming with sea life and Pillar Point Harbor, one of California’s last working fishing harbours, a place where you can buy just-caught seafood right from the fishermen. Furthermore, this being a fishing town, Half Moon Bay is swimming with fine seafood restaurants, which serve some of the freshest fish found anywhere.
For the ultimate day trip from San Francisco head north to Napa Valley, one of the world’s most famous wine regions. The options for wine tasting, wine tours and Michelin star restaurants are endless. In fact, the Napa Valley is home to literally hundreds of hillside vineyards and wineries and gourmet restaurants, and one of the best ways to see and do it all is on the Napa Valley Wine Train, a vintage locomotive and travelling restaurant running through the Napa Valley. The Wine Train takes you on a 36-mile round-trip adventure that stops at some of the region’s most respected wineries along the way.
In addition to wine and wineries, Napa Valley has some of the quaintest, prettiest small towns in California, including the following:
The town of Napa, naturally, is the gateway to Napa Valley wine country, and a great place to start. Napa’s charming downtown is renowned for its late-1800s and early-1900s architecture. In addition to top-rated wineries and restaurants, Napa is home to the Oxbow Public Market, a 40,000-square-foot marketplace featuring a diverse mix of local food vendors, artisan cafes and an organic produce outlet, and the Napa Art Walk, a biennial rotating exhibition of public installation art. Here you can also fly above the Napa Valley via Napa Valley Balloons, which has been voted TripAdvisor’s No. 1 hot air balloon ride in Napa.
Yountville, widely considered the heart of the Napa Valley, is well-known for its award-winning tasting rooms and Michelin-starred restaurants. In fact, it is a gourmet paradise. Here you will also find the Napa Valley Museum and Lincoln Theater, as well as abundant natural beauty, as Yountville is nestled among vineyards between the Mayacamas Mountains and the Napa River.
If Yountville is the heart of Napa Valley, St. Helena is its Main Street. People come from all over the world to sample all of what St. Helena has to offer, such as Napa Valley’s most famous wines, delectable dining and its famous farmer’s market. St. Helena is also home to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and Napa Valley Opera House and hosts the annual Napa Valley Film Festival. If you’re travelling with kids they can have fun on four wheels at the 18,000-square-foot St. Helena Skateboard Park, which is open seven days a week from 8:00 a.m. till dusk.
Located at the top of the Napa Valley, Calistoga is not only known for its fine wine and dining but its relaxing natural hot springs, mud baths, boutique clothing stores, gift shops and art galleries. This is the place to unwind at the end of your San Francisco day trip, whether it be in the rejuvenating hot springs, with a soothing mud bath or a therapeutic massage or body treatment. And no trip to Calistoga is complete without a visit to the Old Faithful Geyser of California. This Calistoga favourite faithfully erupts every 15 to 30 minutes.