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The San Francisco Bay Area is home to a multitude of sights and attractions – the most difficult part is deciding what to fit in during a limited period of time, as it would truly take a lifetime to see and do it all. Not only does it include the Golden Gate City and Silicon Valley, but it’s also home to dramatic stretches of sand, some of the world’s finest wine country, redwoods, amusement parks and much more. So, where to begin? These places offer some of the best experiences for any vacation to the San Francisco Bay Area.
If you want amazing views of the Bay Area, it’s hard to beat Berkeley’s Grizzly Peak in Tilden Regional Park. Spend the day in the park exploring the botanic garden, visiting the farm and environmental educational center, swimming in the lake or taking a ride on the steam train. Then, after dark, you can head to Grizzly Peak and be mesmerized by the dazzling city lights that seem to stretch forever. If you’re a fine food enthusiast, you may want to plan ahead by making a reservation to dine at Chez Panisse in downtown Berkeley too, renowned as one of the best restaurants in the entire nation.
The Golden Gate Bridge, once referred to as the “bridge that couldn’t be built,” is San Francisco’s most iconic landmark, and one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Opened in 1937, visiting it is a must. If you want to get a picture-postcard shot of the bridge, head to Battery Spencer on the Marin County side. This former military installation once protected the bridge and the bay from invaders during World War II. Drive through the historic, crumbling buildings to land’s end and you can capture a spectacular photo with the bridge and the entire city as the backdrop. But don’t just view the bridge from afar, walk or bike the 1.7-mile span that stretches from San Francisco to the Marine headlands. The bridge’s sidewalks are open during the day to pedestrians as well as bicyclists.
Just 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, you can get away from the city and walk among the giants at Muir Woods. It’s especially relaxing place that’s like entering a stunning church cathedral. It’s filled with scenic trails offering something for all levels of hikers and provides a fantastic opportunity to see some of the country’s oldest and tallest trees. Many of these giants are over 1,000 years old. A highlight is Cathedral Grove, where delegates from across the globe placed a plaque in memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Visitors can explore the one-half-mile paved main trail with educational exhibits along the way, and those who are more ambitious can follow the signs to longer, intermediate trails, watching out for black-tailed deer, butterflies, bats, jays and Northern spotted owls inside the spectacular canopy recreated by the magnificent trees.
This formidable fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay was the site of the first lighthouse in the Western United States. From 1934 to 1963, it served as a federal penitentiary, housing the likes of George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Al Capone. “The Rock,” as it’s famously known, is part of the 80,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area and open for public tours. The best time to visit is after dark – while it’s haunting at any time, the night tour adds an extra eerie feel, particularly on a foggy night. Take the audio cell house tour which is narrated by former inmates and guards, recounting harrowing tales of prison life as well as the numerous tragic escape attempts.
Sausalito sits on the northwestern edge of the bay, sheltered from the ocean by the Marin Headlands with mostly mild weather that makes it an ideal place for a classic California outdoor adventure. Rent a bike at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and pedal across the Golden Gate, or at Mike’s Bikes in Sausalito itself, a famous bike shop on the north end of town where you’ll find more than 500 houseboats in five floating home marinas. The docks are lined with gorgeous flowers, incredible artwork and interesting names – they’re even home to a houseboat replica of the Taj Mahal.
The world-famous Winchester Mystery House is a Victorian mansion designed by Winchester Rifle heiress Sarah Winchester. The wealthy widow of William Winchester started a massive construction project here in 1884, so massive, in fact, that it occupied the lives of craftsmen and carpenters for nearly four decades, until her death in 1922. It’s filled with so many unexplained oddities, that it became known as the Winchester Mystery House. The 160-room mansion was unlike most homes of its time, with modern heating and sewer systems, three working elevators, gas lights and 47 fireplaces. With the fascinatingly odd design of the house and rumors of her ghost still residing, it’s drawn spectators from all over the world to try and understand the strange architecture and the reasons behind it.
The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum is home to the largest collection of Egyptian treasures in the western United States. Its extensive grounds also house a planetarium, peace garden, temple and research library. This is a truly unique experience, offering the chance to view mummies and discover how and why they were made. Visitors can also learn about the gods, goddesses, culture and lifestyles of these ancient people, exploring pre-dynastic rituals, art and artifacts.
If you’re a surfing enthusiast, or just like to watch surfers ride the waves, be sure to head to Mavericks in Half Moon Bay. A popular day trip from San Francisco, the very best dare to surf here – this is the spot that put California on the map when it comes to massive waves. It’s the home of some of the biggest waves on the planet, featuring huge rocks known as the “graveyard,” as well as the annual Mavericks Big Wave Contest with breaks close to a mile out from shore. One of the best places to view them is from a bluff that overlooks the Pacific.
Named one of the “New Wonders of the World” by Conde Nast Traveler, the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park boasts an endless amount of attractions. There’s an aquarium, the largest planetarium on earth, a four-story rainforest with an incredible coral reef ecosystem and a natural history museum as well as world-class research and education programs, making it one of San Francisco’s most popular must-see destinations. Visitors can view nearly 40,000 live animals, including everything from the comedic penguins in African Hall to piranhas and snakes. Be transported through space and time in the planetarium, and visit the Living Room, shaped like the hills of the city, but entirely green with lush native plant life and fabulous views of the park.
The Farallon Islands are located just 27 miles from the San Francisco coast and are one of the best hidden gems near San Francisco. Set among the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, a food-rich marine ecosystem that attracts all sorts of marine life, including dolphins, seals, sea lions, whales and seabirds every summer and fall to feed and breed. In fact, there are 18 species of whales and dolphins, as well as over a quarter-million nesting seabirds here, including tufted puffins. The island beaches are typically packed with sea lions vying for a spot in the sun, including the gigantic, and endangered, Steller’s sea lions. You can take a boat trip, led by expert naturalists, who help point out whales, identify the birds and other marine life.
By taking a drive just south of San Francisco along spectacular Highway 1, you’ll not only enjoy stunning panoramic views of the Pacific, but you’ll find the legendary Moss Beach Distillery at Moss Beach. While dinners are fabulous here, you can also unwind on appetizers on the heated outdoor patio, which overlooks the glistening expanse of the ocean. On chilly days, you can even snuggle up to a natural gas fire pit or get cozy under warm blankets on wooden benches as you sip a glass of wine and dine on all sorts of culinary delights. While you’re here, keep an eye out for the famous “Blue Lady” that allegedly haunts the place.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, in operation for over 100 years, opened back in 1907 as the west coast’s answer to Coney Island. It’s the only remaining oceanfront amusement park on the coast, and even features two rides that have been officially recognized as National Historic Landmarks, the 1911 hand-carved Looff carousel and the 1924 wood-framed Giant Dipper roller coaster. Marini’s Boardwalk, open since 1915, still cooks up saltwater taffy in copper kettles. When you aren’t enjoying all the rides and games, the wharf is just a short stroll away, ideal for casual as well as upscale dining with incredible panoramic ocean views, and a popular spot for watching sea lions frolicking in the water and lounging on the rafters below. In the summer, you can enjoy free concerts on Friday nights too.
Just 10 minutes from Santa Cruz, Henry Cowell State Park is set among beautiful soaring redwood trees in the mountains. You’ll not only find 20 miles of scenic hiking trails, but the park is also home to Roaring Camp Railroad, offering the chance for visitors to travel over trestles winding through majestic redwood groves and up a narrow-gauge grade to the summit of Bear Mountain. There is also a “beach train” offered, which will take guests through the park, directly to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
If you want to explore wine country, skip the tourist meccas of Napa and head to Sonoma, where you’ll find smaller wineries, and have a better chance of speaking with the winemakers themselves. This world-class wine country region is home to more than 400 wineries, including Homewood Winery, owned by Dave Homewood who aims to keep his establishment as close to a one-man winery as he can, maintaining a handcrafted winemaking approach. Papapietro Perry, a small family-owned winery is a must for Pinot Noir lovers with friendly staff and a Healdsburg location that offers easy access to a number of other small wineries.
Sonoma County is also home to a multitude of pristine nature parks with miles and miles of biking and hiking trails that wind through soaring redwoods and oak-dotted hills, as well as rivers for swimming, kayaking and canoeing.
If you visit the Bay Area between December and March, be sure to pay a visit to Ano Nuevo State Park, located between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, to watch the elephant seals. Tours are offered daily during this time when thousands of northern elephant seals gather. Females arrive, giving birth to their babies and shortly afterward, males start fighting to mate with them. The spectacle is unlike anything you’ve probably ever seen and celebrates the massive, magnificent creature’s return from the brink of extinction. In 1892, there were fewer than 100 northern elephant seals, but today, there are more than 150,000 in the wild, with many of them returning to this very spot every year as the site of the largest mainland breeding colony. You’ll take a short guided hike across the dunes, provided by volunteer naturalists.