San Francisco is a great base for so many great road trips around the Bay Area and beyond, whether you want to go on a day trip or a weekend getaway. As a SF native, there is nothing better than taking off to Point Reyes Station for an afternoon hike or driving down to the idyllic seaside town of Carmel. If you’re visiting San Francisco for a week, my advice is to see the city for 3-4 days and then take off on the open road. The only difficult part? Deciding whether to go North, South, or East. Here’s some of my favorite San Francisco road trips.
San Francisco Road Trips: North
Let’s start with a classic North Bay destination: the alluring Napa Valley. I don’t drink, but it’s still a worthwhile destination to visit for its scenery and food scene. Downtown Napa is very walkable and the riverfront is one of my favorite areas to walk around during dusk. Stop by the Napa River Inn (that is rumored to be haunted) and admire local artist Alan Shepp’s Mosaic Fountain. The Oxbow Public Market, an upscale food hall is home to the Model Bakery, known for their excellent breakfast sandwiches.
There are outdoor activities aplenty like the Napa River Trail, where you can rent a bike and meander along the bank. If you prefer to be more water-bound, kayak and SUP opportunities on the river abound.
Next door neighbor to Napa, this wine-centric town is a bit more laid-back and community-based and I honestly prefer Sonoma over Napa. Downtown Sonoma is a good place to start, where you can walk around the town square and pop into wine shops, cafes, cheese shops, and see the City Hall.
One place that I often go with my family when I’m back home is Point Reyes. It’s about an hour from San Francisco, but feels like a world away. There are wide-open fields and hiking trails that lead to the seashore. We usually start at Point Reyes Station, a small town where we usually get sandwiches from The Palace Market (or if I’m feeling fancy Cowgirl Creamery), and baked goods from Bovine Bakery.
Afterward we bring our food and have a picnic at the Bear Valley Visitor Center and then take a hike on one of the nearby trails. The Point Reyes Lighthouse is also a nice landmark to visit in the area and is about 20 miles away from Point Reyes Station (the closest town and gas station).
I’m a sucker for road tripping to small towns that have a Main Street and you don’t really need a car to get around. Calistoga is just that and is known for its natural hot springs resorts throughout the area. I usually stay at Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, which has four different pools and has rooms with a kitchenette. If you want to treat yourself, Indian Hot Springs is one of the best resorts to go all out at.
For local wine-centric activities, the Tank Garage Winery is a preserved 1930s gas station that has wine tastings that are worth checking out. Castello di Amorosa offers tours of a 13th century-inspired castle as well as wine tastings.
San Francisco Road Trips: East
Once you cross through the Caldicott Tunnel from Oakland to Orinda it feel like you’ve been transported to a different climate. The lingering fog gives way to sunny skies and crowded city life is replaced with rolling hills. Welcome to suburban East Bay. I used to call Pleasant Hill home and have many good memories of sunny weather and quieter life, while still having city life easily accessible.
Walnut Creek has a walkable downtown and Broadway Plaza is an upscale outdoor mall where you can wander around and window shop. Mount Diablo is one of the best outdoor spaces in the East Bay, where you can take a day hike or just opt for a scenic drive up to the summit.
When I lived in the Greater Sacramento Area, this college town was on regular rotation for a quick day trip. I loved the central downtown that was adjacent to UC Davis and would usually pick up food at Kim’s Mart for pre-made Korean food or Sam’s for Mediterranean food.
On the campus itself there is the spacious UC Davis Arboretum, which is great for a stroll or a picnic in one of its wide lawns. Wandering around the campus’ 5000 acres is highly recommended, especially during fall or spring when the trees are full of foliage or blooms.
I honestly think California’s capitol is vastly underrated. In the past few decades it has really come into its own. For history there is the California State Capitol Museum, where you can wander through a working capitol building and even see the senate in session if you come at the right time.
One of my favorite corners of Sacramento is tree-lined Curtis Park, where there’s Gunthers Ice Cream and Pangaea Bier Cafe right across the street from one another. East Sacramento is also another scenic neighborhood to walk around in and admire the historical homes.
About an hour north of Sacramento, right at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is this picturesque former mining town. Wander the hilly streets during late fall, when the temperature have started to cool down and the leaves are on fire. The Three Forks Bakery & Brewing has some excellent homemade pizza, as well as some solid sandwiches, baked goods, and brews.
During Christmas, the Nevada City Victorian Christmas is a unique even where the whole downtown is decorated in seasonal flair and there is plenty of things to see and foods to eat.
San Francisco Road Trips: South
This eccentric college town is a fun weekend San Francisco road trip. Make sure to drive to Santa Cruz during the day, since the winding, two-lane Highway 17 can be very hairy to drive at night. Start downtown and wander along the main throughfare of Soquel Avenue, where you can grab a chocolate croissant and a coffee at The Buttery. The campus of UC Santa Cruz, a quick drive from downtown is a great place to spot panoramic views of the ocean and surrounding area.
Afterward, spend a few hours at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, where you can take a ride on the Big Dipper, a historic wooden roller coaster. After you get enough sensory overload from all the games and rides on the boardwalk, make your way to the adjacent Santa Cruz Beach and Santa Cruz Wharf.
If you want to get close and personal with California’s rugged coastline, the Monterey Peninsula will not disappoint. Two hours south of SF, if you have the time take Highway 1 down the coast for a slower, scenic route that passes picturesque seaside towns like Half Moon Bay and Pescadero.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must if you’re in the area to spot playful sea otters, admire translucent jellies and learn about local ocean conservation. Walk through Old Monterey, along Alvarado Street where you can admire the historic buildings. Cannery Row is also a vibrant area of town to explore, where former sardine canning factories still stand and were immortalized by local writer John Steinbeck.
The artsy seaside neighbor to Monterey, Carmel feels right out of a fairy tale. The picturesque downtown is easily walkable, and for lunch a personal favorite is Carmel Coffee and Cocoa Bar, where you can get sweet treats as well as more hearty sandwiches and soups, including Asian dishes like ramen.
Carmel Beach is at the end of Ocean Avenue in downtown, where you can take in windswept views amid locals and tourists alike.
If there is a spot that captures the beauty of the Northern California coastline, this rugged stretch is it. With dramatic cliffs dropping into the Pacific Ocean way below, it’s a view that I never tire of. Bixby Bridge is the iconic bridge that is usually featured in photographs of this area. Plenty of parking exists on both sides of the bridge to pull off and take photos from nearby vantage points.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is home to the well-documented McWays Falls, a 80-foot waterfall that originates from McWay Creek and cascades into the Pacific Ocean. There are also numerous other trails throughout the park like the scenic Ewoldsen Trail (5-mile loop) ranging from easy strolls to strenuous full-on hikes. Pfeiffer Beach feels almost otherworldly with its lavender-colored sand and key hole rock formations jutting dramatically out of the Pacific Ocean. The beach can be a bit difficult to find, so keep your eyes open for a sign that simply reads “narrow road,” and is about 1 mile south of Pfeiffer State Park.
There’s not a lot of places to choose from in Big Sur, but Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant is an ideal place to grab a quick breakfast in the form of pastries or for a heartier midday meal in the form of wood-fired pizza.