The 5 Best Day Trips You Can Take From San Francisco
West coast, best coast.
Not only is San Francisco one of the most scenic and interesting cities in the world (according to my own unbiased, highly scientific standards), but it’s located smack in the middle of a region known for breathtaking natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. There’s no shortage of things to keep you occupied in the city itself – you could probably spend an eternity sipping brews in the sunshine at Dolores Park, thrifting in the Haight, wandering through the de Young and chowing down on the best damn burritos you’ve ever had in your life on Mission – but if you can manage to tear yourself away, there’s plenty to see and do outside city limits. Hiking, surfing, wine-tasting, or simply sunbathing on a sandy beach: the Bay Area (and beyond) has it all. Here are the five best day trips to fill out your San Fran sojourn.
#1 Take the ferry to Angel Island
This green, hilly island in the San Francisco Bay is both a state park and a dedicated historical landmark, offering absolutely incredible 360-degree panoramic views of the iconic city skyline, Marin headlands and Mount Tamalpais. Pack a picnic and head out early, catching the ferry from Tiburon, just a short drive over the Golden Gate. Once on the island, you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to activities. Nature lovers can take a guided hike up Mt Livermore, the highest point on the island, or strike off on one of the many trails to find a secluded spot to fish, bird-watch or even camp. More interested in history than scenery? Take one of several guided tours through quaint buildings and imposing forts to learn about Angel Island’s illustrious history as a military base and immigration station.
#2 Take a ride on the Niles Canyon Railway
The tiny town of Niles Canyon in the East Bay may not seem like much at first glance, but the charmingly-preserved historical railway route that runs to Sunol and back is well worth a visit. The railway itself dates back to 1862, when it was used to transfer freight to the first Transcontinental Railway, but today it is a popular historical destination. Take the Bart from San Francisco to Fremont, then make your way to the depot for a slow, winding ride in a vintage open-air railway car through grassy yellow hills, across wooden bridges and along shady, forested gorges. Don’t have the time (or cash) to indulge in a Napa Valley wine tour? Treat yourself to the next best thing by booking the wine tasting train, and enjoying specially-selected hors d’oeuvres and Livermore Valley wines en route. All aboard.
#3 Fun in the sun at Santa Cruz
It seems like Santa Cruz might be the only stretch of coast within a 100-mile radius of San Francisco that has both sandy beaches and reliably sunny weather, which explains it’s well-deserved popularity. The town is about an hour and a half from San Francisco by car, but the windy drive through Redwood forests and along sea-cliffs is so beautiful you’ll be there before you know it. Santa Cruz has a long history as a surf hub (the Beach Boys even gave it a shoutout in ‘Surfin’ U.S.A’), so bring along a board, or sign up for lessons at the Santa Cruz Surf School.
Santa Cruz is also a hub for music and art, so catch a live show The Catalyst Club (or on any sidewalk downtown, actually) or wander into one of the many galleries. And of course, don’t miss the town’s main attraction, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Spend a few hours, if not a full day, taking in the wholesome, all-American vibe of this classic amusement park, riding the wooden roller-coasters and gorging yourself on funnel cake and cotton candy, before heading home sandy and sunkissed, but happy.
#4 Keep it classy in Bodega Bay
The Russian River Valley, about an hour north of San Francisco, is ground zero for wine culture and lush, tranquil landscapes, so head there for an escape from hectic urban living. Give over-exposed Napa a miss and instead head up to the tiny, charming fishing village of Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock’s classic film The Birds was shot. Stop off for a tasting at legendary cellar door Gourmet au Bay, followed by a casual lunch at the Terrapin Creek Cafe. Take a self-guided canoe trip on the Russian River through the Redwoods, or keep things deluxe with a reservation at the Bodega Bay Lodge & Spa. Wine not your thing? One the way back to the city, stop by the Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa for an award-winning pint or three.
#5 Go off-grid in Bolinas
The tiny town of Bolinas is California’s best-kept secret – or at least it’s trying to be. The locals here are fiercely protective of their isolationist, bohemian way of life – so much so that the turn-off to Bolinas isn’t even marked by a sign – and it’s easy to see why. In many ways a smaller, far less commercialised version of Santa Cruz, life in Bolinas centres around organic local produce (which you can barter for), great surfing and a tight-knit community feel.
The lagoon, often shrouded by mist, is teeming with marine life, and surrounded by many unique species of plants and birds, while the bay itself is ruggedly beautiful, all crumbling cliffs and grey surf. Order fresh oysters, reasonably-priced at the Bolinas Coast Cafe, followed by a blueberry (locally-sourced, of course) smoothie from the Bobolicious Smoothie lounge or an organic beer at Smiley’s, the only bar in town. Take it all in – this is about as California as it gets.
(Lead image: Steve Dunleavy/Flickr)