Heading east from the city, you’ll drive along the delta and bunk down in Sacramento before climbing into the High Sierra
Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, trend-defining, Michelin-starred cuisine, a beautiful waterfront, and a soaring crimson bridge, San Francisco, aka the “City by the Bay”, truly has it all and stands out as an ultimate must-see.
Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a park, or head into Golden Gate Park to visit museums and row across a secret gem, Stow Lake. Continue along the flat Embarcadero to the bustling Ferry Building Marketplace, the Exploratorium science and learning museum, and colorful Fisherman’s Wharf.
Take a cable car ride to the high-end shops in bustling Union Square, with a stop for Italian pastries and cappuccino at Emporio Rulli right in the square. At night, catch a show in the theater district. For more nightlife and dining, stroll Valencia Street in the Mission, a trendy and eclectic hotbed of restaurants and bars, and awesome late-night scoops at Bi-Rite Ice Cream.
California’s state capital is undergoing an energetic renaissance. Young adults looking for an urban vibe are moving into this low-key city, with microbreweries, gastropubs, and trendy boutiques popping up to serve them. Award-winning chefs are gaining attention for their focus on hyper-local ingredients, and relationships between restaurants and surrounding farms and ranches have become not a novelty, but the norm. Hot summer days create some of the nicest evenings anywhere in the state, where locals sit on porches in elegant Victorian-era homes, and kids scamper in leafy parks until the sun goes down.
As the state capital, there’s plenty going on, and gatherings of various colorful groups around the cupola-topped Capitol are common. Museums are centered largely around the Capitol Mall area and in historic Old Sacramento, the renovated area along the Sacramento River that was a core hub during the Gold Rush. Getting around to all these different locations is easy, and traffic jams are fleeting. Granted the gold award for bike-friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists, Sacramento is also a great place to explore by bike, with wide designated lanes, and paved trails along the American and Sacramento Rivers. There’s also a convenient light rail system to linking popular sites around town.
The city has upped its restaurant game in recent years, turning out some of the best wood-fired pizza this side of the San Francisco Bay at Masullo Pizza in the Land Park neighborhood. (Tip: Try the Neapolitan-style Gilda, briny with olives and dripping with mozzarella, fontina, and persillade.)
Built in 1926 as one of Sacramento’s earliest high rises, this one-time insurance building has been reborn as the Citizen Hotel.
Auburn has plenty to enjoy—Gold Rush history, great food and wine, and the outdoors—claiming to be home to the most challenging endurance sports events in the world, like the prestigious 100-mile/161-km Western States Endurance Run. The area also draws mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback riders, all taking advantage of trails lacing the Auburn State Recreation Area, which protects the confluence of the North and Middle Forks of the American River (two popular whitewater rafting destinations.)
As more vintners join the “Gold Crush”—a local reference to Placer County’s growing number of wineries—so does the chance to relax at nearby tasting rooms, where the guy pouring the wine is often the winemaker too. Good wines attract good restaurants, and Auburn’s Old Town is lined with them. Art galleries and antique shops abound. And get your citrus fix at the annual Mountain Mandarin Festival, held late fall at Auburn’s Gold Country Fairgrounds.
Head to the rustic Ikeda’s California Country Market, located in Auburn, for a house-made chicken pot pie. There are three different varieties of apple pie on tap (in addition to a whole range of seasonal fruit), but whatever you go with, make sure you grab an extra serving for the road.
This forest-wrapped hamlet of handsome Victorian-era homes and tree-lined streets 60 miles/98 kilometers northeast of Sacramento is one of the Gold Country’s prettiest towns. Originally settled in 1849 as a mining camp, Nevada City features a well-preserved core of historic buildings, including California’s oldest operating structure originally built for performances, the 1865 Nevada Theatre, with past performers ranging from Mark Twain to Mötley Crüe. Just around the corner, on Main Street, a bell-towered firehouse with a Victorian gingerbread front is the site of a compact history museum where the intricate cooking baskets made by native Nisenan Indians are exhibited alongside the artifacts of early residents and Chinese pioneers. Impeccable 19th-century buildings with wooden balconies are now the home of restaurants, gift shops (look for nature-lover treasures at The Earth Store), wine-tasting rooms, and antiques shops.
Download a self-guided walking tour from the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce.
At the Inn Town Campground, you’ll get a good taste of the great outdoors, whether you’re tenting it or renting one of their glamp sites, which come with a safari-like tent, real beds, electricity, and access to the wooded property’s swimming pool.
Up and over the hill from Lake Tahoe’s north shore, Truckee offers an easy base for an adventure-filled trip. The 1870s railroad town flaunts its Tahoe-chic style in pioneer storefronts that house breweries, brunch joints, and eco-friendly lodges. (Top picks include the Truckee Public House, Squeeze In, and Cedar House Sport Hotel.) There’s plenty of culture to be found too. Take a weaving workshop at Atelier, fire a clay pot at Truckee Roundhouse, listen to jazz at Moody’s Bistro, Bar & Beats, or visit the arts collective at Gallery 5830. This creative culture earned Truckee the designation of a California Cultural District in 2017. And, of course, there’s nonstop outdoor recreation: In the warmer months, choose from rafting, swimming, rock climbing, mountain biking, and horseback riding. In the winter, Truckee is perfectly situated just 10–15 minutes away from some of Tahoe’s best ski resorts, including Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, Boreal Mountain Resort, and Homewood Mountain Resort.