Amid the hustle and bustle of San Francisco’s North Bay, the quiet waterside burg of Benicia is a hidden jewel, built on military history dating back to 1849.
With fewer than 30,000 residents within its 15.7 square miles, Benicia is a relaxed community, offering lots of outdoor fun. Some 20 parks include the Benicia State Recreation Area, popular with cyclists, runners, walkers, and equestrians. Benicia Marina is another al fresco gem, from its boat slips bobbing with beautiful seacraft to the waterfront bike and hiking trails.
The First Street Promenade/Main Street is the heart of downtown, just a short walk from the marina and resplendent with Victorian-style buildings, a 19th-century church, boutiques, restaurants, antique shops, galleries, bookshops, day spas, and the historic Tannery Building filled with food and arts emporiums.
For excellent American food, First Street Cafe has been a favorite for more than two decades, thanks to it signature dishes like the hot, open-face Dungeness crab and artichoke sandwich with melted Monterey jack cheese. Browse Vintage Owl for antiques and gorgeously restored vintage shabby-chic items—a portion of proceeds is donated to the National Canine Cancer Foundation. Stay at the Union Hotel, an 1882 B&B mansion with 12 large suites, which puts you right in the middle of the Promenade (some rooms boast ocean views).
East Benicia tempts, too, with unique attractions like the Benicia Historical Museum at the Camel Barns. Through the 1850s and ’60s, the U.S. Army used camels as pack animals. Later, the remaining camels were auctioned to the public, and today the four remaining “barns” operate as galleries chronicling Benicia history. The surrounding Arsenal depots welcomed military heroes like Ulysses Grant, and now serve as working studios for artists.