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Guide to San Mateo County, aka the San Francisco Peninsula

San Mateo County

This narrow strip of rolling hills, rugged coastline, charming towns, and surprising biodiversity packs a plethora of easily accessible activities and attractions

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San Mateo County makes up the bulk of the San Francisco Peninsula, the thumb of land less than 10 miles wide and 60 miles long that separates San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. You’ll find San Francisco International Airport (SFO), numerous bay-side parks with a range of wildlife, and coastal enclaves such as Half Moon Bay and Pacifica. In addition to urban areas like South San Francisco, Redwood City, and San Carlos, the San Francisco Peninsula boasts sandy beaches, renowned surf breaks, enriching cultural sites, and more than 50 small farms and craft brewers. The southern reaches of the county blend into Silicon Valley, and the peninsula also includes tech hubs such as Menlo Park and East Palo Alto where titans like Meta (Facebook), Electronic Arts, and GoPro reside.   

Things to Do in San Mateo County

With a little more than 100,000 residents, San Mateo is the most populous city in its namesake county and the perfect place to start exploring everything the peninsula offers. The compact downtown is a half-mile squared, served by a Caltrain station, and peppered with restaurants, cafes, and a range of shops. Directly to the south of downtown is Central Park, a 16-acre verdant oasis home to the Japanese Garden featuring a granite pagoda, tea house, koi pond, and bamboo grove designed by landscape architect Nagao Sakurai of the Imperial Palace of Tokyo. The park is also home to a rose garden, a mini train, and the San Mateo Arboretum, and frequently hosts concerts and special events. Shoreline Parks is a collection of open spaces along the San Francisco Bay, including Seal Point Park, where cyclists and dog walkers take in panoramic views across the water and along bird watching trails. Another great spot to get outside is the Pulgas Ridge Preserve, a 366-acre space with trails winding through canyons and over ridge tops overlooking the bay.

Learn about the history of the San Francisco Peninsula at the San Mateo County History Museum, which holds exhibits on the Ohlone natives who lived throughout the Bay Area, and early Spanish Explorers in Northern California. One of the peninsula’s more specialized museums is the Hiller Aviation Museum, home to a collection of unique early aircraft and boundary-breaking prototypes.

For a taste of one of the Bay Area’s most renowned industries, head to San Francisco Wine School in South San Francisco. Founded by Master Sommelier David Glancy in 2011, the school offers tastings, seminars, and other oenological events.

Coastal Towns in San Mateo County

The peninsula’s oceanside towns are linked by Highway 1, an iconic route lined with jaw-dropping coastal vistas. Head south from San Francisco and make a stop in Pacifica, where Linda Mar Beach (aka Pacifica State Beach) is popular with sunbathers and surfers alike. Pacifica Pier is the perfect spot for a stroll and sunset viewing.

Continuing south you’ll arrive in historic Half Moon Bay, home to the Mavericks big-wave surf competition and a collection of unique shops, restaurants, farms, and wineries. Known as the pumpkin capital of the world, the annual Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival is held every October and includes a popular pumpkin weigh-off (winners clock in at over 2,000 pounds). Pillar Point Harbor offers kayaking, boat tours, a brewery, seafood bought straight off the boat, and superb wildlife viewing.

On the quieter side, Pescadero is a farming and ranching community at the southern terminus of the county. Locals and weekend visitors flock to Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve, a 235-acre wildlife refuge that is part of Pescadero State Beach and is a nesting ground for more than 60 species of birds. Picturesque beaches, bike paths, and hiking trails in Butano State Park and nearby areas round out a wealth of outdoor activities in Pescadero. The Pigeon Point Lighthouse (tours available with advance booking) was built in 1872 on a Pescadero cliffside and is one of the tallest in the United States. Año Nuevo State Park is a popular spot to birdwatch and see elephant seals—up to 10,000 of them breed here every winter.

While cruising down the coast, fuel up at one the farms along Highway 1, including Harley Farms Goat Dairy (say hi to the friendly goats), Ouroboros Farms Aquaponics and Education Center, and Blue House Farm.

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Where to Eat and Drink in San Mateo County

Originally a stagecoach stop built in 1858, the 7 Mile House in Brisbane today serves burgers, pork chops, and fish tacos along with colorful cocktails and live music in a dog-friendly atmosphere. The Millbrae Pancake House’s signature flapjacks recipe is more than a half-century old, and Angelica’s in Redwood City regularly hosts live music, open mic jam sessions, and comedians as accompaniment to its Latin American–inspired California cuisine. In San Mateo, Par 3 at Poplar Creek is popular for its menu of inspired comfort dishes along with a full bar and a dozen taps of craft beer.

Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. offers a selection of standard and seasonal craft brews right on the coast, and Half Moon Bay Wine & Cheese Company is an excellent place to sample and purchase notable wines and cheeses from the region. Sam’s Chowder House is like stepping into a traditional New England seafood restaurant.

In Pescadero, Loma Mar Store and Kitchen has been dishing up ​​homestyle food, espresso drinks, and groceries along with local knowledge since 1930.

Finally, kick off weekend fun at Devil’s Canyon Brewing in San Carlos, where Fridays feature live music, food trucks, and craft beer in a family- and pet-friendly atmosphere.

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