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 and renowned surf breaks—which are among some of the most unforgettable stops along Highway 1—as well as 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. South of downtown is Central Park, a 16-acre verdant oasis that’s home to the Japanese Garden featuring a granite pagoda, tea house, koi pond, and bamboo grove, all 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—aka the Pacific Coast Highway—lined with jaw-dropping coastal vistas. Head south from San Francisco and make a stop in Pacifica, where Linda Mar Beach (known by the parks department as Pacifica State Beach) is popular with sunbathers and surfers alike. Pacifica Pier is the perfect spot for a stroll and beautiful sunsets.
Continuing south you’ll arrive in historic Half Moon Bay, home to the Mavericks big-wave surf competition (more on that below) 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 here 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 end 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.
Surfing in San Mateo County
San Mateo County—which takes up the greater part of the San Francisco Peninsula—has a long and storied history when it comes to riding the waves. Foremost among the breaks here is Mavericks, at Pillar Point near Half Moon Bay, where 40-foot waves have brought it international fame as well as its namesake big-wave surf competition. To get a feel for what it’s like to ride Mavericks without the necessary expert-level skills, pay a visit to the San Mateo County Historical Association, where a Mavericks exhibit offers a computer-simulated version of the swell. For kinder but still challenging waves, visit nearby Surfer’s Beach; those looking to learn the basics can do so at Pacifica State Beach, where outfits such as the University of Surfing and Surf Camp Pacifica offer lessons for beginners. Other surfing locations include Pescadero State Beach, Monkey Point, Montara State Beach, and Half Moon Bay State Beach.
Agritourism Experiences in San Mateo County
Though the tech industry gets most of the attention, the San Francisco Peninsula is also home to more than 50 farms, and agriculture is a major industry. Pumpkins, Brussels sprouts, artichokes and all kinds of berries thrive here; farm stands and u-pick orchards and fields—like the one for strawberries at Blue House Farm—are plentiful but are far from the only ways visitors can experience it. As part of the county’s agritourism-promoting “As Fresh as It Gets” program, several agricultural operations welcome those looking to have a behind-the-scenes look at farm life. While cruising down the coast, drop by Harley Farms Goat Dairy in Pescadero to mingle with the friendly goats; also in Pescadero is Pie Ranch, where tour options include a milling demonstration in their historic Roadside Barn. To learn about how farmers embrace water sustainability via new technology and methods, visit one of the largest aquaponic farms in the U.S., the Ouroboros Farms Aquaponics and Education Center in Half Moon Bay.
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.