This drive takes in the best of the Bay Area, a beautiful region with lively cities, celebrated wine country, and outstanding natural wonders
With towers soaring 746 feet/227 meters into the sky, its span arcing across the mouth of San Francisco Bay, and all of it painted fire-engine red, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge makes a dramatic destination.
Yes, you can simply drive across the bridge, but it’s more fun to walk (even for just a portion of the spa). It can get a bit cold and windy, especially when the fog slips in (common in summer), so dress in layers. Biking across the bridge is another fun option—rental companies abound (two favorites are Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals); most bikes come with route maps detailing where to ride from San Francisco across the bridge to towns like Sausalito and Tiburon, in neighboring Marin County. Back in the city, there’s a nice gift shop and a café, and paths let you wind down to historic Fort Point, completed in 1861 as a military outpost.
Muir Woods National Monument, one of Marin County’s premier parks, protects the last stand of uncut old-growth coast redwoods in the Bay Area, where loggers had all but denuded the region by the late 1800s.
Originally established as a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it was named for revered naturalist John Muir, who declared the site “the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.” Even on busy summer days, there is a remarkable hush here, especially if you arrive in early morning. Follow raised boardwalks, built to protect the redwoods’ sensitive root structure, to see the arrow-straight redwoods, some over a century old, soaring 250 feet/76 meters overhead. For an unforgettable experience, check the park’s activities calendar to go on a guided walk at dusk.
Insider Tip: Due to high visitation and limited parking, visitation and shuttle reservations are required to visit Muir Woods, so plan ahead.
Follow the coast, past broad Stinson Beach and the sparkling Bolinas Lagoon (a great place for kayaking and birding) to this extraordinary peninsula. Jutting dozens of miles out into the sea, Point Reyes is loaded with amazing discoveries, including remarkable wildlife, deep forests, dramatic sea cliffs, and remote beaches.
No matter what time of year you visit, there’s something extraordinary to see and do. In winter, travel to the tip of the point (a shuttle takes you the last few miles) to look for migrating gray whales passing remarkably close. (It helps when you just out into their swimming lanes). In spring, walk the trail to Chimney Rock to see countless wildflowers (look for puffins nesting on oceanfront cliffs), or follow a trail lined with irises into a rare Bishop pine forest. In summer, watch the cool fog tumble in, then have a cup of cocoa in the cozy village of Point Reyes Station. And in fall, listen for the eerie bugle of tule elk bulls; can usually spot individuals or small herds of these native elk in the Tomales Point preserve area, at the tip of the park.
To get yourself oriented, stop by the outstanding Bear Valley Nature Center, with kid-friendly displays, maps, and helpful rangers. The fairly flat, stroller-friendly Bear Valley Trail makes a popular leg-stretch or bike ride.
Your road trip now heads inland to explore some of the finest wine country in the world.
At the edge of Tomales Bay, the town of Marshall offers a tasty excuse for a pit stop: a lunch of briny bivalves at Hog Island Oyster Co.
This quaint fishing village has an interesting past and a vibrant present. Alfred Hitchcock shot his 1963 classic The Birds here and in nearby Bodega, and tourists flock to the area to see familiar locations from the film, including blufftop Bodega Head, which offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Bodega Bay is big on birds in general, offering three separate ways to spot our feathered friends, including the Bird Walk Coastal Access Trail. Looking to the skies is a bit of theme here: Bodega Bay boasts two kite shops, Second Wind and Candy & Kites—how many towns with a population of around 1,000 can say that? Pro tip: Be sure to take advantage of the ultra-fresh seafood options in Bodega Bay, and if you see an open table at the Spud Point Crab Company, grab it.
Napa Valley reigns as the land of grand estates, expansive tasting rooms, quaint towns, and elegant resorts. Roughly an hour’s drive north of San Francisco and boasting more than 400 wineries, Napa Valley is a connoisseur’s paradise, inviting visitors to explore beyond the region’s signature Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The region boasts some of the most coveted wine grapes anywhere, including those harvested at To Kalon Vineyard, planted in the 1860s, plus contemporary cult bottlings like Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. Napa Valley cuisine has come into its own as well, with multiple Michelin-starred restaurants offering meals on a par with the vintages served up alongside them.
Much of Sonoma County has a small-town feel to it—the many independently run wineries, restaurants,and boutiques contribute to that—but it’s actually a huge place. Bordered by San Pablo Bay in the south, the Mayacamas Mountains in the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Sonoma Cover covers 1,768 square miles, a significant portion of that comprising farm land and vineyards. The wine scene is truly exceptional: More than 425 wineries operate here, offering breathtaking diversity in terms of varietals, styles, price points, and terroir. You probably won’t be able to experience all 18 American Viticultural Areas here, so start with a few. Consider exploring the Carneros region, a charming appellation straddling the Napa and Sonoma Valleys and producer of some of the region’s best Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wines. (Bubbly fans should pay a visit to Gloria Ferrer—for the Blanc de Blancs and the epic views.)
There’s no hiding what’s the big draw at this popular attraction in the East Bay city of Vallejo. Even before you park your car you’ll see the giant loop-de-loops, spirals, and white-knuckle descents of the park’s trademark coasters and thrill rides, such as Superman Ultimate Flight and Medusa. Get your fill of these adrenaline pumpers, then retreat to the calming beauty of the Butterfly Habitat. Once your blood pressure is back to normal, watch entertaining dolphin and sea lion shows, see African lions, Mountain lions, and Bengal and Siberian tigers in naturalized enclosures, or feed a giraffe.
For tamer entertainment for the little ones, let them romp around Acme Fun Factory, a two-story playhouse. There’s also a water play area just for smaller kids, plus tot-friendly rides and activities. For you, consider deluxe experiences, like finding out what our Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins feel like on a special dolphin interaction.
A haven for backyard artists and coffee-shop philosophers, Berkeley has deep roots in the Flower Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s. But while California’s spirited city of free speech still stands strong, Berkeley can also boast of a booming food, wine, and craft-brew scene—this is, after all, the home of the legendary Chez Panisse—sprinkled throughout with arts and culture. Add an easy-to-use public transit that makes San Francisco a quick light-rail ride away, and Berkeley rates high on any Bay Area must-see list. Top-notch University of California, Berkeley, gives the city an energetic jolt, and students from around the world add an international and intellectual flair. How diverse is Berkeley? Along the main drag of University Avenue, you can buy an exotic outfit at Sari Palace, sample Indonesian food at Jayakarta, and enjoy house-roasted beans at Algorithm Coffee Co.Stop by the visitor information center a block north of the downtown Berkeley BART station (the hub for the local light-rail system that accesses San Francisco and other Bay Area towns).
Make a reservation for lunch at The Café at Chez Panisse (more casual than the downstairs restaurant, which is only open for dinner), the legendary eatery created by farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters. Alice Waters was the first woman to win the James Beard Award in 1992, has often been touted as the visionary chef who took California cuisine in a bold new direction.
Diverse, dynamic, artsy, edgy—Oakland has seen an influx of young locals, drawn by the vibe, move into downtown lofts and condos. With them came the single-pour coffee bars, cafes, galleries, and clubs. Lower costs in the East Bay have also lured chefs—both established big names and new-gen kitchen whiz kids—to open restaurants here, in settings ranging from splashy Art Deco (Flora) to sleek hipster chic (Plum).
Jack London Square, an inviting complex perched on the edge of San Francisco Bay, mixes outdoor fun with indoor diversions. The square is named after the intrepid adventurer and author of Call of the Wildand The Sea Wolf, a book allegedly inspired by tales told by folk who frequented the legendary—and still open—Heinhold’s First and Last Chance Saloon. Near the sloped entrance to the historic watering hole, the wall hands on the wall clock haven’t budged since April 18, 1906—the moment a massive quake struck the Bay Area, and jolted the building so much the timepiece stopped ticking. Settle in and talk to your elbow-mate at the bar; you never know what tall tales you might here.
But save your visit to this historic bar until later in the day. When the sun’s up and shining, paddle a kayak around the adjacent Oakland Estuary, especially lively during the fall bird migration. Post paddle, stroll the square to visit shops, or tour two historic vessels: the Lightship Relief, a floating lighthouse which aided navigation along various U.S. coastlines from 1951 to 1974, and the USS Potomac, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s historic yacht (ask about bay cruises). Dine at inviting options like Baia for organic pasta, or have crab cake benedict for brunch at Oakland Grill. Farmers’ markets and outdoor movies add to Jack London Square’s neighborhood-y appeal.
The center of the booming, tech-centric Silicon Valley, San José is packed with worthy destinations, like ultra-hands-on The Tech Museum, and light and airy San Jose Museum of Art. The SAP Center, which draws headline entertainers and is home to the San Jose Sharks NHL franchise, is a glassy modern palace.
Learn about San José’s rich agricultural and impressive ethnic roots at the expansive campus of History San José.
The Tech Museum of Innovation—or simply “The Tech”—does a great job of creating a fun laboratory and learning experience for curious people of all ages. Dive into interactive exhibits showing the power of technologies ranging from robots to gene-splicing to alternative energy.
For the city’s most luxurious shopping experience, visit Santana Row, a snazzy outdoor mall. It’s the kind of place where you can easily while away the hours, sitting on a bench perusing your purchases while nibbling fresh croissants from Cocola. And, in the ultimate Silicon Valley indulgence, why not custom-design your own luxury all-electric car at Santana Row’s Tesla store.
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.