English (UK)
Jill Richards

San Francisco Bay Circuit

This drive takes in the best of the Bay Area, a beautiful region with lively cities, celebrated wine country and outstanding natural wonders.

Start:Golden Gate Bridge
End:San Francisco
1 - 3Days,13Stops,213Miles
Golden Gate Bridge
Agustin Rafael C. Reyes/Getty Images
Muir Woods National Monument
Adam Hester/Getty Images
Point Reyes National Seashore
Anita Ritenour/Flickr
Hog Island Oyster Company
Jack Andersen/Getty Images
Bodega Bay
Alex RC/Getty Images
Napa Valley
Dennis Frates/Alamy
Sonoma County
Karen Wibbs/Getty Images
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
Courtesy of Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
Berkeley
Galen Rowell/Getty Images
Chez Panisse
Smith Collection/Getty Images
Oakland
Diane Bentley Raymond/Getty Images
San Jose
Alacatr/Getty Images
San Francisco
George Clerk/Getty Images
Stop 1

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito

With towers soaring 746 feet/227 metres 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 span). It can get a bit cold and windy, especially when the fog slips in (common in summer), so dress in layers. Cycling across the bridge is another fun option—there are plenty of hire companies (two favourites are Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals); most bikes come with route maps detailing where to ride to from San Francisco—towns like Sausalito and Tiburon, in neighbouring Marin County. Back in the city, there’s a nice gift shop and a café, and paths that let you wind down to historic Fort Point, completed in 1861 as a military outpost.

Stop 2

Muir Woods National Monument

1 Muir Woods Rd., Mill Valley

Muir Woods National Monument, one of Marin County’s premier parks, protects the last stand of uncut old growth coastal 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 early in the 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 metres overhead. For an unforgettable experience, check the park’s activities calendar to go on a guided walk at dusk. 

Insider tip: due to high numbers of visitors and limited parking, visiting and shuttle bus reservations are required to visit Muir Woods, so plan ahead.

Stop 3

Point Reyes National Seashore

27000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Inverness

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 packed with amazing discoveries, including remarkable wildlife, deep forests, dramatic cliffs and remote beaches.

No matter what time of year you visit, there is always 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 grey whales passing remarkably close. (It helps when you just push out into their swimming lanes). In spring, walk the trail to Chimney Rock to see countless wild flowers (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 hot chocolate in the cosy village of Point Reyes Station. And in autumn, listen for the eerie bugle of tule elk bulls. You 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 the lay of the land, call in at the outstanding Bear Valley Nature Center, with its child-friendly displays, maps and helpful rangers. The fairly flat, pushchair friendly Bear Valley Trail is a popular walk or bike ride.

Your road trip now heads inland to explore some of the finest wine country in the world.

 

Stop 5

Bodega Bay

913 CA-1, Bodega Bay

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. Tourists flock to the area to see familiar locations from the film, including cliff-top 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 a 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: make sure you take advantage of the ultra-fresh seafood options in Bodega Bay and if you see a free table at the Spud Point Crab Company, grab it.

Plan your visit

Stop 6

Napa Valley

955 School St, Napa

Napa Valley reigns as the land of grand estates, extensive 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, as well as contemporary cult bottlings such as 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.

Stop 7

Sonoma County

The Plaza, Sonoma

Much of Sonoma County has a small town feel to it, the many independently run wineries, restaurantsand boutiques contribute to that but it’s actually a huge place. Bordered by San Pablo Bay to the south, the Mayacamas Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Sonoma County 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.)

Plan your visit

Stop 8

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

1001 Fairgrounds Dr, Vallejo

There’s no hiding what the big draw is at this popular attraction in the East Bay city of Vallejo. Even before you park your car you’ll see the giant loop-the-loops, spirals and white-knuckle descents of the park’s trademark rollercoasters and thrill rides, such as Superman Ultimate Flight and Medusa. Get your fill of these adrenaline boosters, 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 natural-style enclosures; or feed a giraffe.

For tamer entertainment for the little ones, let them romp around Acme Fun Factory, a two-story playhouse. There is also a water play area just for smaller children, plus tot friendly rides and activities. For you, consider deluxe experiences, like finding out what our Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins feel like during a special dolphin interaction session.

Stop 9

Berkeley

2180 Milvia St, Berkeley

A haven for amateur 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-brewing scene—this is, after all, the home of the legendary Chez Panisse—sprinkled throughout with arts and culture. Add an easy-to-use public transport system 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 injection of energy, and students from around the world add an international and intellectual flair. How diverse is Berkeley? Along the main stretch of University Avenue, you can buy an exotic outfit at Sari Palace, sample Indonesian food at Jayakarta and enjoy home-roasted beans at Algorithm Coffee Co.Call in at the visitor information centre a block north of the central Berkeley BART station (the hub for the local light-rail system that accesses San Francisco and other Bay Area towns).

Plan your visit

SPOTLIGHT

Chez Panisse

1517 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley

Book a table 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 and has often been touted as the visionary chef who took Californian cuisine in a bold new direction.

Stop 11

Oakland

1 Frank H Ogawa Plaza,, Oakland

Diverse, dynamic, artsy, edgy,Oakland has seen an influx of young locals, drawn by the atmosphere, move into city centre loft apartments 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 generation kitchen whizz-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 Wild and 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 hands on the wall clock have not budged since 18 April 1906, the moment a massive quake struck the Bay Area, and jolted the building so much that the timepiece stopped ticking. Settle in and talk to your elbow mate at the bar, you never know what tall tales you might hear.

But save your visit to this historic bar until later in the day. When the sun is up and shining, paddle a kayak around the adjacent Oakland Estuary, which is especially lively during the autumn bird migration. Post paddle, wander around the square to visit shops or tour two historic vessels: the Lightship Relief, a floating lighthouse which aided navigation along various US coastlines from 1951 to 1974, and the USS Potomac, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s historic yacht (ask about bay cruises). Dine at inviting options such as Baia for organic pasta, or have crab cake benedict for brunch at the Oakland Grill. Farmers’ markets and outdoor films add to Jack London Square’s neighbourhood appeal.

Stop 12

San Jose

200 E Santa Clara St, San Jose

The centre of the booming, tech-centric Silicon Valley, San José is packed with worthwhile destinations, like the ultra hands-on The Tech Museum, and the 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 extensive 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 technology, from robots to gene splicing to alternative energy.

For the city’s most luxurious shopping experience, visit Santana Row, a snazzy outdoor shopping centre. 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.

Stop 13

San Francisco

San Francisco

Famous for grand dame Victorian buildings, 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 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 colourful 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 in the square itself. At night, catch a show in the theatre district. For more nightlife and dining, stroll along Valencia Street in the Mission, a trendy and eclectic hot-bed of restaurants and bars and enjoy some awesome late night scoops at Bi-Rite Ice Cream.

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Road Trip Snapshot

Find out more about the amazing locations featured in this road trip. Ready to plan your trip? Print the itinerary or map your adventure to get started.

Stop 1Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito
Stop 2Muir Woods National Monument
1 Muir Woods Rd., Mill Valley
Stop 3Point Reyes National Seashore
27000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Inverness
Stop 5Bodega Bay
913 CA-1, Bodega Bay
Stop 6Napa Valley
955 School St, Napa
Stop 7Sonoma County
The Plaza, Sonoma
Stop 8Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
1001 Fairgrounds Dr, Vallejo
Stop 9Berkeley
2180 Milvia St, Berkeley
Stop 11Oakland
1 Frank H Ogawa Plaza,, Oakland
Stop 12San Jose
200 E Santa Clara St, San Jose
Stop 13San Francisco
San Francisco

Car & RV Hire

Trusted car & RV hire companies to make your trip much easier

Avis Rent a Car
Enterprise Rent a Car
Hertz Rent a Car
Budget Rent a Car
Payless Car Rental
Zip Car
Alamo
National
Thrifty
Dollar
Fox Rent a Car
Sixt Rent a Car
Advantage OPCP
Silver Car
E-Z Rent a car
Midway Car Rental
Mex Rent a Car
United Auto Rental
Auto Distributors
Cruise America
El Monte RV

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