There is so much to see and do in San Francisco, you could spend a lifetime in the city and never experience all of it. But, sometimes you just need to get away from the big city and take a road trip to a beautiful place.
Luckily, the Bay Area and Northern California have a ton of options when it comes to quality day trips from San Francisco. It helps that San Francisco is located right in the middle of the state, making it an ideal base to take off and explore more of California, to the north, east, and south of the city.
A Guest Post By Mimi McFadden from The Atlas Heart
Whether you’re new to San Francisco, just visiting, or have lived here your whole life, here are a few ideas (or refreshers) of excellent day trips you can take from the city to kick back and relax, or stretch your legs and lace up for an adventure.
Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley (aka Wine Country)
Your trip to Northern California isn’t complete unless you include a trip to the state’s Wine Country! Sonoma and Napa counties are about an hour and a half drive north of San Francisco, and very easily accessible if you have a car.
Otherwise, there are also a ton of group tours to both Sonoma and Napa that leave from San Francisco.
Taking a trip to Wine Country to slowly make your way from winery to winery, is one of the most relaxing and easiest day trips you can take out of San Francisco It is a popular trip for both locals and tourists, just make sure you have a designated driver or you go with a group tour so you can taste some of these world-famous wines.
There are over 400 wineries in this region of California alone! Whether you’re a wine connoisseur or just want to experience the region with all of its exciting flavors and unique wines, Wine Country is always a good idea for a day trip from San Francisco.
If you’re looking to spice up your visit in Wine Country, even more, book a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the vineyards to start off your day of adventure.
Note: if you’re more of a beer person, Sonoma and Northern California as a whole have a ton of options for a DIY beer tasting day trip from San Francisco as well. Read through my post on the 30 Best California Breweries to Visit to get some ideas.
If you have a day with absolutely no plans and you’re really looking for an escape, head to the Sierras! Lake Tahoe is a common Bay Area retreat any time of the year.
If you’re looking to get away from the rainy winter gloom, grab your skis (or sleds) and welcome in the winter wonderland that is Tahoe! Cozy cabins, fresh snow-capped mountains, warm hot cocoa after a day of throwing snowballs. Just make sure you have snow chains for the drive up.
Tahoe can also be a hot summer getaway. Lake Tahoe is the clearest, bluest lake you might ever lay eyes on AND have the opportunity to swim in!
There are plenty of hiking trails in and around Tahoe, not to mention, all of the water sports available to you if you’re near the lake: paddle boarding, kayaking, parasailing. There are options for non-stop activity if that’s what you’re looking for.
About an hour and a half south of the city, Santa Cruz is one of California’s surfing hubs (labeled ‘Surf City USA’), and also happens to be my hometown.
The city is known for a few different things: popularizing the surf and skate brand, O’Neill, encouraging alternative community lifestyles and liberal beliefs, being the home to a University of California school, and for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (the oldest surviving seaside amusement park on the West Coast).
The city has a fun mix of both young and old families, as well as a college-town feel from the university students, allowing it to stay young and fun but also keep it’s ‘keep Santa Cruz weird’ traditions.
The restaurants in Santa Cruz are affordable, even cheap compared to San Francisco. Make a point to visit at least one of the bakeries in Santa Cruz, such as Gayle’s, and/or one of the homemade ice cream spots in the city, such as Marianne’s. You certainly won’t regret it!
A favorite pastime here for locals and tourists alike is to head to West Cliff walking cliff-side along the ocean and stopping to watch the surfers at Steamer Lane.
Top off your stroll with admission into the Beach Boardwalk where you can hop on The Giant Dipper or sink your teeth into a greasy, massive corn dog or funnel cake. Yum!
Marin Headlands/Muir Woods
The Marin Headlands are literally right across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and are a small network of gorgeous coastal hiking trails and weaving roads that look out onto the Pacific.
The Headlands also hold a great amount of history as they were once home to several different military settlements and fortifications as recent as World War II. These settlements are still in place and open to visitors year-round!
Since you’re already making your way over the bridge, a visit into Muir Woods National Monument will have you looking skyward at the towering redwood trees above you.
It is about a 45-minute drive outside of the city and caters to pedestrians once inside the park, so make sure you have some comfortable walking shoes with you.
Tomales Bay/The Marshall Store
Continuing on the north of San Francisco, driving to and around Tomales Bay (an inlet from the Pacific that spans just 1 mile across) has so many cute little “towns” and fun stops along the way you can 100% make a full day out of this trip.
One such stop is a staple if you’re in the area, The Marshall Store. It’s a small seafood shack that serves up fresh oysters, seafood, and deli items daily with bay-side outdoor patio seating. You’ll be saying “Oh shucks!” if you miss out on this place.
While you’re chugging along the bay, consider renting a kayak at one of the local outfitters and exploring the abundant marine life! Seals, sea lions, jellyfish, crabs can all easily be spotted pretty much any time you go.
Those urban hikes not enough for you? Grab your hiking boots and trek up Mount Tamalpais in Marin County! Again, it’s an easy day trip from San Francisco as it is essentially right across the bridge.
Mt. Tam is the highest peak in the Marin Hills that can be seen clearly from the majority of the surrounding Bay Area. Likewise, if you make your way to the summit, incredible, nearly birds-eye views of San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Pacific Ocean await you.
One of the nicest, most accessible beaches near San Francisco, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to another place when you’re lounging on the white sand that makes up Stinson.
Stinson is a few miles stretch of beach, which makes it a great spot for a run or gives you plenty of space to spread out with a blanket and soak up those rays (if the afternoon fog hasn’t rolled in yet).
Stinson is in a weird weather vortex where most of the time it’s warmer, sunnier, and not as foggy or windy as literally any other Northern California beach. You can bring a picnic and a good book and not worry about freezing your bum off.
Big perk: the far side of the beach is dog-friendly, so you can bring your K-9 BFF too! After a day at the beach, head into town for a bite to eat and check out a few of the shops.
If you’re looking for a quick jaunt outside of the city, Pacifica is a small, 6-mile coastal town along the Pacific and a popular surfing and mountain biking destination for SF locals. Outside of the outdoor activities Pacifica offers, there isn’t much else but a few shops and quick-eats restaurants.
In the summer, it gets hot enough outside that you can swim in the water without wearing a wetsuit. Hike along the beaches and bluffs or make your way more inland on two wheels and brave the steep ravines of the mountainside and get muddy.
Pacifica is also home to one of the most scenic Taco Bells you will ever encounter. Fact.
This is not a day trip for the faint of heart. Yosemite National Park will require an early start and a late finish if you’re attempting this one in a day!
It’s about a 4-hour drive from San Francisco, but holy moly if it isn’t worth every single minute you spent in the car, and more!
Yosemite is in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and is most famous for its Half Dome peak, a granite rock formation that seems to have been sliced cleanly in half. The park is home to the ancient, towering Sequoias of the mountain range, waterfalls, peaks, and meadows all enclosed within the park borders.
You’ll virtually never run out of new hiking trails to explore, and people come back year after year to hike the same trails again. Whether you’re a hiker, climber, bird watcher, nature enthusiast, or just looking to get away and experience something cool, Yosemite is on nearly everyone’s bucket list.
Another cute and quirky beachside town, Carmel-by-the-Sea is the perfect mix of high-end swanky meets boho beach bum. It’s a charming atmosphere and fine white sand beaches make this seaside city such a fun and relaxing place to escape to.
If you’re in the mood to shop, Carmel’s main street is lined with cute boutique stores and art galleries, as well as tasting rooms so you can split your afternoon up with a little wine tasting.
Half Moon Bay
Because you can never get enough of the coast and cute coastal towns in California, Half Moon Bay is a classic SF day trip.
It’s just under an hour outside of the city and is made up of a string of pretty quiet beaches along the coast, the most popular being Mavericks Beach where some of the most talented surfers take on the ocean’s “maverick” monster waves every year.
Surf shops, mom and pop restaurants, and souvenir shops line the main highway that goes through Half Moon Bay. For some of the best clam chowder in the state, pull off and head into Sam’s Chowder House for a warm bowl of comfort.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
It doesn’t matter if you’re 5 years old or 45 years old, the Monterey Bay Aquarium never gets old. Monterey Bay has one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and the aquarium does a magnificent job of showcasing everything that’s right in its backyard.
The aquarium features a massive kelp forest, open sea gallery, and daily entertainment from the in-house sea otters.
Once you’ve had your fill of fascinating ocean creatures, go for a stroll around Cannery Row for some grub or world-class shopping.
As you can see, there are a ton of options for a day trip from San Francisco. This list only scratches the surface of the different trips you could tackle, but these are a few of my favorites.
If you’re looking for more ideas for things to do in the Bay Area or California as a whole, make sure to check out my bucket-list post on 101 Things to Do in California. How many experiences have you checked off in California?