In Northern California, San Francisco gets all the attention. But the places that make for great day trips from San Francisco are often just as magnificent.
The Best Day Trips from San Francisco
Here are nine destinations you should definitely make the time to see—none are more than a three-hour drive from the city.
Napa Valley barely needs an introduction: It’s America’s preeminent wine country, frequently beating out the wines of France and other major oenophilic regions in blind taste tests. What international travelers might not know is that this gorgeous region is an easy day trip from San Francisco—just 50 miles up from downtown.
Come to tour the wineries, visit the tasting rooms, unwind at a spa, and eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant (French Laundry in Yountville is the most renowned). Surrounding you will be the pastoral beauty of endless vineyards.
If you’re looking for a Napa-style experience at a bit of a slower, more casual pace, consider Sonoma Valley as one of your day trips from San Francisco. Start at the town of Sonoma’s historic town square, where you can tour California’s birthplace, Mission San Francisco Solano, and enjoy refined boutiques and eateries. Then head north to explore a beautiful valley filled with tranquil towns, resplendent nature, and hundreds of excellent wineries.
Healdsburg, in particular, is worth a visit; it’s a tiny, well-heeled town with fantastic restaurants, friendly tasting rooms, hospitable hotels, and just a touch of quirk.
Lake Tahoe, about three hours northeast of the city, is a wonderful option for San Francisco day trips. Gorgeous in the summer and snowy in the winter, its mountains-meet-lake scenery is completely unforgettable. The Lake Tahoe region, which straddles the California-Nevada border, is a mecca for recreation, wilderness, and fantastic hospitality.
In South Lake, the Hard Rock Hotel is a veritable museum of rock history—a visit here immerses you in music, memorabilia, and magnificent views over the lake.
The Tri-Valley Area
One of the more accessible day trips from San Francisco is to the Tri-Valley area, about 30 miles east of the city. Anchoring the region is a small town called Danville, with its darling main street and historic all-American charm. This region also encompasses the towns of Pleasanton, Livermore, Dublin, and San Ramon, offering something for everyone.
Taste at one of Livermore Valley’s dozens of wineries—Wente Vineyards is the most notable, and presents outdoor summer concerts with big-name headliners—and hike the region’s beautiful national and state parklands. To be rewarded with one of the widest panoramas in the West, climb or drive up iconic Mount Diablo.
Those fascinated by the history of computer science should not miss the chance to visit Silicon Valley, home of Google, Apple, and dozens of other important technology companies. One of the easier San Francisco day trips to make, a jaunt to Silicon Valley can include a tour of renowned Stanford University (it’s more beautiful than you’d expect) with lunch or dinner on Palo Alto’s bustling University Ave.
In tranquil Los Altos, you can see the garage where Steve Jobs started Apple. And in San Jose—the most populated western city between Los Angeles and Canada—visit the Tech Museum of Innovation, see something supernatural at the Winchester Mystery House, or take the kids for a memorable day at Happy Hollow Park and Zoo.
Looking for beachy day trips from San Francisco? Santa Cruz is a lively seaside town with great beaches, fierce waves, and surfer-cool denizens. Explore the waterfront Victorian downtown, spend a day on the sand, tour woodsy UC Santa Cruz, or take a thrill ride on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
Sacramento the capital of a state whose economy ranks among the top 10 in the world. This city blends the old, the new, and the political, making it a wonderful historical option when you’re deciding on San Francisco day trips. Tour the Capitol, visit the character-filled Old West-style district of Old Sacramento along the massive American River, and trace the area’s settlement at Sutter’s Fort. You can also check out the California State Railroad Museum.
A short drive away is the college town of Davis, with its delightful restaurants, boutiques, and tree-lined scenery, plus world-class intelligentsia. Tour the UC Davis campus or catch a performance at its high-caliber Mondavi Center.
Monterey and Carmel
The two adjacent seaside towns of Monterey and Carmel are worthy destinations unto themselves. Until 1849, Monterey was California’s capital under several flags; today, it offers enduring charm and new discoveries with every visit. Though there are many fantastic attractions here, the main one is the acclaimed Monterey Bay Aquarium, featuring what many say is the world’s best display of marine life: It’s home to more than 35,000 living things.
Other must-sees: Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck; the incredibly scenic 17-Mile Drive; and Carmel’s upscale Ocean Ave, leading down to gorgeous Carmel Beach.
To get away from any and all bustle, make the three-hour drive north from San Francisco to Mendocino, where the rugged coastline meets majestic redwoods, and fantastic wineries and breweries are thrown in for good measure. Stroll unspoiled beaches, taste wine in Anderson Valley, or take in the Mendocino Botanical Gardens. The Skunk Train provides a magical ride through the forest, and the Stanford Inn provides delicious vegan food and serene accommodations in a nature-filled setting.
–Original reporting by Avital Andrews. Follow her on Twitter @avitalb.