In a few weeks we have a good friend from Ireland who will be coming to California for the first time. Ok, ok…she’s more than a friend. She’s my all-time favorite babysitter, and I’m kind of hoping she’ll fall in love with America and move here forever. And by “here” I mean the spare mattress in our guest room. And since I want her to love America, I thought I’d give her some ideas of top-notch destinations to see once she arrives.
I logged in to my blog to pull up a post on what she should do when she visits the Bay Area only to realize that I have never written that post! How have I lived here for 3 years and never given you all ideas of what to do when you come? Better late than never, so here are a few of my favorite things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area:
If you are coming to the Bay Area, it’s likely because you want to visit the foggy city. Even though it’s only an hour away from our house, I don’t venture up to San Francisco that often. I have kids with small bladders and it’s a bit of a to-do…and it’s cold in The City (California has made me soft–so soft that minor temperature changes have become deterrents. I’m sorry.).
There are hop-on-hop-off tour buses in the city that will take you to many of the top landmarks, or you can buy a MUNI (bus) pass to get around quite easily. If you have your own car, you may want to just park it somewhere that doesn’t cost more than your mortgage and walk or take public transportation within The City because parking here is no bueno. San Francisco is only 7 miles x 7 miles, so it’s totally do-able to see most things by foot anyway.
Now, on to my favorite spots to visit in the city.
Golden Gate Bridge (duh)
I always start my venture over the bridge at the view point and visitor center on the San Francisco side of the bridge. If you’re driving your own car you can park for $1 per hour while you hop out to look around and shop for Golden Gate souvenirs. I always walk out on the bridge so I can look up at the copper spans and down into the deep blue water.
After stopping by the view point I like to drive over the bridge and up to the Marin Headlands. You park up by the old Army barracks and take a short walk out to the best view of the bridge anywhere–you’re slightly above the bridge looking down at it, and it’s absolutely breathtaking.
If you’re feeling more adventurous you can rent a bike on the city side and ride over the bridge on 2 wheels (there are several spots to rent bikes, but we got ours at the Sports Basement when we did this ride pre-kids). You can ride over the bridge and right back to where you started, or you can ride all the way to Tiburon and catch the ferry back to the city.
This is a fun area to explore. There are lots of (overpriced) shops and restaurants, and even a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Go check out the sea lions on the pier, eat some bread bowl clam chowder, or even charter a boat out around the San Francisco Bay (highly recommended). We like to walk up to the Buena Vista for an Irish Coffee and then over to Ghiradelli for free chocolate samples and ice cream.
Fisherman’s Wharf is also where you catch the boat out to the most infamous prison in America: Alcatraz. If you want to visit Alcatraz, plan ahead–the only way out there is by boat, and spots fill up quickly. Your best bet is to buy tickets ahead of time and reserve your spot online as soon as you know the day that you want to go out to the island.
Speaking of Fisherman’s Wharf, there’s a great spot to watch the trolleys turn around in front of the Buena Vista and, if you want to, go for a ride! Taking a trolley ride is a lot of fun and about as iconic as you can get! I like riding the route between Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square (shopping, hotels, restaurants, and more shopping). This route passes close to Lombard Street if you want to hop off and check out the twisty-turnies.
Golden Gate Park
Go for a walk on the gorgeous trails, rent a boat at the Stow Lake Boathouse, or check out some of the museums–the California Academy of Sciences (where you can walk through a 3-story rainforest biodome and view a myriad of sealife in the aquarium) is my fave.
Chinatown and Little Italy
There is so much to explore in these little neighborhoods of San Francisco. Eat your way through the streets, poke your head into the little shops, and enjoy the world-class people watching.
Catch a Giant’s Game
San Francisco loves their hometown heroes, the San Francisco Giants (Baseball, people. They’re a baseball team.). Head over to AT&T park for a game or, if you’re like me, just nosh on some garlic fries while enjoying the gorgeous views over San Francisco Bay.
San Francisco Zoo
I loooooooove zoos! Every time we travel I have to see the local zoo, and I love visiting the local zoos where we live. The San Francisco Zoo is a good-sized place with all of your favorite animals: giraffes, monkeys, penguins, polar bears, lions, and a tropical rain forest building. There’s also a cute little train ride that goes around part of the zoo and decent food in the cafes. It’s definitely worth checking out if you have an open day!
Bay Area Discovery Museum
This is more for those of you who are traveling with little companions aged 1-7 years old. Just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito, I love this children’s museum for its interactive exhibits, indoor/outdoor play spaces, and pirate ship playground overlooking San Francisco Bay. Insider pro tip: the first Wednesday every month has FREE admission!
Day Trips From San Francisco:
Outside of The City there is still plenty to do! Here are a few of my top picks:
Take a tour bus out to Napa or Sonoma for a day of wine tasting and soaking in the beautiful scenery. Or, if you still want to go wine tasting without the crowds, head south toward the Santa Cruz Mountains (where we live!) and sample dozens of local wineries in a single afternoon.
From San Francisco your best bet is to head over to Half Moon Bay so you can dip your toes in the Pacific. Continue south to Santa Cruz if you want a day of amusement park fun at The Boardwalk: rides, fair food, and a giant wooden roller coaster await.
Ummmm…some of the biggest, oldest living things ON EARTH. Need I say more? It’s worth a trip. Some forests to check out if you’re near San Francisco: Muir Woods (12 miles outside of the city), Big Basin, Portola Redwoods State Park, or Butano State Park.
Now, I’m partial to Silicon Valley because this is where we’ve been living for the last few years. It really is a unique spot to visit, especially if you’re into technology and tech companies. All of the big tech companies are based here, and many have visitor centers you can check out: Apple, Google, Facebook and Netflix to name a few.
Monterey and Carmel-By-The-Sea
These are some of my all-time favorite coastal towns. They’re just so quaint and beautiful and slow-paced that they make you feel a million miles away from any care in the world. If you make it to Monterey, be sure to check out the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, go sea kayaking with the marine life, or go out on a whale-watching tour. If you’re in Carmel, drop everything you’re doing (which is probably not much of anything if you’re in Carmel), and eat brunch at Mission Ranch. Just trust me on this one, and send me your thank you card later.
Now that you know what to do, all you have to do is come enjoy your own San Francisco treat!