There are lots of things to love about the San Francisco Bay Area: great weather, incredible restaurants, and beautiful surroundings. One of my favorite things about the area, however, is how many great places you can visit without ever staying overnight in a hotel.
1. Napa Valley
A perfect escape from the stress of daily life, Napa Valley is pure relaxation. In addition to all the great food and wine, there’s something about the rolling vineyards, which turn a gorgeous golden color in fall and winter, that just melts the stress away. Many locals prefer quiet Sonoma Valley over the more touristy Napa Valley, but I believe that Napa is popular for a reason: it has better restaurants, nicer scenery and cuter downtown areas than Sonoma.
Although Napa is an easy day trip from the Bay Area (especially SF), I always recommend that out of town visitors spend a few days here, because there’s so much to do and eat. If you’re looking for deals, avoid summer and the fall harvest season. From December to April, hotel prices should be significantly lower and, thanks to California’s current drought, the weather will probably be mostly decent. Staying in a town that isn’t a tourist destination, like American Canyon, will also bring your hotel bill way down, while still giving you easy access to Napa Valley, especially the towns at the southern end, Napa and Yountville. You’re going to want to drive around the valley anyway to explore, so you might as well save money by staying a few miles further from the center of the action.
2. Low-Tiding at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
Most locals have been to Half Moon Bay, a charming seaside town on the peninsula between SF and San Jose. But low-tiding at the nearby Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is a little more under the radar. Whenever the tide is even slightly negative (check tide tables, it happens at least a few times month), tidepools and all the cool sea creatures that live in them are exposed. I’ve done this a couple of times and have seen everything from octopuses and crabs to sea urchins and many varieties of starfish. But my favorite things here are the brilliant purple-green sea anemones that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen while low-tiding in the Atlantic Ocean. This is a great option if you’ve only got a half day; even allowing for drive time and lunch on the coast you’ll only need 3-4 hours to see this part of the bay area well.
3. Carmel and Monterey
Probably the most popular day trip from the Bay Area, these two towns are about an hour south of San Jose. Carmel is more ritzy, with upscale shopping, excellent restaurants (check out Carmel Belle and Little Napoli) and fancy hotels, while Monterey is your classic touristy seaside town with whale watching boats, abundant saltwater taffy and clam chowder and restaurants that charge more than they’re worth. In Monterey, you can’t miss the sea lions, and I hear they have a little, under-the-radar aquarium there (that’s a place I regret never making it to).
The two cities are connected by 17-Mile Drive ($10 entrance fee), a road that follows the coast through the gated communities of Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove, and includes the famous Lone Cypress Tree. You can also drive more directly between Monterey and Carmel on Highway 1, but I recommend doing 17-Mile Drive if it’s your first time visiting.
You don’t need to go far for a great beach. Carmel City Beach Park, right where downtown Carmel meets the ocean, is the nicest beach I’ve been to in Northern California (and very dog-friendly, too).
If you’re looking for even more to do in the area, head about 15 minutes south of Carmel and you’ll reach Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. The scenery isn’t all that different than what you’ll see around the rest of Carmel and Monterey, but it’s still nice and there is quite a bit of wildlife too (we saw a heron).
4. Santa Cruz
I’ll be honest: for most of my time in the bay area, I didn’t think much of Santa Cruz. I visited the very first summer I lived in the area, and although I could see how the boardwalk and carnival rides were fun for some people, especially kids, I’ve never been much for amusement parks and there are many equally nice beaches that are far less crowded, so I quickly decided Santa Cruz wasn’t worth the hassle of finding (and paying through the nose for) parking.
But then last year my mom visited me in October and we headed down there to do some kayaking, and I saw Santa Cruz in a whole new light. It was a quiet, almost sleepy, seaside town with a friendly and totally laid back vibe, and I realized why all my friends who went to college there are so fanatical about how great it is. If you avoid summer and holiday weekends, you’ll see a side of Santa Cruz most tourists don’t experience. (As an added bonus, on the way home from that kayaking trip, we discovered Los Gatos Cafe, which very quickly became my favorite brunch spot in the entire bay area).
5. Big Sur
This is last not because it’s my least favorite (far from it!), but because it’s the longest drive from the bay area. All of the previous places are no more than a two hour drive from just about any part of the Bay Area, but Big Sur is a longer trek, about 2 hours from San Jose and 3 from SF, if there’s no traffic (big “if,” especially on a holiday weekend). It’s well worth it, however, even if you only have a day. The scenery is progressively nicer and nicer (you’ll pass Carmel and Monterey on the way), but once you reach Bixby Creek Bridge you’re in the heart of Big Sur and from here to San Simeon the views are just heavenly (the nicest anywhere on the California coast, in my opinion).
A trip here is well worth it even if you just drive and get out of your car to snap the occasional photo, but for more active travelers, there are plenty of hiking opportunities in the nearby Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.