It’s difficult to spend much time in San Francisco without making a day trip to Monterey (and its famous aquarium) — and it’s even harder not to take advantage of the nearby Napa Valley with its plethora of wine-tasting and artisanal food options.
With so many famous destinations within a few hours’ drive, it’s hard to believe there could be many lesser-known places worth visiting nearby. Believe it or not, though, there are still quite a few unexpected day trips you can take from San Francisco.
Napa and Sonoma are world-famous for their wine — but to those of us who live around here, they’re also infamous for being full of tourists and loud 21st birthday parties. Fortunately, there’s a lesser-known alternative nearby. The wine is nearly as good as that in Napa or Sonoma, the pace is much more laid-back and relaxing, and the scenery is beautiful in its own way.
Livermore lies about an hour east of San
Pescadero, which is located about an hour south of San Francisco, offers a beautiful and lesser-known alternative to the touristy Half Moon Bay. This is the perfect place for an active, beach day trip. There are miles and miles of trails and roads for hiking and biking, as well as several beautiful, rugged beaches.
Once you’ve had your fill of frolicking in the often fog-shrouded sea, head into town and have dinner at Duarte’s Tavern, which has been around for over 120 years. If you time it right, you’ll have some amazing views of the sun setting into the sea on your drive back to San Francisco.
What could be better than escaping the urban congestion of the Bay Area for a day and exploring redwoods, beaches, and the Russian River instead? While Mendocino and Fort Bragg are famous for good reason, there’s no need to go so far — and stay overnight — for an equivalent experience.
Guerneville is just a couple hours north of San Francisco, making it the perfect distance for a long day trip. While it’s not a top-secret destination, it’s also not too popular to maintain its historic small-town charm (but with food so good it can stand up to just about any urban Californian foodie standards). In addition to the town itself, you can experience the majesty of redwood groves or enjoy the Russian River’s water offerings.
Black Chasm Cavern National Natural Landmark
This is the furthest destination from San Francisco on the list, but it’s well worth a visit and it’s surprisingly unknown even among Bay Area natives. While you can’t explore the cave on your own, there are guided tours that tend to be both entertaining and informative. You’ll feel like an expert on helictites by the time you’re done here!
Once you’re done with the cave tour and exploring the visitor center and gift shop, you have several options for continuing your outdoorsy day. Mount Zion State Forest is right on the way back, as is Camanche Reservoir. On the other hand, if you’ve had enough of the outdoors, a short detour will bring you
Gilroy is known for being the world’s garlic capital, and takes clear pride in this title, with an annual garlic festival and many restaurants that feature garlic prominently in their offerings. For those who can’t get enough of the pungent bulb, the annual garlic festival is a taste of heaven on earth. Even if you aren’t a big allium fan, though, Gilroy has more to do than you might expect.
There are several excellent wineries in and near Gilroy, and the city is also famous for its outlets. In other words, it’s ideal for a girls’ day out with shopping, fine wines, and some excellent places to eat. If you’re here with the family, the Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park is a must-visit destination, though it’s best for fairly young children.
Sutter’s Fort and Old Town Sacramento
Despite the name of San Francisco’s Mission District harkening back to California’s earlier days, it’s easy to forget the state’s incredibly rich history when you’re insulated by the modern bustle of the city. A day trip to Sacramento, just an hour and a half away, is a great reminder (or education!).
Start your day trip in Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. Here, you’ll learn all about California’s gold rush, John Sutter, his connection to the tragic Donner Party (and how this helped shape history), and what life was like in the area in the mid-19th century. Once you’re in the spirit of the adventurous Gold Rush days, head over to Old Sacramento. You can explore the railroad museum, have a drink in a saloon, and then enjoy a great meal on the historic Delta King, a riverboat that’s been on the Sacramento River since the 1920s.