Planning a vacation in the Golden State? Your first stop should be the beautiful city of San Francisco. The largest city in Northern California, San Francisco is the perfect place to base yourself for exploring the region. From world-class wine estates to spectacular beaches, there’s an array of amazing day trips from San Francisco, California.
While San Francisco is packed with attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, beautiful beaches, delightful state parks, and other interesting things to see lie just a few hours out of town. A short drive will get you to Yosemite National Park, the giant redwoods of Muir Woods, and the world-famous wine country of Napa Valley. You can spend the day lazing on tranquil beaches like Stinson Beach or Santa Cruz or explore the tech world of Silicon Valley.
Ready to hit the road? Start planning your adventure with this comprehensive guide to the top-rated San Francisco side trips.
Top-rated San Francisco day trips
Gorgeous weather, miles of sun-drenched coastline, and breathtaking natural beauty… what’s not to love about Santa Cruz? Nestled on the northern shores of Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz is a laid-back beach community with loads of activities to enjoy. Just an hour’s drive from San Francisco, Santa Cruz is a lovely day trip from San Francisco.
Your first stop in Santa Cruz is the beach, where you can spend the day surfing, stand-up paddling, or kayaking. Stroll along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and enjoy vintage rides at the seaside amusement park. Head downtown to Pacific Avenue to shop in the vintage clothing stores and explore one of the many art galleries.
Venture along West Cliff Drive to Natural Bridges State Beach to see the famous bridge-shaped rock formation. Check out the city’s calendar of events and join the locals at one of the many events or festivals that attract visitors from all over the country.
Muir Woods National Monument
If you’re heading to California, seeing giant redwoods is a must—and the Muir Woods National Monument is one of the best places to do just that! Just north of San Francisco in Marin County, Muir Woods is famous for its coastal redwood forest. Home to towering old-growth redwood trees, the reserve is part of California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Pack your hiking boots and spend a few hours wandering among giants at Muir Woods. You can explore the pedestrian-only park on your own or join ranger-led excursions that focus on bird and wildlife watching. Marvel at the 1,000-year-old trees that tower over 100 meters as you enjoy a picnic lunch in Bohemian Grove.
While you’re there, pay a visit to the site where a special memorial plaque was laid by United Nations delegates in 1945 to honor the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Escape the hustle and bustle of the city and head north along the beautiful Marin Peninsula to Stinson Beach. Stretching for miles with spectacular coastal views, Stinson Beach is the perfect spot for relaxing.
As Stinson Beach is hailed as one of the best beaches around San Francisco for swimming, you can take long swims or surf the popular breaks on boards or kayaks. Afternoon winds make it perfect for windsurfing. The brightly colored sails make for a lovely scene.
Spacious picnic areas with barbeques abound. The nearby town also has a small grocery store if you need supplies. If you prefer eating indoors, several restaurants serve casual fare here, too.
Stinson Beach is just a 35-minute trip from the Golden Gate Bridge, making it an easy and hassle-free day trip from San Francisco.
Even if you’re not a wine-lover, a trip to Napa Valley should be on your list. Stretching north for 35 miles from Vallejo, this world-renowned wine country is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in California. Dotted with beautiful estates, European-style castles, and famous wineries, it’s well worth the short trip from the city.
Some of the best winemakers in the world call Napa Valley home, so there’s plenty of wine tasting to be done here. Explore the hundreds of hillside vineyards in the car or hop on the Napa Valley Wine Train and travel through the valley in style. The vintage locomotive has an excellent restaurant, too; wine and dine as the vineyards fly past.
Gourmands will also delight in the world-class culinary offerings in Napa Valley. Treat yourself to a one-of-a-kind food and wine experience at one of the Michelin-star restaurants dotting the region.
Another sunny seaside town worth visiting in the area is Sausalito. Situated across the Golden Gate Strait from San Francisco, Sausalito has a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere and loads of eateries, bars, galleries, and museums.
As you stroll along the historic Sausalito waterfront, you could be fooled into thinking you’re somewhere in the Mediterranean. Take a walking tour of the Richardson Bay houseboat community to learn about the history of the floating homes that date back to the Second World War.
If you have the kids in tow, take them to the Bay Area Discovery Museum to get their hands dirty in a variety of interactive exhibits. Visit the Marine Mammal Center to see some real sea lions.
Be sure to make a stop at the Bay Model Visitor Center to see a 1.5-acre working model of San Francisco Bay. Take a picnic up to the Marin Headlands and take in sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Yosemite National Park
You’ve seen the giant redwoods, now it’s time for the mammoth sequoias. Yosemite National Park is another one of California’s top attractions and shouldn’t be missed! Spanning over 1,200 square miles, Yosemite has some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the country. Dramatic waterfalls, awe-inspiring cliffs, huge trees, and abundant wildlife – you’ll find it all here.
Take a hike to the impressive Yosemite Falls and feel the mists wash over you as you marvel at its tumbling cascade. If you love climbing, head to Half Dome or El Capitan, two of the park’s most famous sites, and hit the rock. If you prefer something less life-threatening, take a peaceful drive up to Glacier Point for some incredible views.
There are also so many amazing hiking trails to explore in the park, as well as tranquil picnic spots with beautiful views. It’s the perfect place to get close to nature and enjoy the silence.
Angel Island State Park
Jump on the ferry from San Francisco or Tiburon and head out to Angel Island State Park. The largest natural island in the San Francisco Bay, Angel Island has beautiful landscapes and breathtaking views. Once a fishing and hunting site for the Miwok Native Americans, the island is now protected and home to myriad fauna and flora.
A short 15-minute ferry ride gets you to Angel Island, where you can explore on an open-air tram or a Segway tour. Learn about the island’s fascinating history and the Civil War buildings. Visit an old immigration station and explore a Cold War missile site.
Walk or bike the five-mile Paved Perimeter Road, discovering key historic sites along the way. Or hike the Historical Route or the Ridge Trail for a peaceful forest reverie.
Have lunch at the charming Angel Island Café, where you can tuck into delicious specialty sandwiches against a backdrop of awe-inspiring views of the bay.
While Silicon Valley may not sound all that interesting, there are plenty of attractions and interesting sites. Spanning over 20 miles in the southern San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley is renowned for being the home of global technology companies like Apple, Google, and Meta. It also boasts plenty of parks, museums, and technology-focused institutions to explore.
Make the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve your first stop. Spend a few hours hiking or kayaking around the park and soaking up the beautiful views. Watch out for local birds and wildlife, as they’re abundant. Then head to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose to fiddle with robots, step into virtual reality and watch an IMAX show.
Feel like a spot of shopping? Hit Santana Row and unleash your credit card at the boutique stores and high-end shops lining the pretty tree-lined avenues. When you’ve built up an appetite, you’ll find everything from casual cafés to gourmet eateries to grab some grub.
Synonymous with being one of the world’s most famous wine regions, Sonoma Valley is simply breathtaking. Spread over 17 miles in California’s Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley boasts rambling wine estates, postage stamp towns, and historic homes.
Begin with tasting some wine at two of California’s oldest and most distinguished wineries in the town of Sonoma. Stroll around the charming town plaza and admire the historic adobes and beautifully preserved buildings. Do some shopping in the town’s boutique stores, charming antique shops, and art galleries.
Head to the Sonoma Coast State Park for some outdoor fun where you can hike, bike, or horseback ride bike through ancient redwood forests and oak-studded hills. Take to the waters of the Russian River and enjoy some canoeing, kayaking, or fishing.
Legendary scenic drives, stunning, uncrowded beaches, and fabulous seafood restaurants: Monterey has something for everyone. If you love the outdoors and want to get up close to nature, then a day trip to Monterey is a must!
Explore the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Nestled on the Monterey Peninsula, this tiny one-square-mile seaside village boasts fairytale cottages, charming art galleries, museums, and a library of the historic Carmel Mission. Wander along the Scenic Bluff Path from Carmel Beach to the Carmel River State Beach and try to spot whales.
RELATED: Top-Rated Things to Do in Carmel, CA
The historic district of Cannery Row is another Monterey gem. Once home to a busy sardine canning industry, Cannery Row’s abandoned cannery buildings now house restaurants, hotels, shops, and historic attractions.
Wander around the bustling district and explore the historic sites. Shop for souvenirs and dine on fresh seafood at one of the many eateries.
Castle Rock State Park
The spectacular sculpted sandstone landscapes of Castle Rock State Park shouldn’t be missed. You’re your hiking boots and backpack and head high into the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Running along a rugged crest, Castle Rock State Park has some incredible hiking and horseback riding trails. Whether you take a short stroll or a challenging hike, you’ll see some breathtaking views of Silicon Valley.
You’ll also find plenty of caverns and rocks for climbing, including the eponymous Castle Rock. And if you’re a flora-fundi, the park is home to dense forests of redwoods, knob cone pines, and black oaks.
There are flushing toilets and a water bottle refill station in the Castle Rock parking lot. Your electric car can also be charged while you’re exploring the park at a charging station.