For a trip that encapsulates beautiful countryside, great beaches, and exciting cities, head to the Bay Area in Northern California. Comprising nine counties, The Bay Area contains Golden State highlights like San Francisco, Napa Valley, and Half Moon Bay.
Most of its development happened after WWII, and then again during the tech boom; as a result, the Bay Area feels shiny and new while still hanging onto its historic feel. Most importantly, its landmarks are widely recognizable to travelers from the US and abroad. Visiting is a chance to see some of those cultural touchstones for yourself.
Whether you like to surf, hike, shop, eat, or some combination of the above, this region of California has something to offer everyone who visits. This list represents not just the best things to do in the Bay area, but also the most iconic.
Bay Area: Fast facts
Size: 6,966 sq miles
Population: 7.75 mil
Highest elevation: 4,360 ft
The 11 Best Things To See & Do In The Bay Area
11. San Francisco
San Francisco warrants its own guide (we’re working on it!), but you have to include it even if you’re only in the Bay Area for a short time. Ride the trolley up and down its steeply inclined streets, take shots of the pastel-hued houses, and visit Fisherman’s Wharf. The most quintessential SF locale might be Alamo Square, which you’ll recognize if you ever watched Full House. For a romantic drive, head up to Twin Peaks, which offers a look out onto the city and the bay below.
10. Golden Gate Bridge
The famous art deco suspension bridge connects San Francisco to North Bay. Try to visit it at dusk to catch a tremendous view of the sunset - unless the Golden Gate Strait is submerged in fog, which happens regularly. Tourists like biking or walking across the 4,200-foot-long bridge versus driving. Interesting fact: the color of the bridge, which most tourists refer to as red, is actually “International Orange” and was mixed specially for the bridge. If you’d like it in your home, you can copy the paint recipe on the website.
Though it discontinued its prison in 1963, the legend of Alcatraz still runs strong in the American imagination. Visiting the popular tourist attraction takes about a day. First, hop on the ferry and coast over the water. Then, tour the former military fortress-turned-prison that housed the worst criminals in the country. It’s a fascinating trek combining history and sociology, with a little pop culture thrown in for fun. Of course, the question remains: once you get inside Alcatraz, can you ever escape?
8. Napa Valley
If you haven’t the time for Italy, a trip to Napa Valley will make you feel like you’ve set down in Tuscany. The region is world-renowned for its wine, and it's easy to get lost in the lush vineyards. The landscape closely resembles its Mediterranean counterpart - there’s even a Medieval-style castle! Wine tasting tours are the name of the game, but if you get tired of sipping, there are also hot springs, golf courses, and hot air balloon rides to keep you busy while you fall in love with the California countryside.
7. Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Like the National Park with a similar name, this State Park contains lush old-growth forest of California Redwoods. The trees are instantly recognizable by their rich red bark and towering stature. Hiking through the protected wilderness, you might spot deer, opossum, and adorable Western Fence Lizards. Camping and cabin facilities mean this can turn into an overnight retreat, which is an opportune way to see the night sky full of stars.
6. Half Moon Bay
Formerly known as Spanishtown, Half Moon Bay is a coastal city with a gorgeous crescent-shaped beach. Wildflower dotted cliffs descend to perfect sand and the Pacific ocean, inhabited in this region by cute sea lions. The waves in the area are major, making it a popular destination for surfing, but landlubbers will find plenty to do hiking, feating, and shopping at the picturesque little town.
The enclaves of floating houseboats in Sausalito were built by homeless artists in the years following WWII. Therefore, be prepared to feast your eyes on some wacky and wonderful architecture. If you like to bike, hopping on a rental and biking over the bridge to this quaint area makes a great day trip. Dine at a cozy café with a view of San Francisco across the water and shop artisanal goods. Make sure you bring a notebook so you'll be ready if the muse strikes- Sausalito has long been a sanctuary for artists, especially writers and poets. Hot tip: If you’re there in September, the Floating Homes Association runs a tour of the coolest boats.
4. San José
If you’re interested in tech at all, San José is a can’t-miss stop on our list of the best things to do in the Bay Area. This is the hub of Silicon Valley, once little more than bland warehouses and office buildings, now a commercial and cultural center unto itself. The best way to see it is to rent a bike (or a Tesla!) and tour the streets, stopping at whatever coffee shop/yoga studio/vegan restaurant catches your eye. The city also has a vibrant theatre scene, attracting popular broadways musicals and performances by the Moscow Ballet, and more. San José is also the home of the spooky and fun Winchester Mystery House, one of the weirdest attractions in the US.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is a destination in itself, and no list of the best things to do in the Bay Area would be complete without it. It’s the oldest in the US and the largest outside of Asia. You’ve seen its green-roofed gates and red lanterns in dozens of movies and TV shows. The streets are lined with restaurants, bakeries, herbalists, souvenir shops, and karaoke bars. Perhaps the highlight is a visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. There, you’ll see how they make the message-stuffed treat that ends every perfect Chinese takeout meal.
2. Head to a concert
You’d be hard-pressed to find a band or artist that hasn’t performed in San Francisco. While the iconic Haight-Ashbury district has been gentrified, modern music lovers should still pay it a visit. In the past, it was once a groovy mecca for hippies, musicians, and artists. Think rock n’ roll bands in the 70s, hair metal bands in the 80s, and grunge bands in the 90s. Iconic music venues like The Fillmore and the Great American Music Hall still attract big names and put on incredible shows every night of the week.
1. Become a foodie overnight
There's no end to the treats you can expect to find in San Francisco. They have the best Indian food you’ve ever had, amazing Burmese cuisine, vegan cinnamon rolls, made-to-order ice cream sandwiches, and French soul food, just to mention a few. With lots of affluent millennials around, the city has gotten to be as packed with creative food joints as it is with failing tech start-ups. Make sure to sample some of the city’s iconic establishments such as Tartine Bakery, The Sycamore for brunch, and Swan Oyster Depot, where they’ve been dishing out seafood since 1906.