The San Francisco Bay Area has everything to offer the wanderlust hungry, outdoor loving, adventure thirsty traveler. From hiking in the Bay Area to exploring the city of San Francisco, it’s hard to get bored here. For me, every weekend is a chance to explore one of California’s many iconic destinations, from Big Sur to Yosemite National Park. Within a few hours drive from San Francisco at any time of the year I can find beach, forest, mountains, snow, desert… whatever I feel like! My favorite way to spend a weekend is to find some random place to stay (like a cheap AirBnB), grab a Zipcar, and go explore! If you leave Friday night and come back Sunday night, your weekend will feel like a vacation. It’s my favorite way to satiate my wanderlust between big trips. Below are 10 of my favorite weekend trips from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Famous for its incredible aquarium – part interactive museum, part animal conservation facility, part research lab – Monterey is all about celebrating sea life and the beautiful California coast. Rendered iconic thanks to John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, today’s Cannery area is actually a bit of a tourist trap. Luckily, Monterey has loads to offer, including plentiful outdoor opportunities! Rent kayaks, ride bikes, and go tide-pooling as you explore this coastal paradise.
Where to Eat and Drink in Monterey
- First Awakenings for brunch
- Mundos Cafe for incredible Cuban style sandwiches
- Bistro Moulin for a romantic dinner
What to Do in Monterey
- Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There’s a reason why it’s famous! It’s well worth the crowd.
- After learning about the local kelp forest ecosystem, rent kayaks or standup paddleboards from Monterey Bay Kayaks and get up close and personal with otters, seals, and other Monterey Bay residents.
- Rent or bring a bike and bike the scenic Coastal Trail.
- Explore the tidepools and nature walks in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
- Walk around Fisherman’s Wharf to get the boardwalk experience.
Just south of the Bay Area, Santa Cruz is a laid back, quirky hippie town rich with things to do and see. From the beach boardwalk to the lush redwoods dotted with neon yellow banana slugs, Santa Cruz makes a great weekend getaway. Plus, it’s easy to rent a cozy cabin for cheap from AirBnB!
Where to Eat and Drink and Santa Cruz
- Verve Coffee Roasters is a Santa Cruz legend and a must visit for third wave coffee lovers.
- Pono Hawaiin Grill offers delicious fresh Poke, plus live music, hula dancing and a great outdoor patio.
What to Do in Santa Cruz
- Take the Roaring Camp Railroad through the redwoods to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
- Stroll through the quaint Santa Cruz downtown square.
- Visit the campy but classic Mystery Spot.
- Nature walks and tide-pooling at Natural Bridges State Beach.
We might be a little biased, because Jeremy grew up in Morro Bay, but we love visiting. From the giant rock in the center of the harbor, to the resident seals, sea lions and otters, to the picturesque Embarcadero with its fresh seafood restaurants overlooking the ocean, Morro Bay is a quintessential California central coast town and makes a great home base for exploring the surrounding area, such as nearby San Luis Obispo or the wine country of Paso Robles.
Where to Eat and Drink in Morro Bay
- Sylvester’s in Los Osos for the best hamburgers ever!
- Rose’s Landing for fresh, affordable seafood as you watch the sun set over the Pacific ocean
- Mo’s BBQ in San Luis Obispo for delicious BBQ, with 4 mouth watering house-made BBQ sauces
- Shine Cafe for fresh, healthy farm-to-table vegan deliciousness. Their tempeh tacos are incredible even for meat lovers!
- Taco Temple for enormous portions of incredible Californian style Mexican food, plus unlimited chips and salsa!
- Brown Butter Cookie Company in Cayucos for sugar cookies made with brown butter and heaven.
What to Do in Morro Bay
- On your way down Highway 1, stop at San Simeon for the elephant seal rookery
- Spend a few hours exploring opulent Hearst Castle as you pass by on Highway 1.
- Explore the cliffside nature walk, scenery, and tidepools in Montana de Oro.
- Rent surfboards and wetsuits from Wavelengths and head to the beach to surf
- Rent kayaks or paddleboards and meet the otters and sea lions in the harbor.
- Visit nearby Paso Robles for wine tasting.
- Check out San Luis Obispo a few minutes inland for nightlife.
When most people think of towns along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, they usuallly think of what’s south of San Francisco. But the northern part of coastal Highway 1 offers just as many classic Californian gems. Mendocino and nearby Fort Bragg are the biggest towns up the PCT and offer the most reward for those who visit the area.
Where to Eat and Drink in Mendocino
- If you’re driving up the 1, stop at Queenie’s for an incredible burger.
- Just south of Mendocino, Circa 62 has incredible locally sourced brunch and best of all, a wildlife feeding area just outside the windows of the restaurant! Watch quails, bunnies, birds, and chipmunks feeding while you eat! Dog-friendly (even has a dog menu).
- Everything looked good at Goodlife Cafe & Bakery in downtown Mendocino but we enjoyed our espresso caramel bread pudding the most.
What to Do in Mendocino
- Take a guided sea cave tour and view wildlife from atop a kayak.
- Catch the sunset at Glass Beach in Fort Bragg – if you get lucky, like we did, there might be a pig on the beach playing in the surf.
- Go hiking at Van Damme State Park.
- Explore the tidepools at MacKerricher State Park.
- Forget Napa – Mendocino is famous for it’s wine tasting!
Big Sur is not so much a destination as an experience. And the best part of Big Sur, by far, is the incredible scenery. If you like scenic drives – the kind that makes your jaw drop open and gives you that rush of “glad to be alive” feelings – you’ll like Big Sur. If you like redwoods, coastal views, cliffs, mountains, waterfalls, beaches, hiking, camping, and all things beautiful and outdoorsy – you’ll love Big Sur. Driving south from San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway is half of the fun of this weekend trip.
Where to Eat and Drink in Big Sur
- Big Sur Bakery: The baked goods in the morning are incredible, but so is the dinner menu!
- Nepenthe: If you can afford the splurge, the food is as good as the view.
What to Do in Big Sur
- See the famous McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer State Park.
- Pick a hike, any hike – they’re all spectacular!
- Camp at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (book early).
- Take an iconic photo in front of the Bixby Canyon Bridge. Tip: listen to the Bixby Canyon Bridge song by Deathcab for Cutie as you drive up!
- Check out the human nest at Treebones Resort.
- Spend a quiet hour in the Henry Miller Library – or maybe catch one of their impromptu secret concerts.
You may have noticed that Napa and Sonoma are conspicuously absent from my list. It’s not that they aren’t beautiful and fun places to visit. It’s just that you only really go there for ONE thing, and if you’re not a big wine drinker, or don’t want to spend $30 for each tasting, then Napa and Sonoma aren’t the best places to spend a weekend. I far prefer Healdsburg, which is close to Napa/Sonoma and has plenty of (far more affordable!) wine tasting. But Healdsburg offers much more than (really inexpensive!) wine tasting. It’s also situated right on the Russian River, which is perfect for swimming, tubing, and kayaking.
Where to Eat and Drink in Healdsburg
- Kick off a day of wine tasting in downtown Healdsburg at Thumbprint Cellars, the only place in the world where you can buy delicious Thumbprint Wines!
- As you circle the main square hitting all of the wine tasting rooms, don’t miss Williamson Wines, which does food and wine pairings with all of its tastings.
- Get some homemade pie and ice cream at Noble Folk.
- Grab a fluffy cupcake at Moustache Baked Goods .
- Wash down your cupcake and pie with a cup of coffee from Flying Goat Coffee.
- Visit historic Oakville Grocery on the plaza and pick up some food for a picnic in the square!
What to Do in Healdsburg
- Walking around the quaint downtown square in the middle of Healdsburg is a great way to spend an afternoon, especially if you stop into all of the tasting rooms for wine.
- If that wasn’t enough wine for you, there are plenty of other options.
- Spend a few hours kayaking on the Russian River.
- Take a bike tour and visit vineyards while you pedal.
South Lake Tahoe
Most people think of Lake Tahoe as a winter destination and associate it with snowboarding and skiing. And while winter in Lake Tahoe is a beautiful time to visit, summer in Lake Tahoe is every bit as magical and fun. It’s one of the best summertime trips near the San Francisco Bay Area.
Where to Eat and Drink in South Lake Tahoe
- Visit Sprouts Cafe for healthy, filling food and fresh squeezed juices.
- For a much heavier meal, Himmel Haus has incredible German food.
- Grab some ice cream and fresh cobbler at Aloha Ice Cream and Dessert Spa, and then head across the street for an incredible view of the lake at sunset!
What to Do in South Lake Tahoe during the Summer
- Find a beach and relax all day – we recommend D.L. Bliss State Park or Emerald Bay.
- If you go with a group, pool together and rent a boat.
- Try Stand-Up Paddleboarding or Kayaking.
- Hike the Rubicon Trail or Crag Lake.
- Visit Vikingsholm (if you don’t hike the Rubicon Trail).
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is a must-visit for any Bay Area resident. But I’ve found that during summer in Yosemite it can be difficult to find affordable places to sleep that aren’t a 45 minute drive from the park. The campgrounds book up 6 months early and I’ve never managed to snag one! So, visit Yosemite in the summer if you can, but in my experience a winter Yosemite trip is a great way to beat the crowds and get some good deals on off-season lodging within the park. Plus, it’s freaking gorgeous. Just remember to bring chains for your car (or rent them on the way)!
Where to Eat and Drink in Yosemite National Park
- Look, nobody goes to Yosemite for the food. If you can afford it, the best food is at the Ahwanee Hotel. I honestly recommend you bring in your own food, because nothing here is worth the prices they charge.
What to Do in Yosemite National Park during the Winter
- Ice Skate in Curry Village with incredible views of majestic Half Dome – it’s where I took the photo above!
- Ski, snowboard or go tubing right in the park.
- If you’re up for it, snoeshowing is an incredible way to see Yosemite National Park.
- Even if you’re not eating a 7-course meal or staying in a luxury suite, the Ahwanee Hotel is still worth a visit. It’s absolutely beautiful.
- The Tenaya Lodge at Fish Camp offers horse drawn sleigh rides complete with hot chocolate and cider (depending on weather, call for details).
And there you have it, the 10 best weekend trips from the San Francisco Bay Area. Have you visited any of these spots? Did we miss anything? Leave us a comment below!