When you rent your own set of wheels for your San Francisco vacation, you have the freedom to explore the city and beyond. The world, or at least California, is your oyster. San Francisco is home to a ton of popular attractions, from the must-see Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Alcatraz Island, plus heaps of fascinating museums. Plus, if you have the time to venture out of Fog City and take a road trip to destinations further afield. Here are some of our favorite getaways and things to do near and outside San Francisco.
1. Yosemite National Park
This is a bucket-list one-day road trip if you’re visiting San Francisco. A three-hour drive to Yosemite National Park will afford you some of the most majestic sights the West Coast has to offer. Take a pit stop in the Central Valley and enjoy a picnic, before continuing your scenic drive through the park. There are plenty of photo opportunities at the Park’s breathtaking viewpoints as you overlook the Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and El Capitan. Take in the views of Yosemite Falls, America’s highest waterfall, and hike or bike across various parts of the Park. This day trip will be one to remember.
2. Muir Woods National Monument
Let nature feed your soul with a road trip to must-visit Muir Woods. In your own car, you can reach the woods in under an hour from San Francisco. With over 500 acres of redwood forest and trees that reach up to 250 feet tall, hiking the trails here is a truly unforgettable experience. You can even camp nearby (camping is not permitted within the forest) and immerse yourself in the solitude of the woods for a few days. Look out for bobcats lurking in the trees when you’re not taking in the incredible views from the highest points of your Muir Woods walking trail.
You could even combine a road trip to Muir Woods with a visit to Sausalito, a pretty coastal town in the Bay Area where you can stroll along the promenade, browse the shops, and dine on fresh seafood in a waterfront restaurant. Sausalito boasts wonderful views of Angel Island and the San Francisco Bay, which you can admire whilst enjoying a cone from the famous Lappert’s Ice Cream. Some visitors even call this coastal town California’s Amalfi Coast, so tourists would be forgiven for wondering if they’ve stepped into the Mediterranean on a trip to Sausalito.
4. Day trips to Alcatraz Island
Located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island is one of the areas’s most popular destinations. Home of the infamous federal prison, the island also served as a Civil War fortress and housed the first lighthouse on the West Coast. You might have seen Alcatraz in the movies, but today, visitors can enjoy the many natural features of Alcatraz Island as well—gardens, tide pools, bird colonies, and jaw-dropping views of the San Francisco Bay. Steeped in history, mystery, and culture, Alcatraz Island is one of the most recognizable landmarks of San Francisco. The prison has an even eerier feel at night time so, if you’re brave enough, hop on the ferry and take a night tour for a less crowded experience than that of the day tour.
5. Napa Valley
Napa County is 70 miles north of San Francisco, and is full of beautiful countryside scenery and award-winning wines that make for perfect weekend getaways, fun road trips, or well-deserved vacations. The good news is that Napa Valley is easy to access, especially if you’re based in the Bay Area. Napa Valley has so much to offer tourists and San Franciscans alike, with its museums, art galleries, and theaters, its music, nightlife, and shopping, and even its adventure activities such as hot air balloon rides, kayaking, and bootcamps. Festivals happen year round in Wine Country, with feasts, art shows, and concerts. Be sure to check out which events are happening during your stay.
6. Sonoma Valley
Another perfect day out if you find yourself in Wine Country whilst visiting San Francisco, Sonoma is a historic city in northern California at the heart of the renowned Sonoma Valley winemaking region. Just 45 minutes north of San Francisco, day trips here make for a perfect full-day getaway. Both novice and seasoned wine enthusiasts can enjoy wine tasting at some of the 100+ wineries found in this destination, while those looking for an active or family-friendly day trip can explore the back roads of Sonoma by bicycle or on a hike. For a full day itinerary, you could even book a guided tour and be shown around by a local – some full- and half-day tours even offer picnic lunches.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a small coastal city on California’s Monterey Peninsula. Whether you’re visiting for a day trip or a weekend getaway, Carmel has some of the finest scenery for you to feast your eyes on. Take a stroll down Carmel Beach, a pristine and beautiful coastline, go shopping along the tree-lined streets, and visit the Basilica Church, a registered National Historic Landmark that dates back to 1771. Dine at the Hog’s Breath Inn, a restaurant and bar that was once owned by Clint Eastwood and the Cottage of Sweets for a kid-friendly dessert. If you’re staying for longer or you’re stopping over here on a romantic road trip, why not treat yourselves with a massage at one of Carmel’s numerous spas? Top off any evening here by watching the sunset on world-famous Carmel Beach, rated one of the nation’s cleanest and prettiest.
8. Big Sur
For world-class scenery and an unrivaled sense of well-being, look no further than Big Sur. In the ’50s and ’60s, Big Sur – named by Spanish settlers living on the Monterey Peninsula – became a retreat for artists and writers. Today, it attracts anyone seeking to unplug and reflect more deeply on a trip to this laid-back edge of the continent. The construction of Highway One in the 1930s transformed Big Sur, making its beauty accessible to all rather than just the most intrepid. Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac chronicled the area in books, and Ansel Adams and Edward Weston captured Big Sur’s rugged beauty on film.
Come see for yourself – Big Sur is a very worthy road trip destination for anyone who loves to be outdoors and experience nature. Don’t worry if you’re not a dedicated hiker, as there are trails that are both easy and challenging, so the lush redwood forests and ocean views are accessible to everyone. If you’re driving from San Francisco and taking Highway One, there are also a lot of great places to stop by en route, including Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, and San Jose.
9. Day trips to Silicon Valley
If you’re staying in San Francisco, a day trip to Silicon Valley couldn’t be easier, as it takes just 40 minutes to get there by car. Of course, you’ll want to take a look at Apple’s Company Store and Headquarters, or maybe you’ll visit the Intel Museum, where you’ll find 10,000 square feet of exhibits that explore Intel’s culture, history, and manufacturing – what’s more, entrance and parking is free! For those keener on nature, Silicon Valley offers the chance to visit Mt. Umunhum, the fourth-highest peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains, as well as Castle Rock State Park, a 5,242-acre state park in Los Gatos.
10. North Beach
No trip to San Francisco would be complete without North Beach being in your itinerary. Situated along San Francisco Bay between Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown, North Beach is a charming and lively neighborhood packed with local history. Whether it’s enjoying a gelato in Little Italy or getting lost among the shelves at the City Lights Bookstore, you won’t be stuck for things to do in this charming small town.
11. Road trips to San Diego
Many of the exciting destinations we’ve listed can also be visited along the way if you take a Pacific Coast Highway road trip. The Pacific Coast Highway is known to be one of the most scenic drives in the world, thanks to the stunning coastal views, seaside villages, and untouched forest you’ll find in Monterey and the redwoods of Muir Woods. From the Golden Gate Park, leisurely road trips can be completed in around 10 hours if you don’t stop. Once you’re in San Diego, visit Balboa Park, Downtown, and Old Town. Make your way up to the Cabrillo National Monument at the tip of Point Loma and you’ll get an incredible view of the Bay.
As you can now tell, there really is tons you can do when you visit San Francisco. Of course, first-timers to the Bay area will absolutely want to see the bucket-list Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf and hop on a ferry to Alcatraz. But once you’ve explored all there is to see in Union Square and Pier 39, there’s nothing to stop you driving in your rental car to one of the many fantastic destinations that the surrounding areas of San Francisco have to offer.