Travel Guide to California

San Francisco Bay Area

San Francisco Bay Area

Exploring San Francisco’s Vibrant Culture and Iconic Landmarks

By Laura Del Rosso

The San Francisco Bay Area never disappoints visitors: the majestic towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco skyline and other cities of culture and great dining, ancient redwood groves, expansive vineyards and a coastline of rocky cliffs and sandy beaches. Combine those with a Mediterranean climate and a dynamic environment of high-tech entrepreneurs and it’s no wonder the San Francisco Bay Area encourages a seductive, can-do way of life that revolves around the high energy of its residents and the great outdoors at its doorstep. The hub of the Bay Area is San Francisco, a city of diverse neighborhoods, world-class cuisine and a welcoming spirit of tolerance in the most European of American cities.

North Bay: Marin, Sonoma & Napa

Across the Golden Gate to the north lies Marin County, one of the most beautiful and affluent areas of the U.S. Sausalito, Tiburon and Mill Valley are among its many inviting towns. The mountain bike was invented here to maneuver the twisty trails on Mount Tamalpais. On the Marin coast, one ruggedly gorgeous beach follows another, including along spectacular Point Reyes National Seashore.

Also in the North Bay, Sonoma and Napa counties are home to acres of vineyards and dozens of wineries producing some of the world’s finest wines. Among the small towns full of boutiques, shops and tasting rooms is the Napa Valley hamlet of Yountville, a foodie dining mecca with several Michelin-starred restaurants and, a bit north, the spa town of Calistoga. More wineries are drawing visitors with architecturally striking tasting rooms that offer wine pairing with food, picnic grounds set in lavish gardens, and activities such as bocce courts and vineyard tours.

South Bay: Silicon Valley, San Mateo County & Santa Cruz

In Palo Alto, on the peninsula south of San Francisco, lies the bucolic campus of Stanford University, one of the country’s leading universities. Silicon Valley—home of Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel and other high-tech powerhouses—has emerged as a center for the arts, with a vibrant cultural scene and attractions such as San Jose’s Museum of Art and The Tech Interactive, which pays homage to the valley’s innovative spirit. Mountain View’s Castro Street and Palo Alto’s University Avenue are hopping, and San Jose’s booming downtown and Santana Row shopping and dining center are bustling.

Neighboring San Mateo County’s coastline still shows its traditional fishing and agricultural roots. It’s within a short drive of major population centers yet a world away, with its sprawling artichoke fields and miles of pristine beaches. Santa Cruz County to the south offers visitors a wealth of attractions, including parks and wineries in its redwood-covered mountain range, and laid-back beaches where surfers polish their technique.

East Bay: Berkeley & Oakland

On the eastern side of the bay lies the college town of Berkeley, with its history of political idealism, University of California academic prestige and coffeehouse intellectualism. Berkeley is almost synonymous with Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and the movement to organic, local and seasonal food. Berkeley’s larger neighbor, Oakland, is a culturally diverse city with vibrant neighborhoods, a booming downtown and lovely Lake Merritt, whose three-mile path draws joggers and walkers.

City & Town

Even though it was surpassed in population by San Jose long ago, San Francisco remains the region’s cultural hub. The city draws more than 25 million travelers each year to its dense 49 square miles containing its famously steep hills, thousands of restaurants offering an astonishing variety of cuisines, fascinating neighborhoods, parks, Victorian-era houses and world-class museums and cultural activities.

The city is easy to explore on foot, with the waterfront Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and Union Square all within a short walk of each other. Colorful vintage streetcars rumble down the Embarcadero and Market Street, connecting to public transportation that carries visitors to the city’s many diverse neighborhoods and to Golden Gate Park, the large greenbelt that extends to the Pacific Ocean.

The region’s other major cities are San Jose, where revitalization has brought an urban vibe, restaurants and museums downtown, and Oakland, which attracts visitors with the Museum of California, bayfront Jack London Square and a trendy dining scene. Its college town neighbor, Berkeley, is home to the striking Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

insider's tip

The Bay Area’s renowned food can be sampled best at FARMERS’ MARKETS and food truck gatherings. SAN FRANCISCO’S FERRY BUILDING is arguably the area’s top market. Other awesome markets are held in Berkeley, Healdsburg, Mountain View and at Marin Civic Center. FOOD TRUCKS serve up a mouth-watering array of choices all around the bay, including dinner on Fridays at the Oakland Museum of California and around the clock 24/7 at Levi’s Plaza.

The Great Outdoors

One of the world’s largest urban parks—the Golden Gate National Recreation Area—stretches over 60 miles of Bay Area coastline. The area encompasses beaches, historic sites, biking and hiking trails and vast open spaces to savor the Bay Area’s varied natural beauty. Among the highlights are the majestic Marin Headlands and San Francisco’s Presidio and Crissy Field, a popular walking area and restored wetlands that also draws kiteboarders to the white-capped waters at the Golden Gate.

Rolling green hillsides dotted with California golden poppies make spring an especially ideal time to explore Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods in Marin County. Point Reyes National Seashore’s beautiful coastal terrain contains an abundance of wildlife, including migrating shorebirds and ducks, whales that are easily seen off the coast in migration season (mid January to mid March) and a herd of tule elk.

There also is no lack of wide-open spaces in the East Bay, where the regional park district includes 65 parks covering 113,000 acres in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. In the Santa Cruz mountains, just west of Silicon Valley and San Jose, are vast open space preserves, including California’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods, established in 1902.

Heritage & Culture

Early Mexican and Spanish explorers and settlers in the Bay Area left their mark, mostly in place names but also in historic buildings from that era. San Francisco’s Mission Dolores, established in 1776, is the oldest building in San Francisco and the oldest intact original Mission in California. The patchwork design of its beamed ceilings resembles local Native American basket weaving. Other old missions are found elsewhere in the Bay Area: in Sonoma, San Rafael, Santa Clara, San Jose and Santa Cruz.

Vestiges of San Francisco’s colorful past, when the 1849 Gold Rush catapulted it from a hamlet to a large city almost overnight, can still be seen in thousands of 19th-century Victorians and quaint old quarters such as Alamo Square and Jackson Square.

The Bay Area is home to world-class museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Asian Art Museum, the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. In Oakland, there’s the Museum of California that celebrates the state. The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford has a large collection of Rodin sculptures. A lively art scene is found throughout the Bay Area, home of the San Francisco Symphony, Ballet, Opera and dozens of theater and dance companies.

Diverse cultural influences thrive in pockets spread throughout the region, including many from Asia: Japantown and Chinatown in San Francisco, another Chinatown in Oakland and Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities in San Jose and neighboring cities. Mexican and other Latin American influences can be found throughout, particularly in San Francisco’s Mission district, while Italian immigrants left their indelible mark in San Francisco’s North Beach and Sonoma and Napa wine-growing areas.

Family Fun

Spend a day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a century-old amusement park famous for The Giant Dipper, a 1920s-era roller coaster. Families also enjoy the San Mateo County coast, particularly Half Moon Bay’s mid-October festival that features pumpkin carving and pie-eating contests. Santa Clara’s Great America theme park thrills visitors with the radically-transformed and expanded 15-acre South Bay Shores Waterpark.

San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are lined with shops, restaurants, street performers and even a colony of sea lions that wows crowds. The pier also offers an antique carousel and the Aquarium of the Bay, with more than 20,000 marine animals. Over in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences draws families with its penguin exhibit, a walk-through rainforest and aquarium with a live indoor coral reef tank.

5 Must See, Do

SAN FRANCISCO TOP SIGHTS Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown offer even more reasons to visit. Along the pedestrian-friendly wharf visitors can buy fish straight from the boats. The Cartoon Art Museum lies just east of the reinvigorated Ghirardelli Square, home to the San Francisco Brewing Co. and its beer garden. Meanwhile, on the North Beach edge of nearby Chinatown, the China Live complex offers an amazing variety of Chinese food choices. sftravel.com

EAST BAY EXPLORATION Oakland’s lively Uptown, Temescal and Piedmont Avenue neighborhoods are filled with excellent restaurants, including Commis and Duende. The neighboring university town of Berkeley also offers much to discover, including the UC Berkeley campus, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The outdoors beckon at 2,000-acre Tilden Park, which has a lovely botanical garden and steam train that children adore. visitberkeley.com

SONOMA SOJOURN Sonoma County’s vineyard-covered landscape features dozens of renowned wineries. In the Russian River Valley appellation, visitors stroll among the shops of Sebastopol, Graton and Forestville and pick up picnic goodies for alfresco dining while sampling the county’s famous Pinot Noirs and other varietals. sonomacounty.com

ICONIC HIGH TECH Silicon Valley giants open parts of their headquarters to visitors. Intel offers  the Intel Museum and Apple’s futuristic campus includes the glass-walled Apple Park Visitor Center. Grab a bite along Palo Alto’s University Avenue where Silicon Valley’s elite dine. smccvb.com, santaclara.com

EXPLORE THE OUTDOORS Mount Tamalpais and the coast of Marin County just north of the Golden Gate Bridge are a spectacular playground for hikers, bikers and anyone who enjoys the outdoors. Mount Tam affords stunning views and Muir Woods National Monument, on its western flank, wows visitors with its towering redwood grove. Oceanfront towns Stinson Beach and Bolinas have a laid-back vibe that is part of their charm. visitmarin.com



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