SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA: Quintessential California all in one region

by Laura Del Rosso

In one multi-county region that rings San Francisco Bay, visitors find almost all that Northern California is known for: the majestic towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, the skyline of San Francisco, the vast Pacific Ocean, ancient redwood groves, acres of vineyards and a spectacular coastline. With its Mediterranean climate and stunning natural beauty, it's no wonder the Bay Area encourages a laid-back—some might say hedonistic—way of life that revolves around the bounty of food and wine and great outdoors at its doorstep. The hub of the Bay Area is San Francisco, famed for its colorful neighborhoods, world-class cuisine and a welcoming spirit of openness and tolerance in the most European of American cities. Besides the landmark bridge, other popular attractions draw millions each year to what boosters call "Everyone's Favorite City."

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 many small wine country towns full of boutiques, shops and tasting rooms is the Napa Valley hamlet of Yountville, a foodie dining Mecca, with several Michelin-starred restaurants.

South Bay: Silicon Valley & 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. The headquarters of many of the world's most dynamic high-technology powerhouses, Google, Facebook and Apple among them, are nearby in Silicon Valley.

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 his-tory of political idealism, University of California academic prestige and coffeehouse intellectualism. Berkeley has also become synonymous with Alice Waters' Chez Panisse and the movement to organic, local and seasonal food. Berkeley's larger neighbor, Oak-land, is a culturally diverse city with vibrant neighborhoods 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 16.4 million travelers each year to its dense 49 square miles containing its famously steep hills, thousands of restaurants offering an astonishing variety of cuisines, diverse groups of people, fascinating neighborhoods, parks, Victorian-era houses and world-class museums and cultural activities.

The city is easy to explore on foot, with the renovated Ferry Building, Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown and Union Square (the largest shopping area in the western U.S.) 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 renovated Museum of California, bay-front Jack London Square and a trendy dining scene it shares with its college town neighbor, Berkeley.

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 diverse natural beauty. Among the highlights are the majestic Marin Headlands and San Francisco's Presidio and revitalized Crissy Field, a popular walking area and restored wetlands that also draws kite boarders 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 55 parks covering 91,000 acres in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. In the Santa Cruz mountains, discover 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 de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. In Oakland, there's the Museum of California and, in Palo Alto, the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford. A lively art scene is found throughout the region and dozens of theater, opera, symphony and dance companies are based here.

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 thriving Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities in San Jose and neighboring Silicon Valley 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.

On the San Mateo County coast, Half Moon Bay's mid-October festival features pumpkin carving and pie-eating contests. San Jose's Tech Museum show-cases technology innovations through interactive exhibits and at an IMAX theater with stunning movie experiences.

San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 are lined with shops, restaurants, street performers and even a colony of sea lions that wow 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 rain forest and aquarium with a live coral reef tank.

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