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 area is San Francisco, a city of diverse 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” at the center of the Bay Area.


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 the spa town of Calistoga.


In Palo Alto on the peninsula south of San Francisco lies the bucolic campus of Stanford University, one of the country’s leading universities. 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.


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.


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, different 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 waterfront Embarcadero, 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. Its college town neighbor, Berkeley, is home to the striking new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.


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 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 65 parks covering 113,000 acres in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. In the Santa Cruz mountains, amid several vast open space preserves lies California’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods, established in 1902.


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 recently expanded 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 Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities in South Bay 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.


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 most water rides in Northern California.

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 rain forest and aquarium with a live coral reef tank.


San Francisco Museums
The reopening of the expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art made the city a must for international modern art lovers. Other don’t-miss museums with major exhibits are the de Young, the Legion of Honor, the Exploratorium and the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Explore the Outdoors
Marin County is San Francisco’s backyard, with Mount Tamalpais and the Marin coast a playground for hikers, bikers and anyone who enjoys the outdoors. Mount Tam affords stunning views and redwood forests while the oceanfront towns of Stinson Beach and Bolinas have a laid-back vibe that is part of their charm.

East Bay Exploration
The university town of Berkeley offers much to discover, including the UC Berkeley campus and a revitalized downtown with the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The outdoors beckons at 2,000-acre Tilden Park, which has a lovely botanical garden and steam train that children adore.

Sonoma Sojourn
Sonoma County’s vineyard-covered landscape offers dozens of wine tasting rooms, including in the Russian River appellation. 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.

Silicon Valley and More
Explore a major Silicon Valley hub, the college town of Palo Alto and Stanford University, before heading into the Santa Cruz Mountains for a drive along Skyline Boulevard and its redwood forests. Take Highway 92 to Half Moon Bay and drive Highway 1 along San Mateo County’s spectacular rugged coast, stopping to stroll along the beaches.

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