The San Francisco Bay Area is home to a multitude of sights and attractions – the most difficult part is deciding what to fit in during a limited period of time, as it would truly take a lifetime to see and do it all. Not only does it include the Golden Gate City and Silicon Valley, but it’s also home to dramatic stretches of sand, some of the world’s finest wine country, redwoods, amusement parks and much more. So, where to begin? These places offer some of the best experiences for any vacation to the S.F. Bay Area.
1. Tilden Regional Park, Berkeley
If you want more of the most amazing views in the Bay Area, it’s hard to beat Berkeley’s Grizzly Peak in Tilden Regional Park. Spend the day in the park exploring the botanic garden, visiting the farm and environmental educational center, swimming in the lake or taking a ride on the steam train. Then, after dark you can head to Grizzly Peak and be mesmerized by the dazzling city lights that seem to stretch forever. If you’re a fine food enthusiast, you may want to plan ahead by making a reservation to dine at Chez Panisse in downtown Berkeley too, renowned as one of the best restaurants in the entire nation.
2. The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge, once referred to as the “bridge that couldn’t be built,” is San Francisco’s most iconic landmark, and one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Opened in 1937, visiting it is a must. If you want to get a picture-postcard shot of the bridge, head to Battery Spencer on the Marin County side. This former military installation once protected the bridge and the bay from invaders during World War II. Drive through the historic, crumbling buildings to land’s end and you can capture a spectacular photo with the bridge and the entire city as the backdrop. But don’t just view the bridge from afar, walk or bike the 1.7-mile span that stretches from San Francisco to the Marine headlands. The bridge’s sidewalks are open during the day to pedestrians as well as bicyclists.
3. Muir Woods, Mill Valley
Just 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, you can get away from the city and walk among the giants at Muir Woods, an especially relaxing place that’s like entering a stunning church cathedral. It’s filled with scenic trails offering something for all levels of hikers, and provides a fantastic opportunity to see some of the country’s oldest and tallest trees. Many of these giants are over 1,000 years old. A highlight is Cathedral Grove, where delegates from across the globe placed a plaque in memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Visitors can explore the one-half-mile paved main trail with educational exhibits along the way, and those who are more ambitious can follow the signs to longer, intermediate trails, watching out for black-tailed deer, butterflies, bats, jays and Northern spotted owls inside the spectacular canopy recreated by the magnificent trees.
4. Alcatraz Island
This formidable fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay was the site of the first lighthouse in the Western United States. From 1934 to 1963, it served as a federal penitentiary, housing the likes of George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Al Capone. “The Rock,” as it’s famously known, is part of the 80,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area and open for public tours. The best time to visit is after dark – while it’s haunting at any time, the night tour adds an extra eerie feel, particularly on a foggy night. Take the audio cell house tour which is narrated by former inmates and guards, recounting harrowing tales of prison life as well as the numerous tragic escape attempts.
Sausalito sits on the northwestern edge of the bay, sheltered from the ocean by the Marin Headlands with mostly mild weather that makes it an ideal place for bike riding. Rent a bike at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and pedal across the Golden Gate, or at Mike’s Bikes in Sausalito itself, a famous bike shop on the north end of town here you’ll find more than 500 houseboats in five floating home marinas. The docks are lined with gorgeous flowers, incredible artwork and interesting names – they’re even home to a houseboat replica of the Taj Mahal.
6. Winchester Mystery House, San Jose
The world famous Winchester Mystery House is a Victorian mansion designed by Winchester Rifle heiress Sarah Winchester. The wealthy widow of William Winchester started a massive construction project here in 1884, so massive, in fact, that it occupied the lives of craftsmen and carpenters for nearly four decades, until her death in 1922. It’s filled with so many unexplained oddities, that it became known as the Winchester Mystery House. The 160-room mansion was unlike most homes of its time, with modern heating and sewer systems, three working elevators, gas lights and 47 fireplaces. With the fascinatingly odd design of the house, and rumors of her ghost still residing, it’s drawn spectators from all over the world to try and understand the strange architecture and the reasons behind it.