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Northern California

Photo by Kim Grant

Northern California Itineraries

Epic Northern California Vacation

Hug the Northern California Coast on this Awesome Road Trip

Northern California for Families

Northern California Off the Beaten Path

Where to “Stop and Smell the Roses” in Northern California

The planet's tallest trees, epic wines, stunning beaches and farm to fork cuisine

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Northern California’s unsurpassed natural and cultural beauty is as close to a heaven worth rhapsodizing as the United States is going to get. Consider the elements: redwood trees guarding rugged coastal bluffs, Wild and Scenic Rivers winding past granite peaks and bubbling turquoise lava pools, vineyard-covered rolling hills that boast some of the finest cuisine in the state, and one of the most dynamic cities in the world.

Add to that the most storied wine in the United States (and some say the world — though don’t say that in Burgundy), innovative museums and public art spaces, a food revolution that changed how Americans view their hamburgers and hot dogs, unprecedented technological and ecological advances, and kids splashing in rivers.

On any given day you might hear someone speaking Hindi, Tagalog, Spanish, or German; smell eucalyptus, salty seas, and earthy fields; eat posole, dosas, Kobe beef burgers, or a tofu scramble; touch the silky bark of a madrone tree, smooth river rocks flecked with gold, and the fleshy skin of a peach; or see half-dressed people dancing in Golden Gate Park, surfers riding giant waves, and farmers relaxing on a porch.


Northern California: Diversity at Every Turn

The diverse landscape mirrors her inhabitants — a blend of explorers, nesters, innovative technicians, and folks who major in celebrations (there’s no party like one in San Francisco’s Castro district).

Here you can hike Castle Crags and create computer languages. Play in city playgrounds and backcountry campgrounds. Inhabitants protest, plant trees, grow parsnips, and talk politics over breakfast, yet take their libations seriously.

In San Francisco, museums boast lines around the block, while even in peak summer season, you can still spot a bear in Yosemite. You can snowboard Northstar, raft the American River, then soak in natural hot springs near Mono Lake. Kayak the Pacific, fish the Trinity, and visit the Bigfoot Museum. And those are just some of the reasons to become smitten with Northern California.

From the first Native American settlers and Anglo explorers to the deluge of annual visitors and transplants, this region has countless enthusiasts, and as you will soon learn, the feeling of fierce devotion to the land is deserved.

Not only is the soil rich with agriculture and gold, but also with a year-round appeal. Summers bring everything from blistering inland temperatures that beg you to dive into the thousands of alpine lakes and rivers, to foggy fireplace-worthy mornings along the coast. Winters have been known to deliver a showy snowpack in the mountains and a mellow chill along the coast. Springtime daffodils bloom in March, and the rainbow of fall foliage lasts through January. You can’t complain about not finding enough activities to keep you busy, regardless of the season.


For a deep dive into more Northern California coverage, check out these guides:
San Francisco
Berkeley
Oakland and Around
Marin County

Mendocino
Napa County
Sonoma County
California’s North Coast

Gold Country and Sacramento
Yosemite National Park
Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks
Sierra Nevada
Eastern Sierra-Route 395
Lake Tahoe
Mammoth
Pacific Crest Trail


Explore These Northern California Itineraries

Epic Northern California Vacation … “Simply the best, better than all the rest” — Northern California
Northern California Coast … The best road trip stops along the Pacific shore, north of San Francisco
Northern California for Families … hiking, beachcombing and gold panning through the wilds of NorCal
Northern California Gardens … Exploring publicly accessible gardens from Monterey to Mendocino
Northern California Off the Beaten Path … Epic nature meets quirky small towns in Northern California


When To Go

Depending on your interests, Northern California shines year round. While the state is packed with summer travelers from June-August, it is still possible to find quiet nooks throughout the region. That being said, if you want dependable weather, less crowds, and reasonable deals on just about everything, plan to visit in September-November.

Winter sports enthusiasts should expect the masses in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from December-March. Beach-goers will find the coast packed throughout the summer.

How Much Time To Spend

Ask a Northern Californian how much time to spend exploring the region, and they’ll probably say a lifetime. To take advantage of the beaches, cities, mountains and big ticket attractions, you’ll want at least two weeks.

High and Low Season

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, travelers flock to California looking for summer sun, beaches, and great recreational activities. Hoteliers know this and inflate prices. The holiday season also gets booked—especially in Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. In Wine Country, the harvest, from August to October, generates crowds. San Francisco’s busiest month is September.

Weather and Climate

For the most part, Northern California shows off a Mediterranean climate of warm summers and cool winters in the valleys and foothills. Along the coast, expect cool temperatures year-round (ranging from the high 50s to mid-70s). In the mountains take advantage of warm summers, spectacular fall foliage, and blustery winter storms ideal for snow bunnies.

Northern Californians have a love-hate relationship with the fog. Because of inland heat and cold air blasting in from the Arctic, the coast receives chilly temperatures almost year-round. Coastal Nor Cal dwellers definitely don’t get that summer of shorts and flip-flops from June through August (actually, it’s from September through October, but no one likes to advertise that). The fog however is the reason we have redwood trees, lush forests, and gardens to brag about. Plus, there is nothing like the dramatic sight of the blanket of whiteness rolling along the coast and swallowing cities in one gulp.

California is experiencing the worst drought in its history, which has been wonderful for travelers who like sunny days. However, fans of winter activities have not been able to take advantage of California’s great slopes. 2016’s El Nino system brought enough rain to fill reservoirs, but we are still not out of the woods, yet.

Events and Holidays

National Holidays include:

January (1st):  New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Day
February (third Monday): Washington’s Birthday
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July (4th): Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday):  Columbus Day (aka Native American Day)
November (11th): Veteran’s Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December (25th): Christmas

Other fun events of note:
January:

Mendocino Crab, Wine and Beer Festival. Mendocino.
Chinese New Year Parade, San Francisco. (sometimes in February)
Chef’s Holidays, Yosemite.

March:
California Capital Air Show, Sacramento.
Passport Weekend, Placerville. A big wine festival over two weekends.

April:
Cherry Blossom Festival, Japantown, San Francisco.
Apple Blossom Festival, Sebastopol.
Earth Day, Yosemite.
Red Bluff Round Up Rodeo, Red Bluff.

May:
Bay to Breakers, San Francisco’s funnest foot race. Many racers wear costumes, or nothing at all, and push booze in handcrafted carts along the route.

Kinetic Sculpture Race, Eureka to Arcata.
Carnaval, San Francisco, Memorial Day weekend.
Avenue of the Giants marathon, Garberville.

June:
Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, Boonville.
Pride Weekend, San Francisco. A week-long festival culminates in a wild parade through downtown.
Stern Grove Music Festival, San Francisco. Free music festival throughout summer weekends.
Mad River Festival, Blue Lake.
Arcata Oyster Festival, Arcata.
Gold Rush Days, Downieville.

July:
High Sierra Music Festival July 4th weekend, Quincy. Three days of music, camping, dancing, yoga, games, and arts come together in the mountains to celebrate the summer. Major musicians like Bob Weir, Built to Spill, and Michael Franti have played this event. Book your tickets and accommodations early—it’s a popular festival.
Berkeley Kite Festival, Berkeley.
Sonoma County Fair, Santa Rosa.
Napa County Fair, Napa.
World’s Largest Salmon BBQ, Fort Bragg
Bear Valley Music Festival, Bear Valley.

August:
Comedy in the Park, San Francisco. Big name comedians grace the stage in the free event in Golden Gate Park.

Outside Lands, San Francisco. A massive three-day music festival in Golden Gate Park. This paid event features the finest in food, wine, beer, and music. Performers like Radiohead, Black Eyed Peas, Elton John and Kendrick Lamar fill the bill.

California State Fair, Sacramento.
Sonoma Wine Country Harvest Weekend
, Sonoma County.
Bodega Seafood Art and Wine Festival, Bodega Bay.
Concours d’Elegance, Lake Tahoe. The big guy in the NorCal flotilla scene.

September:
Sausalito Art Festival, Sausalito. A weekend gathering to honor the artisans inspired by the bay. Live music and food punctuate the creativity.

Gold Rush Days, Sacramento.
Bigfoot Days, Willow Creek.

October:
Fleet Week, San Francisco. Over Columbus Day weekend, San Francisco celebrates its rich military history. Cover your ears folks, those Blue Angels get loud.

Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival, Half Moon Bay.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, San Francisco. The city’s largest free music festival takes over Golden Gate Park.
Calaveras Grape Stomp and Street Faire, Calaveras.

November:
Day of the Dead, San Francisco. A gorgeous candlelit parade through the Mission district.

December:
Calistoga Lighted Tractor Parade, Calistoga. NorCal’s sweet holiday parade features Santa, winemakers sloshing it up, and decorated tractors.

Truckers Christmas Parade, Eureka.

Time Zone

California is located in the Pacific time zone.

To check the local time in California, click here.

Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (early March, on a Sunday morning at 2AM). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (late October or early November on a Sunday morning at 2AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except most of Arizona and Hawaii) participates in this ritual of ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back.

What To Pack and Wear

What locals love so intensely about Northern California are the varied weather patterns experienced here. You can surf or ski in the same day. What that means is that travelers may need to pack for four seasons in one trip.

As most of you know, the Northern California coast temperatures are moody, to say the least. Summers bring blasts of fog that force visitors into tchotchke shops for those emblematic San Francisco hoodies, though it is common to have random beach days in February, generally it rains in winter.

If you want warm beach days, book your trip in September or October for your best chance. The valleys offer more typical weather patterns with cool winters and blazing hot summers, which coastal Californians soak up when the fog rolls in. And while the mountains maintain a healthy dose of winter throughout the year (offering access to Lake Tahoe slopes in July), you can guarantee that the lake gets more use than the slopes come summertime. In terms of driving, I have noted when certain roads close in winter in the High Sierra, but it is always safe to check weather conditions before making the trek.

In terms of dress codes, most major restaurants are used to Northern California style—Patagonia sweatshirts, jeans and hiking sandals. The few restaurants that enforce dress codes are clear about rules on their websites.

What it Costs

Northern California offers abundant offerings for every budget. You can camp and eat on the cheap, surviving here for weeks without worrying about costs. Or it’s possible to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime luxury vacation, staying in some of the state’s posh hotels and dining at award-winning restaurants.

In general Marin, Napa Valley, Sonoma, Lake Tahoe and San Francisco are the most expensive regions. However, it is possible to enjoy these destinations on the cheap. For more bang for your buck, check out Gold Country, inland Mendocino’s wine region, the North Coast, and Shasta County.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in $US.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double

Eat
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Fly the Friendly Skies

Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.

But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.

That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.

 Have Car, Will Travel

Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.

There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.

Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Download the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8-10 per hour; gas and insurance are included.

Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.

Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)

Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.

Insurance

Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical — Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.

Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.

Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Do I need travel insurance?

If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.

Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.

How do I choose an insurance provider?

Do your homework — check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).

If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.

The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.

For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.

Exchange Rates and Currency

U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.

Coins in wide circulation include pennies (1 cent), nickels (5 cents), dimes (10 cents), quarters (25 cents). The 50 cent and dollar coins are seen occasionally.

Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so plan to have $20s or smaller bills in hand.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

ATMs
If you get money from an ATM machine, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, U.S. banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets let you get a limited amount of ‘€œcash back’€ when paying for your goods — this is an easy way to get cash while on the go.

Credit Cards

Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.

Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state. If you don’€™t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card — which doesn’t make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access.

Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:

Restaurants:

For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.

To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.

Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill.

Hotels:

Most bell staff receive $1-$2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5-$10.

Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2–$3 per day and about $5 per day in higher end properties.

At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, or simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Current etiquette calls for $10-$20 per person, per day for concierge help. Car valet staff expect $1–$2 for delivering you your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.

Other costs:

Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above

Transportation

A massive swath of land stretching from the Monterey Peninsula east to Yosemite and Mono Lake, then north through San Francisco, Napa Valley, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and all the way to the Oregon border, Northern California is larger than many countries.

Whether you plan to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, bike the Pacific coast, drive through the giant redwoods, or travel by train or bus, there’s plenty of ways to get up close with nature. If you don’t want to hire a car, the San Francisco Bay Area has decent public transportation. However, to get out of the bay, you’ll want a set of wheels.

Getting There

Nearly every major national and international airline flies into San Francisco International Airport. You can also fly into Oakland, San Jose, and Sacramento Airports on many major airlines. Santa Rosa, Eureka, and Monterey have small airports as well.

Amtrak offers train service to most major cities in Northern California. Greyhound has a fleet of buses service the entire state.

Getting Around

Northern California roads are fairly easy to navigate. For those with limited time, it’s wise to hire a car to explore the various landscapes of the region. In winter, if you plan to hit the slopes, you’ll want a four-wheel drive.

Distances between major attractions are quite large (it takes a good 5-6 hours to get from San Francisco to the North Coast redwoods).

The San Francisco Bay Area has a decent public transportation network (BART, MUNI and CalTrain) which link San Francisco to Oakland and the East Bay as well as parts of the South Bay. Other than that, if you don’t hire a car, you’ll be dependent on Amtrak and Greyhound buses.

Transportation Hubs

The major transportation hubs of Northern California include San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento and Redding.

Background

Native Americans have a rich history stretching from the San Joaquin Valley, through Napa and Sonoma and up into the Shasta Cascade. Many tribes consider this region sacred, with its abundance of healing hot springs, pristine lakes, and mystical mountains. And though, when the forty-niners descended upon the Sierra foothills, extracting hunks of gold from the earth during the largest human migration westward, ever, the prospectors knew they had stumbled upon a majestic area that offered more than mineral riches. They settled throughout the state, congregating in San Francisco, along the coasts, in valleys and in mountain towns, creating new and exciting communities that still exist today.

History

Earthquakes, volcanic activity, and erosion created this volatile landscape of endless coastline, sharp mountainous peaks, and seas of trees. Yet today as the land continues to evolve, so does California’s populace.

Though experts debate exactly how the first people arrived in North America, there is no question that they became commonly known as Native Americans, or Indians. They lived all over Northern California, near the oceans, in the mountains, even in the Lava Beds region.

From the 1500s through the 1700s, Spanish explorers, the English pirate Sir Francis Drake, the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola, and finally the missionaries all arrived and staked claims in the region. Soon, Mexico claimed California as a territory, but that short-lived honeymoon was put to the test (and ultimately failed) when the Americans laid eyes on California and wanted her for themselves. The typical wars, disputes, and confusions ensued until July 7, 1848, when California raised the U.S. flag.

For years afterward, California was known for her epic space as well as mythic gold. And when, in January 24, 1848, James Marshall struck gold in Coloma, his find caused the greatest human migration California has ever known. Stagecoaches packed with hungry folks from around the world descended on the Sierra Foothills, all the way through Napa County and into San Francisco (whose population swelled to 30 times its original size). Riding on the heels of the gold rush was the Pony Express, the Transcontinental Railroad, and a booming agricultural feast. The state had created the notion of the American Dream, attracting legal and illegal immigrants from around the world to come search for their metaphorical gold.

Throughout the 1900s, California became the biggest agricultural producer in the country, and these days, Northern California is the hub for a more recent boom: the Silicon Valley technological gold rush. And though setbacks like earthquakes, fires, wars, Prohibition, protests, and overpopulation have stunted the region, somehow Northern California has always been able to bounce back.

Culture

Though you may have heard the rumors that Californians are laid-back hippies with blond hair who exercise all day long and say, “Bra that was a gnarly, tubular wave,” this is not always the case. Sure, people tend to be friendlier than in Manhattan, and yes, there are loads of beautiful blond surfers, but you’ll also find the most diverse communities in the United States. Yuba City has a huge Indian population; San Jose is home to a large Vietnamese community; and just about every culture is represented in San Francisco, where you’ll be able to eat at a taqueria for lunch and a Burmese restaurant for dinner, then return to your room by train, sitting between a woman wearing a burka and a scholar from Kenya.

Cuisine

Northern Californians take their food very seriously. In the early seventies, food maven Alice Waters quietly opened Chez Panisse in a simple Berkeley neighborhood, coining a revolution of sorts in Californians’, and the rest of the planet’s, relationship with what’s on their plates. Phrases like local, organic, slow food, or locavore had yet to become notable entries in the dictionary. Yet people flocked to the shingled two-story restaurant, hidden behind a shady tree, to sample exquisitely crafted cuisine, fresh from the farm.

Forty years later, and nearly every Bay Area restaurant worth their weight boasts a farm fresh, sustainable menu; nearly every neighborhood promises a farmer’s market; nearly every farm invites eaters to tour their ag-land, pick their own fruit and maybe even subscribe to their CSA (community supported agriculture) to receive boxes of newly plucked produce each week.

To be frank, the options for food lovers in Northern California can be dizzying. California grows most of the organic food, and half of the produce and nuts, for the entire country, and in addition lays claim to being the number one dairy producing state. To boot, San Francisco has more restaurants packed into its 49 square miles than any place this globetrotter has ever seen.

Throughout Santa Cruz, Sonoma County, Napa Valley, El Dorado County, and even up through the Shasta Cascade, you can visit working farms, learn about their farming practices, and even, in some cases, pick your own fruit and veggies.

And when it comes to dining, San Francisco and Napa Valley’s tasting menus are adored worldwide. San Jose features affordable ethic eateries. while nearby Silicon Valley caters to techies with money to burn. The coastal regions of Mendocino, Eureka and Arcata sling farm to table creations in cozy down-to-earth kitchens.

Language

While English is the official language of the United States, you will hear plenty of Spanish spoken throughout the region.

Recommended Reading

Northern California is almost known as much for its literary scene as its culinary one. From John Steinbeck to Gertrude Stein; from Jack London to Jack Kerouac and the Beats of North Beach, Northern California has produced a number of bookish folk who have profoundly changed American culture.

Here’s a reading list to connect you with Northern California’s most influential writers.

Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain

William H. Brewer, Up and Down California in 1860-1864

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia

Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays: A Novel

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Writing Across Landscape

William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties

Dashiell Hammet, The Maltese Falcon

Bret Harte, Bret Harte’s Gold Rush: Outcasts of Poker Flat, The Luck of Roaring Camp, Tennessee’s Partner, and Other Favorites

Robinson Jeffers, Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems

Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Jack London, Golden State

Armistead Maupin, 28 Barbary Lane

John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls…

Gary Snyder, Mountains and Rivers Without End

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Gertrude Stein, The Collected Writings

John Steinbeck, Cannery Row; The Grapes of Wrath

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters

Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

Mark Twain, Roughing It

Jeanne Wakatsuki and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Art

You’ll find major works of art showcased all over Northern California—from museums to galleries to wineries to public spaces. Highlights include San Francisco’s deYoung Museum and Legion of Honor Museum. Wine Country’s diRosaPreserve and Cornerstone Gardens offer unique sculptures to explore. Sacramento’s newly renovated Crocker Art Museum makes another worthy stop.

For more offbeat creative endeavors, pop into one of the many galleries in Chico, Arcata, Murphys, Mendocino, Fort Bragg, Santa Cruz, and McCloud.

Movies

Thousands of films have been filmed in Northern California. Many of which celebrating the epic beauty of this region. Here is by no means a comprehensive list of films that will easily get you acquainted with NorCal culture, both cult films and popular movies.

“American Graffiti”
“Pulp Fiction”
“48 Hours”
“Ant Man”
“The Love Bug”
“Milk”
“Big Eyes”
“Mrs. Doubtfire”
“The Birds”
“Vertigo”
“Dirty Harry”
“The Pursuit of Happyness”
“Escape from Alcatraz”
“The Rock”
“Godzilla”
“The Graduate”
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”
“The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”
“Zodiac”
“Joy Luck Club”
“Cannery Row”
“Mutiny on the Bounty”
“Harold and Maude”
“The Lost Boys”
“Chasing Mavericks”
“The Parent Trap”
“Bottle Shock”
“Howard the Duck”
“The Parent Trap”
“Pleasantville”
“City of Angels”
“The Bodyguard”
“Yosemite”
“The Valley of the Giants”
“Return of the Jedi”
“The Lost World”

Are we missing any? Add your favorites to the list.

Music

Northern California, namely San Francisco, helped spawn a rock music revolution in the 1960s. Bill Graham began creating massive outdoor music festivals, and opened the famed Fillmore. Today throughout the region, you can experience most any kind of music–from jazz to hip hop, country to pop.

Music festivals fill the region in the summer. Some, like San Francisco’s Outside Lands and Napa’s Bottlerock, pair food and wine with music. Others, like the famed Monterey Jazz Festival and Treasure Island Music Festival, cater to music fans craving a specific style of tunes. And then there are festivals like the High Sierra Music Festival and the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival that add camping and kids activities to the mix.

Soundtrack for a Road Trip

Check out this Spotify Playlist.

Websites and Maps

The following websites offer travel information, helpful maps and more.

Visit California
California’s Redwood Coast
San Francisco Travel
Visit Santa Cruz County
Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau
Central Valley Tourism Association
San Jose Convention & Visitor’s Bureau
Visit Sacramento
Gold Country Visitor’s Bureau
Lake Tahoe Visitor’s Bureaus
Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association
Visit Oakland
Visit Napa Valley
Sonoma County
Visit Mendocino

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