With her wooded mountains, her redwood blanketed coast, her enchanted food culture, and hidden nooks, Northern California is an ambrosia for travel junkies and epic vacations. Where else can you surf and ski on the same day?
Ambitious as it may seem, you can experience the best of Northern California in less than two weeks (though if you have more time, use it!).
You’ll probably arrive in San Francisco or Oakland. Plan to stay a couple nights to explore the Bay Area’s rolling hills, dotted with rainbow-colored Victorians, ethnic eateries, museums and stunning vistas.
Grab dinner in the posh Marina District, known for its shops, diverse eateries and nightlife.
Meander through the hordes of shoppers in Union Square. Grab a coffee in the square, taking in the dozens of languages whirling around.
Hop on Muni to explore Haight Street. Though the collection of tie-dye, Indian inspired textiles and used clothing shops have not waned, the neighborhood that once housed Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia now draws yuppies and hipsters into those lovingly restored Victorians.
Catch the sunset at Ocean Beach, once an amusement park, and now the city’s laid back surf spot.
Take Muni to inner Richmond, to sample authentic Chinese or Burmese food. Pop into the city’s best book shop Green Apple Books.
After dark, check out live music at the Fillmore Auditorium, a historic venue known for hosting the Grateful Dead, Prince, and its share of young notables (be sure to explore the upstairs gallery of rock posters). For something on the sophisticated side, SF Jazz hosts the biggest names in jazz.
Grab breakfast at the Ferry Building, an oasis celebrating the Bay Area’s locavore cuisine. Hop the ferry to Oakland’s Jack London Square to explore the historic downtown of California’s newest it community.
Grab lunch and sample vino at one of the many urban wineries, or explore Oakland’s Museum of California—a dazzling tribute to history and art of the Golden State.
Ferry back to San Francisco and hop the BART train to the Mission District for dinner and drinks in the city’s most vibrant neighborhood.
Grab breakfast in the Castro District, the epicenter for the city’s LGBTQ community.
Snap your pictures as you pass over the Golden Gate Bridge to Napa. The hour drive through vineyards drops you into a historic downtown populated with upscale restaurants, posh inns, tasting rooms, and jazz clubs hugging the Napa River.
Score freshly shucked oysters, spicy arepas, gourmet hot dogs and local wine at Oxbow Public Market. Walk off lunch exploring downtown’s multitude of tasting rooms and then cap off the day with dinner at one of the many notable restaurants in town.
Take morning to drive north through Napa County, stopping at wineries along the way.
Arrive in inland Mendocino for lunch. Both Ukiah and Willits offer a glimpse into the renegade culture of Nor-Cal’s funkiest destination. There’s an annual rodeo, crystal stores and hot springs resorts.
Continue north for a couple hours to arrive in the North Coast. Here you get your first introduction to the planet’s tallest trees. Meander along the Avenue of the Giants to arrive in Eureka, a former logging community.
Wake up early to maximize a day of hiking in Redwood National and State Park. Bring a picnic lunch, or stop in the small town of Trinidad. Play on the beach while you wait for your fish and chips at one of the waterfront restaurants.
Spend the evening in Arcata, a fun college town, known for its chilled out vibe.
Travel south for a couple more hours to Sacramento. California’s state capitol has changed from a primarily agricultural community to a lively hub for moneyed young professionals. Grab dinner and drinks in Midtown.
Snap photos of the State Capitol building before heading through Gold Country to pitstop in Marshall Gold Discovery State Park. See the spot that James Marshall shouted “Eureka” and sparked the largest migration westward this country has ever seen.
Motor up into the High Sierra Mountains to find the gem of California, Lake Tahoe: a playground for Bay Area skiers, watersport enthusiasts, white water rafters and hikers. The northern rim of the lake is fancied by avid skiers and families less enchanted by the south shore’s party scene.
In summer, budget time to drive around the lake, SUP or kayak to secret beaches, hike Emerald Bay State Park, BBQ at the Tahoe City beaches, have a cocktail at the waterfront restaurants of the south shore, or test your luck in Nevada’s lively casinos.
In winter, it’s all about the slopes, of which there are dozens for all budgets and abilities.
Travel south through Amador Wine Country and along the Gold Country’s famed Mother Lode, CA 49.
Eat lunch in the wine country community of Murphys, three miles off CA 49.
Wake with the sun; grab a quick breakfast at the hotel before hopping onto the Yosemite Shuttle for a short morning stroll to gaze at Lower Yosemite Falls.
Head to Happy Isles to brave the Vernal Falls hike. If you prefer a quieter, less strenuous hike, the two-mile loop of Mirror Lake offers interesting views of Half Dome.
Pop into the Yosemite Valley Lodge’s restaurant dinner with unsurpassed views of the Yosemite Falls.
Drive to Bridalveil Falls for an easy twenty-minute stroll up to this spectacular waterfall. Right near the falls, connect to CA-41 south toward Wawona. Grab lunch before traveling west back to San Francisco to catch your flight home.
Northern California Coast … The best road trip stops along the Pacific shore, north of San Francisco
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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