Thursday, June 21, 2012

My Favorite Day Trips & Weekend Getaways from San Francisco

One of the great things about living in San Francisco (Bay Area) is that we have access to so many great places, and within a short drive outside this beautiful cosmopolitan city, there are spectacular nature, breathtaking landscapes, and wonderful cities waiting to be discovered. Even after living here for 5 years, my husband, my son and I still enjoy visiting and exploring new places, and the best part of getting away for a day or a weekend is that we get to drive through some of the most spectacular sceneries in the country with stunning views all around the Golden Gate Bridge (north), the Bay Bridge (east) and on Hwy 280 (south). So, without further ado, here are our favorite destinations nearby.

Sausalito & Marin County
Just over the the Golden Gate Bridge lies some of the most spectacular nature in California. One of our favorite day trip is to drive along the bay-view ridgeline of Conzelmen Rd all the way up to the Bonita Cove where you can get a spectacular view of the Bay as well as San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

A great place to stop for lunch is Sausalito, a picturesque little town that offers a great view of the Bay as well as a good selection of charming shops, restaurants and cafes. Although most of the places on the main road can be quite touristy and overpriced, Fish is a wonderful little restaurant a bit outside of the main tourist area that serves wonderfully tasty dishes from fresh and sustainably caught fish. Also, Le Garage offers a great brunch menu and a gorgeous view of the Bay that can’t be beat.

Another wonderful drive is on Hwy 101 north to Hwy 1 and then Panoramic Hwy towards Muir Woods. The Muir Beach Outlook is a must stop if you want the most breathtaking overview of the Pacific Ocean; then, on to Stinson Beach on Highway 1 filled with charming shops and restaurants.
Stanford, Palo Alto
Stanford is not only one of the world-renowned universities, it also happens to have one of the loveliest campuses. Especially in the summer months when San Francisco is covered in cloud and fog, we love escaping to Palo Alto where we can feel the warmth of the summer and hangout at the Stanford Oval, a beautiful grassy lawn perfectly suited for various outdoor activities.

If you are interested in art and history, visit the collection on the Stanford family and University history in the Cantor Arts Center, the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery, stroll through the Rodin Sculpture Garden, visit the student art gallery or walking around campus to view our 42 freestanding outdoor sculptures. It’s a perfect way to spend a day.

While in Palo Alto, be sure to check out our favorite restaurants: Esther's German Bakery, an authentic Germany that it makes me think that I’m back in a little village on Rhein; and Armadillo Willy's BBQ, which in my opinion is the best BBQ joint outside of Texas.
Napa & Sonoma Valley
Napa & Sonoma Valley is the most famous wine region in the US, and there isn’t a shortage of travel guides and magazines that sing the praises of their gorgeous wineries, resorts, inns, and lodges centered around the views of extraordinary natural beauty. We love to take day trips out to the twin valleys, just enjoying the drive along the vine-covered hillsides, which are lush green in spring and summer, and golden in fall.

We also love to find little produce markets or vendors selling locally grown, organic, and sustainable produce, and stop at little towns and villages along the way, savoring some of the country’s finest restaurants.  

Of course, one of the main questions when you’re visiting this area is whether to visit Napa or Sonoma. As most people who have been to both areas will tell you, as far as wine tasting goes, vineyards in Sonoma are less touristy and less expensive; however, Napa offers greater selection of restaurants and wineries. Also, Hwy 12 offers a more scenic route, full of pretty little towns like Calistoga, St Helena and Yountville.

Recommended restaurants in/near Sonoma: Fremont Diner (2660 Fremont Dr, Sonoma), El Molino, and the Girl and the Fig. For more info:
Recommended restaurants in/around Napa: Ad Hoc, Brix, Bouchon Bakery, Bistro Jeanty, Oxbow Public Market).
About 2 ½ hours north of San Francisco on Panoramic Hwy, and at the very end of Sir Francis Drake Blvd, jutting 10 miles out into the Pacific is Point Reyes. This wild tip of land endures ferocious winds that can make it feel like the edge of the world.

The lighthouse sits below the headlands at the base of over 300 stairs. Not merely a beautiful beacon site, it's also one of the best whale-watching spots along the coast. Then, for dinner, we like to head towards the town of San Rafael via Red Hill Road to one of the best Puerto Rican restaurants in California, Sol Food.
We love visiting Santa Cruz, and although being situated along the Pacific, the weather in the summer isn’t as nice as some of the inland areas and cities, we love the quaintness and the laidback atmosphere of this little collage town.

Although Santa Cruz is known mostly for its boardwalk, it has one of the loveliest downtown areas in California filled with beautiful art deco buildings, fun & funky shops and great restaurants.  I especially love the book stores that sells used books and vinyls, my favorites being Logos and Bookshop, where my son and I have sat for hours browsing through and reading their extensive collection of children's books.     

I also like the West Side, which less known to tourists but has a great selection of bakeries, wineries, a gin distillery and a cluster of small businesses making everything from surfboards to guitars, and studio microphones to body jewelry. My favorite is Kelly's French Bakery and the design stores nearby.
Carmel-by-the-Sea & Monterey
Carmel is a quintessentially charming Californian town, and it's definitely quirky and fun, still giving off that bohemian vibe wherever you go. And I always enjoy strolling through the idyllic streets full of quaint cafes, majestic cypresses, and top notch restaurants.

Monterey is one of the most popular tourist destinations in California, and it’s easy to see why. Nestled on a peninsula of sandy beaches and cypress-dotted bluffs, Monterey is rich in marine life, Hispanic heritage and top-notch restaurants. Also, it is without a doubt one of the most kid-friendly cities in California offering abundance of fun-filled activities for children and adults alike. Of course, there’s the ever so famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, but I prefer to go to one of the many beautiful beaches along the bay where the water is so clear that you can see and experience the ocean life in its natural habitat … and for free!

Without a doubt, my favorite place in Monterey is the Dennis the Menace Park, which is a mother of all playgrounds. Created in 1956 by cartoonist Hank Ketcham, it is a favorite of local and visitors alike filled with whimsical equipment such as a drinking fountain inside a lion's mouth, a roller slide and a life-sized hedge maze, and it’s one of those places that your child will remember forever.

Hotel recommendations: Best Western Plus Victorian Inn, Hotel Abrego, Casa Munras, Monterey Bay Inn, Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, Holiday Inn Express (Marina)
Restaurant recommendations: Paris Bakery Cafe, Sea Harvest Fish Market & Restaurants (598 Foam St)
On our first trip down to Southern California, Pismo Beach was merely a stopover. We’d arrived at the hotel late in the evening, and the only thing we’d noticed was that the hotel was located at the edge of a cliff along the highway. Then, the next morning, we woke up and saw the most breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean outside our window, and we were hooked!

Since then, we have gone back to Pismo more times than we can remember. It's all about beach life here, and like Santa Cruz, it has a wonderfully laidback atmosphere. We love just hanging out at the beach for hours soaking up the sun and taking in the beautiful view, and as anyone with small children will tell you, being at the beach really is the BEST.  So, it was no surprise when Pismo Beach turned out to be one our little boy’s favorite places!

Also, another great thing about Pismo is the food, and you will find some of the best seafood restaurants in California. Our favorites: Cracked Crab and Old West Cinnamon Rolls

A friend of mine from Europe who’d visited Santa Barbara told me that it reminded her of a city in Spain; however, to me Santa Barbara is a uniquely Californian, filled with white-washed stucco buildings and red-tiled roofs, situated in the beautiful setting between the mountains and the sea, and of course, all year round sun and near-perfect weather, as this is after all Southern California.

Also, the drive from Monterey to Santa Barbara is nothing short of spectacular, and there are many scenic areas and drives within a short distance as well. My favorite is the drive from Santa Barbara to Santa Maria and Ojai through the Ojai Valley. There are several little vineyards that are a lot less touristy than in the Napa/Sonoma region, and the scenery is serenely beautiful. It truly is one of best kept secrets in California.
Lake Tahoe is definitely one of the jewels and the most spectacular places in California. With the bluest of blue water and the greenest of green surrounding forest, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America at a surface elevation of 6,225 ft (1,897 m). Outdoor lovers flock to this natural paradise, spending their days skiing California's best slopes in winter, and hiking, paddling and camping in summer.
I am a quintessential city girl. I love big cities, and always preferred being on concrete pavements rather than being out in nature in the midst of wilderness.  However, after moving to California, and living just few hours away from some of the most stunning national parks and beautiful nature, I began to feel the call of the wild and became curious about visiting the iconic sites that had inspired Ansel Adams.  My first stop, Yosemite National Park (California).

It came as no surprise to learn that it was the discovery of Yosemite, a place of awe-inspiring beauty, in 1851, that set into motion events that would lead to the formation of federal land that is protected and preserved by the government. The designer of New York City's Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, wrote of Yosemite that it was "the greatest glory of nature...the union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty.", and this glorious national park truly lives up to those words.


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