San Francisco is the kind of city that will take a lifetime to explore fully. It’s tempting to stay within the bustling city limits, but if you have the time and the inclination to venture further out, you’ll be richly rewarded.
From ancient redwood forests, sun-kissed vineyards, quaint coastal towns, and more national parks than you can shake a stick at, there is no shortage of day trips from San Francisco to check out.
Whether you choose to explore on a group tour or a solo mission, there’s something to suit every traveler. Of course, a tour is always nice – you don’t need to do the driving (no fussing with the GPS) and you can simply sit back and take it all in.
Keep on reading to discover our list of some of the best San Francisco day trips that will show you all the hidden San Fran gems.
Getting Around San Francisco, and Beyond
Exploring San Francisco is every US backpacker’s dream. With a thriving city life and stunning natural surroundings, you get all the best bits of Mother Nature within a small radius.
Navigating San Francisco’s famously hilly streets and winding roadways is a cinch when you know how. For starters, having a car is not essential for getting around the city and immediate surroundings. In fact, not having a car can actually save you the cost of parking fees (take note budget travelers) and the stress of inner-city traffic.
- BART, or the Bay Area Rapid Transport, connects the downtown area with the peninsula in the south and the East Bay. These all-electric trains are fast and affordable.
- Muni includes buses, vintage trolley cars, and light rail to help you navigate the city. Download the MuniMobile app to help you get around.
- The F-Line forms part of the Muni and is a great way for tourists to explore top attractions in the city. A trip on one of these vintage trolley cars is a must!
- Similarly, the cable cars are fun and an authentic way to experience San Fran. There are three cable car lines still in operation.
- San Francisco is a very walkable city. Yes, there are some serious hills to navigate, but it’s an affordable way to experience the metropolis (and the sunshine). Rent a bike if you want to maximize time!
If you’re thinking of heading further out of San Francisco for a day trip, renting a car is a great option. You can travel at your own pace, stop when you want, stay anywhere in San Francisco, and have the freedom to change your plans whenever you like.
Half-Day Trips from San Francisco
Don’t get caught up in all the usual things to do in San Francisco, there are so many half-day adventures to be enjoyed within easy reach of the center. There are loads of national parks and areas of exceptional natural beauty, as well as cute towns nearby and coastal villages to explore.
Just 30 minutes outside of the hustle and bustle of the city, you’ll find Sonoma County. Known for its slow pace of life and beautiful natural surroundings, Sonoma is where you can come if you want to unwind, reconnect with nature and live the good life.
This verdant landscape, crisscrossed with vineyards, is any foodies delight with over 425 wineries and over 500 restaurants to sample. There are some seriously tasty food tours to try out in the area.
Of course, this fertile region doesn’t only produce wine. Visit breweries, distilleries, cider houses, and gorgeous farmers’ markets to enjoy the produce of the region.
The beauty encompasses a gorgeous stretch of the Pacific Coast, and forests of skyscraping redwoods to appease outdoor lovers. Connect with nature through a wide range of activities, including cycling, hiking, kayaking, horse riding, fishing, surfing, ziplining, and waterskiing.
Needless to say, you may want to linger a little longer in Sonoma if time allows.
Suggested trip: Sonoma Wine Tour
Angel Island State Park
Angel Island State Park is the largest island in San Francisco Bay, and easily accessible by ferry from the city – as well as from the small town of Tiburon ( which is definitely worth a visit for great holiday town vibes without the masses of tourists).
Throughout its history, the island has been a fishing and hunting site for Miwok Indians, a Spanish outpost, a cattle ranch, an army post, an immigration station, a prisoner of war camp, and a missile base – wow!
All of this history makes for some pretty fascinating points of interest, like the old US Immigration Station and the Fort McDowell quarantine station for sick troops.
If you’ve got the time, set off on one of the many hiking trails through the forests, all offering excellent views to reward your efforts. If you want a superb view of San Francisco’s skyline, head for Battery Drew, while Camp Reynolds has the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Do it for ‘Gram!
When it comes to coastal towns near San Francisco, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one as charming or picturesque as Sausalito.
Whether you arrive in Sausalito by ferry from the city, or by bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s a scenic journey that will offer some pretty great views of the skyline.
A walk along the quaint promenade will take you past moored boats, fishermen on the pier, and the gravity-defying Bill Dan Balancing Rocks. The water is at the center of life here, so if you’re into fishing, surfing, sailing, or paddleboarding, you’ve come to the right place.
Stop past the community of almost 500 houseboats, some of which sport unique and fascinating designs (keep an eye out for one that looks like the Taj Mahal). Head to the downtown area to refuel at one of the many restaurants and do some shopping at one of the various specialty stores.
Suggested trip: Historic House Boat Walking Tour
Full-Day Trips from San Francisco
Slightly further out from the city, these day trips from San Francisco will have you experiencing everything from magnificent beaches to seaside villages and natural beauty galore. All within an easy two-and-a-half-hour drive, these trips are a must for your San Fran itinerary – they will get you out of the city traffic and into some incredible nature.
The Pacific Coast has no shortage of gorgeous beaches. Stinson Beach is an easy day trip from San Francisco and is a real escape from the city. With its white sand and excellent swimming, it is ideal for a day of California sunshine and water activities.
Conditions are best for surfing in the winter and spring, while summer offers the perfect conditions for swimming, bodyboarding and rafting.
Of course, the beach is endlessly popular and in the peak summer months, parking can be a problem. There’s only one parking area and no overflow, so when it’s full, it’s full. We’d advise arriving early to grab a spot!
With showers, restrooms, and a snack bar nearby, it’s easy to make a day of a visit to Stinson Beach. There are several great restaurants and bars with live music nearby for an evening of amazing food.
Suggested trip: Surf Trip to Stinson Beach
Just an hour or so north of the city, you’ll come to some of the most dramatic scenery in the area. This is where the Pacific Ocean pummels against craggy cliffs and pristine stretches of deserted beaches.
Originally discovered by Sir Francis Drake in the late 1500s, this picturesque peninsula encompasses a 71 000-acre nature preserve. Characterized by its rugged terrain, the population of elephant seals, and its 145-year lighthouse, a day trip to Point Reyes is filled with history and culture – there’s even an Elk Preserve!
A good place to start your visit is at the Bear Valley Visitor Center where you can pick up a trail map to guide your explorations. The area’s various trails all have viewpoints where you can really appreciate the scenery. Keep your eyes peeled for marine wildlife including whales between January and April.
Point Reyes Station is where you’ll find a restaurant options and specialty stores to explore. Head to nearby Tomales Bay for a swim in the shallower and warmer waters – refreshing and restorative after a day of hiking.
Suggested trip: Discover Point Reyes
Known for being a hub of surf culture, and having played an important part in the history of the sport, Santa Cruz is the archetypal Californian coastal town. But there’s more to see than wetsuits, waves and dressing up as a mermaid.
You can head out on this San Francisco day trip to explore the diverse landscapes of towering redwood forests, marine sanctuaries with whale and dolphin sightings, eucalyptus groves that attract monarch butterflies in the winter, and so much more.
All this natural beauty can be explored on exceptional hiking trails, or you could take the Redwood Forest Steam Train that passes the soaring redwoods on its way to Bear Mountain.
Enjoy some wine tasting at one of the many family-owned wineries, and visit the historic Santa Cruz Mission or the arboretum and botanic gardens. Quirkier excursions include Bigfoot hunting and a stop at the Mystery Spot – an area within the redwood forests where the usual laws of gravity don’t seem to apply.
Truthfully, a day here won’t cut it in terms of all the things to see and do. If you can, make a weekend of it at this modern surf shack.
The quaint village of Carmel-by-the-Sea, also simply referred to as Carmel, is one of the rarer gems along this region of the California Coastline. With its distinctly European-style architecture and laid-back beachy vibe, Carmel is an idyllic and romantic escape.
This seaside town is a mere one square mile, popular with locals and often passed over by tourists in favor of the more well-known beaches of Malibu and Santa Monica. Being crowd-free translates into a laidback and authentic experience that should not be passed up.
A day here can be spent soaking up the sun on the beautiful sandy beach, surfing, hiking, biking, and kayaking. Refuel at one of the great restaurants in the village or head over to one of the 18 different wine tasting rooms.
A stroll through the streets of the village will have you discovering various boutique stores and art galleries, not to mention spas and salons where you can enjoy some well-deserved pampering.
Suggested trip: Monterey and Carmel Day Tour
Los Gatos is a small city located at the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains exuding trendy urban cool surrounded by exceptional natural beauty.
Cycle or walk along the pretty Los Gatos Creek Trail for some glorious California sunshine, hike through Castle Rock State Park for incredible scenery, or spend a day with the kids at Vasona Park – which features a lake, a creek, and plenty of picnic areas, trails, and playgrounds for a fun family outing.
The eclectic downtown area is great for shopping, people-watching, and dining. Treat your tastebuds to a Michelin-starred meal at Manresa or go wine tasting at the Testarossa Winery. Spend a night in the redwoods at a cosy cabin and extend your day trip a little longer.
Don’t miss the very popular farmer’s market which takes place on Sundays in the town plaza. Expect live music and a great vibe while you browse the many stalls. There are plenty of food options to enjoy as you go, including fresh crepes and pastries to Mexican food to name a few.
There’s something truly magical about being surrounded by the ancient redwood trees of Muir Woods. The area was even declared a national monument in 1908!
Just a few miles north, Muir Woods is one of the most peaceful day trips from San Francisco. With over six miles of walking and hiking trails, it is a must-go for nature lovers.
Most hikes will take between 30 minutes to an hour and a half. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, there’s a café where you can replenish with a sandwich and an ice-cold drink.
There’s a silence and tranquility found here that is rare in our frantic lives. Find a spot to enjoy a mindful moment in this incredible setting, and just breathe.
There’s limited parking at the woods so it’s advisable to plan your visit on a weekday – if you can. While the forest is unlikely to ever feel crowded, early mornings and late afternoons are best for avoiding busier times.
Suggested trip: Muir Woods Redwoods and Wine Country Tour
Half Moon Bay
A visit to San Francisco will have you spoiled for a choice of coastal towns to visit, but Half Moon Bay is special – and shouldn’t be missed. Yes, the bay has great beaches, but it’s also got a quaint pastoral charm, and plenty of nature.
You’re in California, so surfing is mandatory wherever possible. Half Moon Bay is no exception. That said, the beaches here aren’t ideal for swimming – the water is icy and there are some devious rip tides to be wary of.
If you are eager to get in the water, you can head out on a fishing boat, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard. For those who aren’t ocean inclined, stay on land and enjoy long walks on the sprawling stretches of sandy beach or head off on one of the hiking trails.
For something different, visit Swanton Berry Farm where you can pick your own veggies and berries, farming is big in the area. If you’re visiting in October, don’t miss the Pumpkin Festival!
Suggested trip: Surf Trip to Pacifica – Half Moon Bay
My missus travels with all her clothes in ziplock bags: don’t be like my missus. UP YOUR PACKING GAME!
Packing cubes for the globetrotters and compression sacks for the real adventurers – these babies are a traveller’s best kept secret. They organise yo’ packing and minimise its volume too so you can pack MORE.
Or, y’know… you can stick to ziplock bags.View Our Fave Cubes Or Check Out the Sacks!
Don’t Forget Your San Francisco Travel Insurance
It’s good to get lost sometimes, but it’s also good not to get too lost. There are people that want you home in one piece.
There’s one travel insurance provider The Broke Backpacker trusts for all his wildest shenanigans… World Nomads!
Click the button below to get a quote on your insurance or read our in-depth review of World Nomads’ coverage. And then… let the shenanigans begin. 😉
San Francisco’s fascinating history and coastal location makes it a popular destination with tourists from all over the world. There’s a diversity of landscapes, and interesting stories to uncover.
Just a short drive from the heart of the city, you will find yourself in peaceful natural settings, along rugged coastlines, and in quaint seaside villages. The variety of exciting San Francisco day trips can be enjoyed at any time of year thanks to the wonderful Californian climate.
Muir Woods is one of those experiences we’d seriously recommend you don’t miss out on. After all, how many opportunities do you get to stand beside a 1000-year-old redwood tree that towers around 258 feet into the sky?
Bye for now, but not forever!
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