17 Ideas for San Francisco Day Trips

Why take a few San Francisco Day trips? Well If you have more than 3 days in San Francisco, then it’s a good idea to add at least one of these day trips to your itinerary. Some only take a few hours. The city is surrounded by so much beautiful natural beauty it would be a shame not to see at least a little of it.

We asked a bunch of locals and ex-pats to help us out with these suggestions to make sure we could bring you the best insider info.

The best way to enjoy these day tours is to either rent a car or join one of the many guided tours that leave the San Francisco Bay area every day. Where there are great tour options we have added them for you.

Map of the Best Day Trips from San Francisco

Map of the Best San Francisco Day Trips
Map of the Best San Francisco Day Trips

1. Alcatraz

Distance from San Francisco: 146 miles via the US-101 S

Like Angel Island State Park (below), you can venture onto the beautiful San Francisco Bay for a half-day trip to one of the most exciting destinations in America.

Alcatraz is worth devoting a half-day to, especially if you’re going to take a cruise of the Bay as part of the experience.

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California, USA
Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California, USA

Alcatraz is 1.25 miles (2 km) offshore and started as the location for a lighthouse and a military prison in the 18th century before being transformed into a prison – the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary – which operated from 1934 to 1963.

The lighthouse is the oldest operating one on the West Coast and is worth visiting.

Today Alcatraz is one of America’s major tourist destinations and is a National Historic Landmark.

It is remembered for its harsh conditions, the astonishing Native Indian takeover of the island for over 19 months, and the escape of three bank robbers who put fake heads in their beds (the heads had been pushed through the wall to them).

You can still see graffiti from the time of the Native American Indian occupation!

Graffiti from the time of native American Indian occupation of Alcatraz, Loco Steve, CC BY 3.0
Graffiti from the time of Native American Indian occupation of Alcatraz, Loco Steve, CC BY 3.0

To get to Alcatraz island you can catch the ferry from Pier 33. For instructions on how to get to Pier 33, see the San Francisco public transport website: https://511.org/.

The National Park Service recommends purchasing tickets for Alcatraz Island at least three weeks in advance.

The National Park Service has an exclusive contract with only one ferry operator. Only Alcatraz Cruises has permission to land at the Alcatraz Docks.

This means that you must buy a ticket that includes a tour if you want to visit Alcatraz island, even though it’s open to the public.

Here are the best tours and tickets to visit (or just cruise past) Alcatraz:

2. Big Sur

Travel blogger Jenny Kotlyar with Campsite Vibes, a site that wants to help you embrace hiking has shared her love of Big Sur.

Distance from San Francisco: 146 miles via US-101 S

Big Sur is a beautiful day trip from San Francisco. Take a drive along the iconic Highway 1 through coastal redwood trees that overlook the turquoise ocean crashing along the coastline.

Map of the Best San Francisco Day Trips
Big Sur, California, U.S.A.

Stop by McWay Falls and look at the waterfall flowing to the beach and gaze over the ocean at Bixby Bridge. Explore Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, or Limekiln State Park.

If you want to turn your day trip into a weekend getaway, you can either camp at one of the state parks or go off-roading and find some dispersed camping spots.

There are also so many turnouts along the way where you can sightsee and enjoy the fresh air and the views on short stops.

3. Carmel by the Sea

Ivan is an independent traveler, a history junkie, and a techno-geek. He frequently traveled to Vietnam and knows the country inside out. After having traveled the world for a year-and-a-half non-stop, he is now based in Thailand.

Distance from San Francisco: 120 miles

Located some 120 miles south of San Francisco, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a  quirky, charming, and romantic seaside town in Northern California.

Home to the historic Carmel Mission, with its incredible museums, and the whaling museum in the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Carmel can claim to have the best of both worlds.

Carmel by the Sea, California, USA
Carmel by the Sea, California, USA

Here you’ll find old-world European style coupled with Northern California’s rugged coastal beauty.

This quaint village has some of the most beautiful scenery you will come across along the Pacific Ocean coast.

You will want to arrive here early and take a stroll down Carmel Beach, go shopping along the tree-lined streets, and visit the Basilica Church, a registered National Historic Landmark that dates back to 1771.

Even if you only have a few hours to spend in Carmel-by-the-Sea, you definitely won’t want to miss out on taking the Scenic Bluff Path.

Mission San Carlos in Carmel, California, USA
Mission San Carlos in Carmel, California, USA

A  well-maintained gravel pathway that parallels Scenic Road will take you along the jagged coastline from Carmel Beach, popular among surfers, to the bird watcher’s mecca of Carmel River State Beach.

Pick your favorite food and drink at local restaurants. To indulge your taste buds take a closer look at La Bicyclette, Casanova, Carmel’s Bistro Giovanni, and Mission Ranch, just to name a few.

You can either rent a car and drive the coast or join a day tour from San Francisco to Carmel and Monterey.

If you’re staying for longer or you’re stopping over here on a Pacific Coast Highway itinerary, why not treat yourselves with a massage at one of our many spas in Monterey County?

A highlight of any early evening stroll along Carmel Beach is undoubtedly watching the sunset.

Here is the pick of the day tours from San Francisco:

4. Half Moon Bay

Kay of PCH1 Road Trip, a website dedicated to exploring the Pacific Coast Highway recommends a stop at Half Moon Bay just south of San Francisco.

Distance from San Francisco: 37 miles

Half Moon Bay is the perfect day trip from the hectic city life of San Francisco. This coastal community is located just 30 miles south of San Francisco and makes a great short trip along the Pacific Coast Highway.

While driving down along the coast, you will see sandy beaches and coastal bluffs, making it a memorable drive. 

Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Half Moon Bay, California, U.S.A.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Half Moon Bay, California, U.S.A.

The city of Half Moon Bay is charming to explore. Its Main Street has excellent dining, shopping, and historic buildings.

Try the famous Lobster Rolls at Sam’s Chowder House, take a photograph of the New England-style houses, and enjoy a drink at the Half Moon Bay Distillery.

Shop for one-of-a-kind treasures at the boutique stores. 

While the city has many things to do in its downtown, visitors come here mostly for outdoor activities. Half Moon Bay has some of the most beautiful beaches near San Francisco.

Popular beaches where you can camp, picnic, or go beachcombing include Half Moon Bay State Beach, Venice Beach, and Dunes Beach. 

Pathway to the Cyprus Grove, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Half Moon Bay, California
Pathway to the Cyprus Grove, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Half Moon Bay, California

Hike along the California Coastal Trail or see the tidepool creatures at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. See the beautiful Pigeon Point Lighthouse or go on a whale-watching cruise.

See the masses of wildflowers growing along the coast in spring. You can also see the massive coastal redwood trees at the Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve.

All in all, Half Moon Bay is the perfect Bay area day trip with lots of unique attractions.

Related: Check out our 5-day mix-and-match itinerary for LA

5. Livermore Valley

Lori Sorrentino is the founder of the website Travlinmad.com a site that focuses on eating local and traveling slow. Today she shares a lesser-known wine region of San Francisco, the Livermore Valley.

Distance from San Francisco: 35 miles

Just 35 miles from the San Francisco Bay Area is a small triangular region made up of three connected valleys — the San Ramon Valley, Amador Valley, and Livermore Valley collectively known as Tri-Valley.

The Livermore Valley is a foodie paradise
The Livermore Valley is a foodie paradise

Undoubtedly the most visited of the three and well worth a day trip is the Livermore Valley with its outstanding restaurants, and outdoor activities like cycling, hiking Mt. Diablo, horseback riding, and tasting the famous Livermore Valley wines.

There’s even a shop to rent electric motor-assisted bikes, perfect for biking to your wine tastings on a warm day.

The Livermore Valley has over 50 wineries, 23 craft breweries, a small craft distillery, and over 150 restaurants.

Most of the wineries are small and family-owned and allow visitors the opportunity to chat with the winemakers.

But what’s truly unique about the Livermore Valley when it comes to wine tasting is how close the wineries are in proximity — close enough that biking or walking will easily bring you to up to 8 local wineries.

The rolling hills of Livermore, California, USA
The rolling hills of Livermore, California, USA

If you’d rather not bike or drive, take the Livermore Wine Trolley to get around.

History lovers will enjoy exploring one of the area’s historical landmarks and earliest vineyards — Ravenswood Historic Site, which offers free public tours.

Also worth a visit is the Duarte Garage & Lincoln Highway Museum built in 1915, which features unique antique automobiles and vintage firetrucks.

Plan a trip around the Livermore Valley Harvest Wine Celebration held on Labor Day Sunday or the Livermore Downtown Street Fest, the area’s premier festival.

6. Marin

Food lovers are in for a treat with our next spot suggested by Laura from the Travelling Stomach, (gosh that’s a great name for a blog). Laura shares the secrets of Marin County with us.

Distance from San Francisco: 38 miles

Just over the Golden Gate Bridge, overlooking the bay of San Francisco, lies the county of Marin, a foodie wonderland, that feels a million miles from the city, waiting to be discovered.

Trip Anthropologist
Farm and Food tours in Marin are a great way to discover the local produce.

Alongside some incredible artisan producers, there are breathtaking landscapes and striking coastlines to be found in this lesser-known region.

You can choose a short one-hour drive across the Golden Gate Bridge itself (although be warned that Karl the Fog may obstruct your views) or take a ferry across to Marin to explore this amazing place.

I highly recommend you take a tour with the fantastic Food & Farm Tours. You’ll explore Brickmaiden Bread – try fresh-out-of-the-oven sourdough bread made with decades-old yeast!

You’ll also visit Cowgirl Creamery, to sample a vast array of cheeses and then head to Heidrun Meadery to try their unique sparkling honey wine for a champagne-style tasting delight.

Whether you visit during your Food & Farm Tour, or on your own, there’s one famous spot in Marin you can’t miss out on – Hog Island Oyster Company.

Grab a picnic table on the shoreline and tuck into a platter of fresh and barbecued oysters – the perfect slice of Marin heaven!

7. Monterey

Next up is Monterrey bought to us by ConstanceConstance is one half of The Adventures of Panda Bear where she along with her partner, Jimmy, blogs about destination itineraries, foodie guides, and architectural sights. 

Distance from San Francisco: 120 miles

Monterey is the perfect weekend destination from San Francisco. 

The beautiful coastal city is located only 120 miles away, making the drive approximately 2 hours long and a great day trip to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

Cannery Row Monterey is a popular shopping destination for visitors
Cannery Row Monterey is a popular shopping destination for visitors

Cannery Row is one of the most popular places to visit in Monterey.

Once a street lined with sardine canneries, this is now a tourist destination with cannery buildings repurposed into shops and even the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the most renowned aquarium in California and is specifically known for its work in ocean conservation.

Be sure to check out the sea otter exhibit at the aquarium. There are feedings a few times throughout the day, and they are the cutest!

Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf is also a great place to visit and take a stroll. You can check out the shops and restaurants along the boardwalk, take in ocean views, and even go whale watching!

The whale-watching boats usually head out early in the morning however they are offered throughout the day.

Monterey Bay is one of the best places to see whales along the California coast because of the large canyon just off of shore called the Monterey Canyon.

Whales enjoy spending time there due to the water depth; the canyon measures a mile from top to bottom and is home to a variety of sea life. There is nothing quite like a day trip to Monterey! 

8. Muir Woods

Paula from Truly Expat is an Australian-born, dual passport-owning expatriate; who has lived through 7 postings over 14 years. One of those was in California.

Distance from San Francisco: 17 miles

You cannot visit Northern California without viewing Redwood trees.

Why? Because these trees are the tallest living things on our planet!! Growing up to 350 feet or 107 metres tall the tallest named Hyperion reaches 379.7 feet or 115.7 metres. 

You will never forget a stroll through the Muir Woods
You will never forget a stroll through the Muir Woods

The Redwoods are only found in Northern California so you would be crazy to miss viewing them.

Muir Woods National Monument is only a few miles north of San Francisco, about a forty-minute drive from downtown San Francisco.

In this National Park, you will find the beautiful 1000-year-old Coastal redwoods (sequoia sempervirens).

There is a small entrance fee of $3 per adult but well worth the money with many different paths to take, you are spoilt for choice.

You can check the difficulty ranking of each of the walking or hiking trails before you go, don’t worry, there is something for everyone.

If you are lucky, you may spot a deer or chipmunk while you wander quietly through the Muir Woods.

Don’t have a car don’t worry, you can join a half-day tour to Muir Woods. Here are the best:

9. Napa Valley

Francesca Makana is a content creator for Homeroomtravel.com, a website to help teachers who love to travel learn how to use their breaks wisely. 

Distance from San Francisco: 48 miles

There are so many options for day trips from San Francisco. One of my favorite day trips to take is to Napa.

Only one hour from downtown San Francisco Napa is a great day trip
Only one hour from downtown San Francisco Napa is a great day trip

Napa is in the heart of Napa Valley, California’s main wine country. It is less than an hour away by car from Downtown San Francisco and it is especially magical in Fall.

Although you can get there by public transportation, I recommend renting a car as it will be challenging to get to the various wineries without a car, unless you would like to hire a driver. 

Napa is the perfect place for any wine lover. The Napa area was founded in 1861 when the first winery, Charles Krug opened. Many other wineries began to follow suit and began to plant vineyards.

Yello Gingko trees in Fall in the Napa Valley, California, USA
Yello Gingko trees in Fall in the Napa Valley, California, USA

Present-day, this area contains over 400 wineries, as well as lots of gorgeous places to hike. Many of the wineries offer light bites to eat or an area for you to bring your own picnic lunch.

One of my favorite wineries to visit is Beringer, which was established in 1876 and is considered one of the oldest continuously operated wineries in the area.

As well as wine tasting, Napa is known for its other fun activities. You can ride the famous wine train, take a hot air balloon ride, or one of the many bike tours.

I recommend making reservations for anything you would like to do ahead of time, especially if you are visiting on the weekend or during the summer season.

Many of the wineries get quite popular and the wine train often sells out. Napa is such a great area to visit as a day trip from San Francisco and also is a great stop on the way to Fairfield, California to visit the Jelly Belly Factory. 

10. Santa Cruz

Teresa from Brogan Abroad grew up in Northern Spain but she is a big fan of the California Coast. Today she shares Santa Cruz, an hour south of San Francisco.

Distance from San Francisco: 73 miles

If you are looking for a day in a quintessential California beach town, Santa Cruz is just over an hour’s drive from San Francisco.

Santa Cruz California

Located at the north end of Monterey Bay, this charming town is the birthplace of mainland surfing in the US, and the chilled vibe and atmosphere is one of the things that attracts visitors to its shores

For surfing fans, there is plenty to do here. For beginners or those wanting to improve their technique, there are a few surfing schools where you can take some lessons.

For those experienced enough, why not try and ride some waves yourself?

But if you are more of an observer, head to Pleasure Point, a legendary spot and filming location of Chasing Mavericks, where you can watch the local surfers catch some waves in style.

You can also visit the Surfing Museum in Lighthouse Point, which overlooks Steamer Lane, another famous surfing spot.

Sea daisies growing along the Monterey Coast, California, USA
Sea daisies growing along the Monterey Coast, California, USA

The museum displays photographs, surfboards, and other interesting items that cover over 100 years of surfing history in Santa Cruz.

But there’s more to do on a day trip to Santa Cruz than surfing.

If you are visiting with your family, make sure you don’t miss the iconic Beach Boardwalk, a classic seaside amusement park with rides that have been declared National Historic Landmarks.

Families will love taking a walk on Santa Cruz Wharf seeing the resident sea lions, and taking a pic of the wonderful arched rock at Natural Bridges State Beach.

11. Yosemite National Park

I met American blogger Kimmie from Adventure and Sunsets when she was living in Melbourne and was the guide on a great bar tour I did. I loved her work so asked her to submit her favorite day trip in San Fransico to our list.

Distance from San Francisco: 167 miles

One of the most incredible day trips from San Francisco is Yosemite National Park, of course!

Yosemite National Park, California, U.S.A.
Yosemite National Park, California, U.S.A.

Although I absolutely recommend spending more than just a day in stunning Yosemite, it’s still 100% worth seeing even if you only have one day.

Yosemite is one of the most famous National Parks in California (if not the USA… if not the whole world)!

It’s well-known for its dramatic granite cliffs that tower over waterfalls, rivers, and forests and is perhaps one of the greatest places for hiking in the world.

If you only have one day, there are a few must-sees.

Firstly, Yosemite Valley is a looped one-way trail you can drive; stopping off at famous spots such as Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Falls, Cathedral Beach, Half Dome Village, Yosemite Visitor’s Center, and many other viewpoints along the way.

Yosemite Waterfall, Yosemite National Park, California, USA
Yosemite Waterfall, Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Don’t leave without spending some time at Tunnel View Viewpoint, either – it’s one of the best in the park! If you are there in summer, Glacier Point is a MUST!

You can do a day trip to Yosemite by renting a car or signing up for a bus tour – whatever is easiest for you. If you drive yourself, you might even be able to finish the famous hike to Half Dome as well.

There are some places to stop for food within the park, but it’s also a lovely place to pack a picnic to eat with a panoramic view. 

Don’t have a car or just want to enjoy the day without all the driving? Check out these three highly-rated day tours.

12. Point Reyes

Kelsey Frey from Sights Better Seen grew up and spent most of her life in California but is currently living a digital nomad lifestyle in Europe.

Distance from San Francisco: 37 miles

Point Reyes National Seashore is a gorgeous place to go if you want to get out of the city and into nature.

Trip Anthropologist
Alamere Falls in Point Reyes National Seashore

It was inhabited by the Coast Miwok Indians, about 5,000 years ago, and is said that Sir Frances Drake was the first European to land in the area.

The whole area is full of breathtaking Pacific Ocean and woodland views as well as wildlife like tule elk, harbor seals, and otters.

You can even time your visit to the grey whale migration which peaks in January and March or the arrival of the elephant seals in December.

One of the most popular activities involves a hike to Alamere Falls, a waterfall cascading over a cliff, onto the beach, and into the ocean.

Camping is another fun thing to do at Point Reyes – Wildcat Campground is gorgeous and overlooks the beach, but I’ve also spent the night at Glen Campground which was just as gorgeous but nestled in the woods.

Point Reyes Lighthouse, Point Reyes, California, USA
Point Reyes Lighthouse, Point Reyes, California, USA

If being on the water is of interest you can go kayaking in Tomales Bay.

If you’re there in the late summer or fall I’d recommend heading out in the evening on a guided tour for a chance to see bioluminescent plankton!

Check out the Point Reyes Lighthouse or the famous Monterey Cypress tree tunnel.

Point Reyes is only an hour’s drive away from San Francisco, so it’s quite easy to get to, too. Enjoy your visit to this amazing park – I’m sure it won’t be your only one!

If you’d like to have someone else do the driving and planning, check out these two high-quality 8-hour private day trips to Points Reyes from San Francisco:

13. Castle Rock State Park

Distance from San Francisco: 56 miles

The Santa Cruz mountains are southeast of San Francisco. On the crest of the mountains is Castle Rock State Park.

If you’re visiting San Francisco over a weekend, you might like to join many locals heading out to the rolling hills and dense forests of the Santa Cruz mountains where you’ll find cute and historic towns like Los Gatos.

Moss-covered tree in the mist, Castle Rock State Park, California, USA
Moss-covered tree in the mist, Castle Rock State Park, California, USA

After exploring Los Gatos and the foothills, head to Castle Rock State Park and follow one of the 34 miles of hiking trails for lovely views of the Californian countryside.

There’s a fee to take a car into the Park of $10 per day but once you’re there you really feel like you’re away from it all. There’s no cell phone reception, no store, and no visitor center.

The park closes at sunset.

14. Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Reserve

Distance from San Francisco: 56 miles

A side trip on your way from Los Gatos to Castle Rock State Park should most definitely be Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Reserve.

It will only take 10 minutes to drive the 3 miles south from Los Gatos and you can find 6 miles of nature trails that weave around giant redwood trees.

Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Reserve, California, USA
Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Reserve, California, USA, Credit: PenangCA, Flickr

Bear Creek Redwoods is a great alternative half-day trip from San Francisco if you can’t get to Muir Woods National Monument to see the Redwoods there.

This is a second-growth redwood forest with trees over 150 years old.

It’s home to the most astonishing array of wildlife including mountain lions, bobcats, bald eagles, Santa Cruz black salamanders, California giant salamanders, and belted kingfishers.

If you’re making a day trip of it, the distance from San Francisco to the Bear Creek Redwoods is 56 miles by car via US-101 S.

The Reserve is open from a half hour before sunrise until a half-hour after sunset.

15. Solano

Distance from San Francisco: 45 miles

Like the Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley has some of California’s best wineries. It’s here you’ll find the fascinating old town of Solano.

San Francisco Solano Mission, Sonoma, USA
San Francisco Solano Mission, Sonoma, USA

Within the town make sure to start at the town plaza (called Sonoma Plaza) which is lined with adobe buildings built in the 19th century. The Sonoma Barracks

Mission San Francisco Solano is another interesting piece of American history as a former Mexican military post.

It’s part of the Sonoma State Historic Park which consists of six mid-town locations, also close to Sonoma Plaza.

It would be a terrible shame to come to the Sonoma Valley and not take a wine-tasting tour.

Tasting Room, Sonoma Country, California, USA
Tasting Room, Sonoma Country, California, USA

Here are the most popular day trip destinations from the Bay Area and highest-quality wine-tasting tours around Sonoma:

16. Angel Island State Park

You don’t need to leave the Bay Area to take a day trip – tiny Angel Island State Park sits in San Francisco Bay and it’s easy to spend at least a day here.

Storm cluds over picturesque Angel Island, San Francisco Bay, California, USA
Storm clouds over picturesque Angel Island, San Francisco Bay, California, USA

The entire island (which is only 1.2 sq miles but there’s a lot to do here), is designated as State Park.

There are tram rides, bike rides, segway hire, a cafe, and a visitor’s center, and you can take a self-guided tour of the Immigration Station – Barracks Museum.

There are many mountain biking and hiking trails with fantastic 360° views of the San Francisco skyline. If you are feeling like a good long walk, you can circumnavigate the island in about 3 hours.

You can get to the island by ferry from Tiburon or San Francisco or by boat, and you can moor or camp overnight at Angel Island. It’s open year-round from 8 a.m. to sunset.

Tip: If you take the ferry from Tiburon, make sure to walk around the quaint downtown area.

If you’d like to see Angel Island, here are three brilliant ways to sail past it!

17. Stinson Beach

Distance from San Francisco: 23.6 miles

A thrilling journey along the Steep Ravine Canyon brings you to Stinson Beach in Marin County north of San Francisco.

Trip Anthropologist
Stinson Beach, California, USA

Described as a “dreamy beach community,” it’s an expensive piece of real estate because of its beautiful white sand and oceanfront location.

There is an exclusive gated community called “Sea Drift” with private beaches and golf courses.

Stinson Beach is not just a wonderful sandy beach, it is also considered one of the very best beaches for swimming in northern California, making it one of the best day trips from San Francisco in summer.

Matt Davis Trail, Stinson Beach, California, USA
Matt Davis Trail, Stinson Beach, California, USA

Besides swimming, Stinson beach volleyball, surfing, and windsurfing are all popular. There are nature trails nearby (the Martin Griffin Nature Preserve and the Matt David Trail for starters).

In the town itself, the local shops, art galleries, and bookshops are a lovely way to spend the afternoon if you’ve spent the morning on the beach before it gets windy.

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