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San Francisco Bay Area Vacation Ideas

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This San Francisco Bay Area vacation and travel guide will introduce you to the City of San Francisco, itself, as well as to the entire geographic portion of the state known as “the Bay Area,” which stretches from Marin County (across the Golden Gate Bridge just north of San Francisco) to Santa Cruz (a coastal city just south of San José). Like many things in California, those starting and stopping points are as different as night and day.

If you’re unfamiliar with the area, you can follow this link to a San Francisco Bay Area Tourist Map, and there are also links within that article to an assortment of other handy tourist maps that will help you enjoy the wonderful attractions and experiences in all of the Bay Area’s regions.

Marin County, historically San Francisco’s wealthy neighbor, extends from the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge up the coast to Bodega Bay and inland to Novato. Unlike San Francisco where a whole world seems to fit into a compact, 49-square-mile space, Marin County has acres of protected open space that offer sweeping coastal and pastoral vistas. Marin County’s east side has wealthy enclaves like Tiburon, Sausalito and Mill Valley, and you’ll find a more Bohemian feel in the western, coastal side towns of Stinson Beach, Point Reyes Station and Bolinas. Each holds its own charm.

Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant

While a visit to Marin County will require either a car or a ferry ride from San Francisco, the portion of the Bay Area known as East Bay is easily reached from The City via the BART public transit system. Home to the cities of Oakland and Berkeley and their well-known restaurants, their sporting facilities and one very famous university, the East Bay is considered the 1971 birthplace of “California cuisine.” In addition to Alice Waters’ historic Chez Panisse, Berkeley is also home to the original Peet’s Coffee, whose founder Alfred Peet was the first to popularize gourmet coffee in America, having started Peet’s and mentored the three college students who later founded Starbucks.

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Drive south from the city of San Francisco, you reach The Peninsula. A half hour south on the coastal Highway 1, you’ll find Half Moon Bay, a quaint seaside village that is both home to one of the “gnarliest” surfing spots in the world (known as Mavericks) and a “grand dame” Ritz-Carlton resort spa where high tea and a championship golf course (complete with bagpipes at sunset!) await you. Travel another 15 miles down the coast and you’ll find farmers tending artichoke and strawberry fields in Pescadero, and you’ll hardly believe that you’re only an hour away from The City, as San Francisco is known here in northern California.

Rodin sculpture on Stanford University campus

An alternate way to travel to the South Bay from San Francisco is on Highway 101, and this route leads to the Silicon Valley, known as “The Valley of the Heart’s Delight” in simpler times. While inarguably high-tech, it’s still quite delightful, and this area has a lot to offer in terms of travel education and entertainment – Stanford University, the Winchester Mystery House and the San José TechMuseum, just to name a few of the possibilities.

At the southernmost point of the San Francisco Bay Area — and accessible only by traveling “over the mountain” on Highway 17 — is the fun and funky beach town, Santa Cruz.  (Keep your eye out for a “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” bumper sticker!) Santa Cruz is home to a renowned beach boardwalk amusement park (that originated during the city’s 19th century heyday), some of the best surfing spots in the state (as well as a surfing museum) and a lively music and arts scene. The surrounding area also offers some awe-inspiring park lands (including a giant Redwood tree you can drive through in Henry Cowell State Park) and about 50 very enjoyable wineries that are far less crowded than those in other parts of the state.

Photo of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant by ulterior epicure via flickr (Creative Commons) and Photo of Auguste Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais” sculpture on the Stanford University campus by wallyg via flickr (Creative Commons).

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Related posts:

San Francisco Neighborhoods

San Francisco Culinary Vacations

San Francisco Landmarks

San Francisco Bay Area Museums

Misc. Travel Resources

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