7 of the best day trips from San Francisco

Forget crossing bridges to get across the Bay – San Francisco locals are notorious for not wanting to leave the city.

But visitors shouldn’t impose that limitation on themselves. Combine the city’s best things to do with day trips into the surrounding area’s mix of fast-paced culture, natural beauty and history for the ultimate experience.

While popular places to go – like the majestic redwoods of Muir Woods or the massive Monterey Bay Aquarium –  are classic, also consider lesser-known wine regions, underrated cities and getting acquainted with the animal kingdom. Days out from the city are plentiful and enriching no matter what direction you travel. Here are our top choices of places to visit within a couple of hours of San Francisco.

1. Taste your way through lesser-known wines in Suisun Valley

Travel time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

Suisun (suh-SOON) Valley is a wine region just northeast of SF with its own microclimate and tends to be less crowded than the popular, neighboring Napa and Sonoma valleys. “Suisun” is Indigenous Patwin for “where the west wind blows,” and local weather can present itself as a gentle, cooling breeze that yields signature cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit sirah. Visit soon, though, as more people are starting to take notice.

Caymus Vineyards in the palm tree-bordered Caymus-Suisun Winery has a grand tasting room. The rest of the wine trail includes Suisun Valley Wine Co-op and the expanded BackRoad Vines at its Village 360, all anchored by the community of Mankas Corner, which also has the valley’s best dinner option at steakhouse Mankas Grill. There’s plenty on offer for beer lovers, too, particularly at Pioneer Tap Room, with a variety of beers on tap and a row of bar seating made of saddles, plus a spacious outdoor area with a stage for live music. Farmers stands and shops also abound, such as Cal Yee Farm, which sells dried fruits, nuts, and even dog sweaters hand-knitted by the owner.

Suisun Valley is close enough to the city that you can go and return on the same day. If you want to take a more leisurely approach to the trip and fit in tastings in more regions, such as the neighboring Green Valley or the more mainstream Napa Valley, the most plentiful accommodation options lie in mostly chain hotels and motels in the nearby, though less exquisite, Fairfield. If you’re a jelly bean fan, though, a plus of Fairfield is its proximity to the Jelly Belly Factory. Otherwise, groups of up to 16 can rent the entire estate of the bucolic Suisun Valley Inn.

How to get to Suisun Valley from San Francisco: It’s 45 miles from San Francisco to Suisun Valley, and driving via I-80E is the fastest way to get there. No regular tour lines run between SF and the valley, but once you are in wine country, you can contact a wine tour company to craft a custom door-to-door Suisun Valley itinerary – the perfect solution if you’d rather imbibe than drive.

2. Travel back in time in the museums of Locke, a historic Chinese settlement

Travel time: 2 hours and 10 minutes

In the hot Sacramento Delta lies the small town of Locke, a well-preserved wild west area created by and for Chinese settlers in 1915, the only one of its kind left in the US. Many of its false-fronted wooden buildings along Main St have been made into free mini museums that you can duck into as you make your way down the street.

See the tiny beds seasonal workers rented in the old boarding house, a money room and the original, thick-walled safe in the gambling den, student desks in a Chinese school, and traditional Chinese instruments in the benevolent association. It’s easy to picture how the town once also had Prohibition-era speakeasies, brothels, slaughterhouses, and even a Chinese opera house for its 600-plus residents and 1000 seasonal laborers.

Today, aside from the museums, there are also a few worthy spots to drink and eat, making for a complete one-stop day trip. Italian-American-founded Al the Wops (or just Al’s Place or Al’s) is a dive bar with plenty of beer and substantial pub fare like burgers. When the owner feels like opening it, step into the Lockeport Grill & Fountain for an ice cream sundae or grilled cheese lunch combo. It’s also connected to the Locke Bed-and-Breakfast upstairs for those who want to stay in this peaceful town a little longer.

Most of Locke’s Chinese American descendants have moved away, but many of its current residents are artists who show their work at Main St galleries or run the quirky thrift shops in town. Swing by Walnut Grove on the way to or from Locke for more food options, and/or the nearby town of Isleton to visit Isleton Museum, which contains more regional history pertaining to the area’s Chinese settlers.

How to get to Locke from San Francisco: Locke should show up on your GPS, but nearby Walnut Grove is an option if you’re struggling. It’s accessible by car via I-160, 75 miles from San Francisco. Phone service is spotty in Locke, so upload or print any directions or maps you may need beforehand. You can take half a day to explore the buildings and museums on Main St on your own or book a walking tour of the town through the Locke Foundation. Park for free on Main St or in a free lot near the public restrooms further north.

A man and woman driving in a vintage car, the woman is holding a camera and leaning toward the window
A fun new experience is just a car ride away from San Francisco © Getty Images

3. Enjoy the peace and beauty of Colma’s cemeteries

Travel time: 30 minutes

Cemetery City is just one of the spooky nicknames Colma has garnered since the small town became the final resting place for San Francisco’s dead. The well-manicured cemeteries with their smooth walking paths and verdant blooms make for off-beat green space and historical sightseeing options during your SF visit. The city banned new burials in 1901, so Colma, formerly known for its agriculture, became the City of Souls in a short amount of time, and its current population of about 1800 living is far outnumbered by the 1.5 million people interred here.

With 17 cemeteries big and small, Colma has resting places designated by religion, ethnicity and everything in between. Cypress Lawn is one of the bigger cemeteries, with sections straddling the busy El Camino Real. Drive through the arched entrance to find benches, fountains and large trees for quiet contemplation or even a picnic.

Plenty of celebrities found their final resting place in Colma, from the baseball-lined grave of Joe DiMaggio at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery to frontier lawman Wyatt Earp at the Jewish Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, just down the row from denim magnate Levi Strauss in Home of Peace. Visit at least one mausoleum, usually adorned with colorful stained glass windows, and whose cool interiors are extra welcoming on a hot day.

To add another unusual dimension to your Colma cemetery visit, also go to Pet’s Rest cemetery to see sandblasted portraits of beloved pups. Rumor has it that Tina Turner’s dog rests there in an unmarked grave.

Afterward, grab a pint of Guinness at Molloy’s Tavern, which was originally built to serve cemetery construction workers and nowadays has Las Pencas Mexican food truck parked outside. Eat at Cafe Colma inside the Lucky Chances card room, open round the clock for huge portions of Filipino, American diner and Cantonese comfort dishes. 

How to get to Colma from San Francisco: Colma is a quick 30-minute drive south of downtown San Francisco on I-280S. You can take the BART to Colma Station, then walk to the closest cemeteries or transfer to SamTrans’ ECR bus line, but only if you’re sticking to one or two cemeteries. While clustered together, the grounds are quite spread out and walking from one to another is time-consuming. The Colma Historical Association offers occasional cemetery walking tours and is open on Saturdays as a small museum.

A man eating noodles with chopsticks in a restaurant
Take a foodie tour of San Jose’s incredible Vietnamese restaurants © iStockphoto / Getty Images

4. Eat your way through San Jose’s huge Vietnamese food scene

Travel time: 1 hour (outside of rush hour)

About an hour south of San Francisco, San Jose has one of the highest populations of Vietnamese Americans in the US, and therefore one of the best Vietnamese food scenes around. While not usually high on the tourism list, except for maybe the Winchester Mystery House or hockey team San Jose Sharks, SJ nowadays has positioned itself as the capital of Silicon Valley. Not too shabby of an association, but many outside of the city are unaware of its significance as a Vietnamese cultural hub, as well as home to large populations of Mexican, Indian and other immigrant communities.

In Little Saigon in East San Jose, start your day at Lion Plaza, which was the first Vietnamese strip mall in SJ. Get a hearty breakfast of filet mignon on a sizzling platter from Bo Ne Phu Yen, accompanied by eggs, crisp side salad, hot tea and fresh Vietnamese baguette. In the same plaza, pick up Vietnamese and other Asian groceries from the huge Lion Supermarket. At the outdoor Paloma Plaza is Hue Vietnamese Restaurant, which offers hard-to-find imperial Central Vietnamese specialties like bánh bèo (small rice flour cakes topped with dried shrimp and fried pork skin).

Wander the stores of Vietnam Town that feature regional Vietnamese specialties. Map out a food plan and possibly bring a cooler for leftovers. If you’re keen to explore more of San Jose’s Vietnamese community history, visit the Viet Museum, the first and largest museum dedicated to Vietnamese refugees.

The trip from San Francisco is quick enough that you probably won’t need to stay overnight, but if you do, there are plenty of hotels and unique short-term rentals such as those on Airbnb.

How to get to San Jose from San Francisco: Drive via US-101 S and I-280 S. You can take the Caltrain to San Jose Diridon Station, then rideshare to one or two of the bigger strip malls. Or take the BART to Berryessa/North San Jose Station and then the VTA bus 77. Bear in mind that it gets hot in San Jose, so exploring on foot can get very uncomfortable.

A fairy door and two tiny windows at the base of a tree
Take a magical tour of fairy doors in Alameda © iStockphoto / Getty Images

5. Find magical, tiny fairy doors all over Alameda

Travel time: 40 minutes (with no traffic)

Mini fairy doors at the base of trees or in kitchens have existed across cultures for centuries, and the cultural phenomenon is alive and well on the island of Alameda in the East Bay. It’s also a perfect excuse to get outside and explore a less touristy spot of the Bay. Credited to woodworker Fred Hogenboom and his granddaughter, the community art project started by the duo in the 2010s sparked first a neighborhood, then a city-wide trend that continues to this day.

Spend a leisurely couple of hours in the quiet neighborhoods of Alameda, using this Google map to guide you as you visit simple, flat, two-toned doors affixed to the base of utility poles and entire fairy condo complexes in people’s front gardens. Once you find one door, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. The map depends on a dedicated Facebook group of volunteers who keep it updated. Feel free to dress up in your magical best and bring fairy offerings like pennies, glass beads, or notes. Depending on the weather, like after a storm, a few fairy doors may not be visible or in good condition. Don’t worry, though, new ones are always popping up. 

Downtown Alameda is actually just a few minutes’ walk north of the fairy door cluster around Clinton Ave and Oak St and has a robust food and drink scene. If you’re going on a morning fairy door hunt, check out the flakiest croissants at Crispian Bakery. Grab gooey cheeseburgers for lunch at Spinning Bones or Scolari’s Good Eats, spicy hand-pulled Xi’an noodles at Wild Ginger, or dessert at Tucker’s Ice Cream. 

How to get to Alameda fairy doors from San Francisco: Drive via I-80 E. You can also take BART to Fruitvale Station, then transfer to AC Transit bus line 51A to walk to one or two clusters of fairy doors.

A senior couple kayaking in a double kayak at sunset
Take a day trip to Elkhorn Slough and kayak next to nature © Getty Images

6. Kayak with harbor seals in Elkhorn Slough

Travel time: 2 hours

There’s no need to go all the way down to Monterey for its magnificent aquarium. Elkhorn Slough lies a half-hour drive north of Monterey, and you can kayak with harbor seals, sea otters, and nearly 350 species of birds in the first estuarine sanctuary in the US, with its 6 miles of navigable waterways. While you can rent kayaks from either the quaint fishing village just north in Moss Landing or south in Monterey, the most convenient option is to rent kayaks at Elkhorn Slough itself.

Try Kayak Connection or Monterey Bay Kayaks. Explore on your own or sign up for a guided tour, which is recommended for first-timers. While you have to keep a few kayaks’ lengths away from the otters and seals for safety reasons, you are still surrounded by dozens of frolicking sea creatures. Some friendly, curious ones will swim up closer to look at you. Both sunny and overcast days bring special qualities to kayaking the slough. Bring a change of clothing, as you will get slightly wet.

Afterward, refuel by indulging in some fresh local seafood right next door at Sea Harvest or Haute Enchilada Cafe just south. If you’re raring to go after lunch, you can add a hike starting from an educational visitors center that’s 6.5 miles north of the slough. You can make it back to SF on the same day, but if you’re exhausted from kayaking and hiking, consider booking a stay at the nautical-themed Captain’s Inn at Moss Landing or the modern boutique hotel at The Inn at Moss Landing.

How to get to Elkhorn Slough from San Francisco: Drive on US-101 S to CA-17, ultimately to CA-1.

7. Pick an abundance of produce in the garlic capital of Gilroy

Travel time: 1 hour 40 minutes (depending on traffic)

There’s no mistaking you’ve arrived in Gilroy when the scent of garlic fills your nostrils, but reasons to visit stretch beyond buying garlic braids, including a varied, abundant u-pick season, plus other family-friendly amusements (but also buy the garlic braids). U-pick season usually runs May through October, though the weather and other factors can shorten or lengthen it. Check farm websites beforehand to see if they’re open and what is available to pick.

Many are open on the weekends only, though some offer weekday or appointment-only hours. Arrive early to avoid crowds and picked over rows, and bring cash and sun protection. Pluck ruby red strawberries at Berry Island or Tru2Earth Farm. Cherries are plentiful at Borello Family Farms, Gilroy U-Pick and more. You can even pick lavender and other flowers at the farms. If you’re open to varieties of produce to pick, look to surrounding areas like Watsonville and Morgan Hill, or farms in Santa Cruz if you’d like to be closer to SF.

Outside of the u-pick experience and season, visit Gilroy’s farmers market stands when certain produce seasons hit. LJB Farms also creates a huge pumpkin patch during October, complete with plenty of photo-worthy decorations and snack trucks on site. Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park is a bit pricey but has oddly shaped “circus trees” and produce-themed rides. A trip to the Gilroy Premium Outlets can be an air-conditioned respite from the Gilroy heat.

If you need more sustenance than strawberries for lunch, head out to OD’s Kitchen for a hearty diner brunch, any location of Tacos Ameca for thick, chewy handmade corn tortillas, or the Mike’s Backyard BBQ weekend pop-up inside of Garlic World. The formerly annual garlic festival association currently operates several fundraising events throughout the year that still include garlic food and goods, so check online to see if your visit coincides with anything fun. 

How to get to Gilroy from San Francisco: Drive south on US-101 and take exit 356 for Gilroy.

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