Chances are that if you’ve lived in the Bay Area for a while, you’ve seen a sight or attended an event that you felt you just had to share the next time you had out-of-town visitors. Memorable adventures with out-of-towners can showcase our spectacular natural wonders, with holiday treks up to West Marin, from Limantour Beach to the Tomales Point Trail, from Lagunitas Creek to the Point Bonita Lighthouse in the Marin Headlands. But there are plenty of urban sights to take in, too. The truth is we have an embarrassment of riches to share with out-of-town guests at all times of year, though the selection during the holidays seems especially rich. Here are a few suggestions for impressing visitors. But be warned, after showing them the sights, they may want to keep coming back.
1. THE HEIGHTS AND THE SIGHTS. The best things about the hills and mountains in the Bay Area: the view from the top. Dazzle your guests with the area’s famous vistas, most of which you can drive to: UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, Oakland’s Mormon Temple, and San Francisco’s Twin Peaks. The best of them all is Mount Diablo, elevation 3,849 feet above sea level, with what’s reputed to be one of the most expansive views anywhere: from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the Sierra Nevada in the east.
And here are a couple of world-class vistas that are knock-outs even if you’ve seen them a thousand times before: the view of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco from the Marin Headlands (there’s lots more to see there if you have time to drive out to the beach at Fort Cronkhite) and the view of the city from Treasure Island (accessed by the Bay Bridge).
For those in a mood to stretch their legs, here are a couple of favorite vistas you need to walk to: the southern end of San Francisco Bay from Mission Peak in Fremont—a trail that’s steep (a climb of over 2,000 feet), long (five miles round trip), and popular; the Richardson Bay view from the West Point Inn on Mount Tamalpais (refreshments available for weekend hikers), and the 50-mile bay view from the top of the Stonewall-Panoramic Trail (steep, and muddy in wet weather) in the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve on the Oakland-Berkeley border.
2. EAT SOUP. The little town on the San Mateo County coast south of San Francisco called Pescadero (just east of Highway 1, just south of Highway 84 is so small that once you’re there you’ll have no problem spotting a little restaurant and tavern called Duarte’s. Among other delicious fare, the establishment serves a specialty — cream of artichoke soup—artichokes being a specialty crop down along the San Mateo and Santa Cruz coasts. But you don’t have to drive all the way to Pescadero just to have a bowl of Duarte’s cream of artichoke soup (although it’s not a terrible idea). But you might want to take your guests on a leisurely tour of the parks or state beaches in the area—maybe even Año Nuevo State Park, where you can sign up for a guided walk to view mating elephant seals (reservations required; book early if you plan to go). Or Pescadero Creek Park. Or Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Then, once you’ve partaken of nature and gotten lots of outside air in your lungs, go to Duarte’s and eat soup.
3. HANG WITH TULE ELK. If you want to get out of urban landscape and see some spectacular nature, and you have all day—really, all day–here’s what you do: Drive up to Marin County, head out to Point Reyes National Seashore. The land- and seascape here is reason enough for your visit, but here’s something extra: the area is a tule elk reserve, and it’s common to see some of the large ungulates grazing along the road before you get to the ranch or out along the trail. One tip for the trail: It’s long, with lots of up and down after the first mile or so. The northern section is sandy and windy and can be heavy going. So wear layers for changeable weather and sturdy walking shoes. Bring water and a snack and prepare for a minimum of four hours out on the trail if you walk all the way to the end and back.
How to get there: When you get to Pierce Point Road, past Inverness, bear right, and stay on the twisting, rising, falling ranch road for 9 miles, past the signs for Abbotts Lagoon and Kehoe Beach. Eventually, you’ll arrive at the historic Pierce Point Ranch—also the start of the Tomales Point Trail, a 4.75-mile fire road and path to the northern tip of Point Reyes (that’s 9.5 miles round trip). Here’s the map.
Nearby attractions: All of the Point Reyes beaches have their own beauty, and there are many excellent trails in both the seashore and adjacent federal and state lands. Visit the Point Reyes Visitor Center, off Bear Valley Road just outside the village of Olema, for information. You can find food and refreshments in Inverness, Inverness Park, Point Reyes Station, and Olema.
4. HAUNT A HOTEL ATRIUM. Here’s a favorite vicarious-luxury experience that can provide a break from traipsing around the city: Hanging out in one of San Francisco’s grand hotel lobbies and atriums. The drill is simple: Go in, look around, be impressed, then maybe grab a (yes, expensive) drink at the lounge. The Hyatt Regency, at Market and California streets, plans artificial snowfalls in its soaring atrium. Another favorite: The Palace Hotel and its Garden Court (New Montgomery and Market). The Palace is self-conscious enough about its history—a sitting U.S. president died there—that it offers tours. At the top of Nob Hill is the grand Fairmont Hotel, which features a Gingerbread House and a holiday-themed afternoon high tea.
5. EXPLORE INDOORS. It’s conceivable that your visitors don’t want to jump in the car to take in the sights or tramp through our magnificent scenery — especially when the weather isn’t cooperating. Maybe they’d like to spend the day at one of our world-class museums instead. Throughout the holidays, the California Academy of Arts and Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is hosting ” ‘Tis the Season for Science,” a program featuring winter-themed exhibits and activities, complete with indoor snow flurries every half-hour. If we were making the call, we’d tell our visitors we were going down to The Tech Museum in San Jose for its “Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition,” which promises to unravel mysteries like, “Do you get wetter if you walk or run through the rain?”
Our other favorite big-time museums include the Exploratorium which moved to a new, state-of-the-art building on Pier 15, the Oakland Museum, the De Young Museum, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. We’ll reserve honorable mention for another fine arts fave, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, because of its magnificent setting adjacent to Lincoln Park and Lands End. The best kids-centric museums include UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science and Sausalito’s Bay Area Discovery Museum.
6. WALK A NEIGHBORHOOD. San Francisco is full of great walking neighborhoods— a combination of engaging human and physical topography. Most of our neighborhoods have a colorful main street and plenty of bustling activity: Chinatown; North Beach; Potrero Hill; Bernal Heights; Mission Bay; Clement Street in the inner Richmond; Union Street; Chestnut Street; the Upper and Lower Haight; Hayes Valley; SOMA and NOPA; Noe Valley; the Castro. You get the idea—they’re everywhere.
And perhaps tops for pure constant surprise: the Mission. The food, the murals, the parks, the people, fun shops like Paxton Gate and 826 Valencia Pirate Supply, and the ease of getting there for a walking trip on Muni or BART, makes this a favorite in-town/out-of-town excursion that can be as quick as a lunch stop or an all-day expedition.
7. TAKE THE FERRY. This is one of the cheapest, quickest, most accessible, and spectacular ways to show visitors some of what makes the place we live unique. You can choose from dozens of routes, but one of the most scenic is the San Francisco-Alameda-Oakland ferry, which sails from San Francisco’s Pier 41 or the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street and makes stops in Alameda and at Oakland’s Jack London Square. On the way, it passes under the Bay Bridge and cruises up the Oakland Estuary between the Port of Oakland and the old Alameda Naval Air Station. The basic one-way fare for the 25-minute trip is $6.50, with discounts for kids and seniors. On the San Francisco end of the voyage, both Pier 41 and the Ferry Building feature a wide array of dining and shopping choices and ready access to transit for further travel (including connecting ferries to Sausalito, Tiburon, and Vallejo). There’s plenty of dining and entertainment at Jack London Square, too, along with a schedule of holiday events kicking off with a tree lighting and pop-up holiday market on November 30. Both the Ferry Building (on Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays) and Jack London Square (Sunday) host farmers’ markets.
To explore the North Bay, take the ferries to Sausalito and Tiburon, both of which offer views of Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge. And there are plenty of opportunities for sightseeing, shopping, and dining within walking distance of the docks in both towns.
8. RIDE THE CABLE CAR. Ding ding! What a cliché! Ding ding! And priced to gouge out-of-towners ($6 for a one-way ride, except early in the morning and late at night; if you’re a Bay Area resident, you may use your Clipper card on the cable car if you have a month Muni pass or cash value loaded onto the card). But you know, San Francisco’s hand-crafted, steel-wood-and-glass transit antiques really are unique. There’s nothing quite like hanging on to the side (or hanging out on the rear platform) as that little car crawls up or clatters down San Francisco’s steep, steep streets. From the Powell Street turntable, you can ride from one pole of the city’s retail wonderland–the greater Union Square/San Francisco Centre/Bloomingdale’s sector—to the other—Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 (via the Powell-Mason line) and Ghirardelli Square (via the Powell-Hyde line). If you and your guests want to delve into cable car lore, then you need to alight at Muni’s Cable Car Museum, at Washington and Mason streets (both Powell Street routes pass the museum.)
It’s true the cable cars may be crowded with holiday tourists. If you want to avoid them the same way they want to avoid you, here are a couple of tips: Take the short California Street line (starts at Market Street outside the Hyatt Regency, goes west up over Nob Hill, turns around at Van Ness Avenue). Or ride after 9 p.m., when the fare falls to $3 and the crowds thin out. The cars run until nearly 1 a.m. every night of the week.
9. VISIT THE ROCK: Alcatraz! Yes, here’s another San Francisco cliché. But hear me out: the story of the former fort/military prison/federal penitentiary/Native American rebellion headquarters is captivating, and the setting is both beautiful and grim. A ticket to Alcatraz these days gets you a boat ride out to the island and back and an excellent 45-minute audio tour of the cellhouse. Concessionaire Alcatraz Cruises also runs a night tour, which includes special programs on the island. Note: reservations are required for all Alcatraz tours.
- By Dan Brekke