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25 Best Things to Do in Northern California

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Editorial Note: This article was initially published by Kyle Kroeger after a trip to San Francisco and Half Moon Bay. In November 2023, the article was revised by Douglas Weissman, a California native and professional traveler.

From scenic state and national parks to the sprawling metropolis of San Francisco and the stunning coastline along the Pacific Coast Highway, the best things to do in Northern California reveal why it is the ultimate travel destination.

The best things to do in California are romanticized in movies. Still, the state bursts with culture, history, and cuisine, making it the perfect destination for adventure enthusiasts, nature lovers, and culture-seekers.

A drive through the Golden Coast in Northern California will take you to fantastic breweries but also through beautiful National Parks and stunning beaches with pit stops at energetic cities or some of the world’s coolest camping spots.

Your options are endless, from the stunning national and state parks to the coastal views of Mendocino, the Napa Valley wine country, to the nostalgic fun of Santa Cruz’s Boardwalk.

Enjoy the perfect road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway or find the base from which you can explore the highlights of activities and attractions that create the top Northern California vacation spots.

TL;DR

Things to Do in Northern California & Places to Visit

While places like San Francisco and Yosemite are often the hotspots of Northern California, this region has so much more to offer. From the coastlines of Half Moon Bay to the hipster town of Oakland, this travel guide hopes to highlight the towns that line the road less traveled.

1. Travel the Pacific Coast Highway to Mendocino

Aerial view of Mendocino County

Your journey along the Pacific Highway will take you to the coastal town of Mendocino and all Mendocino offers. The village sits on a peak overlooking the ocean and has jaw-dropping views of the cliffs, sea arches, and roiling waves.

With picturesque houses that give off a New England vibe and are surrounded by boutiques and restaurants galore, Mendocino is a hot tourist spot. The small town also features a pretty relaxed vibe.

Experience natural beauty on a train ride through Mendocino County. Afterward, head to Big River Beach, Mendocino Overlook, or Russian Gulch State Park for the best coastal views.

2. Drive Avenue of the Giants Scenic Highway at Redwoods National and State Parks

Avenue of the Giants

A trip to the Redwoods National and State Parks is one of Northern California’s best things to do. The National and State Parks are known for being home to the tallest trees in the world.

The giant trees that envelop this park are something straight out of a postcard. While the park spans thousands of acres, a few spots are worth visiting. You can even tour the Muir Woods to see the park highlights featuring Cathedral Grove, where the oldest trees continue growing. 

The Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park is a winding road lined with iconic redwood trees on either side. A drive down this road is straight out of a fairytale. Staying at Avenue of the Giants Pepperwood is a great way to combine the scenic drive with relaxing accommodations.

There are also numerous spots for visitors to pull over and capture the beauty of the Redwood forest, but the best adventure is on the trails winding through Redwood National Park. Take a picture with the tallest tree in the world, or even drive your car through the middle of a tree.

The park is within driving distance from many of Northern California’s best attractions, where you can enjoy the beauty of the San Francisco Bay Area or the top things in Napa Valley.

See Related: Things to Do in Idyllwild

3. Journey to Wine Country in Downtown Napa and Napa Valley

dowtown napa

Napa Valley, a.k.a. Wine Country, is an area that provides the perfect getaway combining slow living with great food and wine. It’s the ultimate recipe for your relaxation.

Try a full-day wine-tasting tour to experience the best wines at private estates or discover how Downtown Napa is perfectly walkable. Leave your car behind and enjoy everything this town has to offer.

Stroll down First Street in the heart of Downtown Napa and to the riverfront. You can even make the riverside view the first thing you see in the morning when staying at the Napa River Inn.

There are plenty of eateries in Oxbow Market, award-winning tasting rooms like Alpha Omega Collective, and plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants. Downtown Napa is known for its art, so stop at one of the 15 galleries while you explore California and its beauty.

See Related: Best Palm Springs Restaurants

4. Capture California’s Coastline at Big Sur

big sur

Explore the best of Northern California’s coastline when staying in Big Sur. This magical place spans 70 miles along the highway and offers incredible coastal views, redwood forest, and scenic hiking trails.

Big Sur is not a part of the national park but is unincorporated land along Highway 1. This place is a must-see for some scenic views, and you can explore its natural beauty through the trails, stroll along the beach, or roll down the window to enjoy the sea air during a slow-paced drive down the PCH.

Spend a day glamping at one of the resorts surrounding this stunning destination. Check out one of these top waterfalls in California. Some of the best options are located along Big Sur.

See Related: Things to Do in Crestline

5. Find More than the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz

santa cruz

A trip along the Golden Coast will lead you to the mountain region of Santa Cruz in Northern California. This is one of the prettiest cities in California and is the perfect place to spend a day at the beach and explore the vast shorelines and the lush Santa Cruz mountains.

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has the laidback surfer vibe that is commonplace in SoCal and an amusement park if you want your kids to get their energy out. You can also learn to surf the picturesque waves, which is the best way to get a perfect coastal panorama.

Explore the boutiques that line the streets of Downtown Santa Cruz and grab a bite at one of the many roadside cafes. Before returning to welcoming and comfortable accommodations like the Hotel Paradox, Autograph Collection, end your day with a sunset view at the Natural Bridges State Beach.

6. Indulge in a Local Getaway at San Luis Obispo

san luis obispo

San Luis Obispo is a wine region not as popular as other towns in Northern California but is the go-to weekend getaway for many California natives.

You can spend the day exploring the wineries during your stay at Edna Valley or take a foodie walking tour to try specialty dishes the coastal city is known for. The town has many eateries, stores, and bars in the downtown area that feature local ingredients, often paired with wines from the region.

San Luis is great for a weekend or even a pit stop on your Northern California road trip, especially at a charming location like the Apple Farm Inn.

See Related: Going (Formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) Review

7. Explore the Calm Village Ambiance of Carmel-by-the-sea

carmel by the sea

A destination straight from a fairytale, staying in Carmel-by-the-Sea shows a stunning town known for its rustic charm and blissful ocean views. Like many other towns in Northern California, this place is walkable, so ensure you have your shoes on.

The downtown region of Carmel stretches along one square mile and is adorned with quaint shops and eateries. Everything from the streets to the cottages that line them is picture-worthy and worth a stop.

If you are taking along the Pacific Highway, Carmel-by-the-sea is the perfect place to make a pit stop for lunch or spend time getting lost along the water before returning to your quaint accommodations at the Briarwood Inn. You can even take a tour of Carmel and its surrounding coastal towns.

If you are a golf fanatic, you’ll certainly love this area, as you can easily access the Pebble Beach golf course from here. It’s one of the most popular places to visit along the California coast.

8. Settle into Luxury in Half Moon Bay

Moss Beach Half Moon Bay
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

The name Half Moon Bay speaks volumes about the magic and whimsy that this town has to offer. Just a short drive from Santa Cruz, Half Moon Bay is a quaint coastal town that sits under a foggy landscape surrounded by farms. You will be overcome with calm as you drive through the town in a car or on tour with an e-bike.

Get a vibe of the town’s culture in the downtown area, where you can walk along Main Street and window-shop at one of the many galleries and boutiques. The Half Moon Bay Bakery and The Garden Deli are great eateries to stop for a bite.

End your day with a sunset view at Half Moon Bay State Beach and dinner at Sam’s Chowder House, or call it a night at the grand Oceano Hotel and Spa Half Moon Bay Harbor.

Check out our day trip itinerary by visiting Half Moon Bay from San Francisco from the ViaTravelers YouTube channel. This will give you a glimpse of what visiting this incredible town is like.

See Related: Things to Do in Oakland

9. Embrace Small Town Atmosphere in Pescadero

pescadero

Between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay is the sleepy town of Pescadero. With a population of just 650, find what feels like Middle America in this small town that is often overlooked but is nevertheless worth a visit.

Another town along the coast, Pescadero, offers visitors spectacular ocean views. You can go whale-watching along the shorelines and take in the green hills surrounding it.

Places worth visiting on a trip to Pescadero include Harley Farms Goat Dairy, where you can play with and feed baby goats. You stop for lunch at Arcangeli and try some of their delicious sandwiches.

End your day at downtown Pescadero, which has many antique stores and boutiques that are worth your time. This is where you go when thinking about leaving the city behind and finding a small farm somewhere far away to settle down on.

See Related: Best Places to Visit in Southern California

10. Take Part in the Vibes of Oakland

oakland

Walking around San Francisco reveals the most well-known coastal city in California, but one place right across the river and often flies under the radar is the East Bay of Oakland.

While the city was known for its high crime rates in the early 80s and 90s, it has evolved to become one of the best cities in Northern California.

The city embodies a hipster vibe on full display in the Temescal neighborhood and when trying the flavors of heritage food. Historic buildings and funky graffiti art surround the streets. You can eat your heart out at one of the city’s various eateries, including a wide range of cuisines like Ethiopian and Korean.

Stroll down Jack London Square, where you’ll find California’s best seaside restaurants and breweries. A trip to Oakland is one of the best things to do in Northern California because you explore its laid-back vibe around the local neighborhoods, where you’ll find the best things to do in East Bay.

See Related: Things to Do in Fresno

11. Wander the Mission District in San Francisco

san francisco mission district

Mission District is part of a great girl’s trip to San Francisco but offers much more, like a glimpse into the vibrant culture and storied history of the neighborhood. It was founded by the Spaniards in 1776 and was once considered a neighborhood for families.

Today, Silicon Valley techies and startup founders call this colorful district their home in Northern California. The neighborhood walls feature colorful art, a major draw for tourists, while the streets are lined with quaint European-style homes.

The Mission Dolores Park is an iconic spot in Mission, and eateries like Tartine Bakery and Dandelion Chocolate are a close second. You can taste it all during a food tour of the Mission to get a sense of the neighborhood’s past, present, and future flavors.

This place lives and breathes the history and things to do in San Francisco, offering a great way to catch a break from tourist hotspots like Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island, and Golden Gate Park. It’s also easy to get from the Mission to the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio district, where you take the 33 bus.

See Related: Things to Do in Three Rivers

12. Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge During Day

One of the most obvious and top things to do in Northern California is to visit the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. You won’t be able to miss it, considering its massive size.

The graceful bridge connects two islands in the same bay. The bridge is a prominent tourist attraction that stands near San Francisco Bay. California has become one of the most popular holiday destinations, and Northern California is one of the finest activities to enjoy.

The Golden Gate Bridge is another one of my favorite places to visit simply for the natural beauty and marvels of modern engineering. The finest thing about going to the Golden Gate Bridge is that it’s free and always open (duh!). If you don’t feel like walking across the bridge, see the iconic site at sunset on an evening cruise.

See Related: Things to Do in Santa Maria

13. Venture Down From Yosemite And Explore Sequoia National Park

Sierra Nevada Mountain Range

Sequoia National Park is pretty far south, but because the range is best accessed from Yosemite National Park, we’ll include it as a side-quest from Yosemite itself. This beautiful national park is best known for the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Drive approximately 70 miles south of Yosemite to find it.

You’ll have a ton of options to hike in this mountain range. It’s one of the best things to do in California for outdoor enthusiasts and perhaps in all of the West Coast.

By staying at a place inside the national park, like Silver City Mountain Resort, you can get faster access to views of Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks will be hard to miss. This peak is in the park’s northern section and practically rises out of the north side of Tuolumne Meadows.

See Related: Where To Stay In Morro Bay, California: Best Areas

14. Explore the San Francisco Bay Area and Downtown

Coit Tower from Lombard Street, San Francisco, California
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Continuing with the best things to do in Northern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Downtown are the most obvious places to visit. The best thing about this is that it’s easily accessible by taking the BART commuter train.

The best attractions include Justin Herman Plaza, De Young Museum, SFMOMA, and the Palace of Fine Arts.

The most appealing aspect of these attractions is that they are free or have a small entrance fee. There is also no shortage of amazing food, especially if you’re looking for brunch or a high-end spot for dinner.

The city is expensive, so a San Francisco CityPass can help. Plan early and consider how a San Francisco CityPASS can help you see all the sites.

When visiting, you’ll have many options for day trips from San Francisco that fit any type of traveler. For families and sports fans, be sure to attend a San Francisco Giants game or visit the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Avoid Market Street and the Downtown area when looking for your best accommodations. Each neighborhood in the city has its personality. Discover it by staying at Hotel Kabuki in Japan Town or Standoff Court San Francisco in Nob Hill.

See Related: Best Walking Tours of San Francisco

15. Witness Tech-Central at Silicon Valley

silicon valley

Silicon Valley is the tech capital of the world and remains a must-see spot on your trip to Northern California. While one may assume that this city is mostly made of corporate offices, it has a lot to offer. The region itself encompasses smaller cities like San Jose and Santa Clara that collectively makeup Silicon Valley.

If you are into all things tech, consider taking a tour around the Computer History Museum and The Tech Interactive.

It doesn’t matter if you want to visit the Stanford Campus or linger in the coffee shops of Mountain View, eavesdropping on tech bros, Cardinal Hotel is a charming spot at the heart of Menlo Park perfect for exploring Silicon Valley. It’s an easy way to follow the path to the ‘famous garages’ where Apple and Google had their humble beginnings.

16. Enjoy the Scenic Views in Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

The freshwater lake bordering Nevada and California only scratches the surface of things to do in Lake Tahoe. Because it straddles the California-Nevada state line, Lake Tahoe has many names, including “America’s Lake.”

Lake Tahoe offers some of the best freshwater boating in the world. There are views from around this beautiful lake with panoramic landscapes from San Francisco to Desolation Valley.

The best time to visit Lake Tahoe is from June to September, when temperatures are cooler and less precipitation. If you’re coming for an event at Heavenly Ski Resort, the best time to come is January through March. You can stay at the nearby Heavenly Valley Lodge Bed and Breakfast.

South Lake Tahoe is located on the southern shore of the lake. It has become a popular destination for people looking for natural beauty, casino gambling, restaurants, and shopping.

The best time to visit South Lake Tahoe is during the summer when it’s not so cold or in the fall after the summer crowds have left.

See Related: Best Vacations for a Group of Friends

17. Witness the Colors at Glass Beach, Fort Bragg

Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, California

Nestled in the coastal mountains about a 3.5-hour drive north of San Francisco, Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach is one of the more interesting things to see in Northern California.

It used to be a dumping ground for local industries in the region. The name alludes to the sand, which is thick enough that you may see your reflection when you walk across it.

After decades of exposure to nature and its elements, the beautiful beach has transformed with smooth, colorful sands and breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean.

You can best experience this picturesque spot by stopping along the Pacific Coast Highway and staying at a seaside inn like the Surf and Sand Lodge.

Glass Beach is best for a quick stopover, but I wouldn’t recommend going completely out of the way. It’s one of the more interesting places to visit, but you’ll find that there isn’t much beyond snapping a photo or two.

See Related:  Things to Do in Irvine

18. Travel to the Edge at Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore

One of the best Northern California places to visit is the Point Reyes National Seashore. Point Reyes National Seashore is located on the central coast of Northern California between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Oregon border.

It has been named a National Park Service and UNESCO World Heritage site. The best time to visit the national seashore is from November through May.

This seashore features sweeping views of the Pacific Coast and the Pacific Ocean. Stop by the Point Reyes lighthouse for a great photo opportunity that looks out over the water and to the horizon.

Take an additional photo opportunity at the cypress tree tunnel. Cypress trees planted in the 1930s line the road to a historic radio station.

Take precautions when visiting the attraction along the Northern California coast by not bringing a pet, littering, and staying on paved areas. Also, respect the wildlife.

See Related: Things to Do in Redding

19. Enjoy the Quieter Beauty of San Jose

Downtown San Jose California

San Jose is often overshadowed by the glitz and glamour of San Francisco, but it is an affluent city in Northern California that’s well worth the visit. There aren’t too many tourist hotspots, but the city embodies a more laid-back vibe and is a great place to spend the weekend relaxing.

The Downtown region of San Jose is the perfect place to start your day. Grab breakfast at a local cafe like Whispers Cafe & Creperie. From there, you can head to the Winchester Mystery House, Santana Row or discover some of California’s Botanical Gardens and the Rose Botanical Gardens.

Downtown San Jose has a great craft brew scene and is ideal for brewery hopping with your pals. End your day with dinner at the San Pedro Square Market.

Hotels often book up, especially around conventions or football games, so if you plan on visiting, reserve early at a place like Hotel De Anza.

See Related: How to Find Hacker Fares for Cheap Flights

20. Relax in Trinidad

Beach in Trinidad California

Once you’ve explored the redwood trees, head to one of the many cities surrounding the National Park, find a spot that embodies calm and serenity by checking out the tiny coastal town of Trinidad.

Trinidad is home to only 300 residents, but hordes of tourists head to this town in the summertime to explore the golden coast. Trinidad is known for its numerous beaches and cafes that offer spectacular sunset views.

Capture Northern California’s golden glow at Moonstone Beach or College Cove, and grab a bite at Beachcomber Café or Lighthouse Grill before heading to a cozy cottage at View Crest Lodge.

See Related: Free Printable Travel Planner

21. Explore Famous Yosemite National Park

yosemite national park

A trip to Northern California is incomplete without a visit to Yosemite National Park. This iconic national park offers some of nature’s best views in California (and is one of the best national parks in America). The park spans thousands of acres, giving visitors a lot to explore.

If you make a trip out to Yosemite, consider spending the weekend here. Yosemite Valley has landmarks like Half Dome, El Capitan, and Cook’s Meadow. While the first two are not for the faint of heart, Cooks Meadow is a flat hike and offers great views of Half Dome.

Hiking enthusiasts can explore the Lower Yosemite and Upper Yosemite Falls Trails. Trees surround the hike and lead to a scenic waterfall surrounded by mountains in the distance.

As for accommodation, It is recommended that you stay inside Yosemite Valley, but if you cannot find accommodation, there are numerous lodges in the surrounding region.

The Groveland Hotel sits near the park’s gateway for easy access in and out during your trip. Consider taking a Yosemite National Park and Grand Sequoias tour to explore the park’s highlights.

See Related: Joshua Tree National Park Itinerary

22. Tour Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park

The Lassen Volcanic National Park is a gem for anyone looking for an escape from the endless energy loop of big-city life. It was created to preserve the best parts of Northern California. At heart, this park has always been a sanctuary for those who need to get away from it all.

Because of its lesser-known status, it’s become a place where savvy travelers can explore without the crowds of more popular parks like Yosemite or Sequoia.

The best time to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park is during the winter months. The best Hiking trails are suited for those with snowshoes and cross-country skis.

Stay close to the park in a lodge or cabin like Camp Almanor at Big Springs so you can access the variety of activities available at this park, including backpacking, camping, fishing, horseback riding, and more!

See Related: Best Places to Go For Your Birthday

23. Discover Lava Beds National Monument

Lava Beds

Lava Beds National Monument sits about 120 miles north of Lassen. It’s closer to the Oregon border than to San Francisco. The most famous feature of Lava Beds National Monument is the numerous lava beds.

Other features include volcanic cinder cones, hot springs, and shield volcanoes, which attract many visitors, making the park a semi-popular place most travelers have never visited.

This is an extremely fun thing to do in Northern California, especially with kids, as you’ll get their amazing reaction from the pre-historic formations of the lava beds. Plus, the interesting hot springs around the area can give you a moment of relaxation amidst the surreal landscape.

See Related: Things to Do in Burbank

24. Follow the Waters of the Russian River

Calm and Scenic Russian River

Russian River is well-known to locals of the Bay Area as a place to relax, hit the water, and float lazily with friends while lounging in connected intertubes.

It’s a haven for nature enthusiasts at the heart of the Russian River Valley and home to the fun town of Guerneville, a gateway to delicious restaurants and breweries, including the Russian River Brewery.

About two hours from San Francisco, the meandering Russian River gives you water-based activities for a day in nature: kayaking, canoeing, and lazy river tubing or sitting on the riverbanks listening to the birds. It’s also easy to hit the wineries, whether you’re an oenophile looking for a specific Pinot Noir or a novice who likes to drink Chardonnay on a hot day.

No matter how you want to spend the day or a weekend, the Russian River should be part of your escape in Northern California. The Fairfield Inn and Suites is a great option in Sebastopol to give you comfort and a central location for exploring.

See Related: Things to Do in Fairfield

25. Find Wine, Flavor, and Charm in Lodi

Lodi Arch, located in Downtown Lodi, California
Chantarat / Shutterstock.com

Lodi is easily one of the most overlooked gems in Northern California. Often overshadowed by its famous Napa neighbor and the excitement of San Francisco, visiting Lodi relives a special balance between wine tasting and adventure.

Even though the town boasts 85 award-winning wineries, it still feels hidden. It is almost in the heart of the wine country, where the viticultural scene invites you to taste celebrated Zinfandels on private estates or in the historic downtown area.

Find a warm ambiance with tree-lined streets and artisan shops displaying raw-edge cutting boards often featured in local restaurants.

It’s a fun setting coupled with the tranquil shores of Lodi Lake, where you can picnic, boat, and swim in the hot summer days. Stay during the Grape Festival for one of the most fun things to do in Northern California.

FAQ

What are the top attractions in Northern California?

Northern California is known for its natural beauty and new-age communities. The diverse attractions include Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the former prison of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco.

Glass Beach in Fort Bragg is a unique attraction year-round, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best ways to explore life around the Pacific Ocean.

What are some must-see destinations in Northern California?

The top must-see destinations in Northern California reflect the natural and cultural diversity. Visit San Francisco for its vibrant atmosphere. Try the wine across the countless vineyards in Napa Valley.

Tour the incredible trees of Redwood National and State Parks or visit Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to cruise the water in summer or hit the powder in winter.

What are some outdoor activities to do in Northern California?

Northern California is a haven for outdoor activities. You’re spoiled for choice with the mountains, forests, and Pacific Ocean.

Hike Redwood trails, surf or visit tide pools along the coastline, fish and boat in alpine lakes, or rock climb the granite walls of iconic mountain peaks. Ski or snowboard in winter and bring out the jet ski and water skis in summer.

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