From scenic National Parks to the stunning coastline along the Pacific Coast Highway, Northern California is the ultimate travel destination. Here are the most best things to do in Northern California.
California is often romanticized in movies but the state is bursting with culture, history and cuisine, making it the perfect destination for adventure enthusiasts and nature-lovers alike.
A drive through the Golden Coast in Northern California will take you through beautiful National Parks and stunning beaches with pits stops at bustling metropolises and cool camping spots.
List of the Top Things to do in Northern California
From the coastal views of Mendocino to the wine country of Napa, your options are endless. A road trip through the Pacific Highway Coast this summer is the perfect way to explore this region at its best. Here are the best things to do in Northern California.
As you embark on your journey along the Pacific Highway, your first stop will take you to the idyllic coastal town of Mendocino. The village sits on a peak overlooking the ocean and provides some jaw-dropping views.
With picturesque houses that give off a New England vibe, surrounded by boutiques and restaurants galore, this place is a mecca for tourists. Experience nature’s beauty on a train ride through Mendocino county.
Head to Big River Beach, Mendocino Overlook or Russian Gulch State Park for the best coastal views. You can even explore the waters of Mendocino on a Polynesian canoe and end your day at one of the town’s many seaside cafes.
Avenue of the Giants
A trip to the Redwoods State Park is one of the best things to do in Northern California. The giant trees that envelop this park are something straight out of a postcard. While the park spans over thousands of acres, there are a number of spots worth visiting. You can even take a tour of the Muir Woods to see the highlights of the park.
The Avenue of the Giants located in Humboldt Redwoods State Park is a long winding road lined with iconic redwood trees on either side. A drive down this road is straight out of a fairytale. There are also various spots for visitors to pull over and capture the beauty of the Redwood trees. You can continue your adventure in the National Park on one of the many surrounding hiking trails.
In addition to local delicacies and stunning views, Northern California also offers a rich dose of history. Downtown Napa aka Wine Country is an idyllic town that provides the perfect getaway with slow living coupled with great food and wine. It’s the recipe for ultimate relaxation.
You can even do a full-day wine tasting tour to experience the region’s best wines.
Downtown Napa is perfectly walkable so leave your car behind and enjoy everything this city has to offer. Explore First Street, the heart of Downtown Napa and make your way to the Napa Riverfront.
There a number of eateries in Oxbow Market and award-winning tasting rooms like Alpha Omega Collective. Downtown Napa is known for its art, so make sure you make a pit stop at one of the 15 galleries.
Explore the best of Northern California’s coastline at Big Sur. This magical place spans over 70 miles along the highway and offers incredible views of the coastline, redwood trees and hiking trails. Big Sur is not a part of the national park and is unincorporated land along Highway 1.
This place is a must-see for some scenic views and you can explore its natural beauty through hiking trails, strolls along the beach or a slow-paced drive. Spend a day glamping at one of the many resorts that surround this stunning destination.
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.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has the laidback surfer vibe that is commonplace in SoCal. Explore the boutiques the line the streets of Downtown Santa Cruz and grab a bite at one of the many roadside cafes. End your day with a sunset view at the Natural Bridges State Beach.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is a wine-region that is not as popular as other towns in Northern California but is the go-to weekend getaway for many California natives. The region has some of the best wines to offer, Pinot Noir and Chardonnays being the most common. Visitors can spend the day exploring the wineries during their stay at the Edna Valley.
However, San Luis Obispo has more to offer than just wines. The town has a number of local eateries, stores and bars in the downtown area. Nature lovers can also explore one of the many hiking trails in the hills that surround this idyllic town. San Luis is great for a weekend trip or even a pit stop on your Northern California road trip.
A destination straight from a fairytale, Carmel-by-the-sea is a stunning town known for its rustic charm and blissful ocean views. Like many other towns in Northern California, this place is walkable so make sure you have your walking shoes on.
The downtown region of Carmel stretches along one square mile and is adorned with quaint shops and local eateries. Sip on some wine as you bask under the California sun in this stunning coastal town. Everything from the streets to the cottages that line them is totally picture-worthy.
If you are taking a road-trip along the Pacific Highway, Carmel-by-the-sea is the perfect place to make a pit stop for lunch. You can even take a tour of Carmel and its surrounding coastal towns.
If you are flying into San Francisco, Carmel-by-the-sea makes for one of the best weekend getaways from San Fran.
Half Moon Bay
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. Visitors will be overcome with a feeling of calm as they drive through the town.
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.
Between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay is the sleepy town of Pescadero. With a population of just 650, this small town can is one 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 expanse of green hills that surround 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 a local grocery store, Arcangeli and try some of their delicious sandwiches.
End your day at downtown Pescadero that has a number of antique stores and boutiques that are totally worth your time. If you’re looking for a break from the fast-paced city life, this is where you need to go!
San Francisco is the most well-known coastal city in California but one place that’s located right across the river and often flies under-the-radar is 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 that’s on full display at the Temescal neighborhood. The streets are surrounded by historic buildings and funky graffiti art. You can eat your heart out at one of the city’s various eateries that include a wide range of cuisines from Ethiopian to Korean.
Take a stroll down the Jack London Square that’s home to some of California’s best seaside restaurants and breweries. A trip to Oakland is one of the best things to do in Northern California and explore its laidback vibe.
Mission District- San Francisco
Mission District in San Francisco offers a glimpse into the vibrant culture of the city but the neighborhood itself has a storied history. It was founded by the Spaniards in 1776 and was once home to families. Today silicon valley techies and startup founders call this colorful district their home.
The walls of the neighborhood feature colorful art that is 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.
This place lives and breathes the history of San Francisco and is a great way to catch a break from tourist hotspots like Fisherman’s Wharf and The Golden Gate Bridge. Visit GetYourGuide to learn more about the tours available in San Francisco.
The tech capital of the world is a must-see spot on your trip to Northern California. While one may assume that this city is mostly made of corporate offices, it actually has a lot to offer. The region itself encompasses smaller cities like San Jose and Santa Clara that collectively makeup Silicon Valley.
Companies like Apple and Google are well-known for their enviable campuses but they are not open to the public. However, visitors can walk around the premises for free. If you are into all things tech, consider taking a tour around the Computer History Museum and The Tech Interactive.
Follow this with a peek into the ‘famous garages’ where Apple and Google had their humble beginnings. A trip to Silicon Valley is one of the best things to do in Northern California.
San Jose is a city that 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. While there aren’t too many tourist hotspots, San Jose embodies a more laidback vibe and is a great place to spend the weekend relaxing.
The Midtown region of San Jose is home to various cafes and is the perfect place to start your day. From there you can head to local hotspots like the Winchester Mystery House, Santana Row or the rose 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.
Once you’ve had your fill of the redwood trees, head to one of the many cities that surround the National Park. If you’re looking for a spot that embodies calm and serenity, check out the tiny coastal town of Trinidad.
Trinidad is home to only 300 local 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.
Yosemite National Park
A trip to Northern California is not complete without a visit to Yosemite National Park. This iconic national park offers some of nature’s best views in California (maybe even the U.S). The park itself spans across thousands of acres, giving visitors a lot to explore. If you make a trip out to Yosemite, consider spending the weekend here.
Yosemite is home to numerous 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.
The hike is surrounded by trees and leads to a scenic waterfall surrounded by mountains in the distance. As for accommodation, It is recommended that you stay inside the park but if you are unable to find accommodation, there are numerous lodges in the surrounding region. Consider taking a Yosemite and Grand Sequoias tour to explore the highlights of the park.
Northern California is an incredibly diverse place that is rich in history, culture and cuisine. While places like San Francisco are 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 idyllic towns that line the road less traveled.
If you’re planning a trip along the Gold Coast, we hope this list of unique things to do in Northern California helps spark some inspiration!
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