From scenic state and national parks, the sprawling metropolis of San Francisco and to the stunning coastline along the Pacific Coast Highway, Northern California is the ultimate travel destination. Here are the 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.
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Fun & Best Things to do in Northern California
From the breathtaking national and state parks, and the coastal views of Mendocino to the wine country of Napa Valley, 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.
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Avenue of the Giants Scenic Highway at Redwood National Park
A trip to the Redwoods National Park and Redwoods State Park is one of the best things to do in Northern California. The Redwoods National Park and State Park is known for being home to the world’s tallest trees.
The park is within driving distance from many of Northern California’s best attractions like the San Francisco Bay Area or Napa Valley.
The giant trees that envelop this park are something straight out of a postcard. While the park spans 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 forest trees. You can continue your adventure in Redwood National Park on one of the many surrounding trails.
Take a picture with the tallest tree in the world or even drive your car through the middle of a tree. There are towering trees everywhere that will simply amaze you. Obviously, California has a TON of national and state parks and this one is a must-visit during your time in Northern California.
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Downtown Napa and Napa Valley
In addition to local delicacies and stunning views, Northern California also offers a rich dose of history. Napa Valley aka Wine Country is an idyllic town that provides the perfect getaway with slow living coupled with great food, wine and wine stating. 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 are 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. Looking to go on a California vacation? Grab our free travel guide to help you explore California.
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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 forest, and scenic 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 the 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. Check out one of these top waterfalls in California, some of the best options are located along Big Sur.
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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 along with an amusement park if you are looking for your kids to get their energy out.
Explore the boutiques that 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 and wine-tasting excursions, Pinot Noir and Chardonnays being the most common varietals. 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 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.
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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 the San Francisco Bay Area, Carmel-by-the-sea makes for one of the best weekend getaways from San Francisco.
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.
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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.
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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 which 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!
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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 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 that’s on full display in 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 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 laid-back vibe. Like what you are hearing? Check out these best things to do in East Bay.
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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 in Northern California. 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, Alcatraz Island, and Golden Gate Park. Visit GetYourGuide to learn more about the tours available in San Francisco.
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Golden Gate Bridge
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!).
While you are there, check out Golden Gate Park. If you are visiting other places mentioned in our list, you’ll find yourself driving over the Golden Gate Bridge at some point.
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Sequoia National Park
This beautiful national park is best known for the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Sierra Nevada Mountain range is best known for the abundance of lakes and streams that it contains. The range is best accessed from Yosemite National Park by driving approximately 70 miles or heading south from Lake Tahoe.
You’ll have a ton of options to hike and mountaineer in this mountain range. It’s one of the best things to do in Northern California for outdoor enthusiasts and perhaps in all of the west coast.
While you are here, you have to get a view of Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks will be hard to miss. This peak is in the northern section of Yosemite National Park, just north of Tuolumne Meadows.
It is the 15th-highest point in Yosemite National Park. It’s one of the best places to visit in Northern California and given its proximity that means there is no shortage of tourists visiting this iconic landscape, but it’s totally worth it.
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San Francisco Bay Area and Downtown
Continuing with the best things to do in Northern California, the San Francisco Bay Area and Downtown are the most obvious places to visit in Northern California. The best thing about this is that it’s easily accessible by taking the BART commuter train.
The best attractions are within an hour of your destination like Justin Herman Plaza, De Young Museum, SFMOMA, Palace of Fine Arts. The best part about these attractions is that they are free or have a small entrance fee that all local people can afford. There is also no shortage of amazing food here.
When visiting San Francisco, you’ll have a ton of options for things to do that fit any type of traveling. For families and sports fans, be sure to attend a San Francisco Giants game or visit the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf.
If you’re a fan of parks and outdoors, check out Ocean Beach, Mission Dolores Park, and of course, Golden Gate Park for views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
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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 make up 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.
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Lake Tahoe is a freshwater lake that borders both Nevada and California. Because it straddles the California-Nevada state line, Lake Tahoe has many different names, including “America’s Lake”.
Lake Tahoe offers some of the best freshwater boating in the world. There are views from all 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 there is less precipitation. If you’re coming for an event at Heavenly Ski Resort, the best time to come is January through March.
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.
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Glass Beach, Fort Bragg
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 do 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 when you walk across it, you may see your own reflection.
After decades of being exposed to nature and its elements, this beautiful beach has been converted into spectacular scenery with smooth, colorful sands and breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean from Fort Bragg’s glass beach. Visitors can best experience this picturesque by stopping along the Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 1.
Glass beach is best for a quick stopover but I wouldn’t recommend going completely out of the way for it. 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.
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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 due to the best weather conditions.
This seashore features sweeping views of the Pacific Coast and the Pacific Ocean. Stop by the Point Reyes lighthouse for a great photo opportunity.
If you want an additional photo opportunity for Instagram, be sure to check out the cypress tree tunnel. The cypress tree tunnel is a drive planted in the 1930s with Monterey cypress trees, leading to a historic radio station.
Some precautions for those visiting this excellent attraction along the Northern California coast include not bringing a pet with you, not littering, staying on paved areas, and respecting wildlife.
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San Jose is a city that 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. While there aren’t too many tourist hotspots, the city embodies a more laid-back 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 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.
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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.
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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 (and is one of the best national parks in America). The park itself spans 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 National Park and Grand Sequoias tour to explore the highlights of the park. These are some other top National Parks to visit in November.
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Lassen Volcanic National Park
The Lassen Volcanic National Park is a gem for anyone looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of modern 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.
The best time to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park is during the winter months. Hiking trails are best suited for those with snowshoes and cross-country skis. There is a great variety of activities available at this park, including backpacking, camping, fishing, horseback riding, and more!
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Lava Beds National Monument
Located about 120 miles north of Lassen and near the border of Oregon is Lava Beds National Monument. The most famous feature of this national monument is the numerous lava beds. Other features include volcanic cinder cones and shield volcanoes, which attract a large number of visitors.
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, there are hot springs located around the area.
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Final Thoughts: Top Things to do in Northern California
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!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What are fun things to do with kids in Northern California when it rains?
When it rains in Northern California, there are still plenty of things to do Those seeking indoor adventures should consider the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Children’s Museum, the Getty Center, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, and the Aquarium of the Pacific.
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