What can we do around San Francisco in one day? That’s the question I asked myself when planning our last trip to San Francisco. After two days spent exploring the city, I wanted my fellow travelers to see more of the area.
After some quick research, I came up with two itineraries:
The “Northern loop” with a drive through the Napa and Sonoma valleys, a stop at Jack London’s house and a visit of the natural park Muir Woods
The “Southern loop”, with a stop at the beach and a drive through the Silicon Valley
Two radically different atmospheres, so take your pick! As far as we’re concerned, we loved both itineraries. They complement each other well.
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One day in the Napa and Sonoma wine country
Driving down Lombard St., the crookedest street in the United States
Driving on the Golden Gate Bridge
Visiting the Jack London State Historic Park. You’ll get to walk in a beautiful park, to see his grave and the ruins of his house and to visit a museum dedicated to his life and work.
Wine tasting in Sonoma
Lunch at a Relais Châteaux restaurant with a panoramic view of the Napa vineyards.
Driving around the Napa valley
A walk around the giant sequoias of the Muir Woods National park, at dusk
Time spent driving: About 3 hours 1/2 (without traffic)
If you feel like it, start your day at the corner of Hyde St and Lombard. Look to the right… You are at the top of the crookedest street in the United States. Take it, it’s quite fun! On Leavenworth St, make a left then another one on Chestnut St. When you reach Larkin St., make a left and then a right on Lombard St. Keep going until to merge into the 101.
If you are lucky enough not to be driving, now would be a good time to take pictures as you cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Continue straight to Novato and take the 37 to Sonoma. Near Sears Point, make a left onto the 121. Keep going straight on Arnold Drive. This road takes you through the Sonoma county and its famous vineyards, from South to North.
Paying a visit to Jack London…
The Jack London State Historic Park is easy to find. Great news, there is no entrance fee. You’ll just pay $10 per car to park.
On site, there are four points of interest. First, a museum in a charming house made of stone. Second, the park itself (which is apparently home to some rattlesnakes so beware) with its tall trees. Third, and a little further into the park, you’ll get to see the grave of Jack London. Don’t expect much as it’s basically a big stone with nothing written on it. And fourth, you’ll find the ruins of the massive house that London was building a little before he died and that burned down. That was my favorite part and I did not resist the temptation to read a few lines of Martin Eden on my Kindle, as I stood in front of those ruins.
Overall, it was a very soothing walk and we certainly enjoyed getting to know more about Jack London, his life and his work. Worth a detour.
Wine-tasting in Sonoma
We stopped for some wine tasting just a few feet away from the Jack London Park in Sonoma at the Benziger Family Winery. The winery had been recommended to me for its biodynamic wines. The place looks incredible. However, and I am sorry to say, something bugs me in the way Americans handle oenotourism.
First, the wine tasting experience feels like a gigantic marketing operation. That’s miles away from the way we do things in France, where you get to have passionate chats with the winemakers in a simpler and more authentic setting. To be blunt, I don’t like to see wine handled like any other business. In our culture, it’s a lot more than that. When we were told that we had to pay to taste the wine ($20 for five wines), I was already quite uncomfortable with the whole thing. Where I come from, that would never happen.
The tasting takes place at the bar, with a sheet of paper in front of you giving you two lines of explanations per bottle. We tried to ask a few questions but the lady, rather unpleasant, kept repeating the same two sentences we had already read on the description sheet. That is, when she was not busy going from client to client. No comment!
And the wine? Major disappointment! And when we realized that a bottle was priced between 45 and 75 dollars, we unanimously thought that it was a huge JOKE, and left.
It doesn’t mean that California wines are worth nothing. Quite the contrary: we’ve had some excellent ones (although completely overpriced compared to French standards). I guess you just need to know where to go and what to look for ahead of your visit.
Meet my mom, the real photographer of the family
Lunch with a view at Auberge du Soleil
Forty minutes from Sonoma through the mountain, we stopped at l’Auberge du Soleil for lunch. This place is a member of the Relais Châteaux brand. It hosts a hotel, a gastronomic Michelin-starred restaurant and a more casual bistro. We had lunch at the latter. It was more simple and we got to enjoy the exact same view, overlooking the vineyards. Breathtaking! Great lunch, service and view. Definitely a place I would recommend.
Muir Woods National Monument and its giant sequoias
After lunch, we crossed Napa Valley from North to South, thus enjoying both Napa and Sonoma valleys in one day. Then we drove back on the 37 and the 101 towards San Francisco.
Just before reaching the Golden Gate, we made a right and headed towards the Muir Woods National Monument, which is actually a park. We got there at 6:50 p.m. just a few minutes before sunset. Because it was so late we didn’t have to pay the entrance fee and, as a bonus, we were basically all alone in the middle of the trees in an indescribable light. Not great to take pictures but I had an unforgettable time walking in such a beautiful and peaceful environment.
We got back to San Francisco in time for dinner, completely exhausted but oh so happy about a wonderful day.
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One day South of the bay
A stop on the beach in Half Moon Bay, a paradise for surfers and whales lovers
Visiting the campus of Stanford University
A quick stop at the Googleplex in Mountain View
Time spent driving: About 2 hours and 20 minutes. This loop can be made in an afternoon, if one decides not to spend a long time at the beach.
First stop: Half Moon Bay, forty five minutes south of San Francisco (highway 1 or 280). We were there for a wedding and got to appreciate its landscapes and beaches, praised by surfers as well as whales. Look for them!
Then go back to your car and drive towards Stanford University to visit a beautiful campus. From Half Moon Bay, you can take the 92 and the 280. It takes about 40 minutes. The campus is huge so try to park near the Main Quad and then walk around. You won’t regret it!
To end the afternoon on a different note, why not stop at the Googleplex in Mountain View? It is so much fun to find yourself at the epicenter of the search engine we all use everyday. I’ll spare you the pictures of my riding on the Google bikes (trust me, you don’t want to see that!!!), but these are quite fun too.
To conclude with, we loved both of these excursions outside of San Francisco. Just a few hours away from the city, there is so much to see and experience, while enjoying all of what California has to offer. Some wine, some culture, technologies, beaches, natural parks… There is a little bit for everyone. What more can one want?