Perfect Day Trip to the Bay Area Less than 2 hours from SF is a national park that punches way above its weight. This hidden gem offers stunning vistas, incredible hiking trails, and California history.
Walk the “crookedest street in America” and admire the Golden Gate Bridge on a day trip to San Francisco. Add a tour of Alcatraz and you’ll have the perfect day in the city.
1. Visit the Golden Gate Bridge
Perfect Day Trip to the Bay Area One of the most famous bridges in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge is a stunning engineering marvel that stretches across the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Its vivid red-orange color is instantly recognizable.
Walking across the 1.7-mile bridge is free and offers amazing views. You can also take a public bus to the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center on the San Francisco side of the bridge and walk back towards downtown via Crissy Field for additional views. The best time to visit the bridge is weekdays after 3:30 PM when the cyclists are usually done riding the bridge and there is a lovely light.
The Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center is free to enter and houses lots of informative and interactive exhibits about the history and science of the bridge. You can learn about how the bridge was built, check out an original 12-foot stainless steel test tower, and see a few of the original cables. Two-times-weekly (Thursday and Sunday) guided Bridge tours are also offered by the non-profit San Francisco City Guides.
Both ends of the Golden Gate Bridge are within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and offer beautiful trails, a jogging path, beaches, old forts, and much more. The San Francisco side of the park features an interesting gift shop and cafe, a museum, parade grounds, and plenty of vantage points for viewing the bridge. The Marin side of the park features more museums, a beautiful bayside beach, and some hiking trails.
If you have a few more days to spare, you can head further north to explore the wilds of Muir Woods. This day trip is the perfect way to see some of California’s most famous old-growth coastal redwood forests.
2. Take a Tour of Alcatraz
While many visitors show up at the Alcatraz dock hoping to get lucky and buy tickets, these tours sell out weeks and months in advance. To guarantee a spot, book your tour well in advance online. This popular day trip to the island includes a ferry ride from San Francisco, a 45-minute audio tour of the prison, and time to explore on your own.
If you’re looking for a more interactive experience, book the night tour. This option lets you explore areas of the prison that are blocked off during the day, plus it gives you access to talks given by National Park Service volunteers. While the topics change, each talk is highly informative and adds a new dimension to your visit.
Several tour companies offer combo tours that include an Alcatraz ticket as well as a city tour or a hop-on, hop-off bus pass. These are a great way to get a good overview of San Francisco, save some money, and avoid having to deal with the hassle of buying tickets separately.
A favorite is this full-day experience by Dylan’s Tours. After a quick skip of the box office line with your pre-purchased ticket, you’ll board a Blue and Gold Fleet boat that navigates pristine San Francisco Bay and passes underneath the Golden Gate Bridge before circling Alcatraz Island.
You’ll listen to fascinating facts and stories from your onboard audio guide about the prison’s history while taking in spectacular views of San Francisco. You can also wander around the island and explore the cell block, the lighthouse, Civil War-era buildings, pretty gardens, and the waterfront. The ferry ride back to San Francisco will also give you a chance to see the beautiful city lights sparkle as darkness falls.
3. Visit Sausalito
Sausalito is a picturesque little town that is only a stone’s throw away from San Francisco. Whether you prefer to cross the bridge on your bike (for the best views of The Bay) or drive over in a car, this little Marin County gem is sure to be a highlight of your day trip.
If you love architecture, make sure to walk around the area looking for some of the most unique houses in Sausalito. You can also take in some incredible views by strolling along the Bridgeway promenade or checking out some of the art galleries in the area. You’ll also find plenty of parks in the area that offer some stunning vantage points, including Tiffany Park, Yee Tock Chee Park, and the famous Sea Lion Statue at low tide.
One of the most popular things to do in Sausalito is to go kayaking. If you visit on a weekend, you’ll see scores of people out on the water, taking in all the beautiful views that this town has to offer. If you’re interested in kayaking, I recommend reserving a boat from SeaTrek Kayaks in the Marinship area of Sausalito – they’ll hook you up with all the gear you need for your adventure.
Sausalito was originally a hippie haven that attracted artists of all kinds who were drawn to its free-spirited lifestyle. You can still feel that vibe today, as the town is home to a wide variety of local art galleries and studios.
If you want to get an overview of Sausalito, take the self-guided Sausalito Historic Walking Tour. The path starts at the historic Ice House and includes six informational plaques that will help you understand more about the city’s storied past.
4. Take a Day Trip to Angel Island
Known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island has a storied history that’s well worth exploring. Less than a ferry ride from San Francisco, this national park boasts stunning rock formations and miles of hiking trails, along with historical buildings and beaches.
Bike lovers will enjoy the Perimeter Road, a paved path that circumnavigates the island with panoramic views of San Francisco and the bay, as well as the Marin Headlands. More experienced bikers can try the interior paths, which offer more challenging climbs and descents. Hikers can explore the trails around the immigration station and check out two museums that illustrate the island’s history as a detention center for immigrants, and there are also plenty of spots to picnic.
Alternatively, you can take a tram tour, which departs from the Cove Cafe several times a day. The hour-long tour will visit Camp Reynolds, the Nike Missile Site, Fort McDowell, and the immigration station, and it’s a great way to get an overview of the island. Make sure to buy tickets at the café, and make sure you know when the last ferry back to San Francisco leaves – the fine for getting stuck on the island is hefty!
Sacramento is a charming capital city with an Old California feel. Its downtown is home to a handful of historic buildings, and it’s the perfect spot for foodies to get their fill of delicious restaurants. History buffs can check out the California State Railroad Museum and Crocker Art Museum, and if you have kids in tow, they’ll love the Sacramento Zoo.
5. Visit Muir Woods
A visit to Muir Woods is a must for anyone visiting the Bay Area. This national monument is home to old-growth towering redwood trees and is a breathtaking natural wonder. You can explore the trails with a guide or do it on your own.
It’s a popular destination, so plan to arrive on the earlier side if you can. The parking lot fills up quickly and it can get crowded. Plus, be sure to bring water and wear comfortable shoes. And remember to Leave No Trace – what you bring in, you take out. And please don’t pick up any fallen leaves, branches or sticks.
If you’re bringing kids, don’t miss the Junior Ranger Program. There are booklets for them to complete as they walk along the trails and learn about the forest. There are also free ranger-led talks of varying lengths throughout the day. Check the program board when you arrive for times.
Photographing the giant redwoods is a must for many visitors, especially in the morning or evening when the light casts a magical glow over the forest. If you’re planning to take photos, be sure to bring a tripod. And make sure to be respectful of other visitors and follow the park’s rules about staying on trails.
If you’re looking to save time and have your itinerary planned for you, consider a guided tour from a company like Edge of the World Tours Inc. They’ll drive you through San Francisco and then out to Muir Woods. Plus, they’ll take you to Vacaville where you can enjoy a sundae at Fentons Creamery and a visit to the Jelly Belly Factory. This is a great way to spend a full day in the Bay Area and see everything the region has to offer!