Second Cities: Destinations to add onto a trip to San Francisco

Mar 8, 2020

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Welcome to TPGs series, Second Cities. The series is designed to help you find smaller or less-popular-but-equally-amazing places to visit no more than a few hours by air or land from your original destination so you can maximize your itinerary.

There are good reasons why nearly 20 million people visit San Francisco every year, but so much of the appeal of Northern California lies outside of the famous City by the Bay. Marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge, ride a cable car, eat at some of the country’s best restaurants, but when it’s time to get out of the city for more breathing room, head to one of these Northern California gems within a few hours’ drive from San Francisco.

Napa

California’s Napa Valley is synonymous with excellent wine, idyllic rolling hills covered in grapevines, world-class restaurants and incredible spas. The city of Napa, situated at the southern end of the valley, is a great base for exploring California’s wine country, and also offers plenty to do within a compact and walkable city.

Napa Valley. (Photo by Andrew Gunners/Getty Images)
Napa Valley. (Photo by Andrew Gunners/Getty Images)

Getting there: The city of Napa is 50 miles north of San Francisco, and the drive takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes with moderate traffic. There are two main routes. For the more scenic drive, head north over the Golden Gate Bridge and then go east on Highway 36 before turning north on Highway 212. If you’re close to the Bay Bridge it can be faster to head east toward Oakland, take I-80 north, and then switch to Highway 29 north at Vallejo.

Where to stay: Right around the corner from Oxbow Market, the Westin Verasa Napa offers a great location in the heart of downtown. There’s a pool, fitness center, spa, Bank Café and Bar, and the Michelin-starred La Toque restaurant. One- and two-bedroom suites are equipped with small kitchenettes, dining tables, and large living areas with sofa beds. King rooms start at 50,000 points per night.

For something more intimate, check into the Inn on Randolph, a modern bed-and-breakfast that’s a short walk from restaurants, tasting rooms and shops. There are main-house rooms and five private cottages — all with heated bathroom floors, beds with pillow-top mattresses and free Wi-Fi. There is a daily gluten-free breakfast.

What to see and do: Although Napa is best known for the vineyards that surround it, there’s plenty to do without leaving downtown. There are more than two dozen tasting rooms, including Alpha Omega Collective, Mayacamas Vineyards, and JaM Cellars, plus dozens of wine bars, restaurants and cafes.

(Photo by Alexander Gamanyuk/Unsplash)
(Photo by Alexander Gamanyuk/Unsplash)

To visit the vineyards without getting behind the wheel of a car, book a tour with Laces and Limos in one of their custom tuk-tuks that shuttle guests from downtown Napa to nearby vineyards. You can also explore the countryside by renting an electric bike from Pedego Napa or meander on the Napa river in a kayak or paddleboard. For a highflying experience, take a hot-air balloon ride with Napa Valley Drifters.

Monterey

Monterey has a rich history as the former center of the sardine-packing industry. There are several buildings on Fisherman’s Wharf that date back to the mid-1800s, Cannery Row, and a lively mix of shops, restaurants and night life. The Monterey Bay boasts an abundance of wildlife, including sea lions, seals, otters, whales and dolphins, which can often be spotted from the city’s shores.

The Lone Cypress on the coast of Monterey. (Photo by Dominic Jeanmaire/500px/Getty Images)
The Lone Cypress on the coast of Monterey. (Photo by Dominic Jeanmaire/500px/Getty Images)

Getting there: The drive from San Francisco south to Monterey is around 115 miles and takes about two hours if you take either U.S.101 or I-280 the majority of the way before connecting to the slower Highway 1. For a more scenic trip, you could take coastal Highway 1 past the small towns of Pacifica and Half Moon Bay and the city of Santa Cruz, which will add a minimum of 30 minutes (and likely more once you figure in the many stops you’ll make for photos). You can fly from San Francisco into Monterey Regional Airport (MRY). The airport is about four miles from the city; Uber and Lyft are available and many hotels offer shuttle service.

Where to stay: The grand Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa is located a block from the town’s historic Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf. The 290-room waterfront hotel with stunning bay views recently underwent a major renovation, brightening up rooms and expanding the spa with a rooftop sun deck with two whirlpool spa tubs. There’s an on-site coffee shop, bar, and Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar, which features coastal Californian cuisine and an extensive selection of area wines.

What to see and do: The main attractions of Monterey are focused on its history and wildlife. Walk or rent a bike and cycle on the Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, where you may spot seals lazing along the shoreline, or head to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the largest in the U.S. Wander around Cannery Row, once lined with sardine canneries in the early 1900s and immortalized by the John Steinbeck story of the same name, or visit one of several tasting rooms in Monterey, such as Taste of Monterey, a collective that offers wine from more than 90 regional wineries.

Monterey Bay Aquarium. (Photo by Denny Soetiono/EyeEm/Getty Images)
Monterey Bay Aquarium. (Photo by Denny Soetiono/EyeEm/Getty Images)

There are also several attractions a short drive from Monterey. The quaint town of Carmel is five miles away; the wineries of the Carmel Valley are 16 miles inland, and the spectacular coastline of Big Sur is about 30 miles south.

Mendocino

The coastal community of Mendocino is quintessential Northern California. With spectacular ocean views, towering redwood trees, and a laid-back feel, it’s a more affordable alternative to Big Sur, with many opportunities to enjoy the unique natural attractions of the California coast.

Medocino. (Photo by urbanglimpses/Getty Images)
Medocino. (Photo by urbanglimpses/Getty Images)

Getting there: It is 155 miles from San Francisco north to Mendocino, a drive that takes about three hours on the 101 (with the last hour on the redwood-lined Highway 128 and then the coast-hugging Highway 1). As with the drive to Monterey, if you want to make the trip to Mendocino more scenic, you can detour onto Highway 1 right after the Golden Gate Bridge and pass by spots like Point Reyes National Seashore and Bodega Bay (filming site for Hitchcock’s “The Birds”). That’ll increase the drive to 4.5 hours.

Where to stay: Tucked between shops and restaurants in the charming center of Mendocino, the Blue Door Inn offers five modern rooms, clawfoot-tubs, gas fireplaces and ocean views. There is a daily complimentary breakfast basket; coffee, tea, and cookies are available all day, and there is an evening wine hour.

If you prefer a more rural retreat, check into the Glendeven Inn & Lodge, located two miles south of downtown Mendocino and set on an acre of oceanfront land. Stays include three-course in-room breakfasts made with eggs from the resident chickens, and guests are invited to feed the farm’s small herd of llamas each evening.

What to see and do: The main appeal of Mendocino is the rugged natural beauty that surrounds it. Head to Russian Gulch State Park to explore attractions like a 36-foot waterfall, a sea cave and pristine beaches. Or, drive 15 minutes north to explore Glass Beach. Once the site of the local dump, it’s now a beautiful beach covered with small pieces of colorful glass that have been smoothed by the ocean over two decades. Learn about the area’s seafaring history at Point Cabrillo Light Station, or relax on a 7-mile hourlong ride through the redwoods on the 13-year-old Skunk Train.

Glass beach in MacKerricher State Park. (Photo by Peter Unger/Getty Image)
Glass beach in MacKerricher State Park. (Photo by Peter Unger/Getty Image)

Horseback riding, hiking and sea kayaking are popular activities. Mendocino is 30 miles from the 30+ wineries of the Anderson Valley wine region, so you can easily spend an afternoon visiting small-production wineries like Lula Cellars and Navarro Vineyards, where tastings cost only a few dollars.

Feature image by Ian.CuiYi/Getty Images.

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