Northern California is one of the most wonderful places in the world and if I had two weeks, here’s some of what I might do!
Arrive & San Francisco
Start in San Francisco. Don’t rent a car, just take BART from SFO or OAK to the city. If you can find an AirBnB in the Mission District, that’s where I would stay. The Castro would also be very nice. Both areas are hip, residential with tons of places to eat and things to do, AND close to public transit that would get you around the city and the bay area. There are tons of other nice spots to live or stay, but some of them will leave you taking Lyfts absolutely everywhere. I would personally avoid downtown, just because it’s very metropolitan and busy and just so work/commercial, but it’s also easy to get around from there.
Get dinner in the Mission and just wander around. There’s always a ton going on here, plenty of live music, etc. I love tacos at Tacolicious, Panchita’s for delicious papusas, Dandelion for excellent desserts and chocolate, Craftsmen & Wolves for good pastries & really good coffee.
Obviously you’ll need to spend a day seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. I highly recommend seeing the sunrise from Batter Spencer, then taking a hike either up the hill to Hawk Hill, or renting a car and driving around and seeing Rodeo Beach, Muir Beach, Muir Woods, etc. If you go that route, head up Mt Tam to watch the sunset! It’s so pretty up there and on foggy days you’ll actually find yourself in the sunshine above the clouds. Pretty amazing!
Probably as a first time tourist you’ll want to spend a day at Fisherman’s Wharf. I would probably skip this altogether, but if you enjoy the wharf feel make sure to check out the sea lions on the docks, get a caramel apple at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company, and have a chowder bread bowl at Boudin. You’ll definitely need to visit Musee Mechanique (bring cash to exchange for quarters) where you can look at all of the cool old toys. My favorite is the laughing lady (hilarious and creepy) and all the toothpick things!
You could take the cable cars from near here (and the Chrissy Field Beach area), which is quite nice and I think a better waiting experience than going from downtown. That would land you downtown for some shopping, etc.
If not, then while you’re on that side of San Francisco and depending on your stamina, you could visit Coit Tower (pay to go to the top! the view is pretty). You can drive to the top or you can hike all 162 steps (or however many it is… haha).
You’ll love a visit to the Ferry Building. Hog Island Oyster Co is a favorite (although you can also visit on Tomales Bay for a less crowded experience) as is Miette and their macarons. Blue Bottle coffee is really good, but definitely not my favorite coffee in SF anymore (especially now that they are owned by Nestle). Honestly if I need coffee here I go down the street to the Philz, which is so so good. Philz is all drop coffee made to order and to taste. You pick your beans and then they make you your bev. Bring your own cup for a deal (a large for the price of a small). San Francisco is not a city of cheap coffee, if you want the good stuff. Expect to spend around $3.5-5 a cup. My favorite Philz location is the Castro one, but you’ll see them all over and they are consistent and super tasty.
I’m not a huge fan of the North Beach area, but it is a cute little Italian neighborhood and street. The Beach Blanket Babylon show is a classic and super funny, but you also wouldn’t be to terribly worse off if you didn’t want to afford it. I do like the Stella Bakery, although it’s more traditional Italian than modern San Francisco and I wouldn’t go out of my way to come here.
Nopa is pretty cute, although I don’t know the area as well as I could. Definitely it’s worth getting lunch at Soulva (sit in their back patio or the front on the street) for Greek salads that are delicious, healthy, and reasonably priced. After lunch get their frozen Greek yogurt with the sour cherry topping and walk up to Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies. If it’s before 3pm get chocolate ganache mochas from the actual cutest coffee truck, Lady Falcon Coffee Club, roasted & brewed & run all by women.
Hayes Valley is adorable and definitely worth a walk around. I love Absinthe for a fancy, decadent French meal, or Soulva again for cheap ish Greek salads. Definitely spend some time walking around and looking at all of the fancy, hip shops. I always window shop here and even try things on. Homemade shoes, the hippest clothing, etc. Another reason I love Hayes is that it’s so very close to San Francisco City Hall and the Opera House and Symphony Hall. San Francisco City Hall is an incredible building and so pretty. It’s free to go in and open until 5pm. You’ll need to go through security, but it’s super worth it. The building is really gorgeous: make sure to go up to the 4th floor to look down on everything and then just walk around. The grand staircase is insane. Added bonus is that you’ll get to see tons of brides and grooms and happy families. So fun.
Spend a day exploring the beaches along Davenport and Santa Cruz. Go for a walk along West Cliff and watch the sun set and/or rise over the water. On a clear day, you can see the two stacks of Monterey in the distance. Eat at Hula’s (expect a wait), where the macadamia nut crusted fish is the best.
I loved staying at the Sea and Sun Inn, which has an excellent location and modern ocean front rooms. I woke up for sunrise when we were staying here and walked down to the beach. The actual best! I saw dolphins!
Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea
I love this part of California and could spend a whole week driving down the coast, first stop here!
The Carmel River State Beach is wonderful and so worth a long stop at. It’s really pretty.
In Monterey, you should definitely do a whale watching tour. We saw Orcas here and it was so insane and incredible. Go earlier in the morning and bring sunscreen, hats, and water. If you get sea sick, take something. We ended up out there on a rougher day and I never get seasick usually, but found myself a little queasy by the end.
In Monterey, you must visit the Parker Lassau bakery for breakfast and then maybe again for second breakfast. It’s so delicious and adorable and I highly recommend!
I loved renting kayaks and kayaking around the Kelp beds. We even saw sea otters and had a feisty one trying to climb up on our kayak (super cute, but also they bite! be careful!)
Napa and Wine Country
So, Napa. If you want to go and see vines and stay in the countryside and drink wine, you’re in luck. I loved staying at the North Block Hotel in Yountville: Super chic and cozy and their hotel restaurant Redwood is also very yummy (and delicious cocktails). I loved staying there (although I did a trade to get this room and took some product photos, so I actually don’t know how much it costs).
For Christmas last year, Sam got me a hot air balloon ride with Aloft and it was so wonderful that I cried. Highly highly recommend. No need to do the breakfast there.
We stayed at the Inn on Randolph and everything was perfect. The room was amazing, the wine and fireplace fabulous, and the breakfast in the morning delicious.
I also love heading over to Healdsburg and going wine tasting there!