Travel Guides

The Ultimate Day Trip From San Francisco: Things to Do When You’re Heading South of the City

3 months ago by Kimia

So you’re headed south of San Francisco for the day? The good news is, there are plenty of options! Whether you’re planning a drive down to the South Bay or Half Moon Bay, or considering other seaside towns like Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, we’ve got you covered with everything you need to do and see.

Here’s to day tripping and experiencing all the beauty that Northern California has to offer. Keep reading for our suggestions on what to do if you’re heading south of the city, and then off you go!

“Silicon Valley”

Stanford University

A visit to the famous Silicon Valley just wouldn’t be complete without visiting the campus at Stanford University, one of the world’s top universities. Be sure to drive past Facebook and Google HQ buildings while you’re at it!

Note: It’s best to leave early if you’re planning on heading down to San Jose or elsewhere in the South Bay after visiting Stanford, so that you can fit plenty of other activities into your day.

San Jose

Winchester Mystery House

If you love haunted houses, you’re in for a treat once you hit San Jose. The Winchester Mystery House — once owned by Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester firearm fortune — is renowned today for its bone-chilling legacy. Ghost stories and peculiarities abound in this creepy old mansion, where visitors can enjoy a guided tour through the beautiful and bizarre premises.

IG // @winchestermysteryhouse

Tech Museum of Innovation

Let your inner child out to play at the Tech Museum of Innovation. The Tech is far more than just a museum of science and technology, although it’s certainly one of the premier museums of its kind in the United States. It’s located in the Plaza de Cesar Chavez in downtown San Jose, where you can easily grab a bite to eat afterwards, as well as a couple drinks at one of the many local watering holes in the area.

Hike Mission Peak

Views on views on views! Trust us when we say the panoramic views from the top at Mission Peak are worth the climb; and it’s not even too steep a climb, if we’re being honest. Make your way up the six-mile trail, then take a picture after climbing the famous “Mission Peeker” summit pole, as proof to share with all your friends on Instagram.

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay State Beach

Jumping on the scenic Highway 1 to Half Moon Bay will never cease to amaze. And we can’t complain about the four-mile stretch of protected beach known as the Half Moon Bay State Beach, either. It consists of the Roosevelt, Dunes, Venice, Francis, and Cowell Ranch Beaches, all connected by the Half Moon Bay Coastside Trail. You can take your pick of the many beautiful beaches here — you really can’t go wrong!

Visit the Ritz Carlton

There’s no doubt about it: The Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay is one of the most breathtaking luxury hotel properties, well, just about ever. Even if staying there isn’t in the budget, it’s worth a visit to dine at one of the world-class restaurants at the hotel alone — and to enjoy epic views of the Northern California coastline, of course.  

Pillar Point Harbor

Care for a little taste of New England in Half Moon Bay? Luxury resorts, fresh seafood restaurants, and boating aficionados crowd the cute contemporary jetty known as Pillar Point Harbor. Take a walk around the pier, rent kayaks, take in the sights and be sure to get some photos if you’re there around sunset!

Plus, located inside the jetty, across from the scenic Highway 1, the Pillar Point Harbor Beach will give you the best of both worlds. Can’t go wrong.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

First off, you’ll want to leave early for your drive down to Santa Cruz. Not only because it’s around a 2 hour drive from San Francisco on a good day, but also because on any given sunny day, windy Highway 17 will be packed.

Great for kids and adults alike, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of the main draws of the quirky and beautiful seaside town known as Santa Cruz, California. Founded in 1907 (!), this amusement park is actually California’s oldest, meaning that yes, some of those creaky old rollercoasters have been around for over a century.

While admission to the Boardwalk is free, you will need to purchase tickets for the rides, so be sure to purchase them at the entrance before heading in and enjoying your day of sand, surf, sun, and rollercoasters!

Santa Cruz Wharf

After you’re all tuckered out from junk food and rollercoasters at the Boardwalk (although perhaps not in that order), it’s time to head over to the Santa Cruz Wharf. Nestled about a 15-minute walk from the Boardwalk, the Wharf is known for its fresh seafood restaurants, boutique gift shops, boating, fishing, and other fun aquatic activities.

BTW, the Picnic Basket is a solid restaurant option if noshing on junk food at the Boardwalk doesn’t sound appealing. It’s located across from the Boardwalk and Wharf.

Natural Bridges State Beach

Not feeling the busy Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk today? Head over to Natural Bridges State Beach. This 65-acre stretch of land is actually a California state park, and makes for an excellent place to hang out, picnic, and relax on the sand.

Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can explore the tide pools, sandy cove, and natural bridges the beach is named after. Natural Bridges is also known as a hotspot for monarch butterflies during their migration periods, so if it’s the right time of year (October through February), you may even see butterflies!

Monterey

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is an absolute must while visiting Monterey. Located on the waterfront in the historical Cannery Row, this public aquarium is known for its focus on marine life in Monterey. Great for kids, adults, and animal lovers alike!

Cannery Row

Made iconic forever by the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, Cannery Row is a historic row of what were once coastal sardine canning factories. In fact, the avenue was officially named “Cannery Row” in January 1958. Though the factories are now defunct, it is now home to luxury hotels, boutique shops and galleries, restaurants and more. There’s a little something for everyone here!

Old Fisherman’s Wharf

Old Fisherman’s Wharf is another, you guessed it, historic part of the city of Monterey. Once used as a wholesale fish market, today its location in downtown Monterey makes it a must-see for visitors from outside the area. Fresh seafood restaurants, boating, whale watching tours, and plenty of other aquatic activities abound at this classic wharf. Don’t sleep on grabbing a bowl of clam chowder!

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel River State Beach

Carmel River State Beach is actually a 1-mile-long protected state park, featuring a lagoon formed by the Carmel River. It’s scenic no matter what time of the year it is, and a must-see; although it’s a good idea to bring blankets and warm layers, as it can get pretty foggy and cold out in Carmel. But hey, you already know that coming from San Francisco, yeah?

Pro tip: You can drop the fancy “by-the-sea” while you’re here; locals just call it “Carmel.”

Ocean Avenue

The metropolitan shopping area known as Carmel’s Ocean Avenue is completely unique! This main street runs from the edge of town down to the ocean. And, with plenty of art galleries and shops ranging from beachy to boutique, you’ll easily be able to spend the whole afternoon wandering up and down Carmel’s lovely main street.

17-Mile Drive

Does it get any more California than the gorgeous stretch of Pacific coastline nestled along the winding 17-Mile Drive? (The short answer? No, no it does not.) If you’ve got the time, take a scenic turn on this long drive, which winds along the coast between Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach.

IG // @vbn

Big Sur

Pfeiffer Beach

Possibly one of the most scenic beaches Northern California has to offer (and yes, we know that’s saying a lot!) Pfeiffer Beach is a must-see when visiting Big Sur. Located along the famous Pacific Coast Highway, it’s certainly worth a stop to soak up the scenery, even if just for half an hour or so before continuing on PCH!

IG // @voyaged // via @paige_tingey

Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground

Why not turn this day trip into a weekender? Camping at the Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground, located in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, is an experience unto its own. Some even refer to this campground as a “mini Yosemite.”

Does it get any cuter than that? Um, nope!

Pro tip: Reservations at this extremely popular campground fill up fast. We’re talking six-months-in-advance fast, even in the wintertime, so if you’re lucky enough to grab a spot, do it ASAP.

McWay Falls

It doesn’t get much more beautiful than McWay Falls. This 80-foot-tall (!) waterfall drops to a beach on the Big Sur coast, and if you ask us, it’s everything we could want in a coastal view and more. Bear in mind, however, that you’ll want to check if it’s open before heading there — it has been closed due to the rainy season and landslides in the past.