Learn about my favorite locations in my home state.
If I were coming to California for the first time, I’d be stoked (very excited). There’s so much to do in the state that you could spend weeks, months or even years exploring without running out of activities to do.
Since I was born and raised in The Bay (7 counties surrounding SF). I’ve had the chance to explore the ins and outs (everything about something) of NorCal (Northern California) and I’m very happy to share these discoveries with you.
About where I’m from:
I’m from a city called Fairfield, California, which is about 45 minutes by car to the both the state capitol, Sacramento, and beautiful San Francisco. Fairfield is home to the Jelly Belly Factory and is well-known for its fresh produce and wine production. In fact, from Fairfield you can drive to the United State’s most-famed wine region, Napa Valley.
I went to school in Santa Barbara which is about 90 miles away from Los Angeles, so in SoCal. Northern California and Southern California are very different in terms of culture and lifestyle. We’ll talk about both in this post.
Oh the good ol’ days . . .
When I was in high school, we used to drive to San Francisco and spend the day there. It’s changed quite a bit in the past 10 years (especially in terms of where to go out and where to grab great food!), but some things never change.
For example, the hills. The hills in San Francisco are a driver’s nightmare. If you go to San Francisco, you’re better off without a car given all of the public transportation options. The best way to get to SF and the surrounding cities is by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), CalTrain if you’re coming from the south and by the San Francisco Bay Ferry (my favorite).
San Francisco is really not very big. Once you’re in there, pretty much everything is accessible on foot. To get an idea of the city’s size, first find The Embarcadero on the map below (it’s half-way cut off) and then Fisherman’s Wharf. See the distance? That’s a good chunk of the city, but it actually only takes about 20 minutes to walk from one to the other.
San Franciscans are proud of their food culture. New restaurants open and close every day in the city. Yelp is an app that was founded in the SF and can help you easily find restaurants, bars, good hiking trails, you name it! Read reviews, filter for WiFi, outdoor seating, etc. This is a California’s go-to app for figuring out where to go. Check it out!
A lot of my students are foodies, someone who is obsessed with culinary creations and some are also winos, people who really like wine and in that case, it’s definitely worth checking on some popular SF food bloggers.
To be honest, the best way to stay in SF without paying a fortune is to stay in an Airbnb. Rooms inside other’s apartments are rented on there for as low as $50 a night. If you stay in a hotel at that price, guard your luggage.
Information about what to do and see in San Francisco all over the internet. As a first timer, I think it’d be worth combining some tourist activities with some local’s favorites:
- Go inside Grace’s Cathedral
- Sneak up to the top of The Mark Hopkins Hotel for a view of the city.
- Check out the view at the intersection of Powell & California streets.
- Eat Dim Sum in China Town
- Walk around the trendy Mission district
- Taste some delicious and overpriced snacks at the Ferry Building and walk to Pier 39.
- See the seals
- Order sourdough bread bowl with clam chowder at Boudins near Fisherman’s Wharf!
- Then if you’re not full, go into Ghiradelli Square and get a chocolate sundae.
- Don’t forget to walk down Lombard Street! It’s the windiest street in the U.S.!
- Continue hiking to the beach after Fisherman’s wharf and down to the Marina district to see the houses of the wealthy!
- Take the cable car at Ghiradelli Square back to Union Square and hang off like a monkey.
- Go shopping at Union Square and eat a slice of Cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory! (On the top floor of the Macy’s)
- Visit Haight & Ashbury, which is an intersection and district and former heart of 1960’s counter-culture, music and the free-loving lifestyles. You’ll find a lot of remnants of this time frame here and a lot of really entertaining shops and restaurants that offer killer bottomless drink brunch menus.
Note: If you want to find local’s to meet up with, check for cool events in Meetup Groups or individuals to give you tours and hang out on Showaround.
Napa is beautiful but it’s more expensive and more crowded than other wine countries close to it. Most of the wineries in Napa are lined up on Highway 29, creating bad traffic during rush hour and on weekends. By all means though, it’s worth seeing if you’re in the area!
If you’re on a budget, Sonoma and even Suisun Valley offer amazing views of the vineyards and great wine at a fraction of Napa’s price.
If you do decide to go to Napa though, print out free tasting coupons here (you’ll save a ton!).
- Go visit the Castello di Amorosa, a medieval Tuscan-inspired castle.
- Go on the wine train if you have the money. It’s pricey.
- Go to the Napa Olive Oil Manufacturing Company. I’ve been having picnics there since I was a kid. Buy a bottle of wine at one of the wineries you visit (or bring a cheap one from Trader Joe’s beforehand!) and purchase, cheese, olives, meat, etc. inside this quaint little shop. Although the building looks run-down from the outside, it’s a little slice of heaven once you walk inside!
- Walk the streets of St. Helena and visit shops (on Highway 29, just 5 minutes from Napa Valley).
- Yelp is by far the best place you can go to get recommendations on wineries. Of course, as always with reviews, you’ll need to read them thoroughly to understand what each winery is really like, but that’s great English practice, right?
- If you’re indifferent, I’d recommend going to Jacuzzi and asking the person pouring your wine for recommendations based on the types of wine, price and scenery you’re after (you’re looking for).
Want a stunning view of San Francisco and the North Bay, go to Redwood Regional Park for a hike. If you arrive in the morning, you’ll drive your car up into the foggy hillside covered in redwoods! If this isn’t magical, tell me what is. Park at the trailhead and and hike uphill to start.
Yosemite National Park
You’ve heard of it for sure and maybe you plan to go there, but did you know you’re supposed to book your campsite 6+ months in advance? There’s a way around it. If you show up at a campsite at 6 a.m. in the morning (warning: some show up at 3), you can score one of spots that are sold daily on a first come, first serve basis. Read more about Camping at Yosemite without a Reservation.
Out of the way? Check out other hikes in the Bay Area. You won’t regret printing out one of the maps for the 4 or 5-star hikes. I’ve tried a lot of them.
This is a popular get-away spot for my family. We normally stay in South Lake. There are a ton of options there to go hiking and skiing or snowboarding during wintertime. It’s popular to go in and around Truckee (such a cute town!!) and Squaw Valley.
In my humble opinion, if you’re looking for stunning scenery, it’s not likely to be found in Silicon Valley. Although it’s home to many hotshot tech companies such as Google in Mountain View, Facebook in Menlo Park, Adobe in San Jose and so many more in Santa Clara, Palo Alto etc., the cities might leave you disappointed, especially if you’re looking for activities to do.
Instead, drive from San Francisco down to Santa Cruz and start a road trip down south!
Highway 1 is that beautiful windy highway that runs up the coast of California. Most of the trip is next to the cliff with a beautiful view of the ocean, seaside cities and very picturesque towns. I’ve done it about three times in my life and each time I’m amazed by the breathtaking views. Along the way, it may be worth to stop at the following locations:
- Avenue of the Giants, Mendocino and Glass Beach – (Actually, these are north of Santa Cruz, but Avenue of the Giants is so insane it had to make the list). These places were surprisingly wonderful. I did episode 17 on that trip.
- Santa Cruz – Alternative Beach town w/ Boardwalk & Scenic Drive (amusement park opens in April and closes in December)
- Monterrey – Aquarium (VERY expensive, but people love it. Check prices and times!)
- Carmel – Go to the Beach – Really cool unique city for on a hillside (for the rich and famous!)
- Big Sur – Camping and hiking. Come and stay at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
- San Luis Obispo – Visit downtown, go surfing at Pismo Beach (better in Winter)
- Santa Barbara & Montecito – State Street, Funk Zone, Jeanine’s and get the banana French Toast. Here’s a fantastic guide for what to do and see in Santa Barbara!
- Los Angeles – I’m going to be honest, I didn’t like being a “standard” tourist in LA. Visiting the Hollywood sign, Rodeo drive, the China theater and the stars, was not for me. The last time I went, we stayed near Los Feliz and Silverlake and went to the Griffith Observatory. Let’s just say it changed my opinion of LA.
- SoCal Beaches! – World-class beaches, but remember the Pacific ocean is COLD to swim in. Most people hang out on the beach or in the beach bars and restaurants that are just off the sand. Beach cities have different vibes. Here are my thoughts on them:
- Santa Monica– very crowded during hot months because of easy access to LA.
- Venice – very cute with cool vibes. Little canals. People on rollerblades (like maybe the stereotype you had of Californian beaches :))
- Manhattan Beach -Last time I went to LA, we stayed near the airport near Manhattan beach, then went down to Redondo Beach. That area really surprised me. The beach is stunning AND you can walk the streets and look at the mansions of the rich and famous.
- Laguna – Many places to hang out. Walking paths along the cliffs with views and spotted with palm trees and painters painting the scenery. Connected to a very nice beach and a very chic downtown area. Go to Urth Café!
- Seal Beach – Wow! Super cute town. My good friend grew up in Seal Beach and recommended getting cinnamon rolls at Jill’s and ice cream at Paradis. The city, the beach and the sweets did NOT disappoint!
- Long Beach – Schooner or Later restaurant for a cool view of the sailboats. Go to Naples and walk the canals. I was so confused by Naples island in a very positive way, like, wait? This exists in the U.S.? The Queen Mary is way on the other side, but also cool to visit.
- Newport and Huntington – Typical SoCal beaches. If you go to Newport visit Lido Marina and in Huntington, you can go shopping at Pacific City and eat at Dukes.
- Pacific Beach (San Diego) = Pacific Beach and Mission Beach are connected and neither can be missed if you’re in SD.
On my last trip I went from Laguna Beach -> Newport -> Huntington -> Seal Beach -> Long Beach. Honestly, visiting them all in one day is doable. I’d probably just drive through Newport and Huntington and stop at Laguna, Seal Beach and Naples Island of Long Beach.
When people tell me they want to drive up Highway 5 instead of driving Highway 101 I cringe, just because my first reaction is “oh no, you’ll miss all of the beautiful places on the California and the coastline of Highway 1 (PCH = Pacific Coast Highway).” Highway 5 is dry. There aren’t many cities from about Los Angeles to Sacramento that are worth visiting, in my opinion.
But if you’re short on time, you might decide that driving Highway 5 is necessary. You can also go to Sacramento (go to Old Town and Midtown!), which is near where I live now. This was a landing spot for the California Gold Rush back in 1849. Learn more in Episode #09.
“Do you think I’ve missed an amazing place? Let me know!”
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