I’ve noticed that people who’ve lived in the Bay Area always have an intense fondness for their time there, almost to the point of being annoying. But, there must be something to it. My wife is one such person (with a passion for San Francisco, not annoying, haha). As a long-time resident of San Francisco, here are her recommendations that will help you fall in love with the Bay Area, with an emphasis on outdoor activities.
1. Golden Gate Park
Stroll or drive through Golden Gate Park (it’s about 3 miles long, and ends at Ocean Beach!) There are little waterfalls, several lakes, paddle boating, a botanical garden, Japanese tea garden, rose garden, carousel, The Conservatory of Flowers, and two great museums below.
- Stop and check out the buffalo field. It will only take a few minutes and it’s neat to see them in the park. The animals belong to the SF Zoo.
- Visit the tower at the De Young Museum. It’s free, you just walk past the front desks, to your right for great views of the city. The museum itself is really well-designed so if you like art and architecture, and don’t mind paying admission (they redesigned and reopened it in 2005), you’ll love it. Make sure to find the little pocket of sitting areas that look west towards the outdoor garden – it’s a great place to rest and plan out the rest of your day. And every summer, they used to have Friday Nights at the DeYoung where there was music, and a 21+ crowd to enjoy the exhibits. Look out for that.
- California Academy of Science (science museum just across from the De Young).
Watch a planetarium show, and see the rest of the cool exhibits which include: a living roof, rainforest biosphere, Steinhart Aquarium, etc. Make sure it’s not the free monthly Wed., cause there will be MAJOR crowds and it’s not worth it to see it then. They reopened this new building in 2008 (though it’s been in the park since the early 1900s) and it’s totally green – as in enviro-friendly. They also have Nightlife on Thursday nights (maybe only in spring/summer?) where the museum is open to an older crowd to explore the exhibits.
- If you’re there in mid-late summer, the Dahlia Garden located east of the Conservatory of Flowers is absolutely stunning when everything is in full bloom.
You could easily spend the whole day+ in the park, cause there are so many things to see/do, so I just highlighted my favs. Definitely take the 3 miles walk/jog or drive down JFK Drive that ends at Ocean Beach.
2. Land’s End / Sutro Baths
Walk the Land’s End Trail. It’s just over a mile and absolutely beautiful as it sits on the most northwest corner of the city and overlooks the water for great views, and you can see the Golden Gate Bridge from the side most people miss, looking into the bay.
While you’re there, you may want to visit the Legion of Honor, another art museum (if you buy admission to the DeYoung, you get free admission here the same day) which has some cool traveling exhibits from time to time.
If you walk the Lands End trail, you can start or end your hike at these ruins of an old bath house, Sutro Baths. Make sure to check out the Visitor Center for more info.
3. The Presidio
You could easily spend a full day walking or biking the miles of newly-renovated trails, picnic areas, and scenic overlooks at the Presidio, a former military post established by Spain in 1776 and now on the U.S. Register of Historic Places. Start at the visitor center and plan out what you want to see. The Walt Disney Family Museum is really awesome and a “must” for even a casual Disney fan. Check out Wood Line and Lover’s Lane for good places to stroll. And in the summers, don’t miss Shakespeare in the Park on the main lawn. Pack your favorite picnic items and bring lots of warm blankets and layers, cause it’s freezing at night no matter how warm the day was.
SFMOMA is a great place to spend the afternoon if you’re into modern art!
5. Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is a beautiful place for a leisurely stroll in the middle of an upscale neighborhood. It’s also a great place for bird-watching: swans, black-crowned night heron, cormorants, and a variety of ducks.
6. Ferry Building Farmer’s Market on Saturday
The awesome Ferry Building Farmer’s Market happens outside and inside the Ferry Building on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, but Saturday is the biggest and best one. Even if you’re not looking for produce, they have some of the best hot food stands in San Francisco! Definitely worth having breakfast or lunch there.
7. Outside Lands Music Festival
Outside Lands is a huge music festival in Golden Gate Park featuring dozens of live bands, usually in August.
8. Opera in the Park
Opera in the Park, by the San Francisco Opera has had free concerts in Golden Gate park. It is dark for the 2021-2022 season, but set to return for the 2022-2023 season. Get there early to grab a spot and make sure to grab a program so you can sing along at the end.
9. Handel’s Messiah
Going on for more than 20 years, this has become a Bay Area Christmas tradition. Usually performed by American Bach Soloists in December at Grace Cathedral.
10. Muir Woods
Muir Woods is a “must-see” when you’re in the Bay Area. It’s so amazing and peaceful there. Advance reservations are required for parking and admission, which is actually a good thing because it keeps the crowds down.
11. Tomales Point, Pierce Point Ranch, and the Tule Elk Reserve
Hike from Pierce Point Ranch to Tomales Bay Point and check out all the Tule Elk in the preserve. It’s a pretty flat trail, but bring binoculars if you want to get a better look at the elk, they’re usually resting far from the trail to avoid hikers.
12. Kayak Elkhorn Slough out of Monterey Bay
Kayak and see lots of wildlife in Elkhorn Slough out of Moss Landing in Monterey. Good for a day trip.
13. Bird Watching at Hawk Hill in Marin Headlands
Grab binoculars and watch thousands of raptors in the annual migration at Hawk Hill in Marin Headlands. Peak season starts Sept 10 and lasts about a month. Wear layers. If you’re new to bird watching, there will be lots of seasoned birders up there and most are really helpful and friendly in pointing out different species.
14. Año Nuevo Park
Visit Año Nuevo Park just south of Half Moon Bay for the annual Elephant Seal breeding season (winter months through Feb/Mar). Sign up for a tour to get more out of the visit.
15. Fillmore Street Jazz Festival
The Fillmore Street Jazz Festival is the largest free Jazz festival on the West Coast. It happens every summer. Fun to walk around with live music and yummy street foods.
16. Marin – Matt-Davis Steep Ravine Hike
My favorite hiking trail/loop in Marin – Matt-Davis Steep Ravine. I park near the fire station at Stinson Beach and pick up the trailhead there. Then I loop back around once I hit Pan Toll Station. Round trip is about 7 miles, great elevation change and variety of scenery, and spring is the best time to go, cause the hills are covered in beautiful colors and the streams are running. There will be a short ladder climb.
17. Coastal Trail Hikes
I’ve discovered some great scenic hiking trails by signing up for trail runs with Coastal Trail Runs and Pacific Coast Trail Runs. My favorite trails are the ones that start at Muir Beach in Marin, Rodeo Beach, Woodside, Joaquin Miller or Redwood (Oakland) state park, and San Lorenzo River (Santa Cruz).
If you do the Muir Beach trail, you can hike along the cliffs to Pirate’s Cove and on to Tenessee Beach, where there’s a small lake in a lush green valley leading to the ocean. Afterward, drive back to Mill Valley and have Indian burritos at Avatar’s Punjabi Burritos.
18. Angel Island
Take the ferry and hike/picnic on Angel Island.
19. Mount Diablo
Hike to the top of Mount Diablo (Walnut Creek) in the springtime. It’s the highest elevation point in the Bay Area and the hills are covered in colors after winter rains. Summer hiking there can be brutal so avoid it.
20. Natural Bridges State Beach
Day hike in Big Basin and explore the tide pools at Natural Bridges State Beach. Check the tide chart to make sure you go at an ideal time for viewing critters.
That’s it for my wife’s recommended things to do in the Bay Area. Let me know what you think in the comments! – Brian
Big Sur is not far from the Bay Area and it’s an uber-romantic date destination!