Tourist activities in and around the Bay Area

My pages on local transport and hotels in the Palo Alto area are intended to be complete. This one is not. It's just a personal list of favorite and recommended destinations in the broader Bay Area and around Northern California, and isn't intended as a substitute for a good tourist guide. I haven't hunted down links for these places: most should be listed in any good guidebook.

The first thing Californians want visitors to know is that this is not one of those tiny Eastern states. California is diverse, and mostly it is large: 750 miles from end to end, as far as Portland, Maine, to Raleigh, N.C., and just as varied. It's also the same distance from the Shetland Islands to Penzance, and Britain is a good comparison. For just as foreigners tend unjustly to see Britain as England or even just London, and treat Scotland and Wales as poor cousins or ignore them entirely, so it is with California and Los Angeles. Overlay the British map on top of ours, and the English-Scottish border hits the ocean near Monterey. To many Easterners, as in The New Yorker's "California" issue some years back, California means L.A., and we in the north (38% of the population, over half the area) dislike being forgotten. And we don't act like Angelenos, any more than New Englanders sip mint juleps on their verandas.

Northern California is culturally a cross between Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. Our summers are dry, our style is closer to LA-hyper than we like to think, and we have some palm trees, but we have more redwoods and eucalyptus (yes, eucalyptus: imported in the 19th century by an entrepreneur who wanted to use the fast-growing wood for railroad ties, it turned out to be the wrong sort of eucalyptus and now grows wild and undisturbed). Our economy is not based on entertainment, but on high-tech (computers & aerospace, just like Seattle), shipping, and agriculture. We don't go to the beach much, and when we do we're more likely to clamber in boots over the rocks around tide pools than to sunbathe or surf. Our politics are more liberal than the south's (the Bay Area is the most left-wing metropolis in the nation). Most of all, we read more than we watch TV. San Jose is reputedly the nation's top book-buying city. David and Susan Siegel of The Used Book Lover's Guide were amazed at the number of stores they found in the West.

To sum it up in a semi-literary fashion: John Steinbeck, Clark Ashton Smith, Amy Tan, the Beat poets, Gellett Burgess, and Jerry Brown are Northern Californians. Raymond Chandler, Jerry Pournelle, Carolyn See, Charles Bukowski, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Ronald Reagan are Southern Californians. Does that help?

Sites are arranged thematically rather than geographically.

Natural scenery

Coast: State Highway One, most of it a narrow, often winding two-lane road, travels the entire California coast. From Monterey south to Morro Bay is the Big Sur, a rugged, wooded, mostly uninhabited mountainous region. (Biggest tourist attraction: San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst's gaudy mansion.) North of San Francisco is the Sonoma/Mendocino coast, much more to my taste: rolling, grass-covered hills that drop off abruptly above secluded beaches. The coast here is dotted with small towns with an artist-colony air, of which Mendocino is the most famous. If you don't have time for such a long trip (driving along the coast to either San Simeon or Mendocino is pretty much a full day), try the coast road between San Francisco and Santa Cruz: scenic like the north coast, mostly smooth and untwisty, and easily drivable in two hours without stops. For another alternative, the 17-Mile Drive between Monterey and Carmel (it's a toll road) will give you a small taste of what Big Sur is like, and don't miss Point Lobos, just south of Carmel.

Mountains: The coastal mountains, I mean, the ones that get all the fog and rain and big trees. The coastal redwoods, the world's tallest trees, grow in patches from Santa Cruz north to the Oregon border. The biggest and most famous patch is in Humboldt County in the far north, but there's two preserves in the Bay Area that will give the visitor a good taste, the way the Old Forest and Lothlorien preserved a hint of the woods of the Elder Days: Muir Woods National Monument, near Mill Valley just north of San Francisco, is easily accessible and beautiful but tends to be crowded. Big Basin Redwoods State Park, in the mountains above Santa Cruz, is much larger and more remote, and only slightly less lush. There are others, but these are the best.

Hills and valleys: Even slightly inland, California is very dry. Scenery is mostly rolling hills covered in yellow grass (green for about three months in the spring) and dotted with occasional oak trees. The beauty of this seems to be an acquired taste: many visitors find it stark and austere. The Salinas and San Benito Valleys to the south are striking and easy to drive: in San Benito is Pinnacles National Park, a weirdly eroded extinct volcano. Napa Valley to the north is more wooded but has much the same style. In Calistoga there are not only hot springs but an actual working geyser, as reliable and spectacular as Yellowstone's Old Faithful, and a lot more accessible: not just in being near a big city, but you can get a lot closer to the geyser. The single most spectacular view in the Bay Area is from the top of Mount Diablo in the East Bay. Mount Tamalpais in Marin is really neat too, but much more congested and occasionally fogged in.

Further off: Much of the Central Valley north of Sacramento is quite attractive, with occasional hills and groves of cottonwood trees. To the south it's much flatter and less interesting, but this is the part one must drive across to get to Yosemite. All I need say about that place is: 1) Like the Grand Canyon, another feature best viewed by standing at a distance, Yosemite looks just like pictures of itself; and 2) It has traffic jams (but thankfully not tourist kitsch) rivalling the Great Smokies.

If you're curious as to what the infamous San Andreas Fault actually looks like, there are two good places to see it. On northbound I-280 just north of State 92 near San Mateo, there's a viewing area (graced by a huge grotesque statue of Junipero Serra, the Spanish friar who founded the missions) which gives a good view of the Crystal Springs Reservoir. The reservoir is long, thin, and absolutely straight: there's a reason. There's also a good view of the fault rift right at the San Juan Bautista Mission near Hollister.

Human scenery

San Francisco: goes without saying. If Edinburgh were only 200 years old, it would look like San Francisco. Personal favorites: the entirely artificial but quite effective wilderness in Golden Gate Park. The wooden stairs taking the place of Greenwich and Filbert Streets on the steep east side of Telegraph Hill (this is where most of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City are set). Window-shopping and strolling along Grant Avenue (Chinatown), North Beach (just to the north), the Union Square area (heart of the city), Polk Street (near California) and Castro Street (near 18th). The Golden Gate Bridge, the only one of the numerous local bridges you can walk on (and one of the few short enough that you'd want to try: blustery winds, though): be sure also to go underneath the bridge. The view of downtown and the East Bay from the top of Twin Peaks. Alcatraz, the retired island prison (make reservations for the boat to this; and yes, you can actually stroll around in the cellblock). The TransAmerica Pyramid, the city's weirdest skyscraper, at Montgomery and Clay Streets. And yes, the three cable car lines, especially the Hyde Street line that goes from downtown to Ghirardelli Square and Fort Mason (an old factory and military camp revamped as shopping and arts centers) as well as staggeringly kitschy Fisherman's Wharf.

Berkeley: Telegraph Avenue, the four blocks immediately south of campus, is the soul of Berkeley. People's Park is half a block away. Between them, they're still everything that "Berkeley" used to mean. North Shattuck Avenue, the "Gourmet Ghetto", is less ritzy than it was in its 1980s heyday -- the hot money has all moved to Silicon Valley -- but it has the most famous restaurants in the East Bay. Solano Avenue in neighboring Albany has some of the best restaurants in the East Bay. Don't forget the University of California campus, which except when a demonstration is going on is a peaceful refuge from its hectic surroundings, and unlike most campuses is a collage of wildly differing, even clashing, buildings.

Marin County: a lot of hills with tiny little ritzy towns of great character and interesting shopping stuffed tightly into the cramped valleys. Sausalito (on the coast) and Mill Valley are the best to visit.

Silicon Valley: The downtowns of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park, and Los Gatos have character: good for strolling and with good shops and restaurants. Ignore the rest except on advice for a particular good bookstore or restaurant. Stanford University's campus is unusual and worth visiting. Computer geeks may enjoy driving past the actual home bases (they're called "campuses") of Intel, Apple, Google, Facebook, and others. Intel (HQ is a big blue cube, just what you expected) has a little museum on the history of the computer chip. Let me know if you're interested in this stuff: I have a historical Silicon Valley tour guide written up, which includes the original Hewlett Packard and Apple garages.

Santa Cruz: The boardwalk is tacky, the rest is funky. (The boardwalk also has an all-wooden-framed roller coaster, and that's the only advice on amusement parks you'll get from me: I do not find amusement parks amusing.) By all means visit the University of California campus in the hills above town: it consists of about ten separate colleges, in imitation of Oxbridge, each nestled separately in the woods. My favorite college is Kresge: with its Mediterranean architecture in a rugged northern wooded setting, it looks more like Portmeirion than anything else on this side of the Water. The Mystery Spot, above town off Branciforte Drive, is a wonderfully tacky set of perspective illusions. There's a steam railroad, called Roaring Camp, in nearby Felton.

Monterey: was the Mexican capital of California, and retains some of that character, not entirely artificially. Carmel, close by, is the essence of genteely commercialized artist colony. Good sub-Beverly Hills shopping.

Animal scenery

None of the local zoos are particularly impressive, and San Francisco's is downright depressing. The bears in particular have gone psychotic through boredom. But the very small zoo in San Jose's Kelley Park has meercats and fishing cats, which you don't see often in a zoo. Zoo fans should go to San Diego. [Update 2010: The San Francisco Zoo is undergoing remodeling which is improving it greatly. No help for the bears yet, but the new Lemur Forest is delightful, though you won't learn anything about lemurs from the placards, which are all about Malagasy rainforest conservation. The zoo now even has meercats and a fishing cat! Maybe they read this web page.]

The Monterey Bay Aquarium at the end of Cannery Row in Monterey, however, is something spectacular, if you can make your way through the crowds. It includes what I think is the world's largest marine tank, a terrific otter exhibit, and the original aquatic petting zoo.

It is said that Ano Nuevo Point, on State Highway One north of Santa Cruz, is a good whale-watching site in whale-watching season, but I've never tried it myself.

Wine country

California actually has four or five separate wine-growing districts. The classic one is the Napa Valley, a fairly short, narrow valley in the north Bay Area. Just drive on State Highway 29 from Yountville to Calistoga and you'll pass more famous wineries than you can count, all of them offering tastings. The indulgent can take the wine train, which travels the length of the valley plying food and drink. The really indulgent can take early morning hot-air balloon trips. (The decreased weight in your wallet alone will send you floating off into the blue.)

But I have heard connoisseurs claim that Sonoma wines are superior to Napa's. The most renowned wine-growing region in Sonoma County is the Alexander Valley, on US 101 about 25 miles north of Santa Rosa. Sonoma is also known for its apples, especially in the late summer: the apple region is between Sebastopol and Guerneville.

Wines of less prestige, like Gallo, are grown in the Central Valley around Stockton and Modesto.

Closer to the South Bay, there are a number of small wineries of mostly recent origin in the Santa Cruz Mountains above San Jose. The roads here are very obscure and twisty. You can be driving through the woods on patchy asphalt which looks like it hasn't seen pavers in 20 years, and suddenly a giant new winery, in garish pink Mediterranean stucco, opens up in front of you. Check a guidebook for these places.

Of other agricultural/culinary interest, three towns just south of the Bay Area claim unique distinctions. Gilroy is the Garlic Capital of the World (and yes, you can smell it as you drive by). Castroville is the Artichoke Capital of the World (and also has the most authentic Texas BBQ in the area). And Greenfield, though I don't think it uses the title, functions as the Broccoli Capital of the World. All three have annual festivals, of decreasing fame in the order I've listed them. Do not go to Gilroy's unless you love crowds. [Update: Greenfield no longer runs a Broccoli Festival, sorry to say. However, east of the Bay Area there's an asparagus festival in Stockton in April.]

Historical sites

First on the list is the collection of 21 Spanish missions spanning the length of California: 18th-century agricultural colonies with big Catholic churches in the middle, intended to convert and "civilize" the natives, who were mostly uninterested unless forced. Many are now urbanized with nothing left except the (often rebuilt) churches, and are of interest only to church collectors. For historical interest, the best-preserved of all is La Purisima, near Lompoc north of Santa Barbara in Southern California; best in the Bay Area is San Juan Bautista near Hollister (noted for appearing in the film Vertigo); a decent second is Mission San Jose, which confusingly is not in San Jose but in the nearby city of Fremont.

By far the strangest historical site in the Bay Area is the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. It's privately owned and admission is expensive, but it has to be seen. This is the Victorian mansion whose owner ordered that construction proceed continuously without stop, and without any plans, either, as a result of which it's the largest, most complex, and generally weirdest Victorian mansion ever built.

California has had four capitals in this general area. I don't think the Mexicans had what we'd call a capitol building in Monterey, but Colton Hall, where the Constitutional Convention of 1849 was held, still stands and is open for viewing. The 1850s capitol buildings in San Jose and Vallejo have long since vanished, but the one in Benicia still stands and is also open. The current capitol in Sacramento was finished in 1874 and is quite impressive. Also in Sacramento and of purely historical interest is Sutter's Fort, HQ of the Swiss immigrant who owned most of the Sacramento Valley under the Mexicans.

The California Gold Rush boom country, often called inaccurately the Mother Lode (there was no Mother Lode; that was the problem) is strung along State Highway 49 (Forty-Niners, get it?) in the Sierra foothills. The core is the region between Auburn and Sonora. Coloma (near Placerville) and Columbia (near Sonora) have preserved historical districts, but all the towns are scenic with many old buildings and occasional museums.

Literary sites

To get the most out of this interest, one needs a specialized guide. There is one: The Literary World of San Francisco & Its Environs by Don Herron (City Lights Books, 1985), but it's out of print.

A number of fantasy and science fiction novels have been set in the Bay Area. One of the best, and the one most tied to the cityscape, is Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber, whose settings are a good excuse to go tramping through some scenic parts of San Francisco: the TransAmerica Pyramid (mentioned above), the Sutro broadcasting tower, and especially the small park of Corona Heights. The cityscapes of the Bay Area were also used effectively in an unusual three-author sf thematic trilogy (the books have no connection in plot or characters), which would be worth reading before visiting the area: The City Not Long After by Pat Murphy (San Francisco), A Mask for the General by Lisa Goldstein (Berkeley and Oakland), and Vanishing Point by Michaela Roessner (San Jose, in particular the Winchester Mystery House).

My favorite of all California landscape novels is Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is mostly set in a slightly stretched re-envisaging of the Napa Valley. More than any other book I know about the area, it really catches a sense of the natural physical surroundings.

For more mainstream authors, visitable sites related to their home and work include:
Robert Louis Stevenson: the home he briefly inhabited in Monterey is open for tours; there is a Silverado Museum in St. Helena in the Napa Valley.
Jack London: his home in Glen Ellen, near Sonoma, is a state historical park with a lot of exhibits. Next to it is the ruins of an even bigger house that burned down just before he was going to move in.
John Muir: his Victorian home in Martinez is a national historic site. Nice place, less in the way of exhibits.
Eugene O'Neill: his home, Tao House, in Danville, is also a national historic site, but it's on private property (it's a complicated story), so a prior appointment is necessary for this one: phone in advance. Really attractive, with a cosy study where O'Neill wrote his last several plays.
Dashiell Hammett: numerous sites relating to him and his work in San Francisco, the favorite being an actual plaque commemorating the site of the shooting of Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon: it's in an alley off Bush Street just above the Stockton Tunnel.
Robinson Jeffers: his hand-built home, Tor House, is visible to passersby from the appropriately-named Scenic Road on the headlands just south of Carmel. It's occasionally open for tours.
And, of course, John Steinbeck: Cannery Row in Monterey has been transformed into a tourist attraction, and anything relating to Steinbeck there is likely to be trash. The Steinbeck Center Museum in Salinas is aimed at the lowest common denominator, but it has some interesting artifacts. His childhood home nearby is now a restaurant. The best way to imbibe Steinbeck as a visitor is just to drive around the Salinas Valley and take in the scenery. Of Mice and Men, for instance, is set near Greenfield, half an hour's drive south of Salinas.


My favorite general-purpose museum in the area is the Oakland Museum, a multi-interest collection including art, human history, and natural history.

Offbeat museums: The Musee Mecanique in San Francisco, at Fisherman's Wharf, is where all those old penny-arcade gadgets went to. San Jose has the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, an oddball collection of artifacts not too far from the Winchester Mystery House. If you get up into the heart of redwood country in Humboldt County, along the Avenue of the Giants off US 101 just north of Garberville is a true monument to charming kitsch: Hobbiton U.S.A., a series of diorama displays of the plot of The Hobbit set among a walk through the redwoods, with pushbutton-activated recorded narration. "And so Bilbo returned safely to his hobbit hole, just as you will soon return to the parking lot." [Update: Alas, Hobbiton U.S.A. is closed and naught is left but the ruins of its dioramas. You can still see some remains from the roadway.]

Gardens: The best in the area is at Filoli, an estate in the hills above Redwood City. There's a large rose garden on Euclid Avenue in Berkeley and another near downtown San Jose. The Luther Burbank gardens still stand, perhaps a little worse for wear, in Santa Rosa.

Art: Go to San Francisco. The Museum of Modern Art and the Palace of the Legion of Honor (non-modern art) are the ones I've been to the most, largely because of the excellent special touring exhibits they often host. And don't forget the Cartoon Art Museum: small, but certainly unusual.

Science: If you like a dark, noisy place, with complicated interactive exhibits that are either broken, incomprehensible, or which do pretty much the same thing no matter which button you push, go to The Tech in downtown San Jose. As you might guess, I was not impressed. Maybe I'm missing something, but the fabled Exploratorium in San Francisco seems to me to pretty much fit the same description. I may be the only visitor who was not overwhelmed.

Only a dedicated astronomy buff will visit Lick Observatory in the mountains east of San Jose. Oh, sure, it's interesting enough, and the view can be great when it's not smoggy. But although Lick is only ten miles in a straight line from town, the drive is twice as long and takes two hours.

What I like better in the way of science museums: the Lawrence Hall of Science on the UC Berkeley campus (great views, too), the Hearst Anthropology Museum also on campus, the working Bay Model (San Francisco Bay, of course) in Sausalito, and the pleasant ecology Coyote Point Museum in San Mateo.

Factory tours: I just have to mention that Jelly Bellies are made in Fairfield, and it offers factory tours. The Jelly Belly factory store is the only place in the world where you can buy Belly Flops, inexpensive bags of factory seconds.

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