Northern California is the ultimate travel destination, Things To Do In Northern California, with scenic state and national parks, the sprawling metropolis of San Francisco, and the stunning coastline along the Pacific Coast Highway. The best things to do in Northern California are listed below.
California is often romanticized in movies, but the state is rich in culture, history, and cuisine, making it an ideal destination for both adventurers and nature lovers.
A drive along Northern California’s Golden Coast will take you through beautiful National Parks and stunning beaches, with stops at bustling metropolises and cool camping spots in between.
List of 18 Things To Do In Northern California Today
From the breathtaking national and state parks of Mendocino, to the wine country of Napa Valley, your options are limitless.
This summer, take a road trip along the Pacific Highway Coast to see this region at its best. The best things to do in Northern California are listed below in San Fran.
1. Mendocino County
As you travel along the Pacific Highway, your first stop will be in the idyllic coastal town of Mendocino. The village is perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean and offers breathtaking views.
This place is a tourist mecca, with picturesque houses that give off a New England vibe, surrounded by boutiques and restaurants galore. Take a train ride through Mendocino County to appreciate nature’s splendor at Southern California.
For the best coastal views, visit Big River Beach, Mendocino Overlook, or Russian Gulch State Park. You can even explore Mendocino’s waters in a Polynesian canoe and finish your day at one of the town’s many seaside cafes San Diego.
2. Redwood National Park’s Avenue of the Giants Scenic Highway
One of the best things to do in Northern California is to visit the Redwoods National Park and Redwoods State Park. The Redwoods National Park and State Park Los Angeles is famous for having the world’s tallest trees.
Many of Northern California’s best attractions, such as the San Francisco Bay Area and Napa Valley, are within driving distance of the park.
The massive trees that envelop this park are straight out of a postcard. While the park covers thousands of acres, there are a few highlights worth seeing. You can even take a tour of Muir Woods to see the park’s highlights.
The Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park is a long winding road lined on either side with iconic redwood trees. A drive down this road is like something out of a fairytale.
There are also numerous places for visitors to stop and photograph the beauty of the Redwood forest trees. Continue your adventure in Redwood National Park by hiking one of the many nearby trails.
Take a picture with the world’s tallest tree or even drive your car through the middle of one. There are towering trees everywhere that will take your breath away.
Obviously, California has an abundance of national and state parks, and this one is a must-see while in Northern California.
3. Napa Valley and downtown Napa
Northern California, in addition to local delicacies and breathtaking views, provides a rich dose of history.
Napa Valley, also known as Wine Country, is a picturesque town that offers the ideal getaway with slow living combined with great food, wine, and wine tasting. It’s the ultimate relaxation recipe. You can even take a full-day wine tasting tour to sample the best wines from the region.
Downtown Napa is completely walkable, so leave your car at home and enjoy all that this city has to offer. Explore the heart of Downtown Napa, First Street, and make your way to the Napa Riverfront at upstate California.
Oxbow Market has a variety of eateries as well as award-winning tasting rooms such as Alpha Omega Collective. Downtown Napa is known for its art, so be sure to visit one of the 15 galleries.
4. Big Sur
Big Sur offers the best of Northern California’s coastline. This magical place stretches for more than 70 miles along the highway and provides breathtaking views of the coastline, redwood forest, and scenic hiking trails.
Big Sur is unincorporated land along Highway 1 and is not part of the national park. This location is a must-see for scenic views, and you can explore its natural beauty via trails, strolls along the beach, or a leisurely drive.
Spend the day glamping at one of the many resorts that surround this breathtaking location.
5. Santa Cruz
A trip along the golden coast will take you to the Santa Cruz mountain range in Northern California. This is one of California’s most beautiful cities, and it’s the ideal place to spend a day at the beach exploring the vast shorelines and the lush Santa Cruz mountains at Santa Barbara.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has the laid-back surfer vibe that is common in SoCal, as well as an amusement park for your kids to burn off some energy.
Explore the boutiques that line Downtown Santa Cruz’s streets and grab a bite at one of the many roadside cafes. At Natural Bridges State Beach, you can cap off your day with a sunset view with palm springs.
6. San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is a wine region that is not as well-known as other towns in Northern California, but it is a popular weekend destination for many Northern California residents.
The region has some of the best wines and wine tasting excursions to offer, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnays being the most popular varietals. During their stay in the Edna Valley, visitors can spend the day exploring the wineries.
San Luis Obispo, however, has more to offer than just wine. In the downtown area, there are a number of local eateries, shops, and bars.
Nature enthusiasts can also explore one of the numerous trails in the hills that surround this idyllic town. San Luis is ideal for a weekend getaway or as a stopover on your Northern California Coast road trip.
7. Seaside caramel
Carmel-by-the-Sea, a destination straight out of a fairytale, is a stunning town known for its rustic charm and blissful ocean views. This town, like many others in Northern California, is walkable, so bring your walking shoes.
Carmel’s downtown area is one square mile long and is lined with quaint shops and local eateries.
Sip some wine while basking in the California sun in this picturesque coastal town. Everything, from the streets to the cottages that line them, is photogenic.
If you’re driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a great place to stop for lunch. You can even go on a tour of Carmel and the nearby coastal towns.
If you’re flying into San Francisco, Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the best weekend getaways from the city.
If you enjoy golf, you’ll love this area because you can easily access the Pebble Beach golf course from here. It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations along the California coast.
8. Half Moon Bay
The name Half Moon Bay speaks volumes about the town’s enchantment and whimsy.
Half Moon Bay, located just a short drive from Santa Cruz, is a charming coastal town surrounded by farms. As they drive through town, visitors will be overcome with a sense of calm.
Get a sense of the town’s culture by strolling down Main Street and window shopping at one of the many galleries and boutiques. Half Moon Bay Bakery and The Garden Deli are two excellent places to eat.
Finish the day with a sunset view at Half Moon Bay State Beach followed by dinner at Sam’s Chowder House.
Pescadero is a sleepy town located between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay. With a population of only 650 people, this small town is often overlooked but is well worth a visit. Pescadero, another town along the coast, offers visitors breathtaking views of the ocean.
You can go whale watching along the shorelines and admire the surrounding green hills.
Harley Farms Goat Dairy, where you can play with and feed baby goats, is a must-see on a trip to Pescadero. You stop for lunch at Arcangeli, a local grocery store, and sample some of their delectable sandwiches.
End your day in downtown Pescadero, which has a number of antique stores and boutiques worth visiting. If you want to get away from the fast-paced city life, this is the place to be!
San Francisco is the most well-known coastal city in California, but the East Bay of Oakland is just across the river and often goes unnoticed.
While the city was once known for its high crime rates in the early 1980s and 1990s, it has since evolved into one of Northern California’s best cities.
The city exudes a hipster vibe, which is especially noticeable in the Temescal neighborhood. Historic buildings and funky graffiti art line the streets. You can eat your heart out at one of the city’s many restaurants, which serve cuisines ranging from Ethiopian to Korean.
Take a stroll down Jack London Square, which is home to some of the best seaside restaurants and breweries in California. Exploring Oakland’s laid-back vibe is one of the best things to do in Northern California.
11. San Francisco’s Mission District
The Mission District in San Francisco provides a glimpse into the city’s vibrant culture, but the neighborhood itself has a rich history. It was founded in 1776 by Spaniards and once housed families.
Today, Silicon Valley techies and startup founders call this vibrant Northern California district home.
The colorful art on the neighborhood’s walls is a major draw for tourists, and the streets are lined with quaint European-style homes at mono lake.
The Objective Dolores Park is a landmark in Mission, and restaurants such as Tartine Bakery and Dandelion Chocolate are close behind.
This place breathes San Francisco history and is a great way to get away from tourist hotspots like Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island, and Golden Gate Park.
12. Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is one of the most obvious and popular things to do in Northern California. Given its massive size, you won’t be able to miss it.
The elegant bridge links two islands in the same bay. The bridge is a popular tourist attraction near San Francisco Bay.
California has become one of the most popular vacation destinations, and Northern California offers some of the best activities.
Another of my favorite places to visit is the Golden Gate Bridge, which combines natural beauty with modern engineering marvels. The best part about visiting the Golden Gate Bridge is that it is completely free and always open (duh!).
Visit Golden Gate Park while you’re there. If you visit the other places on our list, you’ll have to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge at some point.
13. Sequoia National Park
The Sierra Nevada Mountains are the highlight of this stunning national park. The Sierra Nevada Mountain range is well-known for its abundance of mono mammoth lake and streams. The range is best reached by driving approximately 70 miles south from Yosemite National Park or by heading south from Lake Tahoe.
This mountain range provides numerous hiking and mountaineering opportunities. It’s one of the best things to do in Northern California, if not the entire west coast, for outdoor enthusiasts.
You have to see the Twin Peaks while you’re here. The Twin Peaks will be difficult to miss. This peak is located in Yosemite National Park’s northern section, just north of Tuolumne Meadows death valley.
It is Yosemite National Park’s 15th highest point. It’s one of the best places to visit in Northern California, and given its proximity, there will be no shortage of tourists visiting this iconic landscape, but it’s well worth the trip.
14. Downtown San Francisco and the Bay Area
In terms of the best things to do in Northern California, the San Francisco Bay Area and Downtown are the most obvious places to visit.
The best part is that it is easily accessible via the BART commuter train. The best attractions, such as Justin Herman Plaza, De Young Museum, SFMOMA, and the Palace of Fine Arts, are within an hour of your destination.
The best part about these attractions is that they are either free or have a small entrance fee that is affordable to all locals. There is also no shortage of delicious food in this area.
San Francisco is quite expensive, so plan ahead of time and consider purchasing a San Francisco CityPASS to see all of the sights of pinnacles national park.
When visiting San Francisco, there are numerous things to do that will suit any type of traveler. Attend a San Francisco Giants game or visit the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf for families and sports fans.
If you like parks and being outside, check out Ocean Beach, Mission Dolores Park, and, of course, Golden Gate Park for views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
15. Silicon Valley (15th)
The world’s tech capital is a must-see on any trip to Northern California. While it may appear that this city is primarily made up of corporate offices, it actually has a lot to offer.
The region itself includes smaller cities such as San Jose and Santa Clara, which make up Silicon Valley.
Apple and Google are well-known for their beautiful campuses, but they are not open to the public. Visitors can, however, walk around the grounds for free. Consider taking a tour of the Computer History Museum and The Tech Interactive if you are interested in all things technological.
Then, take a look inside the “famous garages” where Apple and Google got their start. One of the best things to do in Northern California is visit Silicon Valley.
16. Lake Tahoe is number sixteen.
Lake Tahoe is a freshwater lake on the Nevada-California border. Lake Tahoe has several names due to its location on the California-Nevada state line, including “America’s Lake.”
Lake Tahoe has some of the world’s best freshwater boating. There are panoramic views from all around this beautiful lake, ranging from San Francisco to Desolation Valley.
Lake Tahoe is best visited between June and September, when temperatures are cooler and there is less precipitation. The best time to visit Heavenly Ski Resort for an event is from January to March.
South Lake Tahoe is located on the lake’s southern shore. It has grown in popularity as a tourist destination for those seeking natural beauty, casino gambling, restaurants, and shopping.
South Lake Tahoe is best visited in the summer when it is not as cold, or in the fall after the summer crowds have dispersed.
17. Glass Beach in Fort Bragg
Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach, located in the coastal mountains about 3.5 hours north of San Francisco, is one of the more interesting things to do in Northern California.
It was once a dumping ground for the region’s local industries. The name refers to the sand, which is thick enough that you can see your reflection when walking across it.
This beautiful beach has been transformed into spectacular scenery after decades of being exposed to nature and its elements, with smooth, colorful sands and breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean from Fort Bragg’s glass beach.
Visitors can best appreciate the beauty of this area by stopping along the Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 1.
Glass beach is ideal for a quick stopover, but I wouldn’t recommend driving all the way there for it. It’s one of the more interesting places to visit, but there’s not much to do other than take a few photos.
18. National Seashore of Point Reyes
The Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the best places to visit in Northern California. Point Reyes National Seashore is located on Northern California’s central coast, between the San Francisco Bay Area or monterey bay and the Oregon border.
It is a National Park Service and UNESCO World Heritage site. Because of the best weather conditions, November through May are the best months to visit the national seashore.
This beach offers panoramic views of the Pacific Coast and the Pacific Ocean. Visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse for a fantastic photo opportunity.
Northern California is a vastly different place, rich in history, culture, and cuisine. While San Francisco and Yosemite are popular tourist destinations in Northern California, this region has much more to offer.
This travel guide hopes to highlight the idyllic towns that line the road less traveled, from the coastlines of Half Moon Bay to the hipster town of Oakland.
If you’re planning a trip to the Gold Coast, we hope this list of unusual things to do in Northern California inspires you!
Northern California Attractions Frequently Asked Questions
What makes Northern California unique?
Northern California is known for many things, including redwood trees, our breezy ocean coastline, and the Golden Gate Bridge. But there are dozens of facts about this beautiful part of our state that you may not be aware of. We guarantee you’ll be surprised by a few of these! Mt. Mt. Mt. Mt. Mt. Mt. Mt. Mt. Mt. Mt. M
Is Northern California beautiful?
Northern California residents are well aware that they live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. The top of California is densely packed with state parks, national parks, and hundreds of natural attractions brimming with scenic beauty. Nothing beats the diverse landscapes of Northern California!
What is the most well-known feature of California?
California is one of the most popular tourist destinations in North America, famous for the Golden Gate Bridge, Disneyland, and Hollywood. Coachella, Wine Country, Silicon Valley, and Surf Culture are also unique to California, as are less obvious sights and cultural aspects.