Your Guide to Planning a Northern California Vacation

Whether you’re looking to explore cities or national parks, beaches or mountains, wine country or farm to fork destinations you’ll be able to find it all on a Northern California vacation.

While you might not be to see everything Northern California has to offer in just one trip, I wanted to help you get on the way to a perfect itinerary for your Northern California vacation whether it’s for a long weekend or a few weeks.

My recommendation is to start in San Francisco and then add on legs depending on how long your Northern California itinerary is and based on your interests. If you’ve got a few weeks you can even do them all.

Start with San Francisco & the Bay Area

It is often easiest to fly into the Bay Area so it’s a great place to start your Northern California vacation. Plus, you won’t want to miss exploring San Francisco itself.

You can explore a few of the tourist activities that are worth the trip like walking the Golden Gate Bridge, wandering Golden Gate Park, visiting Alcatraz, and sailing on the bay.

You’ll also want to dig deeper into the different neighborhoods, a few of my favorites include Hayes Valley, the Mission, and Haight Ashbury.

Staying around Union Square is always a fun way to explore the city and is close to BART (the metro) making it easy to explore the rest of the bay. My favorite hotel is the Sir Francis Drake.

You’ll also want to head across the bridges or down the Peninsula. Go spend a day exploring Oakland and Berkeley. Or make your way down to spots like Palo Alto and San Jose.

Golden Gate bridge with San Francisco in the background. Northern California vacation.

Top Things to Do in San Francisco and the Bay

Check out a few of my favorite activities and top tips for San Francisco and right around the bay to add to your itinerary for your Northern California vacation. From neighborhoods to where to stay to places to eat while you’re visiting the Bay.

Sailing On The San Francisco Bay

A one of a kind experience in the Bay Area that you won’t want to miss. Head over to Sausalito and take a ride out on the bay.

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Exploring San Francisco's Outer Richmond

Squeezed between Golden Gate Park and the Presdio you’ll want to explore this San Francisco neighborhood for its food and activties.

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Where to Stay in San Francisco

The Union Square neighborhood makes a perfect launch point for exploring San Francisco and the Bay Area. Check out a few of my favorite hotels in the area.

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Eating Your Way Through San Francisco

There are so many delicious places to eat in San Francisco. From Mexican food to Italian, from take out to fine dining you can find the best of everything in the city.

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A Tour of Cocktails in San Francisco

Not only will you find delicious food in San Francisco but also delicious cocktails. Some tips on finding my favorites.

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Add A Visit to Wine Country

Whether you’re looking for breathtaking landscapes, exploring a world-class food scene, having a luxurious spa day or getting to know some of the best wines you’ll want to add a day or even a few to your Northern California vacation.

Head to the Napa Valley for the most popular wineries and destination which while often filled with tourists is still worth the visit. Or make your way over to Sonoma for another view of wine country. And if you’re up for a little drive visit my favorite wine country town away from the tourists with amazing wine and food in Healdsburg.

If you’re staying in the Napa Valley I recommend staying downtown at the Napa River Inn. For Sonoma, stay near the square at MacArthur Place. Or check out one of my favorite deals in Healdsburg at the Best Western Dry Creek Inn, you’ll find great rates and amenities that go far beyond your average Best Western.

Vineyard at Alpha Omega winery in Napa Valley. Northern California vacation.

The Best of Napa & Sonoma County Wine Country

When people talk about California wine country they think of Napa and Sonoma but even within these two counties, there are almost countless towns and wine regions to explore. Check out a few of my favorite places to eat, drinks, shop, stay, and more.

Things To Do In California Wine Country

Everything you need to know for planning your trip to California’s top wine country regions whether you’re visiting for a day or a week.

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Explore A Walkable Wine Country in Downtown Napa

If you’re looking for a wine country visit without needing to drive you’ll find everything you need right in Downtown Napa.

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A Day Exploring Dog-Friendly Napa Valley

Not only is the Napa Valley a perfect getaway for us humans, it’s also place to bring your pup along. Find out about some of the best dog-friendly spots.

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My Five Favorite Wineries in Napa & Sonoma

There are so many wineries to explore in Napa and Sonoma but check out a few of the best experiences you’ll find in the area.

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A Weekend Filled with Things to do in Calistoga, Napa Valley

Head up the Napa Valley for the adorable town of Calistoga. From unique wineries to luxurious spas explore this wine country destination.

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Exploring Healdsburg, California; Another Side of Sonoma

Drive a little while further into Sonoma County and away from all the tourists and you’ll find my favorite wine country town.

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Explore the Best of Healdsburg with Much More Than A Food Tour

Wine country and delicious food go hand in hand. Explore some of the best spots as you wander the Healdsburg downtown area.

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Heading North Up the Coast

If you’re looking for classic California coast lines you’ll want to add exploring North of San Francisco to your itinerary. Drive along the Pacific Coast Highway and make your way to Point Reyes National Seashore.

Then keep driving and you’ll feel like you’ve gotten away from the world as you make your way up to Sea Ranch, Mendocino, and Fort Bragg. These coastal towns are the perfect spot to get away for a weekend. You can hike, relax, take in some beach time, eat amazing food, wine taste, and much more.

Two of my favorite places I’ve stayed in California are in this area. The Little River Inn is perfect for a relaxing weekend and if you’re in for a splurge and really want to get away from it all book a room at theInn at Newport Ranch just North of Fort Bragg.

Glass beach in Mendocino and Fort Bragg.

Exploring Mendocino & The North Coast

There are few places in a state of almost 40 million people that you can feel you’ve actually gotten away from the hectic life we live in. You might lose phone service while you’re exploring Mendocino but you won’t regret it when you do.

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip – San Francisco to Mendocino

Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway is the best way to explore the North Coast visiting spots like Bodega Bay, Point Reyes, Sea Ranch, and more as you make your way to Mendocino.

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The Best Things to do in Mendocino County, California

From wine tasting in Anderson Valley to eating your way around Downtown Fort Brag to relaxing on the beach, you’ll find so much to add to your itinerary in Mendocino, California.

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Exploring the North Coast – A Mendocino County Weekend Itinerary

Spend a weekend getting to know Mendocino from hiking state parks to enjoying delicious meals to a spa day to relax.

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Charming Luxury On The Mendocino Coast at The Little River Inn

Relax at this practically perfect hotel property overlooking the California Coast.

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Or Head East to Sacramento & Lake Tahoe

Driving east you’ll make your way to the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe. On your way, you’ll find Sacramento, a destination worth visiting in its own right. And a few more wine country regions along the way.

Spend a night in Sacramento and explore why it is called the Farm to Fork Capitol. Then stop in Amador wine country and finally make your way up to Lake Tahoe. A world-class destination all year round. And if you want to stay right on the lake I recommend Aston Lakeland. It’s a great spot where you can have space for a whole family and walk out right onto the water.

View overlooking Lake Tahoe in the snow. Northern California vacation.

Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, and More

East of the Bay Area you’ll continue to explore the great things Northern California has to offer. Find the mountains and wine country to get outdoors in. Eat your way through the Farm to Fork Capitol and explore the history of the State Capitol.

Exploring the Breweries in Sacramento, California

Sacramento might just now be considered a top ranked craft brewing city but many of the best have been around for years. Check out some of my favorites.

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Where to Eat in Sacramento, California

You’ll find delicious food around the Farm to Fork Capitol worth exploring.

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Spending the Night on the Delta King Riverboat in Old Sacramento

Stay on the river itself in Sacramento right in Old Sacramento and explore the Delta King.

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Finding Food, Wine & Relaxation at the Murieta Inn & Spa

Spend a weekend up in Rancho Murrieta tucked right next to Amador wine country.

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Best Things To Do Around Lake Tahoe

All year round you’ll find it worth a trip up to Lake Tahoe for outdoor adventures, relaxing, delicious food, and more.

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Enjoying Lake Tahoe in the Winter When You Don't Ski

What to do when you aren’t on the slopes on your next winter trip to Lake Tahoe.

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Wander Your Way South Along the PCH

You can never get enough of the Pacific Coast Highway and California beaches. You can drive all the way to Big Sur from San Francisco and back in the day. But it’s far more fun if you take a couple days making your way down.

You’ll want to make stops along the way including the beach cities of Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Carmel before you drive Big Sur itself. Personally, these spots are a must do on any Northern California vacation.

My favorites spots to stay in this area are right down in Carmel-by-the-Sea where you can walk so many places or Pacific Grove where you can walk right to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Both areas also often have great deals.

Board walk in the sand with the ocean in the background at Pebble Beach in Monterey and Carmel, California.

Enjoy a Drive Down the Coast

Hit the Pacific Coast Highway and head south of the Bay Area. Stop along one or a few of the best beach towns in the state including Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur.

Explore Santa Cruz, California Beyond the Boardwalk

Get to know some of the best spots in Santa Cruz from Natural Bridges Beach to the Redwoods.

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Where to Stay Around Monterey, California

Within the Monterey area you’ll find a variety of towns worth a visit with spots overlooking to coast and more.

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Top Outdoor Activities in Monterey, California

Whale watching, kayaking, hiking, and so much more make exploring the outdoors in Monterey an adventure you’ll want to take.

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Eating Your Way Around the Monterey Bay

From diners to fine dining you’ll find tasty bites around the Monterey Bay. Explore a few of my favorite spots on your next trip.

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Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip – Big Sur

When you talk about the Pacific Coast Highway you’re most likely talking about Big Sur. Take a trip to these breathtaking cliff sides.

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Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip – Carmel to San Francisco

Whether you’re visiting Half Moon Bay, the Monterey Bay Aquarium or Pebble Beach you’ll want to take your time traveling this part of PCH.

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Head Inland to Yosemite

If you’ve never been you’ll want to take a drive out to Yosemite the most visited National Park. It’s a bit of a trek from the Bay but once you make it there it will be well worth it.

Get in some hikes, drive through the valley, relax in by some of the breathtaking vistas and spend a couple of days exploring the area.

My favorite spot to stay in the area is Tenaya Lodge. Relaxing in their hot tub and enjoying a delicious meal that the restaurant is a perfect way to rest up after hiking your way around the park.

If one park isn’t enough, you can also add on Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park to your Northern California vacation.

View of Half Dome in Yosemite from Glacier Point for your Northern California vacation.

Yosemite & The Sierras

There is a reason why Yosemite National Park is the most visited park in the country. You’ll want to explore everything from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley. And travel along to another one of the my favorite parks.

A Weekend Exploring Yosemite & the Southern Sierras

You can spend weeks in Yosemite but you might not have the chance. Head to the Southern Sierras for a perfect weekend exploring the park.

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A Weekend Exploring Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Just south of Yosemite you’ll find an often quieter and just as unique pair of the national parks. Visit the oldest trees in the world and the second largest canyon in North America.

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Create Your Own Northern California Vacation

A trip to the Bay, wine country and then down to Big Sur. Or San Francisco to Sacramento to Lake Tahoe. Or the City to Big Sur and over to Yosemite. There are so many different paths you can take when planning a Northern California vacation.

Plus, there will likely be a few things left to do so you’ll just have to plan another trip back to visit.

About Megan

Megan MacNee is the founder of Traveling Nine to Fiver. From nine to five she works in the non-profit world in California. She focuses on exploring the world from her own backyard to across the globe. You'll find her sharing about explorations through food, books, travel, and more.