Planning a trip to Northern California? Then keep reading for all my top recommendations for beaches, coastal hikes, restaurants, and places to stay between San Francisco and Mendocino, including Sonoma and Napa Valleys.
Cocktails at Fern Bar in Sebastopol
Tacos at El Molino Central
Dinner at The Charter Oak
- Muir Woods – Heading north from San Francisco, your first introduction to Highway 1 is as it winds through the forests, valleys and coastlines of this beautiful National Monument.
- Stinson Beach – A cute town known for its long sandy beach. Stop for fun surf shops and lunch at Breakers Café, which has nice patio with a fire pit
- Point Reyes – There’s plenty to do in this National Seashore, including a lighthouse and a visit to an elephant seal colony. But if you’re short on time, I recommend the easy (mostly flat) hike along the Coast Trail from the Point Reyes Hostel to Limantour Beach.
- Bodega – A quick stop to see filming locations for The Birds—only worth it if you’re a film buff.
- Goat Rock Beach – This beach at the mouth of the Russian River features hiking trails, harbor seals, dramatic bluffs and cool rock formations, including a sea arch that looks particularly mystical in the NoCal fog.
- Timber Cove Resort – The best place to stay (and/or have dinner) on this section of the coast is a midcentury inn turned luxury hotel. It has a striking lobby with a big fireplace and a nice bar, and a great restaurant with ocean views. Outside, a giant artistic totem overlooks the fire pit—the place to be at sunset.
- Salt Point State Park – The Salt Point Trail from the Stump Beach parking lot to the visitor’s center was a highlight of the trip, passing a sandy cove, meadows of colorful wildflowers, and a rugged coastline with tide pools and honeycomb rock formations. The Kruse Rhododendron State Preserve, also inside the park, was another surprise, with huge, wild rhododendrons and a gorgeous redwood forest.
- Wildflower Boutique Motel – We opted to stay here since it’s right in town, and we were glad we did. The modern rooms were comfortable, the staff was very friendly, and they bring breakfast to your room each morning. And it’s just steps away from Point Arena’s arts center, adorable movie theater, brewery, and restaurants.
- Franny’s Cup & Saucer – A fantastic little bakery with a line out the door on weekends; despite having breakfast at our hotel, we came here both mornings!
- Arena Market & Café – A good lunch option for tasty serve-yourself soups and made-to-order sandwiches
- Point Arena Lighthouse – The tallest lighthouse on the West Coast, at the end of a spectacular bit of coastline, complete with wildflowers, sandstone formations, and lounging seals. You can also stay in the nice cottages on site.
- The Study Club – California-chic housewares and haute-hippie fashion from lines like Rachel Comey and Nili Lotan.
- Mendocino Art Center – A nice stop to browse temporary exhibitions and artists’ studios.
- Point Cabrillo Light Station – A nice walk past historic buildings to a cute little red-roofed lighthouse and another stretch of beautiful coastline. It’s also one of the best places in the area for whale-watching, in season (November-May).
- The Barlow – A former apple cannery is now the coolest spot in town, full of restaurants, boutiques, wineries, and more.
- Fern Bar – Inside the Barlow, this California-cool bar and restaurant had exactly the vibes we wanted, and delicious food and cocktails to match. We also had a lot of fun playing pinball and arcade games next door after dinner.
- Sonoma State Historic Park – After all the nature, we enjoyed getting a little history by touring the Mission San Francisco Solano and the military barracks next door. The blocks surrounding Sonoma’s main square are definitely worth a stroll.
- El Molino Central – Some of the best tacos I’ve eaten outside of Mexico. Get the birria!
- Oxbow Public Market (Napa) – A good place to check out many of the area’s top local food producers all in one place.
- The Charter Oak (St. Helena) – We sat at the bar and enjoyed chatting with the bartender while sipping some wine and sampling appetizers. It was hard to choose since the menu is fantastic; everything was delicious, but the stracciatella was particularly mind-blowing (SO buttery). The giant steaks coming out of the kitchen looked really tempting too.
We only had a few hours in San Francisco on this trip, but here’s what we hit:
- Marin Headlands & Golden Gate viewpoints – We stopped on both sides of the bridge on the way back into town, and both were worthwhile. The viewpoints in the Marin headlands are particularly great because you see the city as well as the bridge.
- Mamahuhu – We were craving Chinese food but it was hard to find somewhere open for lunch on a Tuesday. Not only did Mamahuhu come through, it was delicious!
- Ritual Coffee – There are several locations around town; the flagship in the Mission is a pleasant spot to rest or even pull out your laptop if you need to (and the coffee’s really good too).
- Mission Dolores Park – All the local vibes, including good dog-watching and views of the city.
Things We Missed
Recommendations from friends and things on our list that just didn’t happen—all reasons to go back!
- Three Sticks Wines at the Adobe (Sonoma) – A friend recommended this winery right off Sonoma’s main square, and it does look beautiful. By appointment only
- Hess Persson Estates – A winery with a side of contemporary art (one of the largest private collections in the country)
- Bistro Jeanty (Yountville) – Another recommendation from a local friend
- The Model Bakery (St. Helena) – We went to Bouchon Bakery in Yountville and it was fine, but I wish we’d gone here instead
- The Progress (San Francisco) – Another (strong) recommendation from our local friends. Only open for dinner
- Mission San Francisco de Asis (San Francisco) – History AND Hitchcock! Unfortunately closing for the day as we were walking by
We had no cell service for most of our time on the coast, which we didn’t expect! We loved the chance to disconnect, but make sure to plan ahead if you need to (download those audiobooks ahead of time!).