The Golden Gate Bridge, rows of colourful Victorian houses, trams chuntering up steep hills: San Francisco is a city full of iconic sights. But it's worth tearing yourself away from it for a day or so to discover the other Californian treasures on its doorstep.
A trip to Angel Island State Park gives you some breathing space from the bustle of the city. This wooded island in the Bay is covered with trails for hiking and biking (you can do a bike circuit of the island in about an hour) and grants panoramic views around every corner. Bring a picnic – and a tent, if you want to stay at the campsite for a night – and a decent pair of shoes, and enjoy a refreshingly cheap, back-to-basics break for a few hours. Ferries leave regularly from San Francisco's Pier 41.
One of California's few remaining areas of old-growth redwoods, Muir Woods National Monument is the kind of place where you can easily lose a day. It's a popular trip for all those active San Franciscans – arrive early to avoid the crowds – but even when it's teeming with people a sense of calm pervades. The monumental trees line winding trails and a picturesque creek; one of the more challenging routes (the imaginatively named Redwood Creek Trail) follows the water down to Muir Beach. Pop into the impressively authentic Tudor-style pub at the Pelican Inn for some fortification before making your way back. Tour companies like Extranomical run trips to Muir Woods, very handy if you don't have your own transport or want to get a bit of background on the area.
If the fog in San Francisco is getting you down, hop on the ferry to nearby Sausalito, which is usually protected from the "June gloom" that cloaks the city. It may be a tad touristy, but harbourside Sausalito is still undeniably charming, with colourful houseboats bobbing in the bay and seafood restaurants jutting out over the water (try Scoma's). It's also not too far from Muir Woods, so the two can easily be combined into a one-day trip. The roads are rammed early on, especially on sunny days; avoid the queues of cars and enjoy a great view by heading over on the ferry instead.
Visiting Presidio Park, by Golden Gate Bridge on the northern tip of San Francisco, can feel like a day trip already. This huge green space, dotted with historic monuments and works of art, is an escape from the city, but it's also a common starting point on the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Currently 375 miles long, and with plans to extend it to a 500-mile loop, this route heads north through Marin County and south towards Santa Cruz.
Of course, you can't tackle it all in a day, but you can definitely head through the Presidio and north over the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands – further, if you're mountain biking. The website has an interactive map with planned hikes, indicating their difficulty level and duration. You can also try a guided hike with one of the experts from Urban Hiker SF, a great way to get a bit more local insight.
Hop on the BART train to explore the Bay Area, stopping first at Berkeley. Best known for being home to the University of California's main campus, the city's high-brow intellectual focus is easy to see. You can visit plenty of parts of the college, such as the UC Berkeley Art Museum, the historic Free Speech Movement Café, and the iconic Campanile (which, unsurprisingly, gives you unsurpassed views of the city and around). It's also home to Chez Panisse, the restaurant which defined modern California cuisine.
Oakland portrays itself as the Bay Area's earthier option, less gentrified and polished than its neighbours, and with thriving arts and culture scenes. And it can back up these claims easily: visit the African American Museum and Library, Chabot Space and Science Centre or Oakland Museum of California for some top-class education; head to Eli's for rock and blues, Yoshi's for jazz or the White Horse Bar for karaoke and drag shows; or just wander about to take in the city's varied architecture, graffiti scene and Bay views.
Catch the ferry back across the Bay, stopping at Alameda Island first. It offers a glittering view of San Francisco across the water, but the main reason to visit is for a tour and tasting at St George's Distillery; they put the first American absinthe on the market after the ban was lifted in 2007, and also make some other stellar spirits. Try the Terroir Gin which, as its name suggests, reflects the landscape around it, with strong notes of fir.
With some of the cleanest beaches in the area and some truly wild landscapes to hike through, the Point Reyes National Seashore is the perfect place to blow away the cobwebs. The eight-mile Coast Trail from Palomarin to Alamere Falls is a great day-hike, ending with the arresting sight of a waterfall tumbling straight onto the sand. A less taxing trip is down to Point Reyes lighthouse, a photogenic spot which is also the windiest place on the whole Pacific coast.
The most obvious draw in the Sonoma Valley is its vineyards; it's well worth making the trip just for a tour and tasting, and maybe to pick up a couple of bottles to enjoy later. The town of Sonoma itself is also worth a visit, though, its historic, upmarket atmosphere a counterpoint to San Francisco's energy. It's home to the northernmost mission in California, the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, a good spot to discover more about the area's Mexican history.
Rebecca flew to San Francisco via Reykjavík with Icelandair on their inaugural flight; flights from Heathrow have a lead-in price of £447.80, and passengers can opt to stopover in Iceland for up to seven days for no extra fare price. Rebecca stayed at Hotel Marina Iceland in Reykjavík and Hotel Zeppelin in San Francisco. Find out more on the San Francisco Travel website.
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Top image: © San Francisco Travel Association