If you mention to friends that you're headed to a convention at the Cow Palace, they'll probably suggest all kinds of San Francisco Bay Area excursions. The wine country tours of Sonoma and Napa are always popular, and the coastal hiking in Point Reyes National Seashore offers plenty of exercise to shake off the rust from those long meetings. Hopping on BART can take you across the bay to the college town fun of Berkeley or for lunch at all the new restaurants popping-up in revitalized Oakland.
But don't feel you have to head far north or east from the Cow Palace to find the best attractions in the Bay Area. If you head south instead, you'll find the dramatic coast of San Mateo County has all kinds of sights to offer. For example, an unforgettable day would include the gorgeous drive down Highway 1 through the brand new tunnel, with a stop for a Pacific view at the Montara Lighthouse and a day of shopping, eating and sightseeing at lovely Half-Moon Bay. If you don't have that kind of time away from your conference, consider a quick drive to nearby Pacifica and whale-watching right off of Mori Point.
If you're in town near the Cow Palace and need a break - and don't want to get stuck in the traffic on the Golden Gate or Bay Bridge - skip the traffic and the tolls by checking out our list below.
During the summer months, locals flock to the area beaches, and Ocean Beach is one their top choices. This expansive shoreline extends from the Cliff House to Fort Funston along the glistening Pacific Ocean, making it a great spot to stroll, jog or surf. Anglers often fish the surf, and occasionally it's warm enough for sunbathing. The water is cold, though, and the rapid currents make it dangerous for swimming or even wading. If you're with children, this beach offers plenty of room for running and searching for sand dollars and shells. If you need even more hiking, Golden Gate Park ends right at Ocean Beach.
Mission Dolores Park is the heart of the Mission district and offers wonderful views of downtown. This is a true city park: often crowded, usually loud, and a great spot for people-watching. Street performers and food trucks often visit the park for a real "local" feel. a recent remodel has made the park even more kid-friendly, so it's a good option for those who might be traveling with small kids who needs some room to run. And after all that running, the uber-hip Mission District with its endless restaurants and bars is right at your feet. A full day at Mission Dolores Park can definitely be counted as a classic San Francisco day.
Perched right on the Pacific Ocean, The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a world-class facility that offers unforgettable experiences for the whole family. If you're coming from San Francisco, you'll enjoy a beautiful drive down the coast with plenty of picture opportunities or much-needed breaks on the drive. Be sure to give yourself a full day to enjoy everything this aquarium has to offer. Don't miss the Weedy Sea Dragons, ot of this world seahorses that you have to see with your won eyes to believe. Cannery Row, made famous by American legend John Steinbeck, is within walking distance, as well.
Spend a day preparing for the holidays and soaking up seasonal cheer in the streets of Victorian England. Actors dressed in period costume, authentic specialty stores, strolling musicians and other live entertainers make the Dickens Fair a holiday favorite year after year. Refreshments range from British standbys like fish and chips to fancier European fare, and local and imported beer is sold on site. To get the full benefit of the event, be prepared to spend a whole day at the fair. Sitting down and enjoying a few of the bawdy choruses will get you in a holiday mood in no time.
Nothing quite symbolizes San Francisco as much as her famous beer, Anchor Steam. Locals always anticipate the brewery's "holiday brew," which includes secret ingredients that change every year. And both tourists and locals have made the tour of the brewery incredibly popular. Even if you don't like beer, the tour offers a fascinating local history dating back to the Gold Mining days when the beer got its name for the steam that came off the open vats that cooled naturally in the mild climate. The tour is fantastic, but you have to sign up at least two months in advance. No e-mail sign ups, only by phone: 415-863-8350, ext 0, Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm Pacific time.
Ano Nuevo State Park is a coastal park just an hour's drive south of San Francisco. It offers similar activities and sights as most Bay Area parks: endless hiking up and down hills that offer dramatic views of the endless Pacific Ocean. What makes Ano Nuevo unique is its unique inhabitants: elephant seals, huge beasts that drag themselves on shore for mating and breeding rituals. Depending on when you visit, you could either witness brutish males fighting each other mating rites or females giving birth to their pups. The elephant seals are protected marine animals, so seeing these interesting creatures involves scheduling a docent-led tour ahead of time.
Half Moon Bay Brewing Company is always "hopping." People come from miles around not just for their excellent brews, but for their fantastic meals, as well. If you're looking for an excuse to get out of San Francisco -and want to avoid the traffic and tolls of the Golden Gate or Bay Bridge - a trip down to Half Moon Bay and dinner and drinks at the brewery is a great plan. There are plenty of options for building up a healthy appetite in the area, such as kayaking on the bay or long, window-shopping strolls down its quaint main street.
Perched on the edge of the Pacific, Fort Funston is a reminder of what most of San Francisco used to be: sand. World-renowned for its hang-gliding and locally-renowned for dog walking, Fort Funston offers spectacular views of the Pacific. If you want to get away from the dogs and hang gliders (and are up for a steep return climb), head down to the beach, an extension of Ocean Beach but less populated and quieter. If you're hungry or thirsty (or both) after a long hike, nearby Park Chalet and Cliff House are two restaurants that are extremely popular with tourists and locals alike.
Although Stinson Beach and Ocean Beach are the most popular beaches in the greater San Francisco Bay area, Sharp Beach Park at Mori Point is a hidden jewel. Just a twenty minutes from the city in the surfer community of Pacifica, Mori Point and Sharp Park offer the same ocean without the crowds. If you're in more of a SoCal mood, you can head straight to the ocean and follow the promenade north to Sharp Beach Park. The highlight is the Pacifica Pier, where you can buy fishing permits and catch your own Dungeness crab during crabbing season. Sharp Beach Park has picnic facilities and a cafe, plus occasional live music that gives the area that classic SoCal vibe.
Although the Marin and Sonoma coasts boast some wonderful Pacific views and a lighthouse or two, the hidden gem of Montara Lighthouse and Hostel is a a great stop not eh beautiful drive down Highway One. Visitors aren't allowed into the lighthouse itself, but picnic tables are right next to the lighthouse, which is perched on a dramatic cliff overlooking the Pacific. Even if you're not interested in staying overnight at a hostel, you can visit the lighthouse and enjoy an incredible view of the Pacific Ocean. The hostel staff is also a great source of information on sightseeing spots in the area.