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Top Five Places in Northern California

Northern California is truly my favorite place on earth ... no doubt about it! Growing up in San José, California was truly a gift. For over forty years the Garden City, later called Silicon Valley, provided me a central jump-off point to explore the beauty of Northern California. The regions combination of great weather and diverse culture can not be matched. Here is a short list of my favorite places.

A short two-minute stroll from downtown, a couple enjoys a Carmel, California Beach

  1. Downtown Carmel: Carmel has great beaches, and downtown - quaint architecture, an abundance of galleries and restaurants. That's what makes Carmel special. To top it off, the most beautiful California Mission is just a mile away.
  2. Lake Tahoe: Crystal clear lakes, hiking, cycling and fishing too. I would recommend taking a day or two hike in the Desolation Wilderness Area, starting off at Echo Lake. The lake and the hike are at the wondrous elevation of 10-thousand feet. The view is (literally) breathtaking.
  3. Santa Cruz/Capitola: I have spent many hours fishing off the Capitola and Santa Cruz Piers. Nothing could be better than relaxing in the warm sun, munching on some local calamari and being refreshed by the cool Pacific Ocean breezes. Next to the Capitola Pier is their quaint shopping area and a great beach. If you have time, spend a few hours in downtown Santa Cruz. Yiy will find plenty of shopping, hot tubs (The Well Within) and places for lunch or dinner. Santa Cruz of course has it's famous Boardwalk Amusement Park. Kids and some adults love it.
  4. The San Francisco Art Institute: A block and a half from that crooked Lombard Street, high on a hill overlooking the bay is the San Francisco Art Institute. As a student I enjoyed the vistas from atop the SFAI. A decade later I would bring my children to enjoy the views and have a picnic. The galleries show a contemporary mix of student and faculty work. On the roof there is a basketball court (at least time I looked) and an earthy restaurant. BBQs on lazy San Francisco afternoons are not uncommon.
  5. Highway 1: This two lane highway grips the California Coast and can only be described as glorious. My favorite sections are Highway 1 at Big Sur and San Mateo County. I fondly remember slow weekday afternoons reading the newspaper on a desolate beach while catching glances of whales passing by. It can get quite cool, so bring a sweater, jacket, etc.

My list of more than 150 things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area

I can easily list thousands of great things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area, but here is my SHORT LIST. The fun is always close by in the greater Bay Area. Feel free to email me if you have any questions or comments.

Updated December 3, 2012

Near the Captiola, California Pier

  1. To start you off, I would go to the University of California at Santa Cruz to see the beautiful campus and the spectacular redwoods.
  2. Visit the San José Institute of Contemporary Art.
  3. Enjoy the beautiful homes and breathtaking coastline while driving from Pacific Grove through Del Monte ending in Carmel.
  4. Visit the enourmous Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library on 4th and San Fernando Streets in San José. It is very close to town and on the edge of the San José State Univeersity campus. Check your email if time permits. Bring some quarters for parking.
  5. Go fishing off the Capitola Pier and enjoy the live jazz music on some weekends.
  6. Mill Valley is just across the Golden Gate Bridge and a world away from the fog and high-rise buildings of San Francisco. If I could live here (very expensive), I would be a very happy man. Check out the ubiquitous coffee shops, stores and even the library. Mill Valley is YUPPIE Nirvana.
  7. Visit the San José Rose Garden (Before San José evolved to become the heart of Silicon Valley it was called the Garden City).
  8. Enjoy a beautiful summer day with no humidity... anywhere in the Bay Area.
  9. Go to the Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk.
  10. See a special performance or contemporary art at Villa Montalvo in Monte Sereno.
  11. Inspect the studios of emerging artists during open studios in San José or San Francisco.
  12. Go to Carnaval in San Francisco (yes, there is nudity).
  13. Buy a Ferrari at Ferrari of Los Gatos.
  14. See the sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco.
  15. Have a slice of pizza at Frida's Pizza in San Francisco's Mission District.
  16. Drive scenic Highway 1 from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.
  17. Watch the Oakland Raiders play football at the Oakland Coliseum.
  18. Go to the world's largest flea market in San José.
  19. See Chicano Art at Galeria de La Raza in San Francisco.
  20. Take a Red and White boat tour of the San Francisco Bay.
  21. See lowriders, Banda dancers, and much more, at the enormous San José Cinco de Mayo.
  22. Walk on Valencia Street between 16th and 24th and see how cool people interact.
  23. Say hi to ex-Mayor's Ron Gonzales of San José, Willie Brown of San Francisco or Jerry Brown of Oakland. What are they up to this year?
  24. Take a cable car ride in San Francisco.
  25. Enjoy international food and listen to music all weekend long during Tapestry and Talent in downtown San José.
  26. Have a tasty hamburger or a crepe at the Crepevine in San Francisco's Sunset District. They have other locations too.
  27. Go bike riding or just enjoy the flowers at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
  28. Take in Japanese Culture at the San José Obon festival. Bring a fan and kimono and join the dance and procession.
  29. See a painting by Frida Kahlo at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
  30. Go horseback riding near Uvas Meadows in San José.
  31. Shop at Bloomingdale's near Stanford University.
  32. Go to the traditional Thanksgiving Big Bone Game between Lincoln and San José High.
  33. Have some of the best Vietnamese food in San Francisco at Tu Lan on (sleazy) 6th Street near Market. Park yourself next to the cooks (my favorite spot) and watch them perform and once in a while... fight.
  34. Tour the wine country and have some beer.
  35. See art or picnic at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. The Sony Center is nearby.
  36. Have some of the best pizza on earth at North Beach Pizza of San Francisco.
  37. Enjoy the San José Jazz Festival at Cesar Chavez Plaza.
  38. Shop in the Castro, Haight Ashbury, Mission, Noe Valley, Pacific Heights, Marina or any of the unique districts of San Francisco.
  39. Have a sandwich or coffee at Robert's of Woodside. Woodside is just off of Highway 280 on Woodside Road. This is an affluent 'burb nestled in the cool forest. Maybe Joan Baez or a retired athlete will say hi.
  40. Rent a houseboat on Shasta Lake. If you prefer a more natural and serene lake, I would recommend driving a few miles west to Whiskeytown Lake.
  41. When I was growing up in San José during the 50's and 60's... nightlife was nonexistent. Today, it is another story. I love going downtown to the many clubs for dancing, socializing and maybe a couple of drinks.
  42. See the Forty-niners play football in SF.
  43. Keep an eye out for whales near Davenport.
  44. Have an ice cream at Ben and Jerry's on the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco.
  45. Enjoy camping on a beach south of Carmel. Camping is available on beaches all the way to the Mexican border.
  46. Shop at San Francisco's Goodwill or Sak's Fifth Avenue stores.
  47. Fish, drink a soda and eat calamari at the Santa Cruz Pier.
  48. Shop and eat your way down University Avenue in Palo Alto near Stanford University. Yes, I almost ran over a jay-walking Steve Jobs there in the 90s.
  49. Be cool and eat at the Spork Restaurant in San Francisco on Valencia Street near 21st.
  50. Listen to music or dance in a club in San Francisco. Straight or Gay... this place is party central.
  51. Go to San Juan Bautista and visit the Mission and shop for antiques in a rural setting.
  52. Kick back (really kick back) and enjoy some coffee in Santa Cruz... one of my favorite spots is Cafe Pergolesi.
  53. Camp, hike, bike ride, fish or whatever you like in Lake Tahoe. (Several hours from the Bay Area)
  54. Have a BBQ at San José's Alum Rock Park. This is one of many parks to choose from in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  55. Have a doughnut at Rollo's on 13th Street in San José.
  56. Go fishing off the Pacifica Wharf.
  57. Dance to Salsa music in the Mission District of San Francisco.
  58. Visit the dramatic shoreline of Carmel.
  59. Have breakfast at the Pork Store in the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco.
  60. Shop and play in Capitola.
  61. Go to annual Greek festival in San José.
  62. Go to Nordstrom's in downtown San Francisco and get your shoes shined for $2.00.
  63. You can't go wrong having a picnic along the secluded San Mateo Coast. Just when you thought the Bay Area was too busy, you find solitude at San Gregorio Beach.
  64. Get a massage (and maybe more than you planned) in San Francisco.
  65. Go to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San José.
  66. See the sea otters and sea lions play at Cannery Row in Monterey.
  67. Go to MACLA in San José and see a Chicano art exhibit or performance.
  68. Visit the new Mexican-American Cultural Arts Center in San José and see a Chicano performance or art exhibit.
  69. Take a charter boat-fishing trip out of Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Monterey, Half Moon Bay or Berkeley.
  70. Shop or eat in San Francisco's Chinatown.
  71. Visit the Green Gulch Zen Center near Mill Valley. Walk from there to the gardens to the beach where Alan Watts lived.
  72. Have a Taco at Taco Bell (on the beach) in Pacifica.
  73. Have lunch in downtown Mendocino. Watch out for the brownies!
  74. Have coffee at Mr. Toot's (by the beach) in Capitola.
  75. Go to the world famous Watsonville Fly In. See vintage planes and the old guys and gals who love them.
  76. See the giant redwoods and camp at Big Basin State Park.
  77. Grab a cup of coffee at Java Beach and stroll the beach in San Francisco.
  78. Visit upscale galleries in downtown Carmel or San Francisco.
  79. Have a steak at Original Joes in downtown San José.
  80. See a Stanford or California football game.
  81. Take photos in secluded Bodega Bay.
  82. While in San Francisco, get to the corner of Cole and Carl by taking the "N" Judah trolley from downtown. From there it is only a short walk North to the Haight Ashbury District near Golden Gate Park.
  83. Watch the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco.
  84. Go to the Stanford University Chapel for a performance of classical music.
  85. Visit California's most beautiful Mission in Carmel.
  86. Go to the DeSassait Photography Gallery at Santa Clara University.
  87. On Holohan and East Lake Avenue in Watsonville is the best produce stand in the USA. Yes, they have chips and soda too.
  88. Take a dip and enjoy a massage at one of the many hot tubs in Santa Cruz. My favorite spot is the Well Within.
  89. Have Sunday brunch in downtown Carmel.
  90. Pick a quiet spot in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and have a picnic or toss the Frisbee.
  91. Buy a book at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco's North Beach.
  92. Take time for a leisurely coffee or lunch in Santa Cruz's Pacific Garden Mall.
  93. Enjoy a performance or an exhibition at the Mission Cultural Arts Center in San Francisco.
  94. Watch the Giants play baseball at the new Pac Bell Park in San Francisco.
  95. Listen to Los Lobos or other performers at Santa Cruz's Catalyst.
  96. Hike in the hills near Alum Rock Park in San José. Watch out for snakes.
  97. Ride your bike up Mount Hamilton Road in San José
  98. Buy a pumpkin for Halloween in Half Moon Bay. This is a great location to find the perfect orange globe.
  99. Go to the Century theaters and see a movie in San José.
  100. See motorcycle or auto races at Laguna Seca.
  101. Picnic and even play basketball at the San Francisco Art Institute. You will enjoy a great view of Fisherman's Wharf from the roof top basketball court and cafe. Crooked Lombard Street is but a couple blocks away.
  102. Inspect the archives at the Chicano Center at San José State.
  103. Go to downtown Los Gatos (Los Altos, Palo Alto, Burlingame, Sausalito, etc.) and observe YUPPIES down $7 cappuccinos.
  104. Watch out for firecrackers at San Francisco's Chinese New Years Parade.
  105. Ride your bike in affluent Woodside, Atherton, or Hillsborough.
  106. Hike in the magnificent Muir Woods.
  107. Just look in the newspaper... your bound to find a festival, performance or exhibit that is just right for you in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area.
  108. Go to a performance or exhibit at MACLA in downtown San José.
  109. Have a picnic at Stinson Beach. What a great place to visit an even better place to live.
  110. See the fish at San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium.
  111. Visit the KPFA (lefty) studios in Berkeley.
  112. Stroll along a secluded beach in Bolinas.
  113. Have lunch in the quaint Saratoga Village near Big Basin Way or Congress Springs Road.
  114. Go water or snow skiing (gambling too) in Lake Tahoe. (Several hours away)
  115. Hang out with the tourists at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39.
  116. See the Cleveland and San José Ballet perform. Take in a symphony, opera or ballet in San Francisco, San José or Oakland.
  117. Have fun at the annual Italian Carnaval at San José's Holy Cross Church.
  118. Go shopping in downtown San Francisco. There are too many shops to list. Buy everything from fly-fishing gear to high-end fashions. 
  119. Explore the San José Museum of Art.
  120. Enjoy the Santa Clara County Fair in San José.
  121. Go to the Castro Theater in San Francisco and see a movie and an organ performance (Wurlitzer) during intermission.
  122. See the San José Sharks (NHL).
  123. Get some start up money on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park.
  124. You can always buy a camera at Keeble and Shuchat in Palo Alto.
  125. Have some Japanese food in San José's Japantown.
  126. Attend a performance at Zellerbach Hall at the University of California in Berkeley
  127. Go boating in the San Francisco Bay.
  128. Go water skiing in the San Joaquin Delta. An hour East of the Bay Area.
  129. Have some corn on the cob or sushi at the San José Nihonmachi festival in Japan Town in San José.
  130. Go sailing on the San Francisco Bay.
  131. Stop by the tranquil Hakone Japanese Gardens near Saratoga.
  132. Drive to the top of Mount Hamilton and see the Lick Observatory in San José.
  133. See Teatro Campesino perform La Posada in San Juan Bautista.
  134. Take CalTrain from San José to San Francisco and back.
  135. Drop someone off at Alcatraz Island.
  136. See the giant redwoods in Big Basin Park near San José.
  137. Hang out at one of the many Silicon Valley watering holes in San Mateo to San José.
  138. Go to Japan town in San Francisco.
  139. Enjoy a California or Stanford basketball game.
  140. Take an extension class at one of the many colleges in the Bay Area.
  141. Go dancing at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco.
  142. Enjoy a sunset at any beach.
  143. Go water skiing at Calero reservoir or at other great area reservoirs or lakes.
  144. Visit Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.
  145. Jog at the San José State University track. The same track where Olympians’ John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Lee Evans worked out.
  146. Driving along beautiful Highway 9 between San José and Santa Cruz is a great experience. See beautiful mountains, homes, redwoods and much more.
  147. Shop at Santana Row Shopping Center in San José for expensive gifts.
  148. Enjoy the children and pets playng at Noe Children's Playgound, courts and dog park. It is very near the shopping district of Noe Valley near 24th and Douglass Street. One of my best friends lives nearby and I always enjoy the walk from there downhill on 24th to Church Street.
  149. The Kings Mountain Art Fair takes place on Labor Day Weekend in a redwood forest setting near the Kings Mountain Fire House and Community Center (13889 Skyline Blvd.) in the hills above Woodside.  The event still has some of that great, original San Francisco hippy feel.
  150. My favorite thing to do... relax and enjoy the cool ocean breeze at any beach during the summer. If you go to any of the small beaches between Santa Cruz and San Francisco during a weekday, you will probably have it all to yourself. Bring along some food, drink and of course a sweater. Have fun!

Please feel free to contact me should you have any questions or suggestions. EMail


Jesús Manuel Mena Garza in Tucson, Arizona?

What would I do if I were a tourist in San Francisco?

Since I moved away in 1999, that has alwaysbeen a tempting proposition. First, I would park my car in the garage below Union Square Park in downtown. Put on your best walking shoes, then I would spend the day going to Union Square, Chinatown and North Beach. The walk from the parking area to the furthest point is only three miles. San Francisco is a small walking-friendly town. Remember, always wear good walking shoes and fleece to keep warm during the summer, a jacket the rest of the year. Always dress in layers in cool San Francisco.

Take a one or two day tour of San Francisco

  • Start at Union Square Park... above the parking lot.
  • Check out some of the best great shopping in the universe near Union Square.
  • Visit the art galleries at 49 Geary Street near Market.
  • You can cross Market Street and walk a few blocks to SFMOMA, galleries and museums.
  • Walk North (not very far... believe me) down Grant Avenue through downtown than Chinatown.
  • Go a bit further and go down Columbus Avenue Northwest and visit North Beach.
  • Take the bus from Washington Square to Chestnut Street or walk the 5-7 blocks.
  • Go two blocks down Chestnut to the San Francisco Art Institute. Check out the main gallery to the left and see. the Diego Rivera mural.  Go upstairs and enjoy a fabulous view and if open, have a snack at the restaurant.
  • Go a block and a half to Leavenworth and Lombard. Walk the crooked street.
  • Go North down Leavenworth than Columbus to Ghirardelli Square and the beach.
  • Take the bus or trolley back to Union Square if you are tired. I would be be.

Suggestions from Tamy Ojala 01/2012

Pt. Reyes Station- Visit this little seaside cove town of mom and pop shops, great bookstores, art galleries, and wonderful little organic restaurants and bakeries. Then take a 20 minute drive to see the lighthouse and beautiful coastal drive. Don't forget to take a tour of Cowgirl Creamery and stop in their shop at the cheese artisan. There is a great Parisian herbalist who owns a little shop called Garden of Eden who can make a remedy for any ailment you may have. Stop in Bolinas on the way back and go to the large "free bookstore" exchange a book or pay a nominal fee, there are no attendants, an honor system bookstore.  Have a snack at the Bolinas Cafe, get the best French onion soup West of NYC and have a glass of local wine, watch the locals. Or if up for dinner, get fish, it is locally caught, right of the Bolinas Bay.

A day at the beautiful scenic Headland, across the GG Bridge, go through the one-way tunnel, take in the scenery, take a visit to the Headlands Center for the Arts and peruse the gallery, go up and visit the lighthouse, then take a ride down to the beach and have a picnic, stop at the Marin Mammal Center on the back and visit a sea-lion or porpoise. Stop in quaint and picturesque downtown Sausalito and get an ice cream at Lapphert's old-fashioned ice cream shop and stroll around the famous little seaside town and peruse it's many art galleries and shops, perhaps get dinner at Avatar's, the most tasty infusion of interesting ever Indian-Mexican Cuisine, the owner will come out and great you and create a special dish.  

SF- Take a stroll up to the top of Nob Hill's San Francisco Art Institute, have lunch in the SFAI organic cafe, have the best view of the SF Bay from the rooftop, Alcatraz, Coit Tower, Fisherman's Wharf, Nob Hill, North Beach... all gloriously in front of you. Don't forget to check out the amazing Diego Rivera Mural or see the vicinity where he and  Frida Kahlo stayed in the back area, check out the galleries, visit the photo department that Ansel Adams founded.  Perhaps a lecture from a famous artist will be going on at the time of your visit! Walk over and join the tourists at Lombard Street, a minute away. You might get a glance of the famous beat and owner of City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferighetti who often takes strolls here!

SF- Get the area's best seafood at the Pacific Cafe on Geary Street, although, maybe I shouldn't be posting this, as it used to be a best kept secret of locals! Be sure and try the "sand dabs" and seasonal abalone, get the yummy on-the-house shrimp-louie salad and fresh baked sourdough bread. It is small and they don't take reservations, so be prepared to wait, we have had to wait for up to 2 hours in recent years, however, they give you free wine while you are waiting, if you have good conversation with you, it is worth the wait! Afterwards, take a short drive or even walk to the breathtaking historical site where the Sutro Baths used to be. Walk around the ruins, stroll into the tunnel-cave that juts out to the ocean, feel as if you are underwater, listen to the sounds of the pounding surf, and look through the crevices and holes at the glorious ocean.

Toy Boat Cafe on Clement St. SF- Serving up countless confections (think frozen bananas, affogato, ice cream sandwiches, heaped waffle cones and slices of old-fashioned cakes and pies) and some gourmet sandwiches, this colorful retro cafe is an eyeful and a mouthful. An old-fashioned coin-operated mechanical horse usually topped with over-sugared children is a focal point amid the tables and shelves of cartoon action figures. While you're waiting for your double-scoop Double Rainbow ice cream, peruse the whimsical selection of vintage toys--nothing better than a stick-on mustache to complement your mint chip sundae. I have spotted Robin William's here more than once; it is one of his local favs.  

Visit Oakland's 3 Grand Art Deco Theatres, the Fox, the Paramount, and end up the Grand Lake Theatre.! A tip to the grand past. The architecture at all theatres are lavish and the owner of the Grand Lake always puts an intelligent,  usually left leaning, political message on the marquee. There is a great coffee shop/ bakery called "Day of the Dead" filled with Dios los Muertos relics right next door to the Grand Lake and a neat bookstore.  

The Oakland Museum-a wonderful museum of art and the best example of California's history in California.  Great for kids. They also have first Friday events with music and food.  Frankly, I was shocked, but I would say the content is better than most of the museums in SF, under one roof.  Best example of California's artists.  

The lovely Island town of Alameda- Where the speed limit in this old-fashioned town is 25 MPH! Stroll Mayberry town's Park Street of eclectic Mom and Pop specialty stores, the only old-fashioned newspaper stand left in the West, outdoor ice rink,  bookstores, art deco film theatre, and eclectic restaurants, coined as the new gourmet ghetto, and don't forget the best and largest antique fair in the West outside of Pasadena every first Sunday. Also, the Gold Coast has some of the best examples of architecture in the Bay Area, an architectural students dream, from all in one stroll, there are always historical walks going on.  See the USS Hornet, amazing volunteer run. You can even sleep on board this haunted ship that once housed 20,000 men!  

Alameda- Stonehenge Storybook Community- Architectural community right out of Grimm’s fairy tales! With its backdrop of quaint cottages and lush landscaping, the rustic stone arch of Stonehenge invites us to enter another world. Glimpses of half-timbered houses clustered around shared gardens bring to mind medieval hamlets and village greens, as imagined by an illustrator of a 1920s book of fairy tales. The scaled-down, picturesque composition of the houses imparts an air of unreality, not unlike a stage set. The residences employ faux half-timbering, steeply pitched roofs, round turrets, and tall chimneys to produce the medieval effect. Rough-hewn stonework and hammered metalwork (latches, handles, hinges, and sconces) are designed to appear hand-made. Integral landscaping, including winding paths, benches, and fountains, unify these richly textured parts into an enchanting whole, very interesting architecture. 

Tilden Park in the Berkeley Hills-All in the beautiful Berkeley Hills, feels far away from Berkeley campus, downtown. Take a ride on a restored Victorian merry-go-round and have an ice-cream cone with a handmade cone, take a 3 minute drive down the lane and visit the cows, goats,  pigs, sheep, chickens, and ducks at the Little Farm, take a ride through the redwoods in a small gage-train and see the model train sets. Visit the Botanical Gardens. Have a picnic at the lake.  Scotts Valley-Roaring Camp--brings you back to California's Gold Days. Makes you feel like you are on the set of "Little House on the Prairie'. Ride an antique train to Santa Cruz through the majestic redwoods. Feels like you are on a movie set, bring a picnic lunch. Walk over to Henry Cowell State Park and see the majestic redwoods. There is a tree that has been rumored that Teddy Roosevelt slept in when the area was a "tree house resort", you can walk in it now, and it housed a bed, table, and a woodstove inside a redwood tree.   

Niles, CA Silent Movie Theatre-See silent films every weekend in this theatre that used to be Charlie Chaplin's first studio accompanied by live music. Old-fashioned popcorn, candy, and drinks. Come early and stroll in the quaint town with a plethora of antique stores, a lovely train museum where you can board a train and take a trip through "Little Yosemite"....the valley of Sunol. Where Chaplin made his first films! 

Thanks Tamy for your excellent suggestions.

Please feel free to send me your suggestions. Call 682.365.8702 or send email. Thanks.

Copyright 2014 Jesús Manuel Mena Garza. All rights reserved.

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