There’s nothing quite like visiting a quaint coastal village for a temporary reprieve from our day-to-day hassle. The Bay Area is dotted with numerous peaceful waterfront escapes as close as a ferry ride away. Here are our picks for some must-see coastal towns near San Francisco, from the picturesque filming location for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds to a nearby city resembling Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Read on to get inspired and make sure you scroll to the bottom for a handy map.
Bolinas is an eclectic little town on the western edge of Marin County with a thriving art scene, historic buildings, and unbeatable panoramic ocean views. If it’s the outdoors you seek, Bolinas Beach is a popular spot for beginner and intermediate surfers, or you can hike out to nearby Alamere Falls to see the rare phenomenon of a waterfall flowing directly onto the beach. Grab a meal at Coast Cafe, which has exellent fresh seafood, or Smiley’s Schooner Saloon, which claims to be the oldest continually operating saloon on the West Coast.
One of California’s most iconic hidden gems is the tiny beach town of Capitola in Santa Cruz County. It’s best known for Capitola Village, a quaint neighborhood of multicolored homes, hole-in-the-wall shops and fun restaurants right on the water. But you can’t go wrong with a stroll slightly out-of-bounds at Pleasure Point to watch the surfers or some window shopping on 41st Avenue.
The small beach city of Carmel-by-the-Sea is known for its collection of quaint fairy tale cottages, recognizable for their steep gabled roofs, faux beams, multi-pane windows, and lopsided chimneys. The village still operates on an old coordinate system, meaning that homes do not have street addresses, but GPS My City has a map available for a self-guided walking tour. You can also have lunch or English tea at Tuck Box or see what’s playing at the magical outdoor Forest Theater.
4. Bodega Bay
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, is the famous director’s first horror film and perhaps one of the most industry-defining films in history. It was filmed just up the coast in the towns of Bodega and Bodega Bay in Sonoma County, making it just an hour-and-a-half drive from San Francisco. An essential stop is Tides Wharf and Restaurant, which proudly preserves the film’s legacy with a small replica of the building’s original façade and a gift shop.
The tiny historic town of Pescadero is home to many buildings dating back to the 19th century. Be sure to make a stop at Duarte’s Tavern, a popular watering hole built in 1894 serving delicious fresh-caught seafood and mouthwatering olallieberry pie. You’ll also want to take a peek at Pescadero Community Church, which was built in 1867 and is the oldest-surviving Protestant church building on the SF Peninsula. The nearby Pigeon Point Lighthouse celebrated on its 150th anniversary last year, and the beach surrounding it is great for tide pooling.
The breathtaking city of Sausalito recalls Italy’s Amalfi Coast with its hillside of colorful houses seemingly stacked on top of each other. The city is famous for its lovely community of floating houseboats on the waterfront. Some great places to eat near the ferry terminal include Bar Bocce, which has a private beach and waterfront bocce courts, and The Trident, where plenty of rockstars have partied including Janis Joplin and Fleetwood Mac. If you’re an animal lover, consider taking a guided tour at the Marine Mammal Center, which is the world’s largest marine mammal hospital.
The coastal city of Half Moon Bay is about 25 miles south of San Francisco. The area is famous for Mavericks, a big-wave surf spot off the coast of nearby Pillar Point (check it out from the Coastside Trail). Half Moon Bay’s isolated location on Highway 1 makes for a relatively unchanged landscape, with farms dating back to the 1800s and long stretches of raw coastline to explore. You can find plenty of shopping and dining options in Downtown Half Moon Bay, and the city has a useful map outlining all the points of interest.
The peaceful town of Tiburon is located across from Angel Island, and it’s fun to visit via a bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge or a $15 round trip via ferry. You’ll want to stop for pictures and sightseeing at the gorgeous Shoreline Park along the waterfront, as well as Lyford’s Tower, a Victorian-era stone tower meant to guard a utopian village that never came to be. Locals and tourists both swear by Sam’s Anchor Cafe for a delicious meal accompanied by panoramic bay views.
Pacifica has endless things to do whether you’re interested in shopping, restaurants, history, or sightseeing. It’s home to a collection of well-preserved historical sites including Sam’s Castle, which had a reputation as a brothel and speakeasy, among other things; and Sanchez Adobe, a living history site built with wreckage from a Spanish ship. Some popular haunts also include Nick’s Restaurant, where you can get a mean grilled crab sandwich before downing a pint at Humble Sea Brewing Co.. Finally, get your nature time in at the nearby Devil’s Slide Trail, an abandoned highway-turned-hiking trail; or catch a sunset at Mori Point.
You might recognize Davenport’s Shark Fin Cove, whose iconic fin-shaped rock makes for a one-of-a-kind landmark on Highway 1. Neighboring Davenport Beach is popular place to hunt for sea glass because of its proximity to Lundberg Studios, whose discarded blown-glass trimmings were knocked into the sea during a storm many decades ago. As a result, thousands of pieces of colorful glass have tumbled in the waves for centuries, and you can catch professional beachcombers seeking the highly-coveted sea glass in full wetsuits. You’ll also want to look for the Davenport Jail, a one-room jailhouse from 1914; the abandoned Davenport Pier, which is a photographer’s dream; and the Whale City Bakery, a lauded NorCal institution with mouthwatering pastries.