Anyone who’s spent time in the Bay Area knows that there are endless hidden gems and small towns to explore near San Francisco. From lovely ocean views along the coast to quaint villages off the beaten path, even lifelong locals enjoy discovering new breathtaking viewpoints or shopping streets. Here we’ve rounded up some of our favorite small towns and cities around the Bay Area, but be sure to see our lists of coastal getaways and day trips for even more inspiration.
Pacifica is a great escape just south of San Francisco with unbeatable ocean views, interesting and well-preserved historical sites, and fantastic restaurants. If it’s the views and raw coastline you’re after, make sure to spend some time at Pacifica State Beach, Mori Point, Devil’s Slide, or Pedro Point Headlands. You can also spend some time at Sanchez Adobe, a living history site built with wreckage from a Spanish ship; or chow down on a grilled crab sandwich at Nick’s Restaurant.
2. Bodega Bay
Bodega Bay is known for being the filming location of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. Whether or not you’re a film buff, this gorgeous small town is a peaceful place to explore with some quintessentially NorCal vibes. 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. This area is also great for whale watching, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, and horseback riding.
This small city in Napa Valley is perhaps most famous for the breathtaking Castello di Amorosa winery. It’s styled to emulate a Tuscan castle from the 13th century with 5 defensive towers, 107 rooms, handmade antique bricks from Europe, hand-painted frescoes, and more. The city is also known for its hot springs and mud baths which make for a unique addition to any wine country visit — some popular spots include Calistoga Spa, Solage, and Indian Springs.
This small tree-lined stretch of College Avenue in Oakland is a quirky and fun way to spend an afternoon. Go shopping down the main street filled with indie bookstores, gourmet cafes, home goods outlets, vintage shops, and excellent restaurants. Some popular places to eat are Ramen Shop and A16, but you should definitely stop by Market Hall for a great selection of gourmet food stalls. When you’re done shopping and/or eating, consider taking a peek into the Claremont neighborhood up the road to see some absolutely beautiful homes and the famous Claremont Hotel.
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. Some of our favorite spots are Zelda’s Restaurant, Mr. Toots Coffeehouse, and the Shadowbrook.
6. Mill Valley
Mill Valley is good place to spend the weekend as it’s well-located for hiking and sightseeing, but also has plenty of stuff to check out downtown. Grab a bite or window shop at Mill Valley Lumber Yard, which has a nice collection of small shops and restaurants including the popular Flour Craft Bakery. It’s also worth stopping by the lovely Mill Valley Public Library which feels like a treehouse tucked away in the redwoods, or going for a hike on the Dipsea Trail, Bay Trail, or Camino Alto Preserve.
This small city on the water is a nice North Bay escape with cute historic buildings and museums that take you back in time. You can take a historic walking tour through Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, which is the state’s only surviving pre-Sacramento capitol; the Fischer-Hanlon House, which was once a gold rush-era hotel; and the Clock Tower Fortress, which was designed as a US military arsenal in 1859. The city also has a thriving art scene with some lovely galleries and public art, expansive parks and nature areas for a nice bike ride or walk, and a thriving waterfront for sightseeing and scenic picnics.
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.
Guerneville is a rustic small town in Sonoma County traversed by the Russian River, which is great for canoeing or kayaking. You can settle in for a riverside afternoon at Johnson’s Beach, a summer haunt for both locals and tourists; or explore the 805-acre Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve where you’ll find nice hiking trails and a zipline. The town’s location in Sonoma County also makes for some solid wine tasting options to round out your visit.
10. Half Moon Bay
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.