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31 Fun, Cool, and Unique Things to Do in Northern California

Jill on a windy day at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Updated: August 21, 2022

There are so many amazing things to do in Northern California. It can be hard to know where to start. From the wine country of Napa and Sonoma Valleys to the awe-inspiring Redwood National Park, this region is packed with natural beauty and exciting attractions.

Add in some world-class cities like San Francisco and Sacramento, and you've got a vacation destination that can't be beaten. 

I highly recommend stops at famous attractions such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite National Park, and Alcatraz Island.

On Your Northern California Road trip make sure to also explore Reyes National Seashore, drive along the California coast, and check out some of our towering Coastal Redwood trees.

Here are 31 of my favorite places to visit in Northern California.

Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.

1. San Francisco

The south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge in Northern California.

San Francisco is a city with many cool things to do. From the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to world-renowned museums, there is something for everyone in the City by the Bay. If you are looking for some ideas of what to do during your stay in San Francisco, be sure to check out the following attractions:

Golden Gate Bridge: No visit to here is complete without taking a walk or bike ride across this world-famous bridge. Be sure to take in the stunning views of the bay and cityscape from the pedestrian walkways on the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge. From there, you can see Alcatraz Island, downtown San Francisco, and Sausalito. More details to visit the Golden Gate Bridge.

Alcatraz Island: This former prison is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Northern California. Take a tour of the prison and learn about its fascinating history. More about visiting Alcatraz Island.

Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39: While you are visiting San Francisco, you'll also want to spend some time in the Fisherman's Wharf district. This is where you will find several fun activities from shopping to checking out the sea lions to taking a cruise on the San Francisco Bay. More about visiting Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39.

Golden Gate Park: Spanning more than 1,000 acres, Golden Gate Park is packed with attractions for visitors of all ages. Highlights include the Conservatory of Flowers, the de Young Fine Arts Museum, the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, and Stow Lake. More about visiting Golden Gate Park.

Twin Peaks: Head up to one of the tallest points and soak in the views all around the San Francisco Bay Area. Twin Peaks sits high above San Francisco and offers unobstructed views of Alcatraz Island, downtown SF, and beyond. Some people head up here for the sunset and others for the sunrise. Anytime you visit, it's an amazing place for some great views. More about visiting Twin Peaks.

SF Museums: San Francisco is home to some of the best museums in the country. The Museum of Modern Art is a must-see for any art lover. The California Academy of Sciences is perfect for those interested in natural history, checking out their planetarium, or visiting their aquarium.

For a truly unique experience, check out the Walt Disney Family Museum. This museum chronicles the life and work of one of the most important figures in animation history. You can also visit one of our living museums including the San Francisco Botanical Garden or the Conservatory of Flowers. More about visiting SF's top museums.

>> Find a full list of fun things to do in San Francisco

Top Activities in SF

2. Sausalito

During your visit to San Francisco make sure to head north across the bay to the waterfront town of Sausalito. 

You will find many fun things to do in Sausalito, from enjoying the scenery to visiting the various shops and restaurants. One of the best ways to see Sausalito is by taking a ferry ride from San Francisco.

This 30-minute cruise across the SF Bay will give you a chance to take in the stunning views of the bay area. 

If you're looking for something a little more relaxed, there are plenty of options for that as well.

You can visit one of the many museums or art galleries, or simply enjoy a cup of coffee at one of the local cafes.

I love enjoying some seafood at one of it's highly rated waterfront restaurants.

Sausalito is a great day trip from SF.

>> More fun things to do in Sausalito

3. Yosemite National Park

There are many incredible things to see and do in Northern California and Yosemite National Park is a must-see national park. It's a nature lover's paradise known for its massive granite cliffs, waterfalls, and sequoia trees.

If you love to hike,  you will find dozens of scenic hiking trails to explore, ranging from easy walks to challenging multi-day backpacking trips.

In addition, there are opportunities for rock climbing, horseback riding, and even river rafting. And of course, no visit to Yosemite National Park would be complete without taking in the stunning views from Glacier Point or Half Dome.

Whether you're looking for an outdoor adventure or simply want to experience some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, a trip to Yosemite National Park is sure to please. It’s also one of the best things to do in Northern CA with family.

Trips to Yosemite National Park from SF

4. Muir Woods

Muir Woods is one of the best things to do in Northern California. Located less than an hour north of San Francisco, Muir Woods National Monument is a protected area of old-growth Coastal redwood trees.

In the park, you'll find dozens of redwoods trees that tower above the trails. Some of these historical beauties are more than 600 to 800 years old!

Visitors can enjoy hiking, picnicking, and birdwatching in the park. Muir Woods also has a visitor center that offers educational programs about the redwood ecosystem and a small café.

It's an ideal place to appreciate the beauty and majesty of these giant trees.

>> More about visiting Muir Woods

>> Find additional redwoods near San Francisco

Best Tours to Muir Woods from SF

5. Napa Valley

Northern California's Napa Valley is one of the premier wine regions. In addition to visiting the wineries and tasting their amazing wines, you will dozens of other fun activities. 

If you want to learn more about the region's history, check out one of the Napa museums or galleries. You can also explore historic downtown Napa, take a scenic drive along the Silverado Trail, or hike through one of the many picturesque parks. The hot springs in this area are another popular activity.

And, of course, no trip to Napa Valley would be complete without sampling some of the local wines. You’ll find almost 400 wineries throughout the region serving up everything from Cabernet Sauvignon to Chardonnay.

In addition to the town of Napa, many people like to visit other small communities in the region, including Calistoga, St. Helena, and Yountville. Each one is small but offers terrific restaurants, shopping, and other fun things to do.

With so much to see and do, it's no wonder that Napa Valley is one of the most popular tourist destinations in California.

>> More about visiting Napa

>> Top wineries to visit in Napa

Top Tours to Napa Valley

6. Sonoma County

Sonoma grapes ripen on the vine.

Sonoma County is another fantastic place to sample wines and soaking in the beauty of the outdoors.

There are numerous hikes and trails to explore, ranging from leisurely strolls to more challenging treks. You can also go cycling or horseback riding through the stunning scenery.

If you're a fan of wine, you'll have the chance to visit some of its 400 wineries. Or, if you prefer beer, several craft breweries are located in the area as well.

For those who enjoy shopping, there are several small towns and villages that offer charming boutique stores. And if you're looking for some relaxation, make sure to add Sonoma County to your list of fun things to do in Northern California.

>> Top wineries in Sonoma

7. Monterey

Monterey is a beautiful city located on the central coast of California. It is known for its stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, rich history, and abundance of outdoor activities.

Visitors to Monterey can enjoy various activities, including golfing, hiking, biking, and fishing.

The city also offers a variety of cultural attractions, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf.

In addition, visitors can enjoy the city's vibrant nightlife, including a variety of restaurants, bars, and clubs.

>> Best things to do in Monterey

8. Santa Cruz

About 45-minutes north of Monterey is the small coastal town of Santa Cruz. This beautiful community is known for its sandy beaches, redwood forests, and mild climate. There is something for everyone in Santa Cruz, whether you want to relax on the beach, go hiking in the woods, or enjoy the lively downtown scene.

Some of the best things to do in Santa Cruz include visiting the world-famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, exploring the scenic cliffs of Natural Bridges State Park, and kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding in Monterey Bay.

Of course, no trip to Santa Cruz would be complete without indulging in some of the local food and wine. The town is home to numerous excellent restaurants and wineries, so leave time for some culinary exploration.

9. Sacramento

Sacramento, the capital of California, is located in the northern part of the state and is a popular tourist destination. The city is home to many iconic landmarks, including the State Capitol building, the Old Sacramento Historic District, and the Tower Bridge.

You can also enjoy various activities, such as touring the California State Railroad Museum, taking a riverboat cruise on the Sacramento River, or hiking through one of the city's many parks.

With so much to see and do, it's no wonder that Sacramento is one of the best places to visit in Northern California.

10. Bodega Bay

Bodega Bay is a waterside town in Sonoma County, California, known for its steep cliffs, sandy beaches, and rocky shores. You will find lot of fun activities in Bodega Bay, including fishing, whale watching, bird watching, and kayaking.

There are also several art galleries and shops in town. Don't miss your chance to save some fresh fish here at one of its popular  restaurants.

If you are looking for a more active vacation, you will find plenty of hiking and biking trails.

And, of course, no trip to Bodega Bay would be complete without taking a drive out to see the famed Bodega Headland and its dramatic coastal views.

11. Pebble Beach and 17-Mile Drive

Golf Course in Pebble Beach along 17-Mile Drive

Pebble Beach and 17-Mile Drive are two of the most popular attractions in Northern California.

Pebble Beach is home to a world-famous golf course, beautiful beaches, and hiking trails.

17-Mile Drive is a scenic route in Pebble Beach that takes visitors past some of the area's most stunning scenery, including the famed Lone Cypress tree.

Both Pebble Beach and 17-Mile Drive are must-see attractions during your visit to Northern California.

>> More about visiting Pebble Beach and the 17-Mile Drive

12. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a beautiful coastal town in Northern California. It is known for its quaint shops, art galleries, and restaurants.

There are also many other cool things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea such as checking out its museums and the Carmel Mission Basilica. 

You can also head to the beach, do a little hiking, improve your golf game, and so much more! 

Carmel-by-the-Sea is also a great place to stay. There are many quaint hotels and inns to choose from.

>> Additional things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea

13. Big Sur

Big Sur is one of California's most beautiful and popular tourist destinations. Located along the coast on Highway 1, Big Sur offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and a variety of activities for visitors to enjoy.

Most people visit to photograph the views from two of its gorgeous bridges. The first is the Rocky Creek Bridge and the second (and quite a bit more famous) is the Bixby Creek Bridge.

Hiking, camping, fishing, and kayaking are just a few outdoor activities that you can also enjoy in Big Sur.

The area is sparsely populated with only a few hotels and other services so make sure you plan before you begin your journey into this fantastic spot in Northern California.

14. The Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1)

Highway 1 is one of the most scenic routes in California, and there are plenty of great things to do along the way.

One of the best ways to experience the Pacific Coast Highway is to drive from San Francisco to Monterey. This route will take you through some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the state, and you'll have the chance to stop at popular tourist destinations like Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz.

As you head south of Monterey, you can explore Point Lobos State Marine Reserve (one of the most beautiful California State Parks), check out Big Sur, and even tour Hearst Castle.

No matter how you choose to experience it, Highway 1 will provide you with an unforgettable experience.

15. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen National Forest is a great place to enjoy the outdoors and get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. One of the highlights of a trip here is a visit to one of its hydrothermal areas. Some of my top picks here include Pilot Pinnacle (steaming vents, boiling pools, and mud pots), Sulphur Works (easy to access with mud pots and stem vents), and Cold Boiling Lake (a lake with cold boiling bubbles).

Other fun things things to do in Lassen National Park include hiking (more than 150 miles of trails!), camping, fishing, picnicking, and exploring the many scenic vistas.

There are also several ranger-led programs offered throughout the year, so check the schedule before you visit.

Whether you're looking for a leisurely hike or an adventurous backpacking trip, Lassen National Forest is sure to have something for you.

16. Redwoods National and State Parks

Redwoods National and State Parks Coastal Redwoods

Northern California is home to some of the tallest trees in the world. Redwoods National and State Parks are a must-see for any nature lover.

The parks are home to towering Coastal Redwoods and a variety of other plant and animal life.

Visitors can explore by foot, bike, or car, and there are plenty of opportunities for camping, picnicking, and birdwatching.

In addition to the redwoods, the parks also feature prairies, beaches, and old-growth forests.

Whether you're looking for a short day hike or a more extended backpacking trip, Redwoods National and State Parks is a great place to explore on your Northern California adventure.

17. Mount Shasta

Northern California is home to some of the most beautiful scenery. From the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the redwood forests of the coast, there is no shortage of natural wonders to explore.

Mount Shasta is one of the crown jewels of this region. Standing at over 14,179 feet (4,321.8 meters), it is one of the tallest mountains in the state and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside and the distant Pacific Ocean.

Hiking to the summit is a popular activity, but numerous trails wind through the forests and meadows at lower elevations.

No matter how you choose to experience it, Mount Shasta will leave a lasting impression.

The small city at its base, also named Mount Shasta, offers a great jumping-off point for all activities on or around the mountain. It provides a handful of places to stay and some great places to eat.

18. Eureka and Humboldt County

Humboldt County is a great place to visit for those who enjoy the outdoors. The county is home to six state parks, which offer a variety of activities such as hiking, biking, fishing, and camping.

Redwood National and State Parks (mentioned above) are particularly popular, as they are home to the tallest tree species in the world.

Other great parks here include Humboldt Redwoods State Park, King Range National Conservation Area, and Six Rivers National Forest.

For those who prefer to spend their time indoors, Eureka, the county seat, offers a variety of museums and restaurants. The Morris Graves Museum of Art and the Clarke Historical Museum are two of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.

Some of my favorite places to eat include the Humboldt Bay Bistro, Lost Coast Brewery and Cafe, and Cafe Marina & Woodley's Bar (which offers amazing water views).

19. Anderson Valley

Visiting Anderson Valley is another one of the best things to do in Northern California. This picturesque region is known for its scenic beauty, and it offers a wide range of activities for visitors to enjoy.

One of the most popular things to do in Anderson Valley is to go wine tasting. The region is home to dozens of wineries, and many offer tours and tastings for visitors. Some of my favorite stops here include Navarro Vineyards & Winery, Roederer Estate, and Toulouse Vineyards & Winery.

In addition to wine tasting, the Anderson Valley is also an excellent place for hiking, fishing, and birdwatching.

Whether you're looking for a relaxing getaway or an adventurous vacation, Anderson Valley is sure to have something for you.

20. Lake Tahoe

Although often thought of as a winter destination, Lake Tahoe is a beautiful spot to visit year-round.

Situated in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the lake is known for its clear blue waters and stunning mountain views. There are plenty of activities to keep visitors entertained, whether hiking in the summer or skiing in the winter.

The area is transformed into a winter wonderland in the winter months, with several ski resorts offering snowboarding and skiing. There are also sledding hills and ice-skating rinks for those who prefer to stay off the slopes.

In the summer, visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, and kayaking. There are also many golf courses in the area. No matter what time of year you want to visit North of South Lake Tahoe, you will find many fun things to see and do.

21. Livermore Valley

Livermore Valley near San Francisco

Livermore Valley is located in the SF Bay's East Bay and is home to a lot of fun things to see and do. The region is best known for its wine production, and there are more than 50 wineries located in the Livermore Valley.

You can do a little wine tasting, head out on a tour, or enjoy of their local events. Some of my favorite places to go wine tasting here include Concannon Vineyard, Murrieta's Well, and McGrail Vineyards and Winery.

In addition to wine tasting, Livermore Valley is also home to several hiking trails, parks, and golf courses.

The Livermore Valley is a great place to explore if you love wine or the outdoors. You can also check out some of its museums, art galleries, and historical sites.

22. San Jose

San Jose is a beautiful city located in Northern California. The city is known for its mild climate, diverse culture, and a plethora of fun things to do. Whether you're interested in exploring the great outdoors or checking out the city's many museums and galleries, there's something for everyone in San Jose.

Here are just a few of the best things to do in this vibrant city:

Explore the Great Outdoors: San Jose is home to several parks and green spaces, perfect for exploring on a sunny day. Municipal Rose Garden is a must-see, with almost 200 varieties of roses on display. For something a little different, check out Alum Rock Park, which features hiking trails and spectacular views.

Museums:  San Jose is home to several museums, including The Tech Interactive, the Children's Discovery Museum, and the San Jose Museum of Art.

Dining: San Jose is home to many restaurants, offering something for every taste and budget. Check out some of the city's most popular eateries, such as O'Flaherty's Irish Pub, The Table, and those along Santana Row.

Sports: The area is also home to three professional sports teams. The first is the San Jose Sharks in the National Hockey League. They play their games at the SAP Center in San Jose.

San Jose is also home to a professional soccer team called the Earthquakes. They play their games at PayPal Park.

Just a few minutes north of San Jose is the town of Santa Clara, which is home to the San Francisco 49ers. They play their games at Levi’s Stadium.

Other sporting events include the San Jose Giants (the Triple-A Club for the San Francisco Giants) and college games at San Jose State.

San Jose is the perfect destination for either a weekend getaway or a week-long vacation. 

23. Point Reyes National Seashore

Located just north of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the best places to experience the beauty of Northern California.

With its rugged coastline, sweeping ocean views, and abundant wildlife, Point Reyes is a nature lover's paradise.

There are numerous hiking trails to explore, and you can also enjoy kayaking, whale watching, and bird watching.

One of my favorite hikes here is Alamere Falls. It's a good, heart pounding hike to the falls. It's also one of only a handful of waterfalls in California that drops right onto the beach.

You can drive out to the South Beach Overlook where you will find the gorgeous Point Reyes Lighthouse. It’s also where you will get some of the best views around.

Another one of my favorite places to explore in Point Reyes National Seashore is the Cypress Tree Tunnel. It's a small road off Sir Francis Drake Blvd. with a line of cypress trees creating a tunnel. It's really spectacular! 

It’s also one of the more popular free things to do in Northern California.

24. Mendocino and Russian Gulch Park

Mendocino and Russian Gulch State Park are two of the best places to visit in Northern California. Mendocino is a small town with a lot of personality.

The main street is lined with quaint shops, museums, and restaurants, and there is a beautiful headland that offers stunning views of the ocean. Some of my favorites stops here include the Kelley House Museum, Cypress Grove, and Cafe Beaujolais.

Russian Gulch State Park is located just a few miles north of Mendocino and is well worth the visit. The park features a towering redwood forest, crystal-clear rivers, and cascading waterfalls. I also love crossing the gorgeous Russian Gulch Bridge when I’m here.

There are also plenty of hiking trails to explore, making it the perfect place to spend a day in nature.

25. Russian River

The Russian River is another one of the top things to do in Northern California. This popular wine region is well known for its amazing Pinot Noir wines. It's also a great place to explore some redwood forests. 

You can also go kayaking, canoeing, or rafting on the river and several companies offer guided tours. Fishing is a popular activity on the Russian River, and you will find a variety of species, including trout, salmon, and steelhead.

There are also numerous hiking and biking trails along the river, making it an excellent destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

It's just west of the city of Santa Rosa.

26. Lodi

Grapes in Lodi

Lodi is another wine region in Northern California. Located just south of Sacramento, it is home to dozens of wineries and vineyards. Some of my favorite wineries in this area include d'Art Wines, Berghold Vineyards, and Jessie's Grove Winery.

The Lodi region is also home to some museums, including the World of Wonders Science Museum and the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. History buffs will enjoy exploring these museums and learning about the area's rich history.

If you are an outdoor enthusiast, you will find plenty to do including hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

27. Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa, California, is a beautiful town located in the heart of Northern California's Sonoma County. With its gentle Mediterranean climate, stunning scenery, and friendly people, it's no wonder Santa Rosa is such a popular destination for visitors from all over the world.

Here are just a few of the many things to do in this lovely town:

Historic Downtown: Visit the historic downtown area and stroll through scenic Old Courthouse Square. Shop for local produce at the weekly farmer's market, or sample some of the delicious wines produced in Sonoma County. Also, check out Railroad Square for some great shopping and dining.

Wine Tasting: Take a scenic drive through the picturesque countryside, stopping to explore the many wineries. You'll find more than a dozen highly rated wineries around Santa Rosa. My favorites include Hanna Winery, Hook & Ladder Vineyards & Winery, and Annadel Estate Winery.

Experience the Food: Another reason you will want to visit Santa Rosa is its fantastic food selection. Some of my top picks include The Villa, La Gare (in historic Railroad Square), and John Ash & Company (in the Vintner's Inn).

Other Attractions: Santa Rosa also has a lot of other cool things to do. I love visiting the Charles M. Schulz Museum to check out the history of his life and his famous Peanuts characters. Other top attractions include the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Epicenter Sports and Entertainment, and the Museum of Sonoma County.

28. Sierra Nevada Mountains

The Sierra Nevada Mountain range is one of the most popular tourist destinations globally. Situated in the western United States, the range runs for over 400 miles and includes some of the tallest peaks in North America, including Mount Whitney.

With its dramatic landscapes and diverse wildlife, the Sierra Nevada provides a wealth of opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Hiking and camping are popular activities in the summer months, while skiing and snowboarding are popular in the winter.

The Sierra Nevada is also home to several iconic Northern California national parks, including Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Park.

29. Crescent City

While Crescent City is best known as the home of Northern California's most visited lighthouses, there is much more to this Northern California town than meets the eye.

I'll start with the recommendation to visit its popular lighthouse. Battery Point Lighthouse and Museum (also known as the Crescent City Lighthouse) offers tours and is only open during low tide.

If you love outdoors, you will have plenty of scenic coastal trails for hiking or biking. There is also an abundance of birdlife here, so make sure do a little bird watching during your stay.

History buffs will appreciate exploring the local museums and historic sites, and shoppers will enjoy browsing the unique boutiques and shops in the downtown area.

Some of my favorite restaurants here include the Seaside Restaurant and Bar, with its sweeping views of the water and the lighthouse. Stop by SeaQuake Brewing and Port O’Pints Brewing Company if you love craft beers!

30. Fort Bragg and the Glass Beach

Some of the other fun things to do in Northern California include visiting Fort Bragg and its famous Glass Beach.

Located just three and a half hours north of San Francisco, these two destinations offer you a unique experience.

Fort Bragg is a small town with just over 3,000 people. Visitors to Fort Bragg can enjoy the town's beautiful beaches, fishing and crabbing docks, and its shops and restaurants.

I recommend grabbing a beer and lunch at The Pub at North Coast Brewing Company and stopping it at the Sea Glass Museum downtown. You can also catch the views from Noyo Headlands Park or Pomo Bluffs Park.

Glass Beach is located on the northern end of Fort Bragg and is home to one of the world's largest sea glass collections. The  colorful bits of glass on this beach where formed by tumbling in the ocean for years.

Visitors to Glass Beach can search for sea glass and relax on the beach. It’s one of the more unique things to do in Northern California.

31. Half Moon Bay

On the water in Half Moon Bay

There's no shortage of fun things to do in Northern California's Half Moon Bay. You can explore the tidal pools at Pillar Point Harbor, stroll along historic Main Street, or hike through the pristine coastal forest.

If you are looking for a more adrenalin-pumping experience, check out the windsurfing and kitesurfing at Mavericks Beach (also home to the famous annual Maverick’s big surfer event) or horseback riding along the coast.

And of course, no visit to Half Moon Bay would be complete without indulging in some of the region's famous fresh seafood.

Look no further than Northern California if you're looking for a fun and exciting way to spend your time. With its diverse landscape and plethora of activities available, there's something for everyone in this beautiful part of the country.

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