There is something special about Northern California. It is as different from Southern California as day and night. I suggest flying into San Francisco, renting an automobile, then “cruising” the area at your own pace.
Plan at least two nights in San Francisco and I suggest staying in a downtown hotel.
One of the first attractions to visit should be the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. It is filled with organic produce, flowers from small regional farmers and ranchers. There are artists, gourmet street fare, restaurants, seafood, candy stores and so on. This was once the ferry building that Bay area commuters used before and just after the bridges were constructed.
You also should visit Union Square, crooked Lombard Street and Golden Gate Park — and plan to have lunch or dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf. I usually have a large crab salad here, loaded with fresh crab like nowhere else. Cracked crab is available here fresh from the water.
Try a catamaran sail trip past Alcatraz Island and under the Golden Gate Bridge. Another night take a walk through Chinatown and choose the restaurant that looks good to you. There are several outstanding ones here. As you walk, inhale the pungent scents of the tea and herbal shops. The architecture is old China. Stop at the Golden Gate Cookie Factory to learn how fortune cookies are made. You can sample them too.
Drive to San Francisco’s famous North Beach area and Little Bay and be sure to ride a couple cable cars. This is a lot of fun and great for photo taking. The museums and gardens of Golden Gate Park are worth some time as well.
You might like to spend a day in nearby Monterey Bay with its outstanding aquarium that showcases some 200 marine life exhibits. While in the area, drive out to the Monterey Bay Peninsula to view the impressive homes and beaches and travel along the famed “17 Mile Drive” — renowned as one of the most scenic coastal routes in the world.
Now, it’s time for wine country.
Heading north out of San Francisco, you’ll pass through quaint towns of Glen Ellen and Kenwood before arriving in Sonoma. Check out Sonoma Plaza. The Presidio and Mission San Francisco de Solano, the last California mission built, flank this. From here you will find wineries where you can visit, taste and even purchase on the spot.
Then to Napa
The next day, travel along the scenic, less-traveled Silverado Trail, dotted with more than 40 wineries and vineyards. You might stop at the Silverado Vineyards to tour the winery, do some more tasting and perhaps pick up a few more bottles of wine. There are Cabernets and Chardonnays for tasting.
As you drive through the area you will see small restaurants that will tempt your palate. Try one of them.
While in Napa, explore around town, visiting gourmet shops at the Oxbow Public Market and shop for antiques and crafts. There are some fine eateries here also.
If you are adventurous, join a sunrise balloon flight over the vineyards or a journey through the bucolic countryside with lunch aboard the famed vintage rail cars of the Napa Valley Wine Train. It moves slowly, but the food is delicious in one of the old diners and it is a memorable event. Don’t miss it!
Next, travel the scenic drive north to St. Helena and Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park, the site of a water-powered gristmill where early Napa Valley settlers gathered. Why not drop into the award-winning estate winery Clos Peqase and sample some of its estate wines?
You can have lunch in bubbly downtown Calistoga, noted for its hot springs and geyser. Drop in at Chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery and pick up some pastries, cookies and chocolate treats. They are to die for!
From Napa, drive back to San Francisco and end your travels here, or if there is time, head south to central and southern California.
There are many rewards in taking Highway 101 south connecting to old Highway 1. You’ll have the chance to see the amazing redwoods and perhaps view the seals as you drive along the Big Sur coastline.
Be sure to stop at Hearst Castle. Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who referred to this 165-room Spanish-Moorish mansion as “the ranch,” developed this ranch and castle. He tinkered with it over the 27 years he lived here and it was actually never completed in his lifetime. There are several different tours offered visitors.
I suggest staying the night in nearby San Louis Obispo, a very nice college town. There is a very fine Italian restaurant next door to the Amtrak station, Café Roma. You will have the cuisine you would experience in Italy.
Next day, continue south along the coast to Santa Barbara. This city is similar to those along the Mediterranean coast. It has everything! You may even wish to stay the night to allow time to explore this magnificent place. It offers great upscale shopping downtown, supreme restaurants and fine museums. The beach experience is great here also.
On to Los Angeles
I suggest staying in either Beverly Hills or Santa Monica. You won’t be disappointed in either; they are great bases from which to sightsee. Both communities are lovely and considered safe.
You will want to see Hollywood with its Grauman’s Chinese Theatre containing foot and handprints of famous movie stars in its courtyard. There is the Hollywood Walk of Fame along Hollywood Blvd. and take a tour of the Kodak Theater, home of the Academy Awards.
If you stay in the seaside community of Santa Monica, walk the Santa Monica Pier and take a stroll on pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade. There are interesting shops here as well as a movie theatre, department stores and restaurants.
If you stay in Beverly Hills, take a drive through the many neighborhoods to view the beautiful homes and estates, many of which belong to movie moguls and film stars.
Park the car and walk several blocks on Rodeo Drive, famed for its high-end boutique shops.
There are several very fine museums in Los Angeles as well as Universal Studios Tour in the valley. You might want to obtain some tickets to view the taping of some television shows at CBS-TV in Los Angeles, which is next to Farmers Market. Lunch here would be a treat. Save room for some bakery goods.
There are many fine arts in the Los Angeles area: theatre, symphony, dance, opera, art museums and more.
Not far from Los Angeles are Disneyland and Knots Berry Farm. Both are interesting and worth the travel time to visit.
If time is not a factor, head south along Highway 101 to San Diego. It is now the second largest city in California and loaded with travel pleasures. It has fine beaches, amusements, Navy exhibits, and old town — and you can even take the trolley to the Mexican Border.
California is diverse, scenic and loaded with pleasure. Enjoy at your own pace.