Home to powerhouse Silicon Valley, San Jose is the largest city in Northern California, and a significant technological and cultural hub. If you find yourself here, it’s likely because you’re on a work trip. But what should you do if you have a free day to fill in San Jose?
Lucky for you, the city is within striking distance of some remarkable NorCal destinations, all of which make excellent day trips from San Jose. Take advantage of the extra time you have to visit some of California’s most spectacular beaches, as well as some of the world’s best wine regions and most famous cities.
If you haven’t been to San Francisco, it’s probably on your bucket list, in which case you’ll be happy to know that the City by the Bay is easily accessible from San Jose. By car, it’s about an hour away (depending on traffic), and you can also make the pilgrimage to San Francisco via public transit.
There are endless possibilities for things to do on a day trip to one of the most famous and beautiful cities in the world. Enjoy sweeping views of the bay and the Pacific Ocean by walking across Golden Gate Bridge, or take a ferry to Alcatraz Island to visit the infamous prison.
While a visit to tourist hot spots like Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ghirardelli Square is a must, don’t miss out on other San Francisco neighborhoods. Try Italian cuisine in North Beach, check out the murals in the Mission District, or stretch your legs and find peace at the green oasis in Golden Gate Park.
Museum-lovers rejoice; you could spend the whole day visiting any one of San Francisco’s many museums. Popular choices include the following:
And remember, if you come in the summer, pack a sweater and long pants. Trust us—it may be blazing hot in San Jose, but San Francisco has famously cold and foggy summers that will make you glad you brought extra layers.
When you shut your laptop for the weekend, and you’re in desperate need of disconnecting from all things digital, head to Santa Cruz. Just forty minutes from San Jose, the relaxed, bohemian vibe of this college beach town will make you feel much further away than you really are.
Most people will head to Santa Cruz’s most popular attraction, the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, to enjoy its numerous attractions. And once you’ve had your fill of the boardwalk, the town also has its share of local breweries and plenty of places to tuck into a delicious meal.
Be sure to check out Santa Cruz’s iconic Winchester Mystery House and its historic mission. But perhaps the best part of this college town is the nature surrounding it, so head to Wilder Ranch State Park to hike, enjoy the year-round mild weather, and appreciate the gorgeous trees.
Just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge, you can find the world-class wine-producing region of Napa. At slightly under two hours away from San Jose, a visit to this area is an ideal way for the over-21 crowd to spend the day.
The day will fly by as you visit a few of the gorgeous vineyards and sample the region’s best wines. And when they shut down for the day, head to downtown Napa to take in the stunning architecture and enjoy the top-rated restaurants.
The Napa Valley Wine Train is a unique experience for anyone who would prefer not to think about having a designated driver. Various packages allow for exceptional views of the Valley, all while you sample terrific food and wine.
When you’ve seen all there is to see in San Francisco, and you’re looking for an alternative day trip, head across the Bay to the quirky college town of Berkeley.
The stunning UC Berkeley campus should be your first stop. Visit the UC Botanical Garden and marvel at its 34 acres of rare and endangered species, then pop over to Sather Tower for spectacular views of Berkeley and beyond.
Arts and music lovers will be overwhelmed by the number of options to visit galleries and hear live music. The Greek Theatre, an outdoor amphitheater, is a fantastic place to catch a concert when the weather’s warm (and even when it’s not).
If you love shopping, don’t miss Telegraph Avenue, where the unique and diverse shops will keep you busy for hours. And right before sunset, make the harrowing drive up to Grizzly Peak for amazing views of the bay.
Looking for small-town vibes with plenty of activities? Take a day trip to Alameda, a quirky island located about forty-five miles north of San Jose.
The atmosphere here is quite different than that of neighboring Bay Area cities. Alameda exudes charm, and it’s a treasure trove for anyone who loves antiques.
Park Avenue is where you should go if you want to find some antique treasures. And if you happen to visit Alameda on the first Sunday of the month, the Alameda Antiques Faire is the largest antique show in Northern California.
For naval enthusiasts, the USS Hornet Museum is a fun visit. And if it’s a sunny day, Crown Memorial State Beach is an excellent place to go for a walk, sunbathe, and soak in the views of San Francisco across the bay.
While the city of Livermore isn’t the first place most Bay Area residents think of when planning a day trip, the up-and-coming Livermore Valley has plenty to offer. It’s about thirty- to forty minutes from San Jose, and the area has a surprising amount of activities for everyone.
Its most notable offering is its spectacular wineries. The area is home to an emerging wine region, which is no surprise considering Livermore’s history of ranching, agriculture, and grape farming.
Everyone knows how fantastic Napa Valley is, but wine lovers in the know head to Livermore when they want to beat the crowds that form in Napa and Sonoma. And don’t worry if beer is more your style, as the city boasts several craft breweries where you can discover new IPAs.
Livermore also has a wide selection of hiking and mountain biking activities to keep outdoor enthusiasts happy for hours and hours. Or if you prefer a more urban experience, downtown Livermore has plenty of places to eat, shop, and hit the bars.
Just a short 35-minute drive south on the 101 freeway, the charming town of Gilroy is waiting to welcome visitors.
Gilroy’s claim to fame is that it’s the garlic capital of the world, and if you can make it to the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival in July, we highly recommend doing so. Visitors delight in all things garlic, from normal fare like garlic fries to more unorthodox offerings like garlic ice cream.
But the town offers so much more than just its enthusiasm for garlic. Shopping fanatics know that Gilroy has impressive shopping malls, and kids enjoy visits to places like the Gilroy Ostrich Farm, the Wings of History Museum, and the Gilroy Museum.
With awe-inspiring views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, Sausalito leaves no visitor indifferent. You’re sure to fall in love with this little town, and at just over an hour away from San Jose, it makes for an easy day trip.
There’s no better place to enjoy a sunny Bay Area day than Sausalito, where you can amble through the town’s charismatic downtown area. Relax and unwind as you discover the local-owned shops, marvel at the town’s stunning houseboats, and get lost in the views.
Pop into one of the artisanal bakeries for a treat, and be sure to sample some of the cuisine, which often features seafood caught fresh from the bay. The Sausalito Art Festival celebrated annually on Labor Day weekend, is one of the nation’s best fairs and an excellent place to admire the work of local artists.
Half Moon Bay
There’s no shortage of stunning beach towns within driving distance of San Jose, but if you’re looking for a mellow place with few crowds, head to Half Moon Bay. Located on the Pacific Ocean about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose, you’ll find anything but the abundance of the boardwalk crowds and college students present in Santa Cruz.
Half Moon Bay is home to Mavericks Beach, which is the site of one of the most famous surfing competitions in the world in October. Daredevil surfers ride 50-foot waves, and in the summer months, when the waves are smaller, Mavericks is an ideal place to learn how to surf.
If you prefer a less adrenaline-filled activity, go for a walk on the beach instead. Downtown Half Moon Bay is a beautiful place to spend a Saturday enjoying the eccentric shops and local restaurants.
Swap the hustle and bustle of the workweek for the relaxation that comes with a weekend jaunt to Monterey. All you have to do to reach Monterey is hop on the 101 freeway south for seventy minutes.
This enchanting destination on the coast, with its often-moody weather, will make you forget your stress as the smell of the salty ocean fills your nose.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is Monterey’s top attraction, which makes the town a mecca of sorts for families and marine-life lovers. The aquarium receives two million visitors annually, and it’s the best place around to see all kinds of sea life, from sea otters to stingrays, sharks, and more.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, rent a kayak to get up close and personal with the area’s famous sea lions. Then hit Cannery Row to visit all the shops, restaurants, and galleries. Alvarado Street is another must-visit area, which is full of bars, cafes, and historic buildings.
Just south of Monterey (five miles to be exact), the little beach town of Carmel-by-the-Sea is where folks from the Bay Area head when they want to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life. Carmel is an excellent extension to your Monterey day trip, or you can spend a day in Monterey and a day in Carmel to make the most of this exquisite area.
Carmel is sure to charm the socks off you with its European flair, top-rated museums, and artisan boutiques. One curious thing to note about Carmel is that there are no street addresses, which encourages you to wander the town.
Experience firsthand the stunning beauty of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. You can find everything from archeological sites, striking geological formations, and exotic plant communities at Point Lobos.
Nature lovers will want to be sure to head out to Carmel River State Beach, which has excellent birding. And if you’re more into historical sites, Carmel has its own mission, the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo.
You’ve probably heard of Big Sur, the crown jewel of California’s Central Coast. It’s a rugged, mountainous section of coastline that extends ninety miles from Carmel-by-the-Sea to Hearst Castle.
The area leaves no visitor indifferent to its cliffs, ocean views, and jaw-dropping landscapes. Narrow, winding Highway 1 is your gateway to the region, offering plenty of stopping points and lookouts to marvel at the beauty of Big Sur.
While driving the whole ninety-mile stretch would make for a better weekend trip than a day trip, the region is easily accessible from San Jose. Don’t miss Big Sur’s most symbolic icon, the Bixby Canyon Bridge.
Whatever the reason for your trip to San Jose, its privileged location is an ideal launching point to all kinds of places and activities that have a little something to suit everyone. Spectacular beaches, thriving wine regions, and cosmopolitan cities are all just a short drive away.
Whatever you’re in the mood for, there’s no better time than the best two days of the week to enjoy everything that Northern California has to offer. Trust us when we say that you won’t be disappointed.