For someone who’s never been to California, the city of Santa Cruz is most likely what they imagine. Endless sunshine, miles of sandy coastline, surfers, hippies, old VW vans, legal weed, grungies and skateboard/street punks. More than any other Bay Area city or exurb, Santa Cruz embodies that classic California vibe – something like chilled-out surfer or stoned-out hippie – but mostly a contented attitude that comes when living within biking distance of the ocean is all that matters. It’s a beach town first, college town second, with blue-collar roots and hippie/yoga aspirations, the kind of place Cheech and Chong might retire to, or Jeff Spicoli would flunk out of if he ever got in.
When Bay Area locals talk about getting away for a weekend in Monterey, they’re usually referring to the Monterey Peninsula and its sister cities of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel. Visitors to the area typically bounce between one highlight to the next (mostly in Monterey), and may not pay much attention to differences. But believe it or not, each of these bordering towns has a distinct character about them. Monterey is the big sister with the most activity and biggest attractions, while Carmel is the old-money sophisticate with rows of high-end shops, galleries and wine bars on its leafy main drag.
I’m not a train person, per se. I don’t show up to train events in an engineer’s hat and overalls draped with pins and patches of past train glories. But I do appreciate the romanticism of old steam engines and the bygone eras they represent. Plus, those old engines are something of a marvel, the way their parts have to work together just so or the whole thing doesn’t move, or worse, explodes.
Maybe you have a deep aversion to turkey and cranberries. Or your guests decided last minute they wanted to visit family in LA after all. Or the last thing you want to do is sit around arguing politics with your crazy republican uncle on your first holiday off since labor day.
Take heart, there are plenty of fun and interesting things you can do on Thanksgiving day (and weekend) that don’t involve eating turkey in tense family environments. And because everyone else is ensconced in said traditional activity, you can have your choice of alternate activity in the Bay Area to yourself. Here are a few suggestions:
California Academy of Sciences
I’ve been to the Academy a half-dozen times, and I’ve yet to get inside Morrison Planetarium. Why? Because tickets (yes, you need a separate ticket) are always snapped up by the time I get around to asking. Because I’ve yet to visit the Academy when you’re not standing three deep behind a crowd of people trying to get a peek of the jellyfish tank. A new ’Tis the Season for Science exhibit opens the day before, complete with snow and live reindeer. The museum is open from 10am to 3pm on Thanksgiving day, which is prime turkey binging/football watching time.
Muir Woods National Monument
You know where else is insanely crowded, all the time? Muir Woods, one of the most popular outdoor attractions in the Bay Area, which means if you don’t get there early to snag one of the limited parking spaces, you end up walking something like two miles to the entrance. So while everyone else is mixing up their cranberry sauce (I guess if you add enough sugar, anything is edible), you can simply stroll through front gate and enjoy a hike through majestic old growth coast redwoods of this spectacular primeval forest. Open 8am – 5pm.
Thanksgiving Sunrise Celebration
Didn’t the Thanksgiving story they told us in school involve Indians? To honor what we were taught about that day, join with our Native American brothers and sisters for the Indigenous Peoples’ Annual Thanksgiving Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island, which is part of San Francisco Ohlone Territory. The event marks 524 years of Indigenous resistance, with presenters, drummers and dancers. It starts early, like 4am early, but how often do you get to see the sunrise on Alcatraz?
This is what the holiday is, or should be, about: giving thanks for what we have, and sharing what we have with others, even if it’s just our time and goodwill. There’s seemingly no shortage of people in need in the Bay Area, unfortunately, and Thanksgiving is a big day in the nonprofit community, who rely on volunteers for help. Here are just a few opportunities for volunteering: Meals on Wheels delivers food to seniors, a Thanksgiving Day Block Party is planned for the Tenderloin, the San Francisco Food Bank is giving out food, Glide Thanksgiving Meals, Little Brothers: Friends of the Elderly, Salvation Army Meal Delivery, Project Open Hand, and SPCA Holiday Windows at Macy’s.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
When’s the last time you made it to Monterey for a visit to one of the world’s premier aquariums? Thanksgiving is a great time for a local road trip down south on lightly trafficked roads, avoiding both weekday commuters and weekend beach-goers that normally clog up Hwy 17 to Santa Cruz. You also won’t have to elbow your way to a glimpse of the sea otters during feeding time. Open 9:30am – 6pm.
Take your pick. There’s the Kabuki in Japantown, or the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, and all the other cineplexes sprinkled around the Bay Area that are open on Thanksgiving. The blockbusters showing now include Arrival, Doctor Strange, and the Harry Potter-ish Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. You might want to avoid evening showtimes, since the turkey eaters start to venture out of their houses at that time looking for something to do.
It’s the season to be jolly, and for a full embrace of the Christmas spirit, the Bay Area offers a ho-ho-host of things to do and see. We may not have snow, thankfully, but the weather is just nippy enough to justify that Santa-con suit as you make your way from one mistletoe event to the next. Here are the top to-dos:
Visit a Christmas tree farm
No, you won’t have to pack the sleigh for a trip to the North Pole (or Canada), just head beyond the city borders to one of a number of actual farms that grow and sell Christmas trees. Many have more to do than simply picking chopping down of a tree. Little Hills Christmas Tree Farms in Petaluma offers free popcorn and cider, ornaments for sale, and a visit and picture with Santa. While Santa’s Tree Farm near Half Moon Bay offers a Christmas village with train rides, miniature golf with Frosty, and reindeer mascots.
A tour of Christmas trees and lights
There are neighborhoods that live for this season to festoon their homes and yards with as much blinking doo-daddery as their utility budgets can manage. Christmas Tree Lane (Thompson Ave) in Alameda and Parkway Estates (Chestnut St) in South San Francisco are two of the best. You can tour these places for free, as well as hit all the public squares that have erected enormous lit trees and decorations, like Jack London Square and Pier 39, and your nearest mall.
See a Nutcracker performance
Besides an opportunity to support the arts, the Nutcracker is one of those classic Christmas traditions like roasting chestnuts or trimming the tree with actual lighted candles. Pretty much every professional ballet troupe will be performing the Nutcracker throughout December, including the San Francisco Ballet, Silicon Valley Ballet, San Jose Youth Ballet, Oakland Ballet Company, Berkeley Ballet Theater, etc.
Skate at Union Square
The park at the center of San Francisco’s retail district is ground zero for holiday-ness every year, with an 83-foot tall tree decorated with 33,000 lights and 1,100 shiny ornaments, an ice rink and a café that sells hot beverages. You’re also surrounded by Macy’s and other big department stores that spare little expense in decorations. You can be sure Santa will be making regular appearances as well.
Stroll through Christmas in the Park
Trying not to be outdone by its neighbor to the north, San Jose has its own downtown holiday spectacle. This one is all about community involvement, with everyone from the local Shriners to the Girl Scouts sponsoring one of the many decorated tree or displays. There are live performances (again by local groups), Santa, vendors, and an ice skating rink across the street.
Drive through Fantasy of Lights
The rather expansive Vasona Park in Los Gatos is the scene of a drive-thru holiday display every December, sponsored by Santa Clara County Parks and created by Los Gatoans. The 1.5-mile route meanders past an erupting volcano, Santa shooting hoops, and tunnels of lights, with special music and sound effects piped through your car’s radio.
Jack London Square Tree Lighting
The square in Oakland kicks off the holidays with the lighting of its massive 55-foot Mt. Shasta fir Christmas tree, with an assortment of seasonal activities. Visit with Santa, feed live reindeer and shop from more than 90 popup vendors. Friday, 12/4, 5-7pm.
Los Gatos Christmas Parade
Enjoy the small town charm of Los Gatos while watching the 59 th annual Christmas parade, with marching bands, Santa Clause, and the Cucuzza Squash Drill Team expertly wielding massive gourds. Some 235 parade entrants will be marching along Santa Cruz Ave. Saturday, 12/5, 11am.
Union Street Fantasy of Lights
The Cow Hollow thoroughfare lights up for the holidays, with horse-drawn carriage rides, ponies dressed as reindeer, and of course Santa and his team of elves. Saturday, 12/5, 3-7pm.
Caltrain Holiday Whistle-Stop Tour
Santa travels by Caltrain this weekend for his annual whistle-stop tour from San Francisco to Santa Clara stations. The train is decked out with 70,000 lights, a rolling band, “snow” and Santa and his many friends. Check schedule for station stop times. Saturday and Sunday, 12/5-6, 4-9pm.
SF Ballet Meet & Greet w/ Light Show
It’s Nutcracker time of year again, and members of the San Francisco Ballet will be under the dome at Westfield Mall in downtown SF to meet admiring fans, while an animated 3D light show replays every 30 minutes. Saturday, 12/5, 5-6pm.
A boon to some, third circle of hell to others, shopping malls hit their stride during the high shopping holidays from Black Friday to Boxing (return) Day. And whether you venture into the specially perfumed air for the mythical deals, there are some things you can be sure of: long lines: from the parking lot to the cashier to the Wetzel’s Pretzels kiosk. You can also pretty much cross off your entire shopping list in a day, meet Santa, and try on that $500 leather jacket you’ve been wanting, like, forever. Or, just go online and order everything in an hour from the comfort of your couch.
Westfield San Francisco Centre / Metreon
This multi-storied mall takes up an entire city block smack dab in the center (excuse me: centre) of the city on Market St. It’s aesthetically more pleasing than your typical box-o-stores, with a sky light-filled atrium, and offers pretty much all your mall standards, with Bloomingdale’s as the anchor. But Westfield SF really ups its game with interesting food offerings, like Brazilian churrasco, a lobster house and cream puffs. There’s a parking garage across the street. The Metreon is adjacent, which these days is more food than stores (the Target excepting).
This curious little mall may have had bigger ambitions when it first opened near Union Square. There are no large anchor stores; instead, numerous small shops fill the three stories along the length of the glass-topped atrium. There are a few parking garages around, but nothing next to it.
Down south in the “suburbs” of San Francisco, Stonestown is a Muni ride away. The mall is fairly pedestrian, with a Macy’s and Nordstrom as anchors. But there are 100-plus stores in all (including food), so you should find what you want, and a parking lot that’s reasonable to navigate.
Stanford Shopping Center
Located next to Stanford the university, this open-air mall features a couple large anchors in Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom’s. There’s an Apple store of course, and plenty of high-end boutiques to keep the trophy wives happy. The parking lot is poorly designed, though there is a small parking structure.
Westfield Valley Fair / Santana Row
San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara is possibly the most suburban part of the Bay Area, so it stands to reason that one of the main shopping attractions around is this mall. It’s big, with about every type of mall-ish store packed inside. They’re building a larger parking garage, so parking for now is a little dicey. Across the road is the upscale and open-air Santana Row, which includes a Tesla store to give you an idea.
The Great Mall
There’s a place in the middle of predominantly Asian Milpitas called the Great Mall (get it?) and it’s ginormous. It’s also pretty ugly, with Kohl’s and Marshall’s as the anchors, with a huge parking lot surrounding.
In Hayward, a mall with a Macy’s, Kohl’s, Sears and JCPenneys as anchors.
Bay Street Emeryville / East Bay Bridge Shopping Center
You’ve probably seen the Ikea along the 580, which is at the southern edge of the Bay Street mall in Emeryville. The three-level, open-air mall is smaller with Old Navy the largest store. The big box stores (Target, Best Buy) are nearby at the East Bay Bridge center.
Napa Premium Outlets
This is an open air mall/shopping center with outlet stores that supposedly give you special prices, with Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole and the Gap.
Town Center / The Village at Corte Madera
Set across from each other on either side of Hwy 101, this is the main mall of the North Bay. Nordstrom’s and Macy’s are the main anchors, along with an REI, Eddie Bauer and other typical mall stores. There’s no shortage of parking for either mall.
For the uninitiated, the Mountain View Farmers’ Market can seem almost overwhelming. Several long rows of white tented booths stretch the length of the Caltrain parking lot near the Peninsula town’s commercial district, with one table after another overflowing with an endless array of fresh and colorful fruits and vegetables, in varieties even the most knowledgeable gardener may marvel at.
On a recent Sunday, visitors sampled slices of oranges (blood, navel, Valencia, etc.) and pears (Asian, Bosc, Bartlett), while filling up bag after bag of produce grown and harvested in nearby farms. The biggest questions for most is where to start, and how much they’ll be able to carry.
This impressive variety is one reason farmer’s markets are so popular in the Bay Area, made possible by the close proximity of so many farms cultivating such a wide array of produce. From San Jose’s Blossom Hill to Los Altos and downtown Santa Clara, farmers’ markets are a thriving business because farmers are less than a two hour drive away.
It’s a big reason why Mountain View Farmers’ Market was ranked the top farmers market in California by BuzzFeed, and the number five favorite farmers’ market in the U.S. by America’s Favorite Farmers’ Market contest. Mountain View Farmers’ Market is open Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and has up to 80 farms represented in peak season.
Prepared foods, live entertainment and a palpable community spirit are other reasons people are flocking to the area’s farmers’ markets, and why 8 percent of the market’s visitors are traveling from San Francisco to Mountain View. “Where else can you go and have 75 farms at your fingertips,” said Gail Hayden, director of the California Farmers’ Markets Association.
Hayden is also quick to point out all the other quality farmers’ markets in the South Bay and Peninsula. “Saratoga Farmers’ Market at West Valley College is my favorite, and that’s 75 farms on a slow day,” she said. “It has some amazing organic farms that come in with things you would never see unless you grow them yourself, like some very interesting beets and carrots.” Hayden also said the market’s pastured eggs are worth going out of your way for: “when you eat their eggs, it tastes like an egg.” She adds that the almond flour (and gluten-free) baked goods are both delicious and protein-packed.
Farmers’ markets in the area are able to offer a variety of year-round, local produce largely because of geography. “San Jose is a unique area because it’s close to three microclimates,” said Hayden. “Apples come from the mountains, lettuce from the coast, and hot crops from the valley.”
In fact, it was California where farmers’ markets got their start in 1977, when up to 4,000 people were driving out to farms to buy produce each weekend. With the era’s energy crisis in full bloom, Governor Jerry Brown had the idea of bringing the farmers to the city as a conservation measure.
Hayden also cites the Blossom Hill Farmers’ Market at Ohlone-Chynoweth VTA station on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., open year-round rain or shine. “And the Los Altos Farmers’ Market on Thursday night does a kid’s booth,” said Hayden. “Only kids can go in, and they get fake dollars to buy a peach or nectarine. They love it.”
San Jose Bike Party
If you find yourself on the Alameda in downtown San Jose on Friday evening, keep an eye out for the rolling parade of lights and bikes and music disrupting traffic and having a generally fun time. The monthly bike party has become a thing, and all you need is a bike and a sense of adventure. Friday, 11/20, 7:30pm-ish, sjbikeparty.org for location.
Renegade Craft Fair Holiday Market
If an octopus-adorned t-shirt or bird coffee mug are on your Christmas list, then get thee to Ft. Mason. More than 300 vendors will be hawking their wares, along with a glass-cutting workshop and the on-premise bar (with amazing views, fyi). Saturday and Sunday, 11/21-22, 11am-6pm.
The Big Game
Cal vs Stanford, duh. The 123-year rivalry between the cross-bay foes is one of the biggest in all of college sports, and certainly in the West. The winner gets the coveted Stanford Axe and year of bragging rights. Saturday, 11/21, 7:30pm, Stanford Stadium.
Pier 39 Tree Lighting
More than just a flip of a switch, Pier 39’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony is a two-day event filled with attractions. Meet friends from Disneyland, file your Santa letters to officials from the US postal service, and enjoy performances from a slate of choral groups. Saturday and Sunday, 11/21-22, noon-6pm.
City Hall Centennial Tour
Celebrate 100 years of SF’s city hall building with guided tours from city hall docent and curator Ellen Schumer. Sunday, 11/20, 1pm and 3pm.
The National Park Service is turning 100 in 2016. And what better way to celebrate the auspicious occasion than with an inspirational birthday visit to one of the many national parks within easy travel distance from San Francisco.
Alpine forests, dramatic sea cliffs, towering redwoods and fascinating regional histories are some of what you’ll find on a park excursion, and all part of the rich splendor and stunning natural diversity of national parks in or near the Bay Area. With so much on offer so close to home, the opportunities to explore and discover are seemingly endless, and as convenient as a bike ride across town or a daytrip to the country.
Here are eight notable national parks in or near San Francisco for enjoying the great outdoors:
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
With multiple sites in San Francisco, and in bordering Marin and San Mateo counties to the north and south, respectively, GGNRA is the largest and most accessible Bay Area park for city dwellers. The popular Lands End near Ocean Beach includes the Coastal Trail, offering spectacular sea and bay views at every turn. While the expansive Marin Headlands features hiking and biking trails that start at rugged Rodeo Beach and meander past historic military bunkers to reach the 920-foot Hawk Hill.
Point Reyes National Seashore
A triangle-shaped peninsula strung along the western edge of Marin County, this wild and windy park encompasses 71,000 acres of rolling grasslands, twisted Monterey pines and a dramatic rocky coastline buffeted by crashing breakers. While 1,500 species of plants and animals call the park home, the main attraction is the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula some 60 miles from San Francisco, and an ideal spot for watching migrating gray whales.
Yosemite National Park
A jewel in the national park crown, this vast wilderness on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is one of the most popular attractions in the state. Celebrating its own birthday – 125 in 2015 – the spectacular Yosemite Valley is the epicenter and a four-hour drive from San Francisco. Enjoy views of the soaring rock cliff El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls, and the dramatic Vernal Falls. Intrepid hikers can also trek up the 4,800-foot-high Half Dome.
Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
Follow in the footsteps of Juan Batista de Anza, the Spanish explorer who established the Presidio and Mission San Francisco in 1776 after trekking some 1,200 miles from Arizona. In San Francisco, the Mountain Lake Trail in the Presidio includes a historical marker where de Anza camped – a popular reenactment site. Sections of the trail circle the Bay Area and continue south to Monterey and beyond, following the historical route with numerous markers and facilities along the way.
Muir Woods National Monument
Just 17 miles from San Francisco in Marin County, the 554-acre Muir Woods is a popular draw for locals and tourists alike. While up to 6,000 visit daily in the dry summer months, the park is often shrouded in fog – a vital ingredient to the unique ecosystem of old growth coast redwoods. Those trees are the stars here, growing up to 250 feet in height with most between 500-800 years old. Avoid parking hassles and ride the Muir Woods Shuttle from April through October.
Fort Point National Historic Site
Lurking mostly unseen under the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point was built prior to the Civil War as the first line of defense against enemy warships entering San Francisco Bay. Used by the US Army up through WWII, the fort’s exquisite and well-preserved arched casements are an excellent example of the art of brick masonry from the era. View displays of vintage canons, and tour the soldiers barracks and officers’ quarters.
Easily the most sought-after ticket for Bay Area visitors, the iconic Alcatraz Island is situated a short ferry ride away in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The frigid water and hazardous currents made it an ideal prison locale for the country’s most dangerous convicts from 1933 to 1963. And that rich history comes alive during a fascinating self-guided audio tour narrated by former guards and prisoners. The views of the bay are pretty amazing too.
Pinnacles National Park
The newest edition to the state’s wealth of national parks, Pinnacles was upgraded from its national monument status in 2013. Originally established in 1908, the park is located 120 miles southeast of San Francisco and features the eroded remains of an extinct volcano and other dramatic spires and rock formations that gave the park its name. Caves, condors, rare chaparral vegetation and unique geological formations created by the San Andreas Fault are also part of Pinnacles’ rich offerings.