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FTC Disclosure: I was invited as a travel writer by the following tourism boards – Visit Berkeley, Visit Concord, and Visit Tri-Valley. As always, I will provide my honest opinions about these destinations. All opinions are my own.
Northern California is one of the most beautiful regions that I’ve visited on the West Coast. I’ve been lucky enough to visit San Francisco twice, and as much as I love this epic hilly city, Northern California as a whole is so magical that I’ve always had an urge to travel outside the city’s boundaries. I could even spend months in Northern California and never feel bored.
I’m sure have many future trips in Northern California waiting for me. However, I still wanted to share my most recent travel experiences with all of you to help you plan your own itinerary. Hence this guide to 7 days in Northern California.
But really, though? Only 7 days in Northern California? What should you do if you only have a meager week to see and do everything? Is it even possible?
Well. The good news is that the Bay Area is packed with so many diverse and fascinating destinations that you don’t need to spend too many hours driving aimlessly in your car.
The bad news is you won’t see everything. C’est la vie.
Northern California Essentials
First and foremost, I am going to cover the logistics of spending 7 days in Northern California. You don’t want to waste time buying essential items or wandering around lost on the BART train, after all. Your time is valuable.
Let’s start with the region’s airports! Northern California is very well connected to the skies which only adds to its popularity as a tourist destination.
Arrival in San Francisco
San Francisco is a great starting point for 7 days in Northern California. Not only does San Francisco have plenty to see and do, but the metro area is home to not one, but two massive airports that connect this region to all corners of the United States (and beyond!).
Most travelers will arrive at SFO or San Francisco International Airport – which is the largest airport in the area and one of United’s biggest hubs. SFO is located right on the BART, too. It only takes thirty minutes to go from SFO to centrally located Powell Street, which is a stone’s throw away from Union Square.
For this itinerary, I personally recommend flying into SFO, but Oakland International Airport isn’t too far away either, and is also a worthwhile option if you’re able to score low airfare.
Keep in mind if you’re flying in from the East Coast (like me!), the jet lag is very, very, very real, and there is zero shame in taking it easy on your first day in San Francisco.
You will need a variety of transportation methods to get around San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area. Even though these destinations are part of the Bay Area, not all of them are effectively serviced by public transportation.
Sure, in San Francisco, you can readily use the iconic Cable Cars and BART train, but the further away you go, the less public transport is available.
For the most independence, you will want to look into renting a car for the days you’re not in San Francisco proper.
A word of caution: driving in this part of California feels overwhelming at times, and you’ll need to pack a heavy dose of patience regarding both traffic and parking. However, if you have the money for it, rideshares such as Uber or Lyft are sufficient for this itinerary! I never waited longer than ten minutes for a car! The choice is ultimately yours.
- California Guidebook: I always like investing in guidebooks to get information on attractions, restaurants, and more. Plus they have pretty pictures! Lonely Planet is my favorite guidebook brand and look — they have a California guidebook to help you plan everything!
- Comfortable Walking Shoes: Whether you’re climbing San Francisco’s hills, exploring botanical gardens in Berkeley, or wineries in Livermore, you want to pack excellent walking shoes to keep your feet feeling cozy and happy! Seriously, don’t skimp on good shoes. You’ll seriously regret it.
- Mirrorless Camera: I always say that iPhone cameras are wonderful but if you want professional photos, you should up your game with a Sony Alpha Mirrorless Camera — which I happen to own and absolutely love!
- Plenty of Sun Lotion: San Francisco Bay is known for its thick fog, but you still want to protect your skin when you venture into the Tri-Valley. Be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen to keep your skin healthy and happy.
- Stylish Day Backpack: TUMI makes some of my favorite travel products. They’re a little expensive but well worth the investment. For example, this stylish and lightweight backpack is perfect for you to wear on your days exploring northern California’s nature and cities.
- Travel Insurance: If you’re traveling internationally, keep in mind that your insurance may not be covered in the United States. I always recommend investing in travel insurance to protect your health and money while you’re exploring the world. I use World Nomads on my trips and haven’t been disappointed yet.
7 Days in Northern California: Overview
7 Days in Northern California: Detailed Itinerary
Now for the “most fun” part of this post: all the specific details of spending 7 days in Northern California. As always, as much as I love sharing my own experiences, you’re more than welcome to adjust anything based on your personal wishes.
Have a great time reading this guide, and feel free to email any questions that you may have (and I’m sure the tourism boards would love to hear from you too!).
|1||Arrival, San Francisco|
|2||San Francisco Day Trip|
|6||Pleasanton & Livermore|
Day 1: San Francisco
Welcome to San Francisco. This famous and hilly city is the perfect place to begin your 7 days in Northern California.
I highly recommend solo travel in San Francisco, as well as travel with family and friends. There is so much to see and do that San Francisco will fulfill any type of traveler’s needs.
To start off, I suggest walking through Lower Nob Hill. In this upscale neighborhood, you’re able to visit famous landmarks, such as Fairmont San Francisco (which is one of the most splendid hotels in the entire city) and Grace Cathedral. You’re also able to see sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay in this neighborhood. If you’re interested in San Francisco’s iconic cable cars, I suggest that you check out the nearby San Francisco Cable Car Museum.
After Lower Nob Hill, take a stroll to San Francisco’s famous Chinatown. This is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, as well as North America’s oldest Chinatown. I loved seeing all the brightly colored street art, eating dumplings at fantastic local bakeries, and admiring Dragon’s Gate.
Last but not least, if you love independent bookstores, make sure to walk to City Light Booksellers & Publishers which is located nearby. This literary landmark has been open since 1953. It’s easy to spend at least an hour roaming the packed shelves.
San Francisco has a ton of great places to stay. However, keep in mind that San Francisco isn’t exactly cheap, and you will be paying more money for good accommodation. It is what it is. As for me, I stayed at White Swan Inn on my most recent trip to San Francisco.
White Swan Inn is a small British-inspired boutique hotel in the upscale Nob Hill neighborhood. I loved the area and felt very safe exploring the city! The complimentary breakfast in the mornings and complimentary wine in the evenings will add a little homey warmth to your visit in San Francisco.
Day 2: Guided Day Trip from San Francisco
San Francisco has a lot of great day trips that visitors ought to take advantage of. However, in the interest of time, I recommend going on a guided tour to an interesting place within a quick and easy drive of San Francisco.
Because most tourists base themselves in San Francisco, you will have an endless amount of fantastic tours to choose from! Make sure to read reviews ahead of time and research which tour suits your personal needs best.
To get you started, I have listed a few recommendations here.
Day Trip Ideas
- Angel Island and Alcatraz Tour: Although Angel Island and Alcatraz are very close, you will still want to set aside a half day to visit both islands. Keep in mind that even though it is “free” to go into Alcatraz, you will need to reserve a specific time on the ferry, which costs money, haha. Make sure to book your slot well in advance as ferries to Alcatraz frequently sell out.
- Muir Woods and Sausalito Tour: Want to see redwood trees but not drive for hours? You ought to head to Muir Woods. In San Francisco, you’re able to book many Muir Woods and Sausalito combination tours that are well worth both your time and money. Sausalito is a lovely and classy town that hugs the San Francisco Bay shoreline. You’ll enjoy panoramic views of the city, as well as upscale food and shopping options.
- Napa Valley Tour: Nearby Napa is famous for its exquisite wineries. Even though it’s preferable to spend a weekend here, plenty of guided tours leave San Francisco for Napa. Prepare your taste buds! The wine here really lives up to all the hype. Sign up for a combination Napa and Sonoma Tour if you want to avoid driving. That way you can enjoy all the wine in peace!
- Yosemite National Park Tour: Northern California and the rugged mountain beauty of Yosemite National Park are often spoken together in the same breath. And the best part? It’s still possible to see Yosemite on a day trip (even though it will be quite a jam-packed day). A Yosemite National Park and Sequoias Tour promises some of Northern California’s most spectacular nature.
Day 3: Berkeley
We’ve made it to our third day. Are you ready for even more adventures outside San Francisco? Don’t worry. We’ll swing back to this vibrant city at the end of our 7 days in Northern California.
It’s time to hop on the BART or rent a car and drive to nearby Berkeley. You’re probably already familiar with UC Berkeley, and while the university is absolutely iconic, you’ll discover that Berkeley’s treasures go far beyond the college campus. As a city, Berkeley is fantastic for solo travelers and groups of friends alike!
Personally, I recommend starting your day with coffee and shopping excursions on Fourth Street. This street has a lot of really awesome stores, including an Amazon 4 Store that has all the most popular items from the online shopping platform!
Later in the afternoon, immerse yourself in Berkeley’s unbelievable nature. University of California Botanical Garden is literally one of the best public gardens that I’ve visited in my entire life. You’ll see plants from all over the world, while enjoying high hilltop views with every step that you take. Don’t skip Redwood Grove either! With massive redwoods and open-air theater, you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to a fantasyland. Reservations are required at the Botanical Garden. Plan accordingly.
And if you want the best views? Take a drive higher into the hills to the Lawrence Hall of Science to see the entire bay. Go in the afternoon because the fog has a better chance of burning off by then.
For history buffs, you don’t want to miss out on exploring Berkeley’s campus, as well as the most iconic shops along Telegraph Ave such as Moe’s Books, which has been a literary landmark since the 1950s. Furthermore, I recommend a visit to Berkeley Historical Society and Berkeley City Club if you would like to learn more about this fascinating city’s progressive policies and people.
Last but not least, don’t forget about Berkeley’s food scene. I discuss a ton of restaurants in my weekend guide to Berkeley. It’s impossible to eat everywhere, but I guess that means you’ll just have to plan to come back, huh?
I personally recommend staying in Aiden By Best Western @ Berkeley for the evening. This centrally located hotel has an expansive rooftop that offers impressive views of the entire bay. If you’re blessed with a sunny day, you can even see the Golden Gate Bridge peek at you! Bring a glass of wine or craft beer, and a book, and unwind at the end of a busy (and fun) time in Berkeley.
Day 4: Concord
Time to wake up early and hit the road again! Take a rideshare or drive a rental car to nearby Concord — a city that will surprise and delight you in the best possible way.
In Concord, you will want to pack an empty stomach and full bank account, because both the shopping and food options here are incredible. Especially the food options.
Stop at the Visitors Center and grab a map of the legendary Taco Trail. You can spend an entire day driving to different taquerias and sampling the best options on the menu. Who doesn’t love a taco tasting? And if you’re traveling alone to Concord, a lot of the eateries are solo traveler friendly too! I struck up conversations practically everywhere!
Furthermore, shoppers will absolutely fall in love with The Veranda which is home to some of Concord’s coolest bars, restaurants, and shops. For example, I loved Half Price Books and loaded up my bag with unique collections of poetry that are now hanging out on my bookshelves.
If you visit Concord on a hot summer’s day (and believe me, it gets quite warm here), then I personally recommend going to Hurricane Harbor Concord to cool off. Bathing in the sun in the lagoons was utterly divine after a few hectic days and I’m sure you’ll love the break too!
Of course, if you’re not a big amusement park fan, Markham Park & Arboretum offers a peaceful slice of nature smack in the middle of Concord. Pack a pair of sturdy walking shoes and enjoy the abundant trees and gardens.
Without a doubt, Concord is one of the highlights of 7 days in Northern California.
Hilton Concord Hotel California is one of the best places to stay in Concord due to its excellent location. You can easily walk to the Veranda and Hurricane Harbor without much stress. The front desk staff was also super sweet and helpful regarding everything to see and do in Concord! Highly recommend it.
Day 5: Danville
Uh oh, we’re on the move again! Get ready. You’ll enjoy even more delicious food and unique historical sites in the Tri-Valley where you’ll spend the next two days.
Our first stop is historic Danville. Expect to spend an entire day here. There are so many things to see in Danville that you need to plan ahead of time. First I recommend doing a self-guided history walking tour through the main downtown, as well as treating yourself to some chocolates and craft beer.
However, without a doubt, Danville’s biggest highlight is Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site which is run by the National Park Service. The award-winning playwright called the Tao House home, and as you gaze at the breathtaking views of Mount Diablo, it’s easy to feel inspired to take out a journal and write.
Ultimately Danville is a gem that you don’t want to miss with 7 days in Northern California.
I personally recommend staying in Dublin for your two days in the Tri-Valley. Dublin is located in the middle of everything. Not to mention, it’s easy to find the BART station with direct services to San Francisco! Win/win if you ask me. I absolutely loved my stay at Aloft Dublin-Pleasanton. The best part about staying in this hotel? The cute little robot that delivers your breakfast upon request!! Watching this robot zip up and down the halls made me so happy!
Day 6: Pleasanton & Livermore
Today you’ll continue adventuring through the Tri-Valley and go to both Pleasanton and Livermore.
First grab a coffee and pastry in downtown Pleasanton. Local shops and restaurants line both sides of the main street. In particular, Towne Center Books is a wonderful and small bookstore with lots of great souvenirs. And if you have a special pet in your life, don’t miss Murphy’s Paw.
If you’re a history buff, you’ll enjoy Museum on Main. This museum is home to an excellent exhibit on the history of Pleasanton. Not to mention, free walking tours are available. These tours will take you through Pleasanton’s downtown. I personally loved learning about the Gold Rush era and hearing the stories behind Pleasanton’s beautiful buildings. The tour is a “must do” for your 7 days in Northern California.
For food, I recommend both Beer Baron and Locanda Amalfi. Beer Baron has a lot of local brews on draft. Locanda Amalfi is totally the place for pizza (who doesn’t adore pizza?). And dessert? Well, well, well, you’re in for a special treat at Meadowlark Dairy.
End your day at a nearby winery in Pleasanton or drive over to Livermore. Research wineries ahead of time, and don’t forget to make reservations – especially on the weekends!
Day 7: San Francisco
Time to loop back to San Francisco!
And what better place to begin than Golden Gate Park to see the Golden Gate Bridge. (As a side note, if you invested in a rental car, now is the perfect time to drop it off. Parking is incredibly limited at Golden Gate Park. Take a rideshare instead.)
If you feel like walking, you can take a long stroll down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Although touristy, I had a great time stopping at Ghirardelli Square (who can say “no” to a gigantic chocolate milkshake?) and snapping pictures of sea lions at Pier 39. However, Fisherman’s Wharf is not everyone’s cup of tea.
You can just as easily eat a classy lunch and check out the iconic Mrs. Doubtfire House in the Pacific Heights neighborhood. Or perhaps chill out in Alamo Square and see the beautiful Painted Ladies followed by some shopping in the once hippie dominated neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury. The choice is yours!
At the end of the day, I recommend going to a museum. I could’ve wandered forever at the SFMOMA which is San Francisco’s Modern Art Museum. The exhibits – indoor and outdoor – were thought-provoking and immersive. And what better way to wrap up your 7 days in Northern California with an art museum? Of course.
Good luck planning your trip to Northern California. As always, feel free to reach out if you have any specific questions, and thanks so much for all your support! Safe and happy travels to you all!