The Golden State is home to long sandy beaches, busy boardwalks, big cities, and dramatic cliffside views. The state’s northern section is particularly beautiful, and its varied landscapes provide the perfect backdrop to so many fun and unique things to do in Northern California.
The Best Things To Do in Northern California
From hiking and surfing to wine tasting, riding roller coasters, and even panning for gold—Northern California is bursting with opportunities to explore, learn, and play. As a native Californian who is completely in love with her state, here’s my list of 25 things to do in Northern California. Have fun!
1. Travel the 17-Mile Drive
Over 1.5 million visitors traverse the 17-mile Drive in Pebble Beach every year, and no wonder why. It’s stunning. Follow the red-dashed line along this spectacular coastal road. About halfway through the route, a single Lone Cypress stands on a rocky outlet overlooking the water. At 250 years old, it’s one of the most photographed trees in the world.
The 17-Mile Drive costs $11.75 per vehicle. However, that fee can be reimbursed if you spend $35 at one of the Pebble Beach Resort restaurants. I recommend the burgers!
2. Stroll Down Charming Ocean Avenue
One of the most charming things to do in Northern California, exploring Ocean Avenue in Carmel-by-the-Sea is a true treat for the eyes. Stroll downhill as you pass cute cottages, colorful courtyards, boutique shops, beautiful restaurants, art galleries, and wine-tasting rooms. The end of the avenue meets Carmel Beach, a beautiful dog-friendly one-mile stretch of sand that’s the perfect place to watch a sunset.
3. Climb to the Top of Mount Tamalpais
At over 2,500 feet tall, Mount Tam in Marin County is quite the trek, but the view from its summit is glorious. There is a 13.7-mile loop that starts near Mill Valley and meanders its way to the top. It takes about 6.5 hours to complete. On a clear day, expect to see San Francisco and its beautiful bay, the East Bay, Mount Diablo, and even the Farallon Islands, approximately 25 miles from land.
4. Step Into History at Bodie State Historic Park
In the 1800s, Bodie was a gold-mining town home to approximately 10,000 people. Now, it’s abandoned, but a small portion of the town is standing and still well-preserved. In fact, it’s considered a ghost town. There are no commercial facilities, but it’s an authentic way to peek at life in California during the Gold Rush.
5. Pan for Gold at Marshall Gold Discovery Park
The gold rush began in 1848. Here, at Marshall Gold Discovery Park, visitors can step back in time and try their luck at panning for gold in the American River. There are also nearby hiking trails and many historic buildings, including a mining exhibit.
6. Visit the Point Cabrillo Light Station
This picturesque setting on the California coast is worth a visit. On the grounds, visitors will find three lightkeeper houses, one of which is a period museum so guests can see what a lightkeeper’s house might have looked like in the 1930s. The other two are available for vacation cottages. Open 365 days per year, there is also a Lighthouse Museum and a Marine Science Exhibit, which includes a 240-gallon aquarium.
7. Sip and Savor in Napa
Napa has world-class wineries and gorgeous vineyard scenery. With over 400 wineries, spend the weekend and try more than one! A few favorites include Domaine Carneros, Stags’ Leap Winery, and Sterling Vineyards.
8. Learn Something New at the Monterey Aquarium
Fun for the entire family, the Monterey Aquarium is a world-class marine experience. Home to 80,000 plants and animals, expect to see sea otters, sharks, and penguins. Plus, the museum is situated in an excellent location, right on the scenic and historic Cannery Row.
9. Explore the Great Outdoors in Lake Tahoe
Visiting Lake Tahoe is one of the best things to do in Northern California. No matter what time of year, the scenery is beautiful, and there are so many ways to spend time in the great outdoors. From swimming in the lake, exploring the water via boat or kayak, hitting the many miles of hiking trails, skiing, snowshoeing, and so much more — visitors will love adventurous days and relaxing evenings with a little help from a cozy firepit.
10. Take a Trip to the State Capital
Spend the morning admiring fine art at the Crocker Art Museum ($15 per person). The museum offers diverse exhibits, including activities for kids, lectures, and classes. Then, stroll through the Old Sacramento Waterfront. The historic district is a unique spot to shop and grab a bite to eat. Try Steamers Bakery & Café for a quick bite.
11. Watch the Waves in Half Moon Bay
There are so many things to do in Northern California, but admiring the (sometimes) 80-foot Mavericks in Half Moon Bay is one of the most unique. Surfers from all over the world crave these waves, which are considered the biggest in the world and can be found just outside Pillar Point Harbor. The bravest surfers will compete in winter during Half Moon Bay’s Maverick Big Wave Invitational.
12. Play at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Spending a day in the sun, surf, and sand at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of the most fun things to do in Northern California. Entertaining visitors since 1907, the beach and boardwalk are iconic. Don’t miss the Giant Dipper roller coaster or the Looff Carousel. Both are National Historic Landmarks.
13. Do Anything and Everything in San Francisco
In San Francisco, the world is your oyster. From famous museums (like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the de Young Museum) to historic theaters, shopping, dining, and drinking, the City by the Bay offers so many amazing things to do in Northern California. Spend time exploring San Francisco’s diverse neighborhoods. Favorites include the Mission District, Chinatown, North Beach, and Haight-Ashbury, to name a few! Also, don’t miss Golden Gate Park.
14. Take in the Sights at Yosemite National Park
At almost 750,000 acres, there’s never a shortage of things to experience in Yosemite. From camping to hiking, biking, birdwatching, fishing, rock climbing, and fishing, there are so many things to do in this Northern California natural gem. Known for its gorgeous waterfalls, granite cliffs, and clear creaks, Yosemite National Park is a fantastic destination any time of year. June and September offer the best temperatures without the summer crowds.
15. Relax in Sonoma Plaza
Sonoma, like Napa, is known for its stunning wine country. One fun place to sip and savor while also visiting historical buildings (like the Mission San Francisco Solano) is Sonoma Plaza—Sonoma’s town square. After an afternoon of wine tasting, sightseeing, and shopping, grab lunch to-go at the Sonoma Cheese Factory. Stock up on sandwiches, snacks, and drinks, and enjoy a picnic in the square’s grassy center. If you prefer to dine indoors, try the girl & the fig. Their seasonal cuisine is fresh and delicious.
16. Marvel at Nature in Muir Woods
There’s a reason why Muir Woods is often crowded—the redwoods are simply stunning. Some are close to 1,000 years old and 250 feet tall. Visitors must reserve parking online ($9.50) before arriving. Upon arrival, there’s a separate $15.00 park entrance fee per adult. The official Muir Woods National Monument consists of 6 miles of trails, so plan to stay the day and hit the trails.
17. Spend the Day at Stinson Beach
Stinson Beach is a 3.5-mile stretch of beautiful white sand in the small town of Stinson Beach in Marin County. While it only has a population of 526 residents, it received more than 3 million visitors from 2017 to 2021. Many of these visitors, like myself, will fall in love with the beautiful scenery and likely return time and time again to stroll the sand, splash in the water, and explore the shops and restaurants of the quaint beachside town.
18. Soak up the Views in Sausalito
Just a quick 10-minute drive from San Francisco, the seaside city of Sausalito offers beautiful bay views. Stroll the Sausalito’s Bridgeway Promenade for the best sights across the water to San Francisco, Angel Island, and Alcatraz. Dine on the water at Scoma’s, peruse art galleries (like the Scrimshaw Gallery), or pick up souvenirs from one of many gift shops. It’s easy to spend the day wandering around Sausalito.
19. Take a Dip in the Russian River
Explore the water via kayak, tubes, rafts, or canoes. Fishing is also popular, as is hiking and biking on the trails along the river. Monte Rio Community Beach is excellent for families as the water is calm, there’s a concession stand, and boat rentals are available.
20. Spend the Weekend in Mendocino
Mendocino is a small town with a big personality. With plenty of shops, restaurants, museums, beaches, and hiking, there is so much to do in this charming Northern California town. Highlights include Glass Beach (full of colorful sea glass), the oceanfront Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, and the Skunk Train that travels through gorgeous redwood groves.
21. Discover the Vast Beauty of Point Reyes National Seashore
The Point Reyes National Seashore is comprised of 80 miles of shoreline. Some bits are rocky, while others offer soft sand, perfect for strolling. If this is your first time here, stop by one of the Visitor’s Centers. There are three at Point Reyes National Seashore (Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes Lighthouse Visitors Center, and Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center).
If this is a quick stop, visit the Bear Valley Visitor Center. It’s the main one and introduces the area, including the roads, trails, and natural history. Visitors can also pick up gifts, books, as well as food and drinks here. The Point Reyes National Seashore is ideal for hiking, relaxing on the beach, and kayaking. Also, check out Chimney Rock to spot elephant seals. You’re most likely to spot them from December through March.
22. Rent a Houseboat on Shasta Lake
A mere ten miles from Redding, Shasta Lake is the largest reservoir in California. It’s the ideal location to jet ski, fish, and float around on an inner tube, but for those looking for one of the most unique things to do in Northern California—rent a houseboat. Rental accommodations range from small and basic to big and fancy and everything in between. All floating vacation homes offer a fun way to explore beautiful Shasta Lake and stunning views of snow-capped Mount Shasta.
23. Ski at Mammoth Mountain
While Mammoth Mountain, located in Mammoth Lakes, is known as a prime winter destination to snowboard and ski, it’s also ideal in spring as there’s likely still plenty of snow. At lower elevations in spring, mountain biking, fishing, and hiking are also on the table. Mammoth Mountain is typically open for skiing from November to July.
24. Visit a Famous Filming Location
Bodega Bay is a waterside town in Sonoma County. Bodega is four miles inland. Both are famous filming locations from the classic film The Birds. A stroll around the small village will introduce you to buildings used in the movie, such as the Potter Schoolhouse, and the bay offers extraordinary water views. Fancy seeing some birds yourself? Check out the Bird Walk Coastal Access Trail.