10 cute towns you need to explore near San Francisco

San Francisco is one of the cities you must explore when you visit California. The hustle and bustle of downtown San Francisco has a contagious energy. There is so much to do in San Francisco but sometimes you just need to get away from it all and relax. So, it will be a breath of fresh air to visit and explore these cute towns near San Francisco. All of the towns listed here are under a 2 hour drive from the city so are easily reachable for a day trip.

In this blog, I’ve cherry picked out 10 of the cutest towns outside of San Francisco.

See all 10 places marked on this map (this will make it easier to plan your trip)

Map courtesy of Wanderlog, a road trip planner

Where should I go for a weekend getaway in the Bay Area?

There are so many options for a weekend getaway from busy San Francisco. Where you choose depends on what you want to get from the weekend. If you want the dreamy combination of fairytale cottages and white sand beaches then Carmel-by-the-Sea is a great choice. Or if you don’t fancy a long drive then Half Moon Bay (just a 40 minute drive from the city) is ideal. And if you love wine then why not visit one of the cute towns in the Napa Valley region such as Napa, Sonoma and Petaluma.

San Francisco’s excellent freeway and highway system means all of the cute towns listed here are easily accessible, just, watch out for rush hour traffic! All of them too are reachable by public transport but of course this takes longer and you can’t stop and admire all the scenic viewpoints along the way.

I was born in San Francisco and we returned here several times from our home in Whistler Canada and I must say it was interesting to see the Golden Gate City from a tourists perspective.

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I’ve cherry picked 10 cute towns near San Francisco, all easily accessible from downtown and under a 2 hour drive.

What is the prettiest town in California?

The Golden State of California is home to some gorgeously picturesque smaller towns and villages. Most of the prettiest towns in California are located in the Bay Area and in this blog I list 10 of the very best. There’s a town for every type of traveler on this list.

I guess everyone’s idea of ‘pretty’ is different but some of my personal favorites are Carmel-by-the-Sea, Petaluma and Sausalito. Here’s my top 10 cute towns near San Francisco (I cover each of these in more detail if you keep scrolling down) –

  1. Tiburon (41 minutes drive / 17 miles from downtown)
  2. Sausalito (33 minutes / 11 miles from downtown)
  3. Napa (1 hour / 49 miles from downtown)
  4. Sonoma (1 hour 3 minutes / 54.1 miles from downtown)
  5. Petaluma (54 minutes / 48 miles from downtown)
  6. Santa Cruz (1 hour 15 minutes / 73 miles from downtown)
  7. Carmel-by-the-Sea (1 hour 56 minutes / 122 miles from downtown)
  8. Halfmoon Bay (38 minutes / 29 miles from downtown)
  9. Stinson Beach (59 minutes / 24 miles from downtown)
  10. Mill Valley (38 minutes / 14.8 miles from downtown)

1. Tiburon

This little coastal town is a couple minutes drive North of Sausalito. And is 40 minutes drive from downtown San Francisco. It’s a picture-perfect town, like one of those perfect little towns in the Sims or Main St at Disney.

The Hippie Tree Swing outside Tiburon
The Hippie Tree Swing outside Tiburon

The views from Tiburon over the bay and of the city’s skyline are truly breathtaking. It’s home to the elite and super-rich, take a drive and spot some seriously stunning & huge homes! Ark Row is the hub of this little coastal town and is where you will find most of the restaurants, boutique stores and cafes. Some of my favorite restaurants in Tiburon include Tiburon Tavern on Tiburon Blvd and Lolas Taqueria at Ark Row shopping center.

For the best views take a stroll along Paradise Drive for epic views of the city skyline, Angel Island and of course the Golden Gate Bridge. Go slightly further afield into Shoreline Park to see Elephant Rock – a pier with stunning views that is very popular for fishing. Do what the influencers do and hike up to the swing at Hippie Tree & snap that all-important shot.

I love my coffee and one of the best spots for a coffee is Cafe Accri on Main Street.

Getting to Tiburon from San Francisco – grab the Blue and Gold ferry from Pier 41 or the Ferry Building for one of most gorgeous ferry rides in the world. Bus options to Tiburon here

2. Sausalito

Sausalito is often described as a laid-back town with an almost Mediterranean vibe. It’s small at just over 2.2 square miles and has a population of just over 7,000 people. I’m sure this gorgeous town tops the wish-list of ‘places to live if I won the lotto’ for a lot of people.

homes on the water sausalito
Gorgeous homes on the water in Sausalito!

Easily accessible by ferry from downtown San Francisco, a lot of tourists bring bikes on the ferry – it’s the perfect way to explore this gorgeous town. Handily enough, you can rent bikes from Fisherman’s Wharf before you hop on the ferry.

Imagine a different way of life at the Houseboats (over 500 of them) that occupy the waters at the Northern end of the town. Rent a kayak or go on a boat tour to see the best of Sausalito from the water. Or simply browse through the many boutique stores that line Main Street.

Seafood is a must when dining in Sausalito – some must-try seafood restaurants in town include Scoma’s of Sausalito at 588 Bridgeway and Seafood Peddler Restaurant and Fish Market. For non-seafood fans head to Napa Valley Burger Company or Taste of Rome. For coffee try Firehouse Coffee & Tea on Johnson Street.

Did you know – Sausalito is where Otis Redding wrote “Sittin’ on a Dock in the Bay”.

This Sausalito and Muir Woods half-day tour departs from San Francisco and is a great way to see two of the cute towns on this list if you’re short on time!

3. Napa

You’re probably familiar with Napa as wine country but did you know there’s so much more to do here than wine tasting. Sure, there’s 400 wineries in and surrounding Napa and the region is famed for its Cabernet Sauvignon. I could write a whole other article about wineries in Napa (there’s that many great wineries here) but what I will say is that one of my favorites and a must-visit is the quaint and historic Buena Vista Winery. If wine’s not your thing but beer is why not visit Napa Valley Brewing Company on Lincoln Avenue.

old church napa california
A gorgeous old church in the wine region in Napa!

The town of Napa itself is bustling (the busiest months being September and October). Some must-do’s when in Napa town include Oxbow Public Market for great local arts & crafts and yummy food and a stroll along Napa Riverfront. Here be sure to pop into one of the romantic bars & restaurants that line it.

There’s Michelin-starred restaurants including The French Laundry in Yountville; La Toque and Kenzo Napa in Napa town and The Restaurant at Auberge in Rutherford. If you can’t get a reservation at any of the above or are after a simpler dining experience then The Dutch Door on 1st Street and Contimo Provisions on Randolph Street are highly recommended. If you don’t fancy dining out you may chose to have a picnic in Napa instead.

Take a hot air balloon ride, go biking through the mountain trails, take a winery tour, there’s even a couple of golf courses in the surrounding area.

Staying the night in Napa – the Napa Valley Marriott is reasonably priced and has a large outdoor pool, fire pit and luxurious rooms. For a real splurge the Auberge du Soleil is one of the best hotels in California!

Getting to Napa – its just over an hour North of San Francisco and of course the best way to get here is to self-drive so you can admire the scenery en-route. Here’s how to get to Napa via bus.

4. Sonoma

Sonoma is just over an hours drive from San Francisco and is a small but welcoming town. It has a population of over 11,000 and is famed for its wineries, farm to table restaurants and gorgeous scenery.

vineyard in sonoma california
Vines in Sonoma!

At the heart of the town of Sonoma is Sonoma Plaza filled with 19th-century adobe buildings including Mission San Francisco Solano and the Sonoma Barrack (which was once used by the Mexican military). Now the plaza is home to over 100 stores, dozens of restaurants as well as wine tasting rooms.

Drive to Sonoma Coast State Beach is 20 miles long and is home to a number of photogenic sandy beaches, however, these beaches are not recommended for swimming as the water is quite rough. Also worth a visit Jack London State Historic Park also known as ‘Beauty Ranch’ features 20 miles of trails and a museum about the author of “The Call of the Wild”.

Zipline through redwood trees at Sonoma Canopy Tours, go horse-riding through the hills and go kayaking in Bodega Bay. Of course no visit to Sonoma is complete without some wine tasting, some of the best wineries in Sonoma include Benziger Family Winery, Jacuzzi Family Winery, Gundlach Bundschu and Jordan Winery. This 9-hour tour to Sonoma departs from San Francisco and includes 4 wineries and is a great option if you don’t fancy driving!

5. Petaluma

Transport yourself back to the 1950’s in this historic little town, 35 minutes drive from Napa. In town, stroll past the  historical buildings and Victorian mansions along the Petaluma River. It’s a popular foodie destination with many excellent farm-to-table style restaurants including Hank’s and Central Market both on Petaluma Blvd. Popular beer Lagunitas is brewed here and its brewery is open for tours daily.

Petaluma town
Petaluma town!

Pop into Petaluma Historical Library and Museum to learn about the towns history or the Petaluma Arts Center located in an old train warehouse. As for shopping you can’t go wrong with a browse through Petaluma Collective, here more than 20 stalls display unique arts, crafts and more. You can even get on the water with a unique Marsh Kayak Tour which takes you along Petaluma River and into the marshlands where you can spot many different types of birds.

Did you know – the movie Pleasantville was filmed here.

6. Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is under a 1.5 hour drive from San Francisco. It is famous for its long wharf that stretches into Monterey Bay and its boardwalk which is home to vintage rides like the Giant Dipper roller coaster (the longest of its kind in the United States). It has been attracting tourists for decades and although the wharf and boardwalk area is filled with out-of-towners on the daily, downtown Santa Cruz is bohemian, quirky and filled with great one-of-a-kind stores.

Colorful Spanish-style homes in Santa Cruz!
Colorful Spanish-style homes in Santa Cruz!

Did you know – Santa Cruz Boardwalk is often referred to as the ‘Coney Island of the West’.

Some of the must-do things in Santa Cruz include:

  • Seymour Marine Discovery Center for an interactive look at the sea life in the area
  • Buy an ice-cream at The Penny Ice Creamery on Cedar Street or 41st Ave
  • Buy unique gifts at The Homeless Garden Project in downtown Santa Cruz
  • Grab a famous burger at Surfrider Cafe on Front Street

Seacliff State Beach is one of the best beaches in the area and is 5 miles South of Santa Cruz. This beach is home to the huge SS Palo Alto ship lying in its waters.

Staying the night in Santa Cruz – two reasonably priced and fantastically rated options in Santa Cruz are the Edgewater Beach Inn and the Best Western Inn

7. Carmel by the Sea

A 2 hour drive from downtown, Carmel-by-the-sea is that bit further than the others on the list so I advise spending the night if you can. Thankfully, there’s lots to do here to make it worth your while. Carmel is old world charming.

A Fairytale Cottage in Carmel-by-the-sea

Fairytale cottages are scattered throughout the town center making it feel like something from the pages of a children’s storybook. It is filled with narrow, hard-to-find passageways, cute courtyards and Carmel doesn’t use street numbers so you will likely get happily lost here. Clothing boutiques, art galleries, quirky stores and sweet little restaurants line the streets. Ocean Avenue is the best street for shopping and one of the most popular stores here is Cottage of Sweets which sells British sweets.

Just a 10 minute walk from the center of town, Carmel beach is magnificent. White sand with a secluded feel, which is unusual for a beach so close to a town. It’s not advisable to swim here due to the strong currents but a long walk is sure to sustain you. One of the best beaches in the area is China Beach at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a 10 minute drive from town. Dramatic scenery, calm waters and the chance to spot sea lions and otters makes this a very popular attraction in the area.

The San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission founded in 1771 is stunning, ornate and well-worth spending a few hours. Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant outside of town is an idyllic countryside luxury hotel, owned by Clint Eastwood. It’s a great place to stay the night or reserve a table for dinner.

You can rent a motorbike from nearby Monterey (a 10 minute drive away) to explore the beautiful coastline along the Pacific Coast Highway. Such a cool thing to do!

Staying the night in Carmel L’Auberge Carmel is an exclusive Relais Chateau property that is ideal for a romantic getaway or Carmel Inn if you want to save some $$$

8. Half Moon Bay

Just over 40 minutes from San Francisco, it’s known for its wild and rugged beaches and is very popular with surfers. Even though it’s the closest town on this list to San Francisco it seems much farther away because once you turn off the motorway the town of Half Moon Bay is only accessible by a two-lane country road. Because of it’s location this area is often blanketed in the thick fog the Bay Area is known for, but, it makes for some pretty epic photos.

half moon bay beach
The beach at Half Moon Bay!

The history-rich Half Moon Bay is filled with cute B&B’s, cozy hotels as well as many Cafes and Restaurants. Pasta Moon is very popular with locals and has been open for over 30 years. But, for dinner with a view its best to head down to the harbor. Also highly recommended is the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company has live music and a fantastic vantage point next to the sea

Walk the California Coastal Trail a stunning 5 mile walking track which starts at Seymour Bridge in Half Moon Bay and ends at Pillar Point Harbor. For golfers there’s two world class golf courses in town. Pigeon Point Lighthouse and Purisima Creek Trail are also worth doing whilst in town.

9. Stinson Beach

Not really a town more of a tiny village with a few restaurants and a little supermarket. The population here is just over 600 people. The road to Stinson Beach is steep and winding and not for the faint-of-heart. It’s an hours drive here from downtown San Francisco and is popular for fishing, windsurfing and surfing. It’s best to go surfing here in Winter or Spring. For windsurfers the afternoon is the best time for the prevailing northwesterly winds.

Looking down on Stinson Beach!

It’s white sand and long ocean front makes it one of the best beaches for swimming in the Bay Area. The shallow waters make it ideal for little ones. With Muir Woods and the unique rock formations providing the perfect backdrop.

Fun fact – Red Rock Beach is a clothing optional beach just south of Stinson.

Getting to Stinson Beach – it’s best if you have a car as the bus takes about 2.5 hours. If you plan to drive here at the weekends or during the Summer months make sure to arrive before noon as the car parks get full and there is no overflow car park available.

10. Mill Valley

Mill Valley is a charming little town built at the base of Mount Tamalpais. It’s just over 30 minutes drive from downtown San Francisco and has a very European feel to it. This sweet little town certainly captured my imagination! It has the best restaurant selection in Marin County with some of my favorites including – Piazza D’Angelo on Miller Ave and Bungalow 44 on East Blithedale Ave.

Mount Tamalpais State National Park near Mill Valley

Some great annual events in Mill Valley and well worth checking out include – Mill Valley Film Festival; Wine & Gourmet Food Tasting; the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival and Winterfest.

Just minutes away is the very popular Muir Woods National Monument which attracts thousands of tourists daily. A visit to Muir Woods offer the opportunity to see giant redwood trees – one of the few areas to see these trees in the Bay Area. There’s a range of hiking trails at Muir Woods all varying in difficulty and length. Worth noting is reservations are required for all vehicles and tourists to the Woods – you can catch the Route 66 Shuttle from Sausalito, Marin City, or Mill Valley if you don’t fancy driving here. Entrance to Muir Woods can work out pretty costly, current rates as follows:

  • $8.50 per vehicle
  • $3.25 per person for a space on the Route 66 shuttle
  • $15.00 per person entrance fee to gain entry to Muir Woods

You may also choose to indulge in a sea plane tour from Mill Valley which takes you over the Golden Gate bridge and downtown San Francisco.

Getting here from San Francisco – catch the Line 70 bus from the Civic Center; hop off at Marin City Hub and hop on Line 17 to Mill Valley Depot.

Thanks for reading my blog, Aimee

lincoln park steps san francisco
Lincoln Park Steps, San Francisco

I hope I’ve given you some major wanderlust and you’ve found one of your new favorite cute towns near San Francisco from this list. Happy exploring!

Thanks for reading, I’ve got lots of other articles on cute towns to explore including towns in East Sussex in England; West Cork in Ireland and Greece!

PIN IT for later!

I’ve cherry picked 10 cute towns near San Francisco, all easily accessible from downtown and under a 2 hour drive.

6 thoughts on “10 cute towns you need to explore near San Francisco

  1. wanderlustwithlisa Reply

    I’m going to Napa in October, but wow now I’m considering saving some time to go to Santa Cruz as well! Your picture is stunning! Thanks for sharing these ideas.

  2. ANUKRATI DOSI Reply

    Great list! Mill valley looks so magnificent.

  3. atruthfultraveler Reply

    Great list, I agree that Carmel is totally worth the drive! There are so many cute towns around SF!

  4. Elena Pappalardo Reply

    Love all these Cali gems! I had no idea all these adorable towns were right here. Thanks for the future inspiration!

  5. Katherine Reply

    So many great ideas and beautiful places to visit! I’ve been to quite a few but there are still some on my bucket list that I haven’t made it out to yet. Thanks for the tips!

  6. Krista Reply

    I love going on day trips to smaller towns when I’m staying in a big city, so thank you for sharing all of these spots!

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