A Guide to the Best of the San Francisco Peninsula

USA Travel

San Francisco sits at the top of the San Francisco Peninsula. The Golden Gate City has so many things to do you may have difficulty breaking away. Yet, heading south of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city, the San Francisco Peninsula has 18 cities, plus more charming towns to explore on both the Pacific Ocean coast and the San Francisco Bay Area on the bayside. Using San Francisco as a base, you’ll want to take some day trips down the Pacific Coast Highway to enjoy the peninsula’s 448 square miles of natural beauty.

With 60 miles of shoreline on the peninsula’s coastside and 30 miles on the bayside, you’ll find plenty of beaches. For animal lovers, one of the largest mainland breeding colonies in the world for northern elephant seals is at Ano Nuevo State Park, where you can view the elephant seals year-round. As a foodie, I appreciate the 20 Michelin-rated restaurants and three Michelin-rated hotels. Those hotels may even entice you to get away for an entire weekend.

 

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While you’ll have three airports to select from on the peninsula, positioned between San Francisco and San Jose, you’ll find the largest airport, the home of San Francisco International Airport (SFO). The other two include San Carlos (SQL) and San Jose (SJI).

Thank you to the San Francisco Peninsula for hosting my stay.

SFO Airport - Photo Courtesy of the San Francisco Peninsula
SFO Airport
Photo Courtesy of the San Francisco Peninsula

North

Brisbane

Brisbane is known as the “City of Stars” because residents and businesses add illuminated stars on the “downhill” side of their homes and offices during the winter holidays. Outdoor enthusiasts will love the 12 miles of hiking at San Bruno Mountain State & County Park. You can reach the 1,314-foot summit on foot or by car. But, no matter how you get to the peak, it’s an excellent place for the mountain views of the entire Bay Area. It will be worth your effort. While exploring, you may even spot some of the native Mission Blue butterflies.

Dog-friendly parks include the Fire Hydrant Plug Reserve, Firth Park, and Brisbane Dog Park.

Piper’s Pro Planning: San Bruno Mountain borders Brisbane, Daly City, South San Francisco, and Colma. You can easily access the park from Highways 280 and 101.

San Bruno

Located next to SFO, San Bruno is about 12 miles from downtown San Francisco, which you can access via the San Bruno BART station. For those seeking out high-tech experiences, you’ll find YouTube headquarters. Shoppers will discover Tanforan, a major shopping center.

South San Francisco

Located north of San Francisco International Airport, bordering the San Francisco Bay, South San Francisco is called the Biotech Capital of the World. Biotech companies such as Genentech have a home in this town.

San Francisco Wine School in South San Francisco on the San Francisco Peninsula
San Francisco Wine School in South San Francisco
Photo Courtesy of the San Francisco Peninsula

Take a San Francisco Wine School class for those interested in wine. I experienced one from Master Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator David Glancy while in the area. What’s impressive is there are only 12 people in the world with these credentials! Glancy founded the San Francisco Wine School, where guests of all levels can learn about the nuances of wine tasting and wine and food pairing. I highly recommend one of these classes.

Piper’s Pro Planning: You can access BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) at the South San Francisco Station and Ferry Service at the Oyster Point Marina.

Central

Autumn Chopped Salad at Twelvemonth in Burlingame California
Autumn Chopped Salad with Brussel Sprouts at Twelvemonth in Burlingame California

Burlingame

California is the largest agricultural producer in the United States. The San Francisco Peninsula grows the region’s greatest quantities of Brussels sprouts. Look for them in various dishes at restaurants around the peninsula. Located in San Mateo County, downtown Burlingame is a walkable setting with many shops and restaurants. The one to try here is Twelvemonth, a vegan restaurant where owner Bob Trahan believes everyone can play a role in imagining a healthy, more sustainable world. Check out my article here to learn more about my experience at Twelvemonth. And yes, I had Brussel sprouts in a chopped salad. They were thinly shaved and served as the base of the salad.

Foster City

Foster City is a water sports lover’s paradise, featuring 12 residential islands, 223 acres of waterways, and 13 miles of shoreline. You can participate in various water sports, from paddle boarding, canoeing, kayaking, boating, and windsurfing.

If you’re more of a landlubber who enjoys walking, running, skating, and cycling, they haveatrail that goes all the way to Coyote Point in Burlingame.

Millbrae

Millbrae is an excellent place to learn about the region’s history. The Millbrae History Museum features furniture, photos, and documents of the area’s bygone era. Even the museum itself is in a historic home. Another museum in the area is the Southern Pacific Train Depot, depicting the history of the region’s railroads.

Central Park is an excellent stop for the kids to blow off steam after lunch.

Piper’s Pro Planning: The Millbrae History Museum is only open on Saturday afternoons. The Southern Pacific Train Museum is only open on Saturdays.

San Mateo County Fair
San Mateo County Fair
Photo Courtesy of the San Francisco Peninsula

San Mateo

You can experience numerous festivals and special events in the San Francisco Peninsula, including the San Mateo County Fair. Other festivals include the Grand National Rodeo, Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, the Great Christmas Dicken’s Fair, and Foodieland.

Coast

Read the article, The San Francisco Peninsula: A Coast Side Day Trip, for more details on the San Francisco Peninsula coast side experiences.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse - Photo Courtesy of The SFP
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Photo Courtesy of The SFP

The Peninsula has two lighthouses— Point Montara Lighthouse in Montara and Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero.

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay, 30 miles from San Francisco, is a charming town known for beaches and surfing. The Maverick’s Competition in Half Moon Bay attracts the most skilled surfers in the world to ride massive ways. To check it out, Maverick’s Beach is the place to be.

Seafood Pasta at Frattore e Mare
Seafood Pasta at Frattore e Mare
Photo Courtesy of the San Francisco Peninsula

If surfing caused you to work up an appetite, stop by Frattore e Mare for lunch or dinner you won’t find anywhere else.

Moss Beach

Situated on the coast side of San Mateo County, Moss Beach is about 10 minutes from Half Moon Bay. Spend some time discovering the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, a marine sanctuary. Stop by the historic and some say haunted Moss Beach Distillery and throw back a cold one. 

Montara

Montara is 30 minutes from downtown San Francisco and home to a California state park, Point Montara Lighthouse. The town has a popular recreation area that includes Montara State Beach. The nearly mile-long stretch of sand falls off abruptly into the ocean, making it hazardous for swimming. It is, however, a popular surfing destination for experienced surfers. Ten to more than 15-foot waves can occur during winter storm swells.

Pacifica

Pacifica, located 12 miles from San Francisco, features six miles of sandy beaches. Known for getting back to nature, Pacifica has numerous hiking trails, including the famous Devil’s Slide Trail. In addition to Rosalind Bakery, Pacific is renowned for being the place where Jack Cheese was invented.

Pescadero

About 14.4 miles south of Half Moon Bay, east of Highway 1 and Pescadero State Beach, you’ll encounter Pescadero. The town of Pescadero is home to Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Pescadero is also a top-rated weekend destination during the summer for its beaches, Memorial, and Butano State Parks.

South

Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Peninsula is the birthplace of high-tech.

Belmont

Located on the Bayside of the peninsula, halfway between San Francisco and San Jose, Belmont offers the Ralston Hall Mansion. The mansion is now part of Notre Dame de Namur University. Initially, William Chapman Ralston, a San Francisco financier and founder of the Bank of California, built the mansion in 1867. Today, the mansion is included on the National Register for Historic Places and provides insight into the 19th-century lifestyle.

For those traveling with Rover, the Waterdog Lake Park is a locally recommended place to explore.

Russian Ridge - Photo Courtesy of the San Francisco Peninsula
Russian Ridge – Photo Courtesy of the San Francisco Peninsula

East Palo Alto

East Palo Alto is within five miles of Palo Alto. Palo Alto is part of Silicon Valley in California’s San Francisco Bay Area. The city is also home to Stanford University. Art lovers will want to check out Cantor Arts Center’s collection on campus, which includes an outstanding group of Rodin sculptures.

Located southwest of Palo Alto, the Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve is a 3,137-acre preserve with panoramic views of San Francisco Bay and Santa Cruz Mountains. Here’s a preserve map that offers hiking, biking, and equestrian trails.

Purisma Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, Woodside Photo Courtesy of the San Francisco Peninsula
Purisma Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, Woodside Photo Courtesy of the San Francisco Peninsula

Redwood City

Redwood City offers a combination of daytime outdoor activities and nightlife choices. Yes, you’ll find redwoods in Redwood City. With 5,412 acres at the Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, you can hike through the groves of the giants. While this was once an area hit with extensive logging activities, some old-growth trees are still standing. Second-growth trees grow along the creeks and ravines.

In the evening, you could catch a concert at the Fox Theater, a movie theater built in 1929. The ornate theater is on the National Register of Historic Places.

San Carlos

San Carlos is home to the San Carlos Airport (SQL), one of three on the peninsula. Located at the airport, you’ll find the Hiller Aviation Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate. Stanley Hiller, Jr., helicopter designer and inventor, opened the museum in 1998. The museum contains over 50 aircraft that span more than 100 years of aviation history.

The town also has several wineries, including Russian Ridge Winery, Flying Suitcase Winery, Cuvee Wine Cellars, and Domenico Winery. The wineries are generally within short distances of each other and make an excellent selection for a day trip of wine tasting in San Carlos.

Filoli in Woodside on the San Francisco Peninsula
Filoli in Woodside on the San Francisco Peninsula
Photo Courtesy of the San Francisco Peninsula

Woodside

Filoli Mansion and Gardens offer the scenic beauty of a 654-acre garden estate on the slopes of coastal California. Located in Woodside, California, these are the ancestral lands of Ramytush Ohlone. Built in 1917, the estate features a more than 54,000 square-foot Georgian revival-style mansion, 16 acres of English Renaissance gardens, and a 6.8-acre gentleman’s orchard. The natural lands have a one-mile Estate Trail and five distinct ecosystems.

Woodside Vineyards, the oldest operating winery in San Mateo County, makes wines that reflect the Santa Cruz Mountains terroir. The grapes used to create the wine at Woodside Vineyards come from Woodside, Portola Valley, and Los Altos Hills. Some of these vines are over 100 years old. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the weather like in the San Francisco Peninsula?

The year-round average temperature in the San Francisco Peninsula is sunny and mild, at 68 degrees. The winter lows are in the mid-50s, and in the summer months, the highs are 80 degrees. The average rainfall is 20 inches and occurs primarily in the winter.

Pin this to your favorite California board!

A Guide to the Best of the San Francisco Peninsula Pinterest Graphic
Piper
Piper

While Piper is a lifelong Michigander, she’s had adventures worldwide. Bomb-sniffing dogs chased her in the middle of the night in Bogota (working late), gate agents refused her boarding to Paraguay (wrong visa), and US Marshals announced her seat number on a plane while looking for a murder suspect (she’d traded seats). It’s always an adventure! She even finds exciting activities in her home state of Michigan, where she lives in Lansing with her husband, Ross Dingman, her daughter, Alexis, and two granddaughters.

BOOK YOUR TRIP

Let’s get something on the calendar! Here are some of Piper’s Pro Planning links to help you book your trip.

Plan your flight and book your airline ticket with these links:

Plan your overnight accommodations anywhere from national chains to private homes with:

Plan to save on all of your activities, from tours to attractions. These links will help:

Visit my resources page for more planning help.

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5 Comments

  1. Gabby Leopard

    This looks like a very interesting area. I would love to visit San Mateo for the pumpkin festival.

    Reply
  2. Heather

    I appreciate San Francisco for the foodie scene as well. Didn’t know there was a Brisbane (just returned from Australia so I find it interesting) in SF! I absolutely LOVED Half Moon Bay and Palo Alto. I enjoyed spending a day at Facebook and seeing Stanford the day after!

    Reply
  3. alexa meisler

    All of the food photos have my mouth watering! I love the abundance of restaurants in Northern California!

    Reply
  4. Ivan Kralj

    Nice guide.
    I especially liked the colors of that salad.
    Even if I never tried Brussels sprouts that way, I think I could experiment with them one day. They shave them raw, right?

    Reply
    • Piper

      Yes, that’s true. The salad dressing serves to soften them a bit.

      Reply

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Welcome to Follow the Piper! Discover interesting destinations, and practical planning tips for packing more travel into your everyday life.

Our founder and author, Amy Piper, is a freelance travel writer, blogger, photographer, and author specializing in luxury and multi-generational travel. She is a native Michigander who travels through the lens of a food lover and has been to 41 countries and 45 states.

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