What to do in Northern California: Marin, Sonoma, San Francisco
Think outside the box, even outside San Francisco city limits, when looking for what to do in Northern California. Steer north to the suburb of Novato, where you can find less expensive lodging and have convenient access to premier agritourism, great eats, outstanding wine, California history, outdoor adventures and, yes, even San Francisco.
Consider this: The average temperature in San Francisco in the summer is in the 60s, while the average temperature in Novato in Marin County is in the 80s. For parking in San Francisco you’ll pay at least $30-$40 a day, while in most areas of Marin and Sonoma counties, you can park for free (and you can find a place, too). A decent hotel in a convenient area in San Francisco can set you back $300 (or more!), while a hotel night in the northern part of the Bay Area will likely be less than $200.
Meaning when you are looking for what to do in Northern California, Novato – about 40-45 minutes north of San Francisco by car – could be the answer for a getaway that will put less of a dent in your wallet. Plus, it will give you superior access to a broader scope of what the San Francisco Bay Area has to offer, especially if you prefer to use a car for some part of your adventure. Think hiking on the coast with sweeping cliff views, sipping wine in Sonoma or Marin counties, standing in a redwood forest, tasting cheese, birdwatching, or enjoying California history and museums.
You can also head down into San Francisco, taking a car to the Larkspur Ferry, then arriving in San Francisco worry-free sans automobile.
People often think of Sonoma and Napa wineries for what to do north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Think a little broader (but don’t forget about wine and related fermented beverages and distilled spirits). You can’t do it all – since there is a huge menu to choose from – but consider a few of these options:
Both Sonoma and Marin counties have many of the original, craft cheese-making businesses in California. In fact, thanks to the California Cheese Trail organization, you can plot your way from cheese to cheese, nibbling on fresh, soft, hard, aged, blue, white, and you name it.
I took a cheese-tasting and tour at Cowgirl Creamery in quaint Point Reyes Station in Marin County, where a group of both tourists and locals discovered the ins and outs of a variety of cheese types. And, yes, you get to taste the offerings, too, while cheesemakers are busy behind the glass in the creamery putting together a batch of triple cream Red Hawk. One of Cowgirl’s most famous cheeses, it is defined by the flavors created by local Point Reyes Station bacteria – so even when the entire operation moved to a large plant in Petaluma in Sonoma County, Red Hawk production stayed behind. Head cheese monger Hilary Green led a down-to-earth tasting where participants even “made cheese” (surprising how the milk and rennet became cheese so quickly and easily, but it was most certainly not ready for prime time!). Of course, the highlight was tasting eight different cheeses. As the cheeseboard passed down the tables, tasting spoons became weapons as eager participants dove enthusiastically into the cheese samples. Get there in the morning to watch the cheese making in the creamery, and sign up for Friday-only tasting and tours early since they sell out quickly.
Hungry? Although Point Reyes Station is a small town, there is no lack of great restaurants. The Osteria Stellina and Station House Café get high ratings, but I chose the more casual Side Street Kitchen that emphasizes slow-cooked meats and chicken, organic foods, and wholesome fare. You can also buy all kinds of goodies to go at Tomales Bay Foods (where Cowgirl Creamery is housed) and have a do-it-yourself gourmet picnic. Insider tip: Inside the Palace Market in the center of town you can snag some locally made Double 8 soft serve buffalo milk gelato, rich, creamy, delectable and a great way to top off a meal or hike.
Wine and other fermented beverages and spirits
When you talk about what to do in Sonoma County and in Marin County, wine, beer, mead, whisky and other spirits are top of list for many. In 2019, Sonoma County celebrated its two-year anniversary of surviving the huge Tubbs Fire, which at that time was the most destructive wildfire in California history. Nearly two dozen wineries were damaged or destroyed. But most have come back and are celebrating a rebirth. And they want you.
It’s not difficult to find wineries and others along the traditional wine trails in Sonoma (and Napa) counties, so we stayed put in Novato to see what Marin had to say about wine. And boy did it have a lot to say!
Mantra Wines opened its tasting room in small old town Novato in 2017 after starting “legitimate” wine production in about 2000, according to owner, winemaker and all-around-if-it-needs-doing-I’ll-do-it guy Mike Kuimelis. Take our word for it, the website does not do justice to the experience at the Mantra Wines tasting room. It is a tasting room, crossed with a lounge, sort of a bar, a bit like a living room, with a dash of music club. Comfy, cozy, light-filled, with a small menu of light bites in partnership with popular Finnegan’s bistro and pub next door. You can easily hunker down with some great wine in one of the nooks with a few friends and find the evening is gone in a wink. And the variety of excellent wine, including bubblies, goes on forever.
Also in Novato’s downtown is Trek Winery, which has become a venue for special events, music and comedy too since it opened in 2012. Brooks Note winery has its tasting room (for now!) in Trek’s headquarters and offers “all things pinot,” according to owner/winemaker Garry Brooks. The Pinot Noir Rose was really divine!
Deciding to veer from the wine trail for something different, I wandered into Heidrun Meadery back in Point Reyes Station. Mead is basically an alcoholic beverage fermented from honey and water. But if you have tasted mead before and said something like, “nice but way too sweet, for me,” you need to reeducate your mead palate with Heidrun. According to founder and mead maker Gordon Hull, it is the only meadery in the United States that relies exclusively on the champagne technique (méthode champenoise) for making mead. With final fermenting in the bottle, the result is a beverage that fills your nose with the smells of its honey’s source (from Macadamia Nut to Orange Blossom to Madras Carrot Blossoms) but goes down fresh, light and bubbly like the finest sparkling wine. When you are headed out for a hike in Point Reyes National Seashore see below), drop in at Heidrun for a refresher afterwards.
At some point, you’ll likely end up in the heart of Sonoma at the historic Sonoma Plaza (largest of its kind in California) shaded by graceful oak trees. There are shops, nationally renowned restaurants and wine-tasting rooms surrounding the entire plaza. But take a few minutes to take in the history that made this town what it was: Go to the Sonoma State Historic Park and find out more about the northernmost mission in California. Different from other parks, it is a series of attractions near and on the plaza (which is where the California State Bear Flag was born). After wandering through the mission, the barracks and others, don’t miss the home of General Vallejo about ¾ of a mile down the street (a great picnic venue too).
Petaluma historic downtown. Many towns in the greater San Francisco Bay Area were partly or wholly destroyed in the 1906 earthquake – not Petaluma, because of the bedrock it is on. That means when it comes to a density of beautiful historic homes, downtown business buildings and other landmarks, Petaluma needs to be on your list of things to do in Northern California and in Sonoma County. The Petaluma Visitors Bureau offers historic walking tours of downtown every Saturday morning from May through October with docents in costumes (check the event calendar about that and more). Sure, you can walk around on your own, but taking a walking tour will open your eyes to an additional layer of history, building construction, and other touches you simply would not notice on your own.
Hungry? In the Great Petaluma Mill Center, the Wild Goat Bistro offers a cozy, casual setting with farm-to-table cuisine and many gluten-free options. (The Four Cheese Fig & Pig Pizza is to die for.)
Novato history and sights. Novato in Marin County offers a lot of parks and preserves while also being a super central spot to stay when you are looking for things to do in Northern California. Its City Hall is a cute building built in 1896 in the Gothic Victorian style, today an event space. There is no lack of festivals and activities in Novato either, from wine and food, to history and music. Take time to head to the former Hamilton Army Airfield & Air Force base that hugs the bay. Today, the Hamilton base has been repurposed and includes superior access to a great (and accessible) walking trail along Hamilton Wetlands (Our tip: Get there in the morning or at sunset when the light is amazing and the birdwatching at its best), and there is also a Hamilton Field History Museum for true buffs. A real highlight is the Marin Museum of Contemporary Arts (Marin MOCA).
Marin Civic Center and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. I must admit that I have driven past the Marin Civic Center’s beautiful building for, well, decades, but finally stopped. Don’t make the mistake I did if you are interested in architecture and history. Yes, you can walk around on your own as I did (since I was there late in the day), but a docent tour is advised for a real education. You can also head up into the café on your own if before 4 p.m. to see the golden spire. Or you can download a self-guided tour brochure for your own walkabout, or the interactive app for a virtual tour.
What to do in Northern California for families
What makes up fun for the family in Northern California will depend on the age of the kids involved. Here are three highlights:
Charles M. Schulz Museum. Yes, the home of all things Peanuts and Snoopy, and it is housed in Santa Rosa, about 35-55 minutes by car from Novato and up to two hours from San Francisco. For Peanuts gang fans, the Charles Schulz Museum is a must-stop. Not only can you read Peanuts cartoons forever (exhibits and collections change), but you can learn more about the timeline and development of Peanuts and Charles Schulz, who died in 2000. Spend some time in the re-creation of his art studio with family photos, his art tools, his chair and the back wall (with its worn-out mark from the chair rubbing on it!), and his personal library. In the theater there is a constant show of cartoons and documentaries, and an education room for kids to try their hand at being a cartoonist. Check out the event program for what’s happening since there is always something!
Hungry? A visit to the Charles Schulz Museum is not complete with a stop at the Warm Puppy Café inside the Redwood Empire Ice Arena. Charles Schulz’s regular table is still reserved for him, and you can watch skaters through the window at the ice rink. Super casual and also built by Schulz.
Walt Disney Family Museum and Presidio. Opened in 2007 on a former army base in San Francisco by Walt Disney’s daughter, the non-profit Walt Disney Family Museum frankly is a treat that will entertain kids, teens and the adults alike. From exhibitions and movies, to checking out a pencil to do a little sketching in the galleries, you can spend many hours there.
While you are at the Walt Disney Family Museum, take time to discover the Presidio, a former military post. Since its closing in 1989, the Presidio has been transformed by a partnership between the national park system and the Presidio Trust into to housing, parks, museums, monuments, greenspace, walking trails, outdoor art – and a great view of the Bay. It is a true gem in San Francisco, yet just about 30 minutes from Novato in Marin County. There is also a free bus from downtown San Francisco to and around the Presidio (it IS more than 1,100 acres you know!). Check its schedule and stops here.
Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception. Celebrating its 50th birthday in 2019, the Exploratorium in San Francisco finally grew out of its original facility at the Palace of Fine Arts and moved to Pier 15 along the Embarcadero. Kids of all ages will enjoy its hands-on exhibits to explore every aspect of science and perception. Since it can be filled with endless school field trips, wait until mid-afternoon when the buses of kids leave so you can have a more intimate experience!
Outdoor adventure of all kinds in Northern California
With the many thousands of acres of state and national parks, preserves, seashores, trails, woods and wetlands, Northern California offers something for everyone. Pick your park based on a preference of wetlands, rivers, mountain trails, or Bay views. Here is a sampling of a few places you can head:
>> In Marin County: Point Reyes National Seashore offers many miles of trails, but you can also learn a little bit about earthquakes on its shorter Earthquake Trail (1 kilometer) — great for families and kids and accessible. The Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area also offers biking, walking and bay and Golden Gate Bridge Views. And of course, in Muir Woods National Monument you can walk among towering old growth Redwoods.
>> In Sonoma County: The San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge is in part in Sonoma County and offers expansive bay, wetlands and river views and birdwatching. Sonoma County also has numerous regional parks for hiking, boating, biking birding and swimming.
>> From San Francisco to Marin and Sonoma and beyond: If you are looking for a little more adventure – or just a short jaunt – check out the Bay Area Ridge Trail, which circles the ridges around the entire bay (or will some day). Want more? There is also the San Francisco Bay Trail, now celebrating its 30th birthday. It circles the entire Bay closer to the water covering 500 miles and 47 cities, including Novato. Both circular trails have been works in progress for 20-30 years and are continuing to connect the dots.