It's easy to get lost sometimes in San Francisco's urban center: between all the skyscrapers, the traffic, the cultural offerings, and the endless options for nightlife, we can all get caught up in the hustle and bustle of city life. In fact, visitors and locals alike often forget that the city's surrounded by unique opportunities to live a different kind of California lifestyle. From natural playgrounds, to small towns full of charm, the areas surrounding our fair city are ripe for exploration. And best of all, you can reach many of them on public transportation – and be back in San Francisco in time for dinner.
So, are you ready for a backyard adventure? Check out our favorite day trips from San Francisco that you can make without a car.
The Destination: Think Alcatraz is this city's only island? Think again. Angel Island is actually the largest island in the San Francisco Bay. Now a state park, Angel Island has quite a history behind it: it's served as a seasonal hunting ground for the Coastal Miwok, a cattle ranch, a Nike missile base, and a processing point for immigrants to the U.S. And while the island still shows some signs of its former iterations, it's best known today as a fantastic place to hike, bike, picnic, and take in some knock-out views of the city skyline.
Foot trails circle the entire park and will lead you past native trees and plant life, up the 788-foot-high Mount Caroline Livermore, and even to the island's two beaches. While walking, keep an eye out for deer, harbor seals, hummingbirds, and brown pelicans, not to mention panoramic views of the city across the Bay.
To learn more about the somber side of the island's history, don't miss the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island. What was once a detainment and processing center for hundreds of thousands of immigrants is now a museum dedicated to interpreting the experiences of those who were once detained here, and to telling the continuing story of immigration today. (General admission $5)
The Details: Hop a ferry from Pier 41 in San Francisco for $8.50 each way. Save your money for sun block by packing lunch and snagging one of the picnic tables at Ayala Cove or Quarry Beach (check out a map of the island here).
The Destination: What's that you say? You've never heard of Petaluma? Maybe not, but there's a pretty good chance you've seen it anyway. That's because this country-chic little town in Sonoma County has long been a favorite shooting location for some big Hollywood names. George Lucas shot his classic American Graffiti here; Francis Ford Coppola came to town with Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage for Peggy Sue Got Married; Liv Tyler and Joaquin Phoenix wandered the local side streets in Inventing the Abbotts.
Take a quick stroll around and it'll be easy to see why this place has gotten so much screen time: it's a perfect stand-in for the quaint, picturesque America of yesteryear. Petaluma's downtown streets are lined with historic iron-front buildings and cutesy boutiques; the neighborhoods surrounding downtown are full of graceful Victorian homes. Spend an afternoon here window shopping, lazing by the riverfront, or taking a self-guided movie-scene tour. You'll feel as if you've been zapped back in time like Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire in the movie Pleasantville – which, incidentally, also shot scenes in town.
The Details: Golden Gate Transit runs several routes between San Francisco and Petaluma. Your best bet, though, is the 101 bus, which will get you to Petaluma in under two hours at $10.25 each way.
The Destination: If you've ever dreamed of strolling beneath an endless canopy of California redwoods, Muir Woods is everything you've imagined. This National Monument comprises well over 500 acres of coastal redwoods, the tallest type of tree on Earth. While there are trees of all ages and sizes in the park, many are over 600 years old and some reach heights of up to 250 feet.
The density of these fog-loving trees creates a wonderland for woodland creatures, forest-floor wildflowers, and hikers alike. The park has six miles of trails, with loops for all levels and timeframes starting at half an hour. Longer loops will take you through Muir Woods and all the way into Mount Tamalpais State Park, another densely wooded favorite destination among Bay Area hikers.
The Details: On weekends and holidays starting March 29, 2014 and continuing through the summer, a Muir Woods shuttle bus picks up just north of the Golden Gate Bridge and takes visitors right to the park. From the Civic Center, not far from HI-SF City Center, hop a #70, #80, or #10Golden Gate Transit bus to the Marin City stop ($4.75 and about 45 minutes each way), then grab the Muir Woods shuttle for $5 round-trip.
The Destination: Urban wineries, a massive outdoor flea market, and stunning views of the city are just a few of the draws for visitors to this man-made island in the San Francisco Bay. To learn more about what makes Treasure Island the city's "next big thing," check out our in-depth guide.
The Details: Getting to Treasure Island is as easy as boarding the bus. MUNI's #108 bus leaves every 15 minutes from downtown San Francisco, and will zip you across the new Bay Bridge and over to Treasure Island in a matter of minutes.
The Destination: Sure, it'll only take you two hours to get to Sacramento from San Francisco, but even so, you'll want to set aside more than one day for California's State Capital. Check into HI-Sacramento and spend a night in a Victorian mansion, spot some street art on a stroll around town, taste the famous local produce at dozens of certified farmers' markets, eat your way through the list of hostel General Manager Marc Johnson's favorite local restaurants, and earn some indie cred at the city's niche nightspots.
The Details: The Megabus picks up in downtown San Francisco and will get you to Sacramento in about two hours. Book your ticket in advance to get the best deal (tickets go for as little as $1 each way – that's half the cost of a city bus ride in San Francisco). The Megabus will drop you off a short walk from the University/65th Light Rail Station, where you can grab a Gold Line train to the 8th and H Street station. The hostel's just a few blocks away at H and 10th Streets.
Want even more ways to spend a day off the beaten path during your stay in San Francisco? Try an afternoon of hiking in our Bay Area National Parks or freeing your inner kid at "adult playgrounds" around the city. Or, take a weekend bus out to the Marin Headlands for the day of beach combing and wildlife spotting (better yet: stay overnight at HI-Marin Headlands). You'll be amazed how easy it is to take a break from city life with nothing more than a bus pass and an eye for adventure!
Stay at one of our three San Francisco hostels.