When life throws something sour your way, say lemons or limes, and you are not in the mood for lemonade (or tequila), forget the proverbial phrase and instead head to sweet California. This famous state, known far outside of the US (in addition to New York and Texas), has something to offer for everyone: sandy beaches and palm trees, clear lakes and mountains, forests and deserts, big cities and farms, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. The geographical diversity, mild Mediterranean climate and rich cultural background are among many reasons why California is sometimes referred to as the ‘golden state’, the ‘paradise’, and the place ‘where dreams come true’ (hello Disneyland!) How much of this is true and how much of this is too good to be true? Go there and find out! (but in the meantime, continue reading).
Since I only had few days to ‘sweeten’ my life, I focused on the Bay Area in northern California. My advice would be to fly into San Francisco’s airport, rent a car (or call a local friend), spend couple of days in San Francisco and then head out to the coastal area, national parks, and vineyards. Keep in mind that traffic can drive you crazy (and so can parking on San Francisco’s hills) so factor in extra time into your itinerary.
Despite everyone going to see the Golden Gate Bridge first and thus making it the most stereotypical and cliché thing to do, I still ended up going directly there from the airport (you might as well get it over with so you can check it of your list and enjoy the actual city). In a way, it’s similar to seeing the Eiffel Tower in Paris – before you spot it, you might not even notice that you are in Paris so seeing the famous symbol reinforces the sense of the city. The advantage of large landmarks (such as the 2.7km bridge) is that you can see it from far away and from many different angles (such as one below), keeping the concentration of tourists snapping selfies in front of pleasantly low. As a result, the level of enjoyment one can get from simply observing and marveling at beauty of this structure can be quite high (and so unlike the experience one can get, for example, from observing the small painting of Mona Lisa protected by thick wall of tourists in Louvre).
Before leaving the area, drive down to Fort Point located just below the southern entrance of the bridge. This fort is a US National Historic Site and offers nice view of the city and the bridge, free entrance to the fortress’ museum, free restrooms and (most importantly) free parking. While there, walk down to the small Torpedo Wharf and watch crab and fish enthusiasts collect their daily catch. If you’re in the mood for fresh crab and have a place to cook it, there is no cheaper place to buy it and freshness is guaranteed!
If you are not in the mood for a fresh (and still crawling) crab, there are plenty of healthy veggie options all around the city. Not far from the bridge area (3.5 mile drive), you can find a cozy Cafe Velo Rouge (798 Arguello Blvd.) with delicious (and inexpensive!) coffee, salads and sandwiches, and even kids menu. What I personally found really nice about this cafe (as well as many others in San Francisco) is that it had a little corner with self-serve cold water so you can satisfy your thirst without having to ask or, worse, pay for it (my German readers can relate to this).
If you want to eat something more authentic [read: touristy], try San Francisco’s famous clam chowder in a bread bowl sold at Fisherman’s Wharf (near Pier 39). There are several booths to choose from although they all look pretty much the same and prices don’t differ much. Just be ready to eat your food standing up if you can’t find a clean spot on nearby benches frequented by homeless people and greedy seagulls. Not something I would recommend doing twice but might be worth trying once at least to say that you have done it. Don’t feel obligated to eat your ‘bowl’ because local seagulls will expect you to share.
For a relatively large city, San Francisco has a nice and relaxing vibe, with plenty of parks, cafes and panoramic views thanks to unusually hilly landscape. Just be prepared to do a lot of walking up and down the hills and you will be rewarded with breathtaking views of the harbor and the city skyline.
Once you’ve had enough of the city and ready for a change in scenery, head north to the Napa valley, if not for wine then at least for the experience of watching others come for the wine (the latter being my primary reason for going there). Having heard so much about the prized US wine-growing region, I was curious to see for myself what the whole thing was about. One of my first impressions was that the welcome sign looked suspiciously large and hinted at commercialism galore to come. After all, why would anyone invest into putting up a giant sign in the middle of nowhere claiming to be ‘world famous’ area if it wasn’t meant to attract passing drivers to stop and spend
some a lot of money?
Short visit to couple of vineyards quickly confirmed my suspicion as I watched fancy-dressed people pull up in clumsy limousines to the entrance of vineyard disguised as European castles and classy mansions. Some even featured fancy fluffy chickens, turkeys, goats and sheep strategically placed near the entrance to gift shop which sold unpleasantly expensive bottles.
I am sure many people enjoy visiting Napa either for wine tasting or to simply enjoy scenic views but I have been (fortunately) spoiled by driving past vineyards in northern Italy set against incredibly beautiful backdrop of Alpes with real castles perched on rocky edges. Although I didn’t stop at any of them, I know people who drive away with trunks chock-full of good wine bought at a bargain because in Italy (and also in France) wine sold at the source tends to be much cheaper. Nevertheless, if you are in the area, I wouldn’t cross Napa of your list of places to visit – it’s still a very pretty spot and offers nice subject for photography.
Your trip to the Bay Area would not be complete without visiting at least one national park and couple of small coastal towns where you can watch wealthy retirees at their leisure. Monterey county, located about 100 miles south of SFO airport, is a perfect spot for doing some hiking along the rugged coast (Point Lobos is not to be missed!), scenic driving (have you heard of the 17-Mile Drive?), and experiencing the small [rich] town’s leisurely pace of living in towns like Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea. In fact, it would seem that some ‘residents’ spend most of their day taking group naps on various piers and docking areas, often showing off their amazing balancing skills.
If you find sea lions and otters adorable (and who doesn’t??), don’t leave Monterey without visiting US Coast Guard Pier for the close-up on their daily routine. This place is by far the closest you will ever get to sea lions and seals without being directly in the water. Beautiful view of ocean wildlife also includes spotting fat starfish clinging to the rocks just below the surface.
I hope this post gives you a nice sneak peak of what you can experience in the Bay Area and that the photos and comments above have sparked your interest enough to go see the “golden state” for yourself (or give it another try, if you have been there already).