One Week in Northern California: Coastal Views, Mountains, and More
Northern California is a stunning and distinctive region that offers something for every type of traveler. Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, a foodie, or a history buff, this region is packed with incredible attractions and experiences. If you’re planning a trip to Northern California but aren’t sure where to start, you’re in luck! In this blog, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to spending one week in Northern California with a 7-day itinerary that covers the highlights of the region.
What Is Northern California most known for?
Northern California is known for its diverse landscapes, vibrant cities, and cultural attractions. The region is home to some of the state’s largest and most influential cities, including San Francisco, Sacramento (the state capital), and Santa Cruz, which offer a mix of world-class museums, restaurants, attractions, and entertainment options.
Northern California is also known for its stunning natural beauty, with landmarks such as the towering redwoods of Muir Woods, the Big Sur Coastline, Yosemite National Park, and the stunning Lake Tahoe. The region’s wine country, which includes the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, is another major draw for tourists and wine enthusiasts, with hundreds of wineries producing some of the world’s finest wines.
What is the best time to visit Northern California?
The best time of year to visit Northern California depends on what activities and experiences you’re looking for. Generally, the region enjoys mild to cool temperatures throughout the year, with occasional rain and fog (and Sacramento can get HOT in the summers).
Spring (March to May) is an excellent time to visit, with wildflowers blooming and temperatures warming up. Summer (June to August) has the best weather (warm and sunny!) but it’s also the peak tourist season, with many popular destinations and attractions crowded with visitors.
Fall (September to November) is a great time to visit wine country, as the grape harvest season brings a festive atmosphere and beautiful fall colors. Winter (December to February) can be chilly and rainy, but it’s a good time to visit the mountains for skiing or to explore San Francisco’s holiday festivities. Plus, winter months will be the cheapest and least crowded time of year to visit, except for during the holidays.
Overall, the best time to visit Northern California depends on your interests and preferences, but the region’s mild climate and diverse attractions make it a year-round destination.
7-Days Northern California Itinerary
Northern California is a vast and diverse region with an abundance of different areas to explore. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveler, planning a trip to Northern California can be overwhelming due to the sheer number of things to see and do.
To help you make the most of your time, we’ve put together a 7-day itinerary that covers some of the region’s most iconic destinations and hidden gems. From the rolling hills of wine country to the rugged coastline of Big Sur, this itinerary offers a taste of Northern California’s unique and varied landscapes, as well as its rich history and culture.
Suggested time: 2-3 days (stay longer if you’re a city person)
San Francisco is the natural start to a week exploring Northern California as you likely will be flying into SFO to begin with. Plus, this vibrant and iconic city is a must-visit destination!
With a mix of world-class museums, eclectic neighborhoods, and stunning natural beauty, San Francisco has something for everyone. Whether you’re interested in history, art, food, or just want to take in the city’s famous sights, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy.
Top activities and attractions in San Francisco:
- Explore the Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio: One of the most iconic landmarks in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge is a must-see when in San Francisco. Take a walk or bike ride across the bridge for stunning views of the city and bay, and explore the nearby Presidio for a taste of the city’s military history.
- Visit Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz Island: Fisherman’s Wharf is a popular tourist spot with a lively atmosphere, plenty of seafood restaurants, and shops selling souvenirs. From here, you can also take a ferry to Alcatraz Island to learn about the history of this famous former prison.
- Explore Chinatown: San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia and offers a fascinating look at Chinese culture and history. Wander the streets, visit temples and museums, and sample some of the city’s best Chinese cuisine.
- Take a cable car ride: San Francisco’s cable cars are a symbol of the city and a fun way to get around. Take a ride up and down the hills for a unique city tour and fantastic views.
- Explore the Mission District: The Mission District is a lively and colorful neighborhood with a rich Latino heritage. Here you can find street art, independent shops, live-music clubs, and some of the city’s best Mexican food.
- Visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: SFMOMA is one of the most impressive modern art museums in the world, with a vast collection of works by artists such as Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Henri Matisse.
- Take a scenic drive along Lombard Street: Lombard Street is famous for its winding curves and beautiful gardens, known as the “crookedest street in the world.”
From San Francisco, drive about 1.5 to 2 hours northeast to make your way to Napa Valley wine country.
Suggested time: 1-2 days (stay longer if you love wine)
Napa Valley is California’s world-renowned wine region and a perfect destination for wine lovers and enthusiasts. With picturesque vineyards, award-winning wineries, and gourmet dining options, Napa Valley promises a memorable experience. While a single day may only scratch the surface of Napa, it can still be a delightful introduction to the region’s beauty and wine culture.
Remember to plan your day in advance and make reservations for wine tastings and dining experiences to ensure a smooth and enjoyable visit. Hotels and accommodation in Napa Valley can also book up well in advance of the tourist and wine picking seasons, so make sure to plan accordingly.
Top activities and attractions in Napa Valley:
- Wine Tasting: With hundreds of wineries in the region, wine tasting is a must-do activity in Napa. Choose a few wineries that interest you and enjoy sampling their exquisite wines. Some popular wineries include Robert Mondavi Winery, Domaine Carneros, and Castello di Amorosa.
- Scenic Drives: Take a leisurely drive along the scenic Silverado Trail or the famous Highway 29, which winds through the valley and offers stunning views of vineyards and rolling hills.
- Hot Air Balloon Ride: For a truly unique experience, consider taking a hot air balloon ride over the vineyards of Napa Valley. Witness the sunrise and enjoy breathtaking aerial views of the landscape.
- Culinary Delights: Napa Valley is renowned for its exceptional culinary scene. Indulge in farm-to-table dining experiences, gourmet restaurants, and artisanal food shops. Explore the charming town of Yountville, known as the culinary heart of Napa Valley.
- Visit Napa’s Main Towns: Explore the quaint towns of Napa, Yountville, and St. Helena, each with its own charm. Browse boutique shops, art galleries, and enjoy the local atmosphere.
- Relax at a Spa: Unwind and rejuvenate at one of Napa’s luxurious spas. Treat yourself to a massage, facial, or other relaxing treatments amidst the serene surroundings.
Next, drive another 1 to 1.5 hours east to reach the state’s capital – Sacramento!
Suggested time: 1-2 days (stay longer if you’re a history buff)
Sacramento, the capital of California, is a vibrant city that showcases much of the state’s history from the infamous ‘Gold Rush’ and beyond. Whether you want to spend one or two days in Sacramento during your week in Northern California, there are plenty of things to see and do to make your visit memorable.
Top activities and attractions in Sacramento:
- Visit the California State Capitol: Take a tour of the stunning California State Capitol building, where you can learn about the state’s political history and admire the beautiful architecture. Don’t miss the opportunity to stroll through the Capitol Park, with its gorgeous gardens and memorials. Public tours run weekdays on a first-come, first-served basis from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.
- Explore Old Sacramento: Step back in time and explore Old Sacramento, a well-preserved historic district filled with charming shops, restaurants, and museums.
- Take a River Cruise: Embark on a river cruise along the Sacramento River, where you can enjoy scenic views, learn about the city’s history, and relax on the water.
- Visit the Crocker Art Museum: Discover an impressive collection of art at the Crocker Art Museum, featuring works from California artists and international masterpieces. The museum’s diverse exhibits and beautiful architecture make it a must-visit for art enthusiasts.
- Explore the California Automobile Museum: Car enthusiasts will appreciate the extensive collection of vintage and classic automobiles at the California Automobile Museum. With over 120 cars on exhibit spanning nearly 120 years, it’s a fascinating journey through automotive history.
- Enjoy the Farm-to-Fork Cuisine: Sacramento is known for its farm-to-fork culinary scene, emphasizing fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Indulge in delicious meals at the city’s numerous farm-to-table restaurants and explore the vibrant culinary culture.
- Visit the American River Bike Trail: If you enjoy outdoor activities, rent a bike and explore the scenic American River Bike Trail. This 32-mile paved trail offers picturesque views of the river and is perfect for a leisurely ride or walk.
- Visit the California State Railroad Museum: Located in Old Sacramento, the California State Railroad Museum is a must-visit for train enthusiasts. Learn about the history of railroads in California through interactive exhibits and vintage locomotives.
Next stop on your week in Northern California is to Santa Cruz, a 2.5 hour drive southwest from Sacramento.
Suggested time: 1-2 days (stay longer if you’re into the beach)
Santa Cruz, located on the central/northern coast of California, is a vibrant beach town known for its lively “hippie” atmosphere, beautiful beaches, and stunning natural beauty. Whether you want to visit for the surfing (one of the most popular, historical surf spots in California), the impressive redwood forests, or for the many attractions – Santa Cruz is sure to be an excellent destination on your week-long trip!
Top activities and attractions in Santa Cruz:
- Visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: The boardwalk is a historic seaside amusement park with thrilling rides, games, and attractions. Take a stroll on the boardwalk, enjoy the beach views, and indulge in classic carnival treats like cotton candy and corn dogs.
- Explore the Natural Bridges State Beach: Discover the stunning Natural Bridges State Beach, home to a natural rock formation that creates a bridge-like formation over the water. The beach is perfect for a scenic walk, a picnic, or a swim in the Pacific Ocean.
- Hike through the Redwood Forests: Take a hike through the beautiful redwood forests at the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The park offers numerous hiking trails, stunning views of the redwoods, and a visitors’ center with exhibits about the park’s natural history.
- Visit the Santa Cruz Wharf: Walk along the Santa Cruz Wharf and explore the shops and restaurants while you take in the beautiful views of the ocean and the coastline.
- Explore the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Country: Head up to the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Country, where you can taste the region’s award-winning wines and enjoy beautiful views of the vineyards. The wine country is home to numerous wineries, each offering unique wine-tasting experiences.
- Experience the Mystery Spot: Venture into the famous Mystery Spot, a gravitational anomaly located in the redwood forests of Santa Cruz. Explore the optical illusions and peculiar phenomena that make this spot a fascinating and mind-boggling attraction. Witness objects defying the laws of gravity and experience strange sensations in this unique and mysterious destination.
Next, head a bit further south to Monterey Bay and Big Sur. You can either stay for a night in the area or just take a quick day trip down from Santa Cruz, as it’s less than an hour drive to Monterey and about 1.5 hours to Big Sur.
Monterey & Big Sur
Suggested time: 1 day (stay longer if you enjoy exploring coastal nature)
Finally, end your 7 days in Northern California itinerary in Monterey and Big Sur. Visiting Monterey Bay and exploring the breathtaking coastal beauty of Big Sur in one day is an adventure that combines stunning landscapes, marine life, and outdoor activities. This region along the central coast of California offers a diverse range of attractions that will leave you in awe.
Top activities and attractions in Monterey & Big Sur:
- Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium: Start your day in Monterey by immersing yourself in the fascinating underwater world at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Explore the exhibits showcasing marine life from the bay and beyond, including playful sea otters, mesmerizing jellyfish, and majestic sharks.
- Take a scenic drive on PCH: Embark on a picturesque drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway 1, from Monterey to Big Sur. Enjoy breathtaking coastal views, rugged cliffs, and the expansive blue ocean that stretches as far as the eye can see.
- Explore Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: Make a stop at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a pristine coastal park known for its diverse marine ecosystems and scenic trails. Take a hike along the coastal paths, spot sea lions and seals, and revel in the stunning views of the rugged coastline.
- Bask in the beauty of Bixby Creek Bridge: Marvel at the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, an architectural masterpiece that spans across a dramatic canyon along the Pacific Coast Highway. Stop for a photo op and soak in the awe-inspiring scenery surrounding the bridge.
- Enjoy a picnic at Pfeiffer Beach: Head to Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, known for its striking purple sand and picturesque rock formations. Unwind, have a picnic, and take a leisurely stroll along the shoreline while enjoying the serenity of this beautiful beach.
- Discover the charm of Carmel-by-the-Sea: On your way back from Big Sur, stop by the picturesque town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Explore the charming streets lined with art galleries, boutique shops, and quaint cottages. Take a walk along the white-sand Carmel Beach and admire the ocean views.
When your week in Northern California concludes, you can fly out of San Francisco Airport (SFO) or San Jose International Airport (SJC).
Conclusion: One Week in Northern California
Spending one week in Northern California is an incredible journey that combines diverse landscapes, vibrant cities, and unforgettable experiences. From the iconic city of San Francisco with it’s well-known attractions to the picturesque vineyards of Napa Valley, there is something for everyone.
Exploring the state’s capital, Sacramento, offers a glimpse into California’s rich history and vibrant culinary scene. Lastly, a visit to the coastal gems of Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay, and Big Sur showcases the region’s coastal beauty and abundant marine life. Whether you’re a nature lover, a food enthusiast, or a culture seeker, Northern California offers plenty to see and do to create the vacation of a lifetime!
Has this one week in Northern California itinerary been helpful to you? If you have questions or comments, let us know in the comment section below!
Janelle is a travel consultant and owner of Make the Trip Matter, a service dedicated to helping people create a lifestyle around frequent travel and extended time abroad. She grew up in California and specializes in creating custom itineraries and travel plans.