The Bay Area (more fully, the San Francisco Bay Area), ringing the San Francisco Bay in northern California, is a geographically diverse and extensive metropolitan region that is home to nearly 8 million inhabitants in cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose. Once a focus of Spanish missions and Gold Rush prospectors, the Bay Area is best known now for its lifestyle, liberal politics and the high-tech industry of Silicon Valley.
Although it doesn't have any firm boundaries, the Bay Area includes portions of nine counties: Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa, Alameda, and Santa Clara. San Mateo and the northern part of Santa Clara counties comprise the Peninsula while Contra Costa and Alameda counties comprise the East Bay of the Bay Area. The southern parts of Sonoma and Napa counties are considered part of the Bay Area for this guide, since their culture and economies face towards the Bay. To the East and South, whether outlying towns such as Gilroy and Santa Cruz are part of the Bay Area or the Central Valley/Central Coast respectively will depend on who you ask.
A small region of its own, the Bay Area still has distinct areas with their own attractions and cultures. The sub-regions of the Bay Area are described several ways, which may give the first time visitor the impression that the Bay Area is bigger than it really is. In fact, the unique geography of the Bay Area makes it relatively easy to get a sense of where you are.
|San Francisco |
The de facto center and the iconic city of the region, home to such landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge, the hilly streets with their famous cable cars and Victorian houses, the infamous island prison of Alcatraz, and enough museums and intriguing neighborhoods to keep a traveler exploring for days.
|North Bay |
Across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, this area includes Marin, southern Sonoma, southern Napa, and Solano Counties, and is home to some incredible natural scenery, including the old-growth redwood forest of Muir Woods and the scenic stretch of coastline at Point Reyes, as well as the famed wine-growing region of Napa Valley.
|East Bay |
Across the bay from San Francisco, this area includes Contra Costa and Alameda Counties and is an intensely developed area wedged between the bay and a ridge of mountains to the east. Oakland is the most populous city in this region, with the college town of Berkeley being another major destination.
The suburbs of San Mateo County along the peninsula to the south of San Francisco. There are few major attractions here, although this is a major entry point owing to the presence of SFO airport, and home to the prestigious Stanford University. The southernmost reaches of the Peninsula are home to some of the tech companies of Silicon Valley.
|South Bay |
Santa Clara County, south of the Peninsula and the East Bay, home to many of the tech giants of Silicon Valley and anchored by the most populous city in the Bay Area, San Jose.
Here's a handy rule of thumb: the telephone area codes 415 and 650 means the Marin and San Francisco Peninsula or the West Bay, 510 and 925 is for the East Bay, 707 for the North Bay or Wine Country and 408 and 669 are for the South Bay or the Santa Clara Valley.
Note that the boundary between Peninsula and South Bay is not formal; some locals, and some other sites/guides may place some of the northern Santa Clara County cities categorized here as "Peninsula" as South Bay - for example, the local Craigslist does so for Mountain View.
The counties in this region are Contra Costa County, Alameda County, Marin County, Napa County (Napa Valley), Solano County, Southern Sonoma County, Santa Clara County (the South Bay), San Mateo County (the Peninsula), and San Francisco County (or just the city of San Francisco).
There are scores of cities that surround the Bay; these are some of the most famous.
- 1 Berkeley — known for its liberal activism, world-class public university, and extensive cultural and culinary attractions
- 2 Oakland — diverse and underrated with important history, including entertainment and radical culture
- 3 Palo Alto — a small but active city, home to lots of tech startups and right by Stanford University
- 4 San Francisco — the heart of the Bay Area, famous for its scenic beauty and unique culture
- 5 San Jose — the center of Silicon Valley and largest city in the Bay Area
- 1 Alcatraz – the notorious island prison that once held Al Capone
- 2 Mount Diablo State Park – This 20,000 acre park provides great hiking opportunities on a mountain that dominates the landscape for most of central and eastern Contra Costa County. It offers an incredible viewshed, with views on clear days stretching 181 miles to Mount Lassen.
- 3 Muir Woods – a forest of old-growth redwoods, the tallest trees on the planet
- 4 Napa Valley – in the North Bay, renowned for its fine wineries
- 5 Point Reyes – one of the Bay Area's hidden treasures, a national seashore full of hiking trails, scenic hills, and diverse wildlife including marine mammals
- 6 Silicon Valley – a shorthand for the computer industry as much as a meta-region within the Bay Area, comprising parts of the South Bay and southern Peninsula
Temperate in summer and mild in the winter, the Bay Area is an excellent place to visit year-round. The weather in the Bay Area is affected by microclimates, so certain parts of East Bay can be up to 15 degrees warmer than downtown San Francisco, and as much as 20 degrees warmer than the area around the Golden Gate bridge. Generally the closer to the ocean one goes the cooler it is, it is suggested that one keep that in mind when traveling around the area.
There are three major airports in the San Francisco Bay Area: San Francisco International Airport (SFO IATA, located about 10 miles south of the city) is the largest, a major international airport with numerous passenger amenities; Oakland International Airport (OAK IATA), in the East Bay is smaller and serves destinations in the U.S. and Mexico; and Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC IATA), in Silicon Valley) serves the U.S. and only a few international flights to Mexico and Japan. All are served by discount airlines such as Southwest, though OAK and SJC tend to have more low-cost flights than SFO. All three airports may be reached by inexpensive public transit (SFO and OAK are both served by the regional BART system), though SJC is the most inconvenient to San Francisco (SJC is served by San Jose's VTA Light Rail and the regional Caltrain line). Private pilots should consider Oakland (OAK IATA) rather than SFO, as the separate general aviation field there is more accommodating to light aircraft. While SFO is the largest and serves the most international connections, it is also the most congested and delays due to that as well as fog are not unheard of.
Amtrak, +1-800-872-7245, serves the Bay Area with long-distance and intercity trains. Two long distance trains, the California Zephyr to Chicago and the Coast Starlight between Seattle and Los Angeles, serve the Bay Area with stations in Martinez and Emeryville, with the Coast Starlight also stopping at Oakland's Jack London Square Station and San Jose. From Emeryville, passengers may take an Amtrak California Thruway bus over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco's Amtrak stop at 101 The Embarcadero (near the Ferry Building) and usually several other downtown destinations (note that Amtrak passengers are not subjected to any extra charge for the bus).
Two shorter distance Amtrak routes also serve the Bay Area: The Capitol Corridor runs 16 times daily (11 on weekends and holidays) between Sacramento and Emeryville, with some trains also serving San Jose, with connections to Caltrain in San Jose, Amtrak bus at Emeryville, and BART at Richmond or the Oakland Coliseum station. Additionally, the San Joaquins runs 4 times daily between Bakersfield, Stockton and Emeryville. Travelers on the San Joaquins can connect to Amtrak bus at Emeryville or the BART at the Richmond station. For both trains, discount BART tickets can be purchased in the cafe car.
From the east, the entrance to the Bay Area is superhighway Interstate 80, which wends its way all the way from New York several thousand miles to pass through Lake Tahoe and Sacramento and end up in San Francisco.
From the south, the lovely Highway 101 runs from Southern California through the Central Coast to Silicon Valley and up the Peninsula to San Francisco. Some people prefer Highway 5, which travels more directly through the San Joaquin Valley to highway 580 and then into the Bay Area through the East Bay.
From the North Coast or the Pacific Northwest, the story is similar. Coastal highway 101 is more scenic, while highway 5 is efficient but somewhat boring. Interstate 5 intersects interstate 80 in Sacramento, however, when coming from the north, Interstate 505 can be used to bypass Sacramento and get to the Bay Area quicker.
Parking rates in San Francisco can go up to around $30. You can park at BART parking lots: For example: Park in Colma parking garage $2 all day, free weekends and round trip BART from Colma to Moscone Center would cost $6.50 for one person, so two people could park and train for $15 as opposed to $25 for all day parking at the center.
Most routes connect the Bay Area to Los Angeles via Interstate 5. Other routes go to Sacramento, Redding, and San Luis Obispo.
Some cruise lines along the Pacific Coast stop in San Francisco, but only for the day.
- See also: Bay Area public transit
The Bay Area is well served by a network of freeways. Highways 280 and 101 run up the Peninsula from the Silicon Valley to San Francisco, and 101 continues into Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge. Highways 880 (also called the Nimitz Freeway) and 580 run the length of the East Bay, and Highway 24 runs out to Contra Costa County. All major freeways, particularly those going through San Francisco and Oakland, suffer from severe congestion at commute times. Interstate 280 and the South Bay freeways and expressways tend to be less congested than the Peninsula and East Bay freeways.
For a slower but vastly more scenic route, the Pacific Coast Highway (also known as PCH and Highway 1) runs along the coast. In many places this route may not be appropriate for those prone to car sickness or fear of heights, but for all others it provides an unforgettable vista over the Pacific Coast.
Note that many Bay Area freeways tend to have dense traffic at any time of day or the evening, any day of the week (even Sundays), and you will be lucky if traffic is actually moving at the speed limit (rather than far below it). This is particularly true of the Eastshore Freeway in Berkeley and the James Lick Skyway in San Francisco. Other freeways, such as Interstate 280 on the Peninsula, are congested only during rush hours on weekdays and are relatively easy to drive at all other times. You can get traffic reports 24 hours a day from several radio stations, most notably KCBS (740 AM and 106.9 FM) which has traffic and weather reports every ten minutes on the eights (:08, :18, :28, :38, :48, and :58).
There is a proportion of "hurried" drivers that will zig-zag between cars at high speeds. In the North Bay, there are fast succession of freeway interchanges; a misunderstanding may land you on the wrong freeway, even on a bridge you do not intend to take. Interchanges are signposted with road numbers and compass directions, but even these may be confusing: the same stretch of road may carry several numbers and opposite compass directions between these numbers. Read a map carefully before driving or have a passenger watch for directions.
Note that since tolls are charged only one-way on the toll bridges, you should plan road trips to minimize the number of times you traverse bridges in the toll direction.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is an extensive regional metro system that connects San Francisco to the East Bay and Contra Costa County, as well as parts of the Peninsula, the eastern half of Silicon Valley, and the San Francisco and Oakland airports. BART is also useful for getting around within SF and Oakland. Ticket prices vary by distance traveled, but usually run about $2–5 one way and tickets can be purchased from vending machines at any station. You will need to insert your ticket into barriers when entering and exiting the system. Tickets hold a balance, deducting the appropriate price for each trip, so someone who plans to use the system several times can buy a $10 or $20 ticket and not worry about fares until the card is used up. Note that the BART vending machines accept any credit card only twice within any 24 hour period. Trains run about every 10–20 minutes starting around 6AM and closing just after midnight.
Caltrain is a commuter train system running along the Peninsula between San Francisco, San Jose and Gilroy. Ticket prices vary by the distance between stations, but usually run around $3-6 one way. Trains run about once every half hour, on average, once an hour late evenings and weekends, with several more trains running during commute hours. This train service is not particularly fast; however, in a move to improve speed, many trains during commute hours run express or semi-express service, so they do not stop at all stations. Tickets must be purchased before boarding the train from ticket vending machines at any of the stations or from ticket clerks at staffed stations. Tickets are checked on the trains and anyone found without a ticket is liable to a substantial fine. Cyclists should use the designated car at the northern end of the train, and be aware that bike space is often limited during commute hours.
A full list of Bay Area public transportation agencies, as well as a refreshingly useful trip planner, can be found at the Metropolitan Transportation Commissions's web site 511.org. This planner is more useful than Google maps, as the Bay Area has so many transit agencies navigating them is a chore and not all of them are on Google. In some cases this could save you money as an express bus could get you to the same place and be just as fast as BART for half the price!
Passenger ferries link many of the cities in the Bay Area (particularly the North Bay), and can be a very scenic way to get around, with splendid views of the San Francisco skyline, Alcatraz, and much of the lush hillside scenery. In San Francisco, the ferries dock at one or both of the city's two piers at Fisherman's Wharf and the Ferry Building, the later of which is a very short walk from extensive BART and Muni services. In Oakland, the ferry terminal is at the foot of Clay Street in Jack London Square. There are three operators of ferry services in the Bay Area:
- Golden Gate Ferries, +1 415 455-2000. Runs regular service between San Francisco and Larkspur and Sausalito.
- Blue and Gold Fleet, +1 415 705-8200. Runs ferries between San Francisco and Sausalito, Alameda/Oakland, Tiburon, and Angel Island, with additional service to Angel Island from Alameda/Oakland.
- San Francisco Bay Ferry, +1-877-705-8291. Runs ferries between San Francisco and Alameda, Harbor Bay (in Alameda), Oakland, and Vallejo, as well as service between South San Francisco and Alameda/Oakland.
There are many transit agencies in the Bay Area. Most places can be reached by local bus. Longer distances should be travelled with regional rail like Caltrain or BART to decrease travel time.
The San Francisco Bay Area has a broad array of cuisines from various countries of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. While San Francisco probably has the widest variety of any of the Bay Area cities, locals will often tell you to go outside of San Francisco for the best of some cuisines, such as Fremont for Afghan or Indian or Pakistani, Burlingame for Jewish, or Redwood City for Mexican. The area has also developed its own array of localized Chinese cuisines; this started in San Francisco and has expanded throughout the Bay Area in recent years.
Housing in the Bay Area is notoriously expensive. San Francisco's housing crisis is among the worst in the country, and lodging is expensive for visitors as well as residents. Unfortunately, lower prices are sometimes a sign of an inconvenient location or a rougher neighborhood (some of San Francisco's cheapest options are in the Tenderloin).
With a few notable exceptions, parts of the Bay Area of interest to tourists are as safe as any other major North American city. However, care should be taken in a few areas, when going "off the beaten path" or when traveling through unfamiliar residential areas. While locals (and those from elsewhere in California) will generally be able to recognize poorer or high crime areas even when unfamiliar with the specific area, the signs of dangerous areas and slums are not always the same as in other American cities, let alone those abroad.
Certain parts of the Bay Area are plagued by high crime rates. The very worst areas are primarily residential/industrial and not much interest to tourists or travelers - these include the Southeastern section of San Francisco (Bayview-Hunter's Point, Sunnydale, Visitation Valley), East Palo Alto, West Oakland and much of East Oakland, some parts of Hayward and San Leandro, Bay Point, San Pablo, Central Richmond, the East parts of Redwood City and San Jose, and Vallejo.
However, other high-crime parts of the Bay Area are either in tourist areas or directly adjacent to them. These are generally safe if you stick to high-traffic commercial/through streets even at night, but care should be taken if you park on or detour through side streets, especially at night. These areas include
- San Francisco's Mission District, SOMA (South of Market), the Tenderloin/Civic Center, and the Western Addition in San Francisco.
- Oakland downtown and around Jack London Square.
- San Jose downtown
- Berkeley around the University of California Campus.
Even outside of "dangerous" areas, within the major cities (San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland and other developed parts of the East Bay) keep aware of your surroundings and use the same common sense as in any major urban area.
Certain heavily-Latino neighborhoods, including the Mission District in San Francisco and many poorer parts of San Jose (such as Alum Rock) and the East Bay have a high degree of gang violence. While this will not be such an issue in major shopping centers or on busy commercial streets, especially if venturing outside these areas especially into residential or industrial areas, men should be careful to avoid wearing red or blue shirts as these are associated with Norteno and Sureno gang members.
There are also rough neighborhoods in many of the suburbs throughout the Bay Area: these include but are not limited to the cities of El Cerrito, Pittsburg, Antioch, El Sobrante, South San Francisco, Daly City, Union City, San Rafael, Fairfield, Napa, and Santa Rosa. If in doubt, ask a local if the area is safe.
Be careful to check for ticks after hiking in fields in the Bay Area. There is a high rate of lyme disease transmission in the Bay Area. If a bulls' eye rash develops at the tick bite site, immediately seek medical help and treatment with antibiotics.
- Central Coast – The rugged section of coast south of the Bay Area that includes Monterey Bay and Big Sur.
- San Joaquin Valley – California's bread basket in the Central Valley.
- Sacramento Valley – Home of the state capital.
- North Coast – Located to the north of the Bay Area and home to massive redwoods and remote coastline.