East of the Oakland Hills that border the East Bay, Contra Costa County maintains a very separate culture and lifestyle than its Bay Area neighbors. The area is mostly residential—although many San Francisco businesses have moved here to avoid high city taxes—and affluent, and consequently considerably more conservative (by Bay Area standards). The same hills that keep Contra Costa culturally isolated also keep it protected climatically; the area is usually 10-20°F warmer than the Bay in summer.
Note that Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda, due to their strong similarities, are often collectively referred to by locals as "Lamorinda."
State Route 24, through the venerable Caldecott Tunnel, is the main entrance to Contra Costa from San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. Interstate 680 is the main route linking Contra Costa to the South Bay and Silicon Valley to the south, and to Sacramento to the north. Interstate 580 links Contra Costa to central Alameda County to the west, and to Stockton and the Central Valley to the east.
There are no major airports in Contra Costa County with regularly scheduled passenger service, though there are several general aviation airports. One must either use the Bay Area airports serving San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose, or the Central Valley airports serving Stockton or Sacramento. The county also has two airports that do not provide passenger service:
- Buchanan Field Airport, in Concord
- Byron Airport, two miles (3 km) south of Byron
- See also: Bay Area public transit
BART serves Orinda, Lafayette, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, Concord, and Pittsburg. BART stations have bus service as well. Paratransit (for disabled riders) in Contra Costa is quite good, but you must sign up for it with County Connection LINK and you must reserve your rides in advance.
In general, rush hour/commute times in Contra Costa feature traffic jams on the freeways and crowded BART trains.
The 'mothball fleet', a group of ships mostly from the World War II era, sits just east of Martinez. The ships are being stored rather than dismantled. Among the ships there is the Glomar Explorer, built by Howard Hughes for the US Government to scavenge a sunken Soviet Submarine. The fleet is visible from vista points along Interstate 680 on the north side of the Martinez/Benicia bridge (actually Solano County).
Contra Costa has many parks and trails, as well as reservoirs and house museums managed by the East Bay Regional Parks System, East Bay MUD (Municipal Utility District = the local water company), designated Open Space areas, Mt. Diablo State Park, etc. There are also many performing arts venues, including the Chronicle Pavilion in Concord. The California Delta offers plenty of water activities.
Richmond has high rates of homicide, robbery, assault, rape, carjacking, and other violent crimes, and visitors should exercise extra caution. Fire dangers at refineries in the county have on rare occasions caused alerts where residents were told to "shelter in place" and avoid unnecessary outdoors excursions due to the potential for hazardous fumes - if you hear a warning siren immediately check the news for instructions.
The safest areas to visit are in central and southern Contra Costa County.
- 1 Sonoma County - Although its wineries may not be as famous as those in the Napa Valley, Contra Costa County's northwestern neighbor is actually the largest wine producer in California Wine Country and home to over 250 wineries. More than seven million visitors each year explore the county's open spaces and beautiful coastline, including the big trees at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and the seaside town of Bodega Bay where Alfred Hitchcock's thriller The Birds was filmed. For those interested in early California history, Fort Ross is a state historic site that preserves a fur trading outpost that was operated by Russia from 1812-1841.
- 2 Solano County - Located north of Contra Costa County, Solano County is far more rural than the other Bay Area counties, and includes significant portions of the California Delta, as well as parts of San Pablo Bay. Two of the county's cities served as early state capitals: Vallejo was the capital in 1852 and again in 1853, while Benicia served as the capital from February 1853 until February 1854; today Benicia Capitol State Historic Park provides the opportunity for visitors to explore the Capitol building from that era.
- 3 Sacramento County - Bordering Contra Costa County to the northeast, Sacramento County stretches from the wetlands at the edge of the San Francisco Bay to the rolling hills of Gold Country. The Sacramento and American Rivers played prominent roles in the county's development, and today offer outdoor opportunities ranging from boating to fishing to birdwatching. The capital city of Sacramento is located at the rivers' confluence, and visitors will appreciate its historic districts and more than 25 museums.
- 4 San Joaquin County - San Joaquin County lies to the east of Contra Costa County on the eastern edge of the California Delta, an estuary formed by the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. Nicknamed "California's Holland" due to the extensive levee system, the area is an interesting place to explore by car or boat. Stockton is the county's largest city and is notable for being the world's most inland natural seaport.
- 5 Alameda County - Alameda County is located to the south of Contra Costa County. The densely populated northern part of the county is home to the many parks and museums of Oakland, the counter-cultural hub that is Berkeley, and even a historic aircraft carrier in Alameda. The county's southern region provides a chance to experience dozens of immigrant communities, particularly in Fremont, while the eastern part of the county is rural, with the windmills and rolling hills surrounding Pleasanton and Livermore offering opportunities for outdoor activities.
- 6 San Francisco - The heart of the Bay Area, famous for its scenic beauty and unique culture.
- 7 Marin County - Visitors to Contra Costa County's neighbor to the northwest can see migrating gray whales while strolling the wind-swept beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore, take in the views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands, or soak in the majesty of the redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument. The county's tiny towns are full of character, and include the artistic enclave of Sausalito, as well as Bolinas, whose reclusive residents are notorious for removing any road sign that points the way into their town.