A dear old friend of mine got married in Berkeley, CA this past August, and my husband and I were so delighted to be able to join the happy couple for their special day. Naturally, we decided to fly out a few days before the wedding so we could spend some time vacationing in the Bay Area.
We only had two full days to explore, but fortunately, we had both been to San Francisco before so we weren’t worried about missing any of the main attractions on this visit. However, our short time frame didn’t stop us from checking out some unique and interesting new spots while traveling through San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and even Alameda during our long weekend in the Bay Area!
Day 1 – Berkeley, CA
We were up at 2:00 am for a 6:00 am flight to Oakland. Needless to say, our first day in California was a bit of a bust because we were way too tired to do much of anything once we actually arrived. After we checked in at our hotel in North Berkeley, we decided to immediately head out for a walk so we wouldn’t fall asleep at 5:00 in the evening. We took off for downtown Berkeley, which was about a mile from our hotel.
The weather was fantastic – sunny and beautiful yet cool enough to wear a hoodie. Perfect for walking! We scoped out some of the local bars and restaurants we thought we might want to visit in the days ahead, and after strolling for about an hour, we found ourselves at Triple Rock Brewing. They have a ton of beers on tap, and since we really enjoyed most of them, we both had a pint after finishing our flights.
While we had been sampling the beer, we spotted another diner’s cobb salad, which looked incredible, and so we decided to settle in for a dinner of mac and cheese bites and cobb salads. An odd combination perhaps, but a winning one if you ask me! If you’re in Berkeley, I can strongly recommend a drink and food at Triple Rock because it did not disappoint and our bartender was lots of fun, too.
We were pretty exhausted after our long day of travel, and so we grabbed the BART train back to North Berkeley to settle in for the evening and try to get a good night’s sleep!
Day 2 – San Francisco, CA and Oakland, CA
We decided to head into San Francisco for our first (very) full day in the Bay Area, and we thought it would be fun to take the ferry from Oakland instead of the BART. Now, we did have to take the BART a few stops to get to the 12 St. Station in Oakland, and from there it’s about a 15-minute walk to the ferry in Jack London Square.
On our walk to the ferry, we stopped at a cute spot called Cafe Gabriela for iced coffees, and we really regretted having already had breakfast at our hotel because it smelled soooo good in this cafe.
We were a bit early for the ferry, so we wandered around Jack London Square and the piers for a while. As sailors, we were particularly interested in a beautiful boat called Potomac that we saw docked near the ferry stop. As it turns out, this was FDR’s presidential yacht! Sadly, it wasn’t open for tours the day we were there, but we decided to head back the following day so we could get on board and see it for ourselves.
Soon after, we boarded our ferry and headed to San Francisco! We stopped first in Alameda, then at the ferry building downtown, and finally, we disembarked at the Fisherman’s Wharf.
It was before noon when we arrived, but TONS of people were already out and about and enjoying the day. Our first stop of the day was a fun (and a little cheesy) place called Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze. It’s about halfway down Pier 39 on the second floor and was only $5 to enter.
It’s a maze…made with mirrors! Which makes it a little tricky to know whether you’re coming or going. They even make you wear plastic gloves while you’re inside so that you don’t smudge the mirrors and make it easier for others to know what’s a mirror and what’s walkway. It isn’t very big and you really only need about 5-10 minutes there, but we still had a lot of fun! If you have kids (or if you’re an overgrown kid like us), it’s definitely worth checking out.
Once we escaped from the maze, we worked our way around the wharf and stopped off for a little while to watch all the sea lions basking in the sun. They were so funny to watch, flopping all over each other and making allll kinds of interesting sounds! It was hard to tell if they were happy, mad, annoyed, or what, but they sure were noisy.
Soon, though, we decided it was time to move on and we went to our next stop at the Musee Mecanique. This place was very, very cool. It’s free to enter, and all the games are coin-operated (and there are several change machines scattered about where you can cash in your bills for coins).
The Musee Mecanique is filled with tons of vintage arcade games, some of which were more than 50 years old. Some weren’t games at all but really more of a show. You could very easily spend a lot of time here, but a lot of the games only cost a quarter so you don’t need to spend a lot of money to have some fun. We broke a dollar and tried out 4 of the games ourselves and then watched several people playing others.
By this point, we were getting a bit hungry and we decided to head over to Boudin Bakery. On the second floor of the bakery, there is a sit-down restaurant, but they also have a great little hidden museum where you can learn more than you ever thought you needed to know about sourdough bread. They also have a neat section toward the back where you can look through a window into the actual bakery down below and watch the bread being made (oh, and there are free samples!)
If you want table service and a more relaxed dining experience, stay on the second floor. Or, you can head back downstairs like we did and order some chowder in a sourdough bread bowl from the counter. There are several tables inside, but if it’s a nice day, take your soup outside and dine al fresco! It was a bit too windy during our visit, so we opted to eat inside, and, oh my, was that soup and bread tasty…
With full bellies, we moved on to Hyde Street Pier and the Historic Ships. As sailors, we particularly enjoyed this stop of the day, but even if you know nothing about boats, their collection is still fun to see. They have several ships you can explore, and you can enjoy magnificent views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the harbor either from the boats or the end of the pier.
We really liked Balclutha, which is all the way at the end of the pier. They had some great videos and exhibits inside and you can get the best views (in my opinion) from her deck! Bring a jacket if you visit the ships on a cooler day, though, because the wind was tearing through the harbor and you could really feel it there at the end of the pier!
Once we were ready to move on, we had since sufficiently digested our lunch and were ready for some dessert! Up the hill a little ways from Hyde Street Pier is the Ghiradelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. Here you can learn how chocolate is made, but more importantly, you can eat some of that rich, chocolatey goodness on top of a big pile of ice cream.
We both ordered sundaes and enjoyed them in the sun out in the park. Someone was playing some fairly terrible saxophone out front, which ruined the vibe a bit for us, but it’s hard to get too upset while eating a hot fudge brownie sundae. Just sayin’…
After our “snack”, we set out for the Powell St. Cable Car Turnaround and saw a massive line of people waiting. We had a bit more we wanted to do in the city and didn’t really want to wait in a line all afternoon, so we thought we’d just walk to our next destination instead and see if we could catch the cable car at another stop.
Ha ha ha ha! Yeah, no, that didn’t happen, and I wouldn’t recommend you try that either. Just wait in the long line if you really want to ride the cable car because it just keeps getting more and more crowded the further it goes.
So, we dragged our fat full-of-sundae bellies up one hill after another. Walking in San Francisco is no joke, y’all. A mile doesn’t seem that far until you’re walking it allllll uphill! We stopped briefly for a rest at Lombard Street, which we had both seen before, but we were now at the top looking down and, as it turns out, you really can’t fully appreciate this famous crooked street from the top. If you want a good view, make sure you visit from the bottom at Leavenworth St.
It was a cool day, but we had still worked up a bit of a sweat by the time we finally made it to the fantastic Cable Car Museum. This museum is FREE and has tons of cool old photos and artifacts from the San Francisco cable car system. You can even watch the giant cables that run the system, winding their way around giant pulleys, called sheaves. (Here’s more info about how cable cars work!)
Before wrapping up our day in San Francisco and heading to the ferry, we made one last stop at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. While we stood in line, we were offered samples of broken cookie pieces to nosh on. And once inside, you can write your own fortune on a tiny slip of paper, and the factory workers will wrap it right up inside of a hot, fresh cookie!
We ate our cookies as we walked over to the main ferry building in San Francisco. The ferry building has tons of shops and restaurants if you need a snack before boarding your ferry, though many of the ferries also sell snacks and drinks, too. Just keep in mind that there are several ferries that operate from the ferry building, so if you are heading back to Oakland, make sure you board the right ferry!
When we arrived in Oakland, we headed to Jack London Square to have pre-dinner drinks at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, which opened in the 1880s. The building was created out of the remains of an old ship called Umatilla and still has its original gas lighting.
Heinold’s was a favorite haunt of Jack London’s, and we loved the low-key vibe inside, as well as the slanted floor and bar, which are the result of a 1906 earthquake. We sat both at the bar inside as well as in the courtyard outside while we watched the sun setting over the Bay Area.
As we walked back toward the BART train to head back to Berkeley, we made one last stop in Oakland before calling it a night. We popped into a place called Seawolf (another homage to Jack London) to have some beer and dinner.
It was fairly quiet on a Thursday night, but they have tons of TVs and I would expect it gets pretty busy here during sporting events. My husband loved their buffalo wings (even though he was slightly appalled that they serve them with ranch rather than blue cheese), and they have a solid draft beer list, too.
After, we headed back to Berkeley and were glad to finally crawl into our bed. My Fitbit clocked over 24,000 steps for our day of exploring, and it was an excellent first full day in the Bay Area!
Day 3 – Oakland, CA and Alameda, CA
We were up bright and early again on Day 3, mostly because the time difference between NYC and San Francisco was working in our favor. We got ready and headed straight for the BART to head back to Oakland. We started our morning with coffee again at Cafe Gabriela, but this time we DID have breakfast and it was fantastic. If you’re heading to the ferry from the BART, you really want to stop by here and get one of their pork adobo sandwiches. SO. Good.
After our super yummy breakfast, we headed back down near the ferry so that we could take a tour on the Potomac. This boat is gorgeous, and we loved hearing the stories about FDR spending time out on the water on this beautiful boat (and learning that Elvis apparently owned the boat briefly, too!) It’s in excellent shape, and they even offer regular cruises if you would prefer a ride over just a dockside tour.
We had planned to take the ferry to Alameda after our tour, but as it turns out, the ferry schedules are different after a certain time of day and rather than going from Oakland to Alameda, they instead start in Alameda and then go to Oakland! So, our great plan turned out to be not so great after all, and we had to catch a Lyft instead. (Do keep this in mind if you decide you want to ferry between Alameda and Oakland!)
It wasn’t a long ride, though, and before we knew it we had reached Alameda’s Spirits Alley. Alameda was home to a naval air station, and many of those old airplane hangars have since been turned into breweries, distilleries, and wineries. Our first stop was at Faction Brewing, which had so many beers on tap that it was hard to decide what to pick for our flights!
The best part, though, is that Faction’s location offers incredible views of San Francisco, which you can see as you look out across an old runway. There are no umbrellas or really any shade outside, so we opted to stay inside but the view is no less stunning from in there. (There is also, randomly, a replica of the Shaggin’ Wagon from the movie Dumb and Dumber inside – not sure why it’s there, but it made me chuckle!)
Our plan had been to head to Almanac Beer Co. next, but they weren’t serving food at the time and we were in need of a snack. Instead, we went to a place next door called The Rake, which isn’t actually a brewery. It’s a malthouse, and they serve local beers on tap that were all made with their malt.
They also serve some pretty spectacular sandwiches, as well as a cheese plate that we didn’t get but that gave us serious order envy once we saw it. The doors and windows were open which let in a delightful breeze, and we spent some time peeking through the windows at their onsite malting floor!
We grabbed another Lyft and made our way back to Oakland to spend a bit of time wandering through the beautiful Gardens at Lake Merritt. We arrived shortly before closing time which limited what we could see, but we still enjoyed seeing all the beautiful plants and flowers they have there and we even caught a couple glimpses of their famous bonsai garden which was, sadly, already closed for the day.
After sitting on a bench near the lake to enjoy the much slower pace we set for our second full day, we took another walk through the park bordering the lake and then made our way over to another brewery called Drake’s Dealership where my friend was having a pre-wedding gathering. They had a few tables reserved outside for us, and there were so many beers on tap to choose from!
I enjoyed a flight of their stouts and porters, and later in the evening, we were treated to several different varieties of their unique and delicious pizzas. It was a beautiful evening, and judging by the crowd, Drake’s is clearly a local favorite! If you want good pizza and tons of beer to choose from, I definitely recommend a stop at Drake’s.
After dinner, we had no more energy and made our way back to Berkeley to head off to dreamland!
Day 4 – Berkeley, CA
On our final full day in the Bay Area, we didn’t really make any plans because we didn’t want to run around much before the wedding later in the day. We slept in and had a lazy start, but since it was Saturday, we knew that there was bound to be some good brunch to be had to tide us over until the big event later.
We found our way over to the Berkeley Social Club, and though there was a list of people already waiting for tables, we saw that there were several spots at the bar back near the kitchen that were open and available for the taking. We settled in there and started poring over the menu, which had way too many tempting options to choose from.
My husband settled on an egg scramble with shrimp, bacon, AND crab, and I had the eggs in purgatory. Both of our meals were excellent! After we finished eating, we wandered around downtown Berkeley for a while and eventually found a nice bench on the UC-Berkeley campus to sit and enjoy the beautiful afternoon for a bit.
Eventually, we headed back to our hotel to get fancy for the wedding, which was lovely. We only got about 4 hours of sleep afterward before we had to get back up at the crack of dawn to head back home to NYC!
We had a wonderful time during our long weekend in the Bay Area. We enjoyed hitting some of the major tourist stops, but we also loved getting off the beaten path a bit and exploring some of those places that most first-time tourists are likely to miss on a trip to San Francisco.
We really liked spending some time in Oakland, where neither of us had been before, and we could have spent days working our way through all the businesses that have set up shop in Alameda’s Spirits Alley.
If you find yourself in the Bay Area sometime soon, I hope you’ll have a chance to check out some of the fun places we visited in August. And if you’re a local or frequent visitor, what other unique or off-the-beaten-path places would you recommend to visitors to the Bay Area?