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Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

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 high-tech industry (Silicon Valley).

Although it doesn't have any firm boundaries, the Bay Area is composed of eight counties that include Marin, Solano, San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz. 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.




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.


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.

Here's a handy rule of thumb: the telephone area codes 415 and 707 means San Francisco or the North Bay; 510 and 925 mean the East Bay; 650 is for the Peninsula, and 408 and 831 are for South Bay numbers.


There are scores of cities that surround the Bay; these are some of the most famous.

Get in

By plane

There are three major airports in the San Francisco Bay Area: San Francisco (SFO, located about 10 miles south of the city), Oakland (OAK, in the East Bay), and San Jose (SJC, in Silicon Valley, about 1 hour south of San Francisco). All are served by discount airlines such as Southwest. All three airports may be reached by inexpensive public transit.

By 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.

Get around

By car

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 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.

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.

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 these may be even 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.

Map of the BART system
Map of the BART system

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART [1]) is a nice regional train 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 travelled, but usually run about $2-5 one way. Trains run about every 10-20 minutes starting around 6AM and closing just after midnight.

Map of Caltrain system
Map of Caltrain system

Caltrain [2] is a commuter train system running from San Francisco, down the Peninsula, all the way to 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.

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 [3].

  • The Golden Gate Bridge linking San Francisco and Marin County to the north is often called one of the modern wonders of the world. Cross the bridge by car and after taking the first Marin County exit make your way up to the Marin Headlands which overlook the bridge, the entrance to San Francisco Bay and the City itself.
  • Muir Woods in Mill Valley is a beautiful forest with some of the few remaining old-growth redwood trees in California.
  • Alcatraz, the former Army post, then federal prison on an island in the San Francisco Bay, today a National Park Service museum. Be sure to get Alcatraz ferry tickets at least a couple days in advance. There is also a night tour that is sort of spooky.
  • Mt. Diablo State Park in the East Bay rises 3,849 feet above the area and provides some very dramatic views of the Bay Area and the Central Valley. A road travels to the observation tower and small museum at the top. Access to this road can be made from either Walnut Creek or Danville.
  • Twin Peaks. Possibly the best view in the city, Twin Peaks is a centrally located high point that is a gorgeous photo op, but not much else. IE, bring a sandwich.  edit
  • Ride the glass-faced elevators on the outside of the Westin St. Francis at Union Square for a spectacular view of the city.


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, or Burlingame for Jewish. 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.

  • Peet's Coffee and Tea, at the corner of Walnut and Vine in Berkeley, [4]. Founded in 1966 as a pioneering effort to bring fresh-roasted "gourmet" coffee to the American palate, Peet's coffee shop started a revolution in American coffee tastes. When Starbuck's was founded in Seattle, they initially bought their coffee from Peet's. Peet's is now a medium-sized chain with locations in several areas of the United States. As part of the coffee revolution, you will also find many fine independent coffee shops throughout the Bay Area, as well as the ubiquitous Starbuck's which has more locations than McDonald's.

Stay safe

Certain parts of the Bay Area, most noticeably the Bayview-Hunter's Point, Sunnydale, Visitation Valley, SOMA(South of Market AVE), the Tenderloin, and the Western Addition in San Francisco are plagued by high crime rates. The Mission District of San Francisco has the highest amount of gang violence of any neighborhood in San Francisco. Men should be careful to avoid wearing red or blue shirts, as the Mission District has many Norteno and Sureno hispanic gang members. On a brighter note, this area does have some of the best Mexican food in the nation.

The vast majority of neighborhoods in Oakland and Richmond also suffer from persistently high crime as well. Sadly, there are NO truly "safe" areas in the cities of East Palo Alto or Emeryville. There are also many rough neighborhoods in the cities of San Pablo, Pitsburg, Antioch, El Sobrante, Vallejo, Fairfield, and Santa Rosa. Although not techincally a part of the Bay Area, many locals consider the city of Stockton to be a part of the greater Bay Area do to its close location to other Bay Area towns. Although not as crime ridden as Oakland, Richmond, East Palo Alto, or San Pablo, Stockton does have one of the highest crime rates of any California city. The city of Salinas, also located right outside the Bay Area, has the worst problem with gang violence in California. Last year, all 25 homicides in Salinas were gang related. This is a high murder rate given Salinas' population of only 120,000 residents.

Santa Clara county, San Jose and Sunnyvale have been on the top of the safest counties and cities lists. Families walk and bike at night in Los Altos, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, West Palo Alto during the summer months.

Be careful to check for ticks [5] 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.

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