The San Francisco Bay Area is so much more than just San Francisco! One region of the Bay Area that’s often overlooked is the South Bay. Ever heard of Silicon Valley? Yeah, this iconic region sits right here in California’s South Bay!
If you can make some time to venture out of San Francisco, there’s a whole world of premier shopping, live music, tech museums, unmissable bars/restaurants, children’s parks, and other fun things to do in the South Bay.
So without further ado, let’s get into the best things to do in the Bay Area California’s South Bay!
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WHERE IS THE SAN FRANCISCO SOUTH BAY LOCATED?
The South Bay of San Francisco starts at the southern shores of the San Francisco Bay and stretches to the fragrant, garlic fields of Gilroy, with San Jose sitting smack dab in the middle. The South Bay is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean to the left, San Francisco Peninsula to the north, as well as the East Bay to the northeast.
If the South Bay is known for one thing, it’s the fact that this is the home of Silicon Valley, the center of technological innovation. You might hear people talking about Silicon Valley, Santa Clara Valley, or Santa Clara County. These are pretty much different names for the South Bay.
The communities within the San Francisco South Bay include the cities of San Jose, Santa Clara, Milpitas, Cupertino, Sunnyvale as well as many other neighboring towns like Saratoga, Campbell, Los Gatos, and even Morgan Hill and Gilroy.
25 BEST THINGS TO DO IN THE SAN FRANCISCO SOUTH BAY
Countless museums. Great cuisine. Wonderful nature spots. A mystery house. A thriving nightlife scene. Are you ready for all that the South Bay of Northern California can offer you? Let’s get into it!
1. SAN PEDRO SQUARE
Looking for something to eat while in the South Bay? Look no further than San Jose’s San Pedro Square where you’ll find more than 25 restaurants scattered around a five-block area. From cafes to pubs, fine dining to casual eateries, theater to live music, you’ll find every culinary and arts option represented here.
Not liking what you see on the outside? Head to the San Pedro Square Market (the food hall) for more casual and quick bites! This is one of our absolute favorite things to do whenever we’re in downtown San Jose. We like to get a few items from the food hall and pair it with something from Back-A-Yard, our favorite Caribbean food joint just down the street.
It goes without saying that San Pedro Square–the oldest district in the city–has become the premier dining and nightlife destination downtown.
With more than 300 days of sunshine every year and very little wind, this is where South Bay Area locals go for those fogless, warm summer nights! After dining, head to the theater for one of the Tabard Theater Company shows.
2. CHILDREN’S DISCOVERY MUSEUM
The Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose is one of the best places to hang out in the South Bay for families with children. The Children’s Discovery Museum has one main mission and that is to inspire creativity, curiosity, and lifelong learning in young children.
There’s seriously so much your young ones can discover at this major attraction, including creating their own artwork, learning about the power of air in an air maze, studying the shape of bubbles, appreciating the natural world in Bill’s Backyard, and much more. It’s really a children’s dream world come true!
Tickets cost $15 for children and adults and reservations can be reserved online here.
3. JAPANTOWN SAN JOSE
Japantown San Jose is one of the last three authentic Japantowns in the United States, which makes it 100% well-worth the visit! Located just a few blocks north of San Jose’s City Hall, Japantown features a ton of fun activities to busy yourself with.
For starters, you can head to the Japanese American Museum to witness the real stories of immigration and Japanese internment during the WWII days. After exploring the many art galleries and gift shops in the area, it’s time to get some food in you!
This historic neighborhood is known for its eclectic dining scene, with restaurants serving anything from regional Japanese fare to Chinese, Hawaiian, and even Mexican food. You can even stop by a karaoke bar (any night of the week) and sing your heart out!
4. WINCHESTER MYSTERY HOUSE
If you’re more into oddities and kitschy attractions, take your ride over to Winchester Mystery House and take a guided tour of the property. This mystery house has been featured in popular shows including Mythbusters, Ghost Adventures, and Ghost Brothers.
Quick backstory–when this lady Sarah Winchester’s husband died in 1881, she became one of the wealthiest women in the world. Unfortunately at this point, she somehow became convinced that she was cursed. She moved from Connecticut to San Jose, CA and bought a simple farmhouse that she would go on to transform into what it is today–a 160-room mansion that cannot be explained.
No spoilers on why, but this house, now a historic landmark, is an interesting curiosity that you need to see for yourself (semi-spoiler: there are many doors that lead to nowhere, find out why when you visit)!
5. SANTANA ROW
San Jose’s Santa Row is Silicon Valley’s premier destination for shopping, dining, and feeling fancy. Featuring a vibrant mix of 50+ shops, 30+ restaurants, and even a movie theater, it’s a great way to spend a few hours in the South Bay. We certainly love stopping by on weekends to enjoy the bougie atmosphere under the warm South Bay sun!
Take a stroll through the promenade, enjoying the trees, fountains, and open spaces that surround the shops. In terms of shopping, you can expect to find the likes of H&M, Sephora, Tesla, Amazon Bookstore, Barry’s Bootcamp, Lululemon here. On top of that, there are so many great cocktail bars, wine bars, and restaurants here, so you can unwind properly after that retail therapy! Friday nights are especially bustling!
Santana Row is free to walk around and complimentary self-parking is available throughout Santana Row.
6. HAPPY HOLLOW PARK & ZOO
Happy Hollow Park and Zoo is a 16-acre family-friendly amusement park and accredited zoo. Here you’ll find many children favorites including a carousel, roller coaster, petting zoo, and even a puppet theater!
Once you pull your kids away from all the amusement rides, check out the many animals! You can expect to see jaguars, red pandas, tortoises, lemurs, meerkats, colorful parrots and more. The kids will definitely love this little gem in the South Bay!
7. THE TECH INTERACTIVE MUSEUM
When people with families ask me what there is to do in San Jose, The Tech Interactive always comes to mind as one of my first recommendations! It’s by far one of the largest attractions that San Jose has to offer!
The Tech Interactive, one of the top museums in the South Bay, is dedicated to showcasing science and technology in a fun, family-friendly manner. The attractions provide innovative experiences with hands-on learning, experiments and challenges that empower people to be creative and think outside the box.
The highlight here is the IMAX Dome Theater, where you and your family can experience the world’s first laser projector in a dome theater. Other noteworthy exhibits include Social Robots, Body Worlds Cyber Detectives, Innovations in Health Care and Tech for Global Good.
8. SAN JOSE MUNICIPAL ROSE GARDEN
Looking to escape the technology, the museums, and the fast-paced city life for just a moment? Head to none other than the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden! This quiet and beautiful garden dates back to 1937 and is located in one of San Jose’s oldest neighborhoods. The rose garden is backdropped by some pretty grand homes dating back to the 1800s.
The best time to visit is from April to November. One of the more popular times to go is in early May when the roses are at their most bloomy and fragrant stage. Don’t forget to bring your camera for this one!
9. ROSICRUCIAN EGYPTIAN MUSEUM
For history buffs who are particularly interested in all things Egyptian, you are in luck because the hidden gem of The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum is here to make your day! The museum, architecturally inspired by the Temple of Amon at Karnak and filled with over 4,000 artifacts, houses the largest collection of authentic ancient Egyptian artifacts on display in Western North America. From mummies to tombs, the Alchemy Garden to the Planetarium, everything here is well worth your time.
You can even take a tour with a docent to learn all about Egyptian burial practices, the afterlife, and their other ancient beliefs. There is a small admission fee and the museum is open from Wednesdays to Sundays.
10. SAN JOSE MUSEUM OF ART
The South Bay and San Jose, CA have no shortage of museums. For art lovers, there’s the San Jose Museum of Art, specializing in art and artists of the West Coast. Visitors can expect to see a wide assortment of mediums including paintings, sculpture, photography, drawings, and much more.
The museum costs $10 for adults but is free for young adults, students, and teachers.
11. PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA
Not only is Palo Alto home to the various students that attend prestigious Stanford University, but even non-students can enjoy what this upscale town has to offer. Start with a tour around the green, airy campus. From there, head to the open-air Stanford Shopping Center for a quick peek at some upscale shops such as Apple, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, and Louis Vuitton.
If you’re looking for a fancier dining moment, head to Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s Palo Alto location of the popular restaurant Nobu. For a more casual experience, we usually head straight for University Avenue, a popular hub lined with local restaurants and shops. Dining options like Farmhouse Thai or Ramen Nagi never disappoint!
12. CANTOR ARTS CENTER
The Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, CA is a small but dense art museum featuring some very interesting exhibits. It is known to have one of the world’s most renowned collections of Rodin bronze sculptures (outside of Paris), both inside the museum and outside in the sculpture garden.
On top of that, they have a unique collection that highlights Stanford history, Asian arts, as well as works of art from some highly respected modern artists like Mark Rothko, Richard Serra, and Jackson Pollock. Definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for arts and culture activities to do in the South Bay!
Admission is free but must be reserved in advance online.
13. SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA
Home of the stadium where the San Francisco 49ers play, one of the most iconic things to do in Santa Clara is to obviously catch a game at the Levi’s Stadium! If you love the 49ers like a lot of us Bay Area locals do, head straight for the 49ers Museum, featuring 11 unique galleries and exhibit spaces dedicated to the 49ers past, present and future.
For art lovers, the South Bay’s got another something something for you–The Triton Musem of Art. For those of you looking to take a step back in time, head to the historic Mission Santa Clara de Asis.
For tech-lovers (yes, there are a lot of geeky tech-related opportunities on this list), explore the people and technology that changed our lives forever at the Intel Museum.
14. MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA
Aptly named for its beautiful mountain views, Mountain View, CA is a town that’s worth stopping in for a few hours. The pedestrian-friendly downtown is packed with things to eat! Whenever I’m in town, I’m always sure to save my appetite for all the good food to be had here. In particular, Castro Street is where you’ll find many of the city’s restaurants, cafes, and boutique shops.
If you want more tech-related activities, head to the Googleplex, the Google headquarters campus! Once you park your car, take a quick self-guided tour around the campus, making sure to grab a selfie or two by cool statues and structures around you.
The Mountain View Farmers Market is an award-winning farmers’ market (features over 80 farmers and artisans) that’s also worth a visit if you’re in the area on a Sunday morning. The market takes place at the Mountain View Caltrain Station.
And if you’re lucky enough to be here in the late summer, you can’t miss the annual Mountain View Art and Wine Festival–one of the best festivals in all of the San Francisco South Bay!
15. VISIT THE COMPUTER HISTORY MUSEUM
For those of you who can’t get enough of the techiness of Silicon Valley, the Computer History Museum located in Mountain View is definitely a must-see. The Computer History Museum, established in 1996 in Mountain View, California, is a unique museum dedicated to the history of computers.
This interactive museum allows visitors to explore the evolution of our technological world. To get an idea of some of the things you can do there, you can sit in a self-driving car, experience a live demo on how a 1959 “minicomputer” weighing 1-ton works, try your hand at coding, and discover why computer history is more than 2,000 years old.
16. MONTALVO ARTS CENTER
The Montalvo Arts Center is a 104-year-old landmark backdropped by the Santa Cruz Mountains. The best things to see and do here include the Villa Montalvo and the surrounding gardens, as well as enjoying the miles and miles of hiking trails near the grounds.
After you’re done exploring, lay out your blanket on the massive lawn and enjoy a wonderful afternoon picnic outdoors. The best thing about Montalvo Arts Center? It’s open to the public for free!
Montalvo also hosts a wide range of community festivals, arts classes, literary events and more. They even offer an afternoon tea party event called Mad Hatter’s Tea! Be sure to check out their events calendar before visiting.
17. HAKONE ESTATE AND GARDENS
Hakone Estate and Gardens is a complete hidden gem in the South Bay. It’s one of the oldest Japanese residential gardens in the Western Hemisphere, having been established in 1915. To this day, I’ve met so many Bay Area locals who still have no idea that this wonderful garden lives tucked away in Saratoga, CA! It’s such a serene, tranquil spot to spend an hour or two.
While you’re here, be sure to check out a few cool spots in the garden including the Moon Viewing House, bamboo forest, Koi pond, Moon Bridge, and Zen Garden House. Should you be interested in elevating your experience with an on-site activity, they also offer health/art classes including yoga, Taichi, Qigong, meditation, watercolor, gardening, and even a tea ceremony.
Not only is this a common place to hold private events, but they also have a few not-to-be-missed annual cultural events open to the public. The Spring Festival (Matsuri) takes place in May (Matsuri), Autumn Opera in September, and Autumn grand tea gathering (Daicha Kai) in October.
Pro Tip: Admission costs $10 for adults. To get here, you’ll have to drive uphill on a pretty steep cliff. Come with a car that can handle the elevation!
18. CALIFORNIA’S GREAT AMERICA
Thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies, this one is for you. At California’s Great America, you can fill your day with thrilling roller coasters, live shows, fireworks, and wait for it…. the best amusement park food in the San Francisco Bay Area!
Santa Clara’s Great America has rides and attractions for people of all ages, so no matter if you’re an adult or a kid, you’re sure to have a fun day out. On hot summer days, you can even enjoy the water park on the property. Be sure to get your walking shoes ready!
The amusement park is usually open March-December.
19. SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA
Santa Cruz is a half sleepy beach town, half college town. The laid-back surf culture is so strong here. If you choose to stop here, check out the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (home to one of the oldest roller coasters in the USA) and take a stroll among this boardwalk’s old-school Americana vibes. Entrance to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is free and you pay per ride.
From there, head on over to a more modern part of town, downtown Santa Cruz. This is Pacific Avenue to be exact, and here you will find a variety of vintage shops as well as modern apparel and gift stores, eateries, bars, and coffee shops.
For the coffee lovers–the local coffee roaster in Santa Cruz is Verve, so stop by Verve Coffee and bring some beans home for yourself or as a souvenir gift for others. On your way out of Santa Cruz, check out The Mystery Spot, a kitschy roadside attraction that hosts a collection of strange phenomena from the last 70 years.
20. MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA
Just an hour from Santa Cruz, you’ll find Monterey Bay. This seaside town is even more sleepy than the last, but that might just be due to the overcast skies that frequent the area. Don’t fret because they’re actually a lot to do here!
Highlights include the Monterey Bay Aquarium (often considered as one of the best aquariums in the world), Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf. When in Monterey, you definitely cannot miss walking down Cannery Row, the setting of two John Steinbeck novels. You’ll notice many warehouses that used to be sardine canneries now serve as home to popular restaurants, shops, and hotels.
Whale watching, sailing, kayaking, golfing, and biking are also popular activities to do here. We love Monterey so much that we dedicated a whole post to showcase some of the best things to do in town!
21. PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK
Not too far from the South Bay of San Francisco lies a world of caves, canyons, condors, and camping waiting to be discovered. All the best C’s rolled up into one!
Pinnacles National Park, officially established as a national park in 2013, was the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. As soon as you pull up in the parking lot, you’re going to notice a lot of impressive rocks jutting out of the ground and reaching for the sky. That’s what this park is best known for!
In order to see the best that Pinnacles has to offer, do the Condor Gulch Trail to High Peaks Trail, a 5.5-mile loop hike. You don’t need a ton of time to dedicate to exploring Pinnacles, but in my opinion, people are really sleeping on the natural beauty that Pinnacles National Park has to offer!
22. SPEND A FEW DAYS IN SAN FRANCISCO
If you’ve got a few more days to spare for exploring, head to San Francisco for a bit more culture and fun. Ride the cable cars, explore Chinatown and North Beach, take a food tour, or spend some time in the great outdoors!
Have a picnic or a jog at the expansive Golden Gate Park. Did you know that the Golden Gate Park is 20% larger than New York’s Central Park? You can rent bikes and ride around the park, or simply stroll on one of the many walking trails. The park also features various museums, gardens, an arboretum, and a carousel.
If you want to catch great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, head to Baker Beach or Marin Headlands just across the bridge.
23. GILROY, CALIFORNIA
Why is this on the list? Because of the garlic shops, massive premium outlets, and side-of-the-road fruit stands! If you’re into any of these things, consider working Gilroy into your itinerary somehow.
Whenever I make the drive from LA to SF, I’m always torn on either visiting Santa Cruz or Gilroy (for outlet shopping) on the way up. Don’t be surprised if you smell the garlic as you travel through the city. The Gilroy Foods processing plant never fails to fill the air with the fragrance of garlic. If you love garlic, then linger here longer and breathe it all in.
24. YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
If you’re a nature lover and you’re willing to venture a bit further east, you can’t miss a side trip to Northern California’s crown jewel, Yosemite National Park. You’ve probably heard of Yosemite, known for its majestic rushing waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, and granite cliffs more massive than one could imagine. California is so lucky to be the home of this iconic National Park!
On average, about four to five million people visit Yosemite each year, and most of them spend the majority of their time in Yosemite Valley. It’s a no-brainer why this is. Yosemite holds many natural wonders such as Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall, Half Dome, and El Capitan.
Here, you can take a hike among ancient sequoia trees, ride bikes with incredible rock formations as your backdrop, soak in the Merced River, and even catch glimpses of baby bear cubs. I’ve been to Yosemite seven times now and I keep going back, so I know you’re going to have a wonderful time here!
25. NAPA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
For those of you who haven’t heard, Napa Valley is the ultimate destination for wining and dining. The region is a popular day trip from the San Francisco Bay Area, and for good reason. About one hour away is a world of amazing gastronomy, unforgettable wine experiences, and raw outdoor adventure.
Despite the fact that Napa Valley is a world-class wine region, there are actually a ton of other things to do here other than wine taste. I’m not a huge wine drinker myself, yet I still love coming to Napa Valley whenever I get the chance. The sunny weather, the relaxed atmosphere, the foodie culture, and the extremely friendly people keep me coming back multiple times a year.
Aside from the hundreds of wineries within the Napa Valley, you can expect to find charming towns, top-notch quality restaurants, and a huge variety of B&B’s to lay your head for a night or two.
Some of the valley’s quaint towns not to be missed include Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga. You could literally spend an entire day just strolling and eating through these towns!
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN THE SAN FRANCISCO SOUTH BAY
- The Museum of American Heritage (Palo Alto, CA)
- Berryessa Flea Market (San Jose, CA)
- Monopoly in the Park (San Jose, CA)
- Raging Waters (San Jose, CA)
- LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Bay Area (Milpitas, CA)
- Beginner Outdoor Rock Climbing (Castle Rock State Park, Los Gatos, CA)
- Saratoga Gap and Ridge Trail Loop (Castle Rock State Park, Los Gatos, CA)
- Big Sur Monterey California Pacific Coast One Day Tour
- Mount Hermon Adventures Redwood Canopy Tour (Felton, CA)
- Roaring Camp Railroads (Felton, CA)
- Go on a whale-watching tour (Monterey, CA)
- Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, CA)
WHERE TO STAY IN THE SOUTH BAY, CALIFORNIA
The most convenient place to stay will likely be San Jose, California. This is where you’ll find a lot of the major hotels, meaning hotels can’t really charge an arm and a leg compared to smaller towns like Carmel-By-The-Sea or Santa Cruz. Here are some of the best hotels in San Jose, CA:
- Hayes Mansion San Jose, Curio Collection by Hilton ($$$) – this historic hotel offers modern, luxurious accommodations and is just 15 minutes drive from downtown San Jose. Guests can enjoy a variety of on-site dining options, including Silver Creek Dining Room, which offers a casual atmosphere for breakfast and lunch.
- AC Hotel by Marriott San Jose Downtown ($$) – This sleek, modern hotel features a restaurant, outdoor swimming pool, a fitness center and an onsite bar. The hotel also offers a continental or buffet breakfast.
- Aloft San Jose Cupertino ($$) – Just 6 minutes’ drive from luxury shopping at San Jose’s Santana Row, Aloft San Jose Cupertino offers modern, spacious rooms and relaxing facilities including an outdoor heated pool and an on-site restaurant.
ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST: BAY AREA, CALIFORNIA
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk!
- Comfortable walking shoes | You’re going to be doing quite some walking in the South Bay! My all-time favorite walking shoes for travel these days are the tried and true Ecco Soft 7‘s (they’re stylish, comfortable, and have been raved about for decades since they were first created)! The best part is that they have them for both men and women.
- Puffy Jacket | If you’re traveling in the fall or wintertime, you’re going to need layers in the Bay Area, which tends to get pretty cool nights. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. Even when I’m not hiking! It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Sunhat | Sun protection is key for any California destination.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike or bike ride but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures… the last thing you want is to be driving along with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
And that concludes this post! We hope that this post has inspired you to try something new! If you have any questions about the destinations or have your own travel tips to share, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below.