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Introduction

The Bay Area (or, in full, 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.

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Regions

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.
Peninsula - 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).

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Cities

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

Berkeley - known for its liberal activism, world-class public university, and extensive cultural and culinary attractions
Oakland - diverse and underrated with important history, including entertainment and radical culture
Palo Alto - a small but active city, home to lots of tech startups and right by Stanford University
San Francisco - the heart of the Bay Area, famous for its scenic beauty and unique culture
San Jose - the center of Silicon Valley and largest city in the Bay Area

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Sights and Activities

Alcatraz – the notorious island prison that once held Al Capone.
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.
Muir Woods – a forest of old-growth redwoods, the tallest trees on the planet.
Napa Valley – in the North Bay, renowned for its fine wineries.
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.
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.

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Events and Festivals

Holidays

  • New Year’s Eve - The US celebrates the outgoing of the old year and incoming of the New Year quite dramatically. Every state boasts its own parties to ring in the New Year, but none is more extravagant than New York’s Time Square, which sees people overflowing into the neighboring restaurants, bars, parks, beaches, and neighborhoods.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Day (officially Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. and sometimes referred to as MLK Day) is an American federal holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around King's birthday, January 15. The holiday is similar to holidays set under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The earliest Monday for this holiday is January 15 and the latest is January 21. King was the chief spokesperson for nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights Movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in federal and state law.
  • St Patrick’s Day - March 17 celebrates the US’s large Irish population. Many cities around the country boast boisterous parades and Irish-themed parties, especially New York and Chicago, where the river is dyed green. Be wary of the drunkenness that dominates as this is definitely a party-day.
  • Memorial Day - Memorial Day is an important holiday throughout the United States, but not for crazy festivities. Parades commemorating wartime heroes are often held and the day is also the ‘unofficial’ start of summer. Most visitors follow the crowds to parks and beaches, which are capped off with informal BBQs.
  • Independence Day - Also known as the Fourth of July, Independence Day celebrates the US’s break from the British during the 18th century. Barbecues, street parties, beach trips, and weekend getaways are commonplace to appreciate freedom.
  • Labor Day is a public holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September. It honors the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, laws, and well-being of the country. It is the Monday of the long weekend known as Labor Day Weekend. It is recognized as a federal holiday. Beginning in the late 19th century, as the trade union and labor movements grew, trade unionists proposed that a day be set aside to celebrate labor.
  • Halloween - Halloween is a fun holiday on October 31 for all generations to dress up in costumes and relive their youth. Children walk around the neighborhood trick-or-treating for candy, while adults attend parties. Other seasonal events include haunted houses, pumpkin farms and carving, and corn mazes.
  • Thanksgiving - On the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving is held in almost every home in the US. Tourists will have a hard time finding anything to do as the country essentially shuts down in observation. A typical Thanksgiving meal consists of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie commemorating the original Pilgrim’s feast at Plymouth Rock.
  • Christmas - On December 25, Christians celebrate Christmas as the pinnacle of their calendar by attending church and opening gifts from Santa Claus. Almost everything shuts down to promote family togetherness. The northern regions hope to experience a “white Christmas,” with trees and festive lights blanketed by snow.

Sport

  • Super Bowl Sunday - the world’s most watched sporting event and one of the highest grossing TV days of the year, Superbowl Sunday is a spectacular extravaganza. Held the first Sunday in February, the Superbowl is the final playoff game between the NFL’s top two teams. The venue rotates every year around America, yet the local parties seem to remain. Pubs, bars and restaurants are great places to enjoy the Superbowl or locals throw their own parties with different variations of betting.
  • The World Series is the annual championship series of Major League Baseball (MLB) in North America, contested since 1903 between the American League (AL) champion team and the National League (NL) champion team. The winner of the World Series championship is determined through a best-of-seven playoff, and the winning team is awarded the Commissioner's Trophy. As the series is played during the fall season in North America, it is sometimes referred to as the Fall Classic.

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Weather

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.

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Getting There

By Plane

There are three major airports in the San Francisco Bay Area: San Francisco International Airport (SFO, located about 10 miles south of the city) is the largest, a major international airport with numerous passenger amenities; Oakland International Airport (OAK), in the East Bay is smaller and serves destinations in the U.S. and Mexico; and Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC), 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) 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.

By Train

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.

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.

By Bus

Most routes connect the Bay Area to Los Angeles via Interstate 5. Other routes go to Sacramento, Redding, and San Luis Obispo.

By Boat

Some cruise lines along the Pacific Coast stop in San Francisco, but only for the day.

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Getting Around

By Train

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 website 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!

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 (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.

By Bus

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.

By Boat

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.

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Eat

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.

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Sleep

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).

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