Sonoma/Napa/Muir Woods/San Francisco
- When: 20 September- 28 September, 2019
- Where (accommodations): San Francisco Marriott Marquis
- Transportation: JetBlue Boston (BOS) to San Francisco (SFO), rental car to Sonoma/Napa though Enterprise Rent-A-Car
- Sights/attractions: Day trips: (Sonoma/Napa area): Wineries: Castello di Amorosa, Round Pond Estate, Domaine Chandon, Artesa Vineyards and Winery. Spa: Golden Haven Hot Springs Spa and Resort (Calistoga) Muir Woods National Monument; San Francisco: Twin Peaks Summit, Corona Heights, Salesforce Tower, The View Lounge, Union Square, Yerba Buena Gardens, Nob Hill, Grace Cathedral, Fairmont San Francisco, The Painted Ladies (Alamo Square), Mission Dolores Park, Castro district, Mission district, Alcatraz;
- Food/drinks: Sonoma: Sunflower Cafe , Sausalito: The Spinnaker , San Francisco: Local Cafe, Asha Tea House, Samovar Tea and Chai Bar, Mazarine Coffee, Dumpling time, La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, Sushi Zone, Liholiho Yacht Club, Bi-Rite Creamery, Loló, Tropisueño Mexican Kitchen
Disclaimer: this was NOT a vacation. We did not go to San Francisco for a week, because when do we ever spend this much time in one place? That would be quite unheard of 🙂 . The best I could describe this trip is a WORK-ATION. Sean had a training for his new job scheduled Monday through Friday, and I can work from any place that has reliable internet connection. So why not to trade a boring office cubicle in Boston to a nice hotel room for a week in San Francisco? Add a few weekend days on each end and there is plenty of time for adventure!
I will go over our weekend trips first and then list what stood out in San Francisco during the week.
SUNSHINE, WINE AND MUD- SAY WHAT?!
We flew in Friday evening and arrived just in time for bed- three hour jet lag will wake us up early in the morning. We picked up a rental car at the airport and crashed at the closest hotel. I believe it was La Quinta- nothing to write home about, but it did the job- we had a bed, a shower and even a simple breakfast in the morning. We don’t really need much more as we are off to explore the Wine Country- Sonoma, Calistoga, Napa Valley and everything that comes with it!
Several people told us- if you don’t like the weather in San Francisco, just drive to the other side of the bridge. I’ve heard a lot about the bay microclimate, fog and wind. My previous visits to this city confirmed the theory that rarely do you need shorts or a sundress in San Francisco. Well that, my friends, is not the case for Sonoma/Napa Valley. If you plan on visiting even for one day like we did- the less clothes, the better! 70F in San Francisco, about an hour drive later and we are in the 90F range and not a cloud in the sky!
It’s a very easy and pleasant ride- the views are breathtaking, so even if you are not a wine drinker, it’s worth a day trip when visiting San Francisco.
I was ready to do some wine tasting, but most wineries open at 10am (yes, it is acceptable to go to a winery this early), I am in Boston time zone, up since 6am, so no judgement here, please 🙂 . In the meantime we decided to grab some food and tour the wineries later.
Sunflower Cafe in Sonoma was perfect – the line moved quickly, plenty of seating in their cute back yard, delicious and healthy food options- California, I am in love!
Now I am ready for the wine! We did not need to go far. As soon as you reach the Valley you can see the signs for wine tastings everywhere. I am not an expert, so please don’t expect some professional somelier review here. I picked the places I wanted to visit based on how they were rated online and how picturesque it looked. Sean does not drink, so I figured he should at least enjoy the view. It gets pretty busy and some of them require reservations in advance (we had made none), so if you have specific winery in mind, plan and book ahead.
CASTELLO DI AMOROSA
This 13th century style winery is located in Calistoga, CA and I wanted to visit mainly because it’s a castle. I know we are not in Italy and it is not a real 13th century building, but regardless it’s very photogenic!
Most likely that is one of the reasons why it gets so busy- we came at noon on a Saturday and the parking area was nearly full! You don’t need reservations in advance (unless coming with a large group), general admission and 5 wines tasting is $30. Sadly even those that don’t drink have to pay the same price and are offered grape juice (entrance for the kids is $20). That may have been the most expensive grape juice Sean has ever had 🙂 .
You get a map and are allowed to walk around the two levels of the castle. If you want to see more (there is even a torture chamber!), you can get a ticket for the guided tour for $45. That to me was a bit silly- this is not a real castle after all, nor is that a real torture chamber! But for each their own. I enjoyed the wine tasting and ordered some to bring home (they ship for a reasonable cost, we traveled with carry-ons and could not pack any bottles). Allow yourself some time here, it’s busy, but beautiful.
ROUND POND ESTATE
We drove to see this place based on our friend’s recommendation, but when we showed up, it was full. They require reservations in advance and we were not on an exact schedule- we sort of drove around and visited the places that we thought would be interesting.
Round Pond Estate looked beautiful, had a nice garden and a place to eat outside. I would come back here with a booking next time.
From Sonoma, through Calistoga we are now in Yountville, CA. No reservations are needed and even though it was quite busy, I did not have to wait much to get a glass of bubbly. Established in 1973 it was the first French owned sparkling wine producer in Napa Valley.
There is plenty of space outside to relax, so we spent some time there and decided we have enough time to see one more winery before we end this drinking tour (very grateful for my designated driver).
ARTESA VINEYARDS AND WINERY
We wanted to see this place because it looked so different from the others we had visited so far. Just 15 minute drive from Napa and Sonoma downtown this Estate is breathtaking. Rolling vineyards around and a modern, sleek look inside.
Unfortunately we arrived close to 5pm and there were no more wine tasting spots left, even waitlist was full. But I am glad we came, because the views itself were totally worth it! Most of the wineries close at 6pm, but our day is not over yet!
GOLDEN HAVEN HOT SPRINGS SPA AND RESORT
While exploring the Valley, Sean’s aunt texted us to go to the mud baths in Calistoga, CA! Neither of us have been and got curious. We called the place she had visited back in 1987 and they had one couples reservation available at 6 pm, with half price deal! Could we get any luckier? We showed up with absolutely no clue what to expect. Super friendly staff greeted us and took us to the “mud room”. We walk in and see this huge corner tub filled with MUD. I looked at it and started to have second thoughts- we are voluntarily getting into this nasty looking (and not smelling the nicest) dirt?! Well, curiosity got the better of us and we went in 🙂 .
The way it works is that attendant explains everything and leaves the room. You undress completely naked and sort of roll into the tub. Like getting in a bed, that’s how he said we should lay in it. The key is to NOT step in, because the bottom is extremely hot and you could seriously burn yourself. However, it is almost impossible to sink to the bottom while laying flat.
Mud is super dense, so we had to wiggle ourselves in, and pile the dirt on as best as we could, so we don’t lay there exposed. The attendant comes back in and literally shovels more mud on us- covering the shoulders, legs- everything. He then painted our faces with cool clay masks, placed a cold wet towel on the forehead, and again left the room and let us relax for about 10 minutes. It actually felt amazing! The heat and the feeling of being weightless helps the muscles, joints, skin- there are many benefits from this ‘dirty’ experience 🙂 ! When the recommended time was up, the knock on the door woke us from the mud nap and we were instructed to take a shower behind the curtain in the same room. We literally hosed each other down, because there was mud EVERYWHERE. In the meantime our ‘mud man’ cleaned up the area and filled us a mineral water jacuzzi bath were we rinsed off whatever dirt was left on us.
Final step- we were taken to a dimly lit room with comfortable massage table beds where we were wrapped in the blankets like a burrito, with the cold towel on our necks to cool off, relax/nap for good 20 minutes. Totally unplanned, completely unexpected, but I think this was my most favorite activity of the day!
Refreshed we drove back to San Francisco, returned the car and checked into San Francisco Marriott Marquis right near the Union Square, where we will spend a week working/exploring the city.
SAUSALITO AND MUIR WOODS
On Sunday we did not have a rental car anymore, so we started to think of what to do that would not involve driving. I always wanted to see the redwood forest and after checking with our hotel concierge, we learned that we can get to the Muir Woods National Monument fairly easy without a car. There is a ferry that goes to Sausalito every few hours and from there you pick up a shuttle which, in about 45 min on a winding road takes you to the forest! To get to the ferry just put GPS for the Ferry Building- it’s a big clock tower that you will not be able to miss. I suggest buying shuttle passes in advance- the bus was full and space is limited. We bought the tickets for the shuttle online a day before and were happy we did- not all available time slots were open. If the ferry times don’t exactly align with the shuttle, I would not worry too much- go to Sausalito and spend some time there- there are plenty of restaurants, shops, nice view near the water.
We got there about an hour before the shuttle pick up time and enjoyed the walk and a very good ice cream at the local shop.
Muir Woods were impressive. The trees are VERY tall- my neck was starting to hurt from looking up that much 🙂 . You can spend there an hour or a whole day- it really is up to you and how much nature time you need.
There are paths and hikes for various fitness levels. We did not come prepared for hiking- jeans and sneakers is not ideal woods attire, but we had a great time taking a shorter loop and running back to make it to the earlier shuttle bus. This was enough of a workout for the day.
If you have time, I would highly recommend visiting the forest. After all, not everyday we get to walk around the 500-1200 year old trees…
When the shuttle dropped us off, we had some time before the ferry back to the city, so we decided to have dinner in Sausalito and picked a popular restaurant on the water- The Spinnaker. It’s mainly famous for its seafood, but everything we ate tasted delicious.
The view through the floor to ceiling windows did not hurt either!
The weekend is over, Sean begins his training and I am in my new routine – yoga or barre class in the morning, then work, and, when Sean is back, we explore different neighborhoods together. I have to mention the cute yoga studio for those that might be staying near Union Square and feel like having a quick workout.
Maiden Lane Studios is located on the cozy street and has great teachers and convenient times for before or after work time. It was 6 min walk from the hotel and I thoroughly enjoyed every class I took there.
Since we explored daily, I will not list our itinerary, but rather mention things that we liked and thought are worth the visit.
SAN FRANCISCO VIEWPOINTS AND SIGHTS
To all of the viewpoints that I will talk about below we got either by walking or taking Uber/taxi/ferry. It helped to stay central, but San Francisco has many ways of getting around and I would not think a car is needed unless you do the day trips, like the Wine Country mentioned earlier.
TWIN PEAKS SUMMIT
Located just around 20 minute car ride from Union square this viewpoint is free and very much worth checking out. We took a taxi from the hotel and the best address for the GPS is 100 Christmas Tree Point Rd. The parking lot is big, but it gets busy, so I would recommend going early and preferably on a clear day if you want to see far.
However, even with some fog you can get really cool pictures. When we arrived the fog was rolling through and from seeing basically nothing, it cleared up in just a few minutes opening the city below.
THE VIEW LOUNGE
Located right at our hotel- San Francisco Marriott Marquis, this place is perfect for the cocktail with the sunset (or night city) view. It opens at 4pm, so even if you are not staying at the Marriott, head up to the 39th floor and enjoy a pretty drink or two!
Their menu is mainly small plates, drinks and dessert. Everything we had tasted great and we returned back a few nights later (short commute definitely helped there 🙂 )!
CORONA HEIGHTS PARK
We came across this park quite unintentionally. We were exploring Castro District, commonly referenced as The Castro– neighborhood in Eureka Valley.
It was one of the first gay neighborhoods in the United States and is full of restaurants, bars and some publicly displayed nudity. We saw two guys walking completely naked, covering their front only with a tiny sparkling cloth 🙂 . We came in the cookie shop (where even cookies were penis shaped 🙂 and chatted with the vendors. What is there to do or see around on a random Tuesday night? They suggested to walk up the hill to Corona Heights Park. We were wondering if it’s safe, but they assured us that it totally is, so we took a short walk. There are some steps involved and the park is completely dark, so use a flashlight if you don’t want to twist your ankle. It was clean, no homeless, no drunks- we were pretty impressed of how nice this place was! The view is absolutely amazing. There was maybe another couple and one more hiker showed up, but other than that- the place and the city panorama below was all ours to take in! I think it is open from 5am till midnight, so it would be a great spot during the day as well, but since we saw the Twin Peaks summit, I assume that the day time views would be very similar.
This skyscraper is new and shiny, just like the park surrounding it. We were able to get to the 360 degree observation deck because Sean is an employee there and got me a guest pass. Unfortunately it is not open to public on a daily basis, but maybe worth calling to see if there are days when public entrance is allowed.
Located in the Market district of Downtown San Francisco, the park around the tower is also worth visiting. It its hustling and bustling with employees during the business hours, but was very quiet and nice to walk around on the weekend afternoon.
This is another charming neighborhood in the city known for its luxury hotels and mansions as well as the beautiful Grace Cathedral with amazing glass windows.
The hills are a bit steep and the wind can be strong, but that is what San Francisco is known for, just wear comfortable shoes!
While you are there, visit the luxury Fairmont hotel– you can walk in and go across to their outside garden for some more great city views.
YERBA BUENA GARDENS
If you want a place to relax and maybe grab a lunch – Yerba Buena Gardens right Downtown is a great place for that.
I discovered it by going to Samovar Tea for my afternoon matcha latte fix and realized it’s right near the hotel where we were staying!
If you are down for some shopping- this is one of the many places to be! 2.6 acre plaza is surrounded by shops, restaurants, theaters and hotels.
When you see the hearts, you will know you are in Union Square!
THE PAINTED LADIES (ALAMO SQUARE)
Have you seen the TV series Full House? Most of the Americans have, I’ve only heard of it, but it was famous in the late 80ies- early 90ies and Sean definitely watched it. So when we heard there is a place where part of it was filmed, we figured we should check it out. It was a little over half an hour walk from our hotel -pleasant stroll on a balmy early evening.
The place is called Painted Ladies. In American architecture, painted ladies are Victorian and Edwardian houses and buildings repainted in three or more colors that embellish or enhance their architectural details. They are right across from the Alamo Square– a nice little area to chill or take more pics 🙂 .
When you are across the street from the painted ladies go up the hill a few steps and then take a right. There is a view of the city in the distance and a lot less people. All the tourists gather right in front of the colorful houses so you can have this all to yourself.
MISSION DOLORES PARK
From the Painted Ladies it was another 30 min walk to the Mission Dolores Park– we really walked a lot in San Francisco : ) ! It was a pretty scenic route- I loved the buildings and there were not too many hills to climb.
We arrived to the park right before dark and the evening was cloudy, but I could see how pretty this place would be for the sunset.
It’s clean and green- beautiful park for a stroll, picnic or just to sit down, relax and unwind after a busy work day.
San Francisco and Alcatraz go hand in hand almost like San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Former prison is reachable by boat in about 15 minutes from Pier 33 and should definitely be a must when exploring San Francisco. During my previous trips to this city I never had time to check this off my list, so now we made a point to visit.
Since we worked all week, we chose to do this tour on our last day- Saturday. Flight back to Boston was not until late evening, so we still had a full day to explore. There are multiple tour options- Early bird, Day tours, Night tours, tours with a stop in the Angel Island- take your pick. However, book your tickets in advance, because they sell out, especially for the weekend days. We got on a 11.30 am ferry and soon after arrival to the island joined a 12pm free walking tour with the volunteer guide.
Unless you already know the history (we did not), the guide is the way to go. He told very interesting stories about the prisoners, escape attempts etc. We definitely enjoyed it. After the tour you can pick up the audio guide or wander around and take in the pretty creepy place on your own.
Ferry goes back to San Francisco every hour, but there are no assigned seats or times on the ticket back, so get in line early or you might have to wait for the next one.
FOOD, FOOD AND MORE FOOD
We are definitely foodies and do not pass the opportunity to try new dishes and explore various cuisines. San Francisco has SO many options that it makes your head spin when trying to decide what place to pick for the next meal. I will only mention places that we enjoyed and would return to if we came back for another visit.
All of the morning/afternoon places were around the San Francisco Marriott Marquis hotel/close to Union Square because I worked from the hotel and did not want to go far when I had plenty of options around me.
Right around the corner from my daily yoga studio this place was cute and had plenty of healthy breakfast/lunch options.
I had breakfast there twice- Acai bowl the first time and Oatmeal bowl the other. Both were pricey, but fresh and delicious.
This place was even closer to the hotel and I believe has several locations in San Francisco. I returned here for their ricotta and fig or strawberry toast and mochi muffins- yummm! Caffe gets busy in the morning and especially on the weekends, but service is quick and I never had to wait long.
They also serve lunch, but all my meals there were for breakfast only, so I can only vouch for that.
ASHA TEA HOUSE
I have to mention this one because they have SO MANY tea options, including my new favorite Matcha. I did not see food there, unless you count tapioca balls (here called Boba) that they add to the tea at your request.
It was a perfect afternoon pick-me-up place that I returned to a few times.
SAMOVAR TEA AND CHAI BAR
This place is a lot more than what I had expected. With a beautiful view of the Yerba Buena Gardens park it has breakfast, brunch, lunch and even happy hour. There is both outside and inside seating, lots of food options and of course-tea!
We ate a couple times at the hotel- the night we arrived and were too tired to go anywhere else and at The View Lounge, where they mainly have small plates and drinks, which were still very good. However for the most part we liked exploring different neighborhoods, so dinners were kind of all over town.
Tiny hole in the wall place was recommended by a friend and we wouldn’t have ever just came across it if we weren’t specifically looking. One of the best sushis we have had EVER. That is a bold statement because we do eat sushi a lot and tried it at many different restaurants. This place is a few people show- one waitress, one main chef and his assistant. Cash only. When you walk in, put the name on the list on the wall and wait. Depends on a day, we waited about 30 minutes or so.
It really was worth every minute. Food comes super fresh and actually reasonably priced for San Francisco!
Also recommended by a friend this dumpling place did not disappoint! It has a lot of tables inside and we did not have to wait at all. You may have to wait if you want an outside seating as there were very few tables for that.
We came here to eat, and it did not matter where we sit! Everything we tried was delicious, would return here no doubt!
LA MAR CEBICHERIA PERUANA
This Peruvian gem is in The Embarcadero, right on the pier and we went there mainly for the desserts. We already had dinner and needed something sweet, so sweets we had!
Their food menu looked amazing and both the pisco sour and the desserts were incredible.
LIHOLIHO YACHT CLUB
Cool atmosphere, great food- what much else can you ask for. An interesting mix of Chinese, Hawaiian and Indian dishes.
Baked Hawaii for the win!
We wanted to try some Mexican food while in San Francisco and came across this eatery while walking in the Mission District.
I was not overly impressed with the food, but I have to mention this place for their interior decorations.
It’s quite over the top to say the least.
TROPISUEÑO MEXICAN KITCHEN
Talking about Mexican food-we really did not need to go far! Adjacent to our hotel Tropisueno was full every night when we were coming home. So on the last day we decided to give it a try for lunch and we LOVED it.
I know, we really had too much sugar on this trip. But I cannot not mention this great ice cream place near the Mission Dolores Park. It was one of the cooler days and yet we could not resist a scoop of this homemade organic ice cream. We’ll burn off the calories later 🙂 .
This was not your typical San Francisco MUST SEE, MUST DO list. Of course you should see the Golden Gate bridge or visit the Ghirardelli Square if you are visiting for the very first time. But when you are done checking off all of the typical tourist spots, hopefully our experience adds to the excitement and helps to see San Francisco’s less popular attractions. The city has so many districts with their unique feel- get your comfy shoes on and have fun exploring!