Visiting the Bay Area: Most people think to visit the typical tourist stops such as Chinatown, Pier 39, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. Make sure to visit some of the incredible parks in the area. Whenever I have friends visiting for a more than a few days we will spend at least one day south around the Carmel / Monterey area with a mandatory stop at Point Lobos State Park, and one day north in the Golden Gate Recreation Area (especially Muir Woods). My favorite guidebook is Northern California Best Places which will provide you will a long list of other possibilities. If you want a sense of what a number of sites look like, try taking a virtual tour.
Mid Peninsula Neighborhoods: I spend most of my weekdays in the mid peninsula, especially the cities of Palo Alto and Mountain View. Palo Alto Online is published by The Palo Alto Weekly and has a lot of useful information. Yahoo Mountain View exists for whatever it’s worth. I live in the Monta Loma neighborhood which has a Monta Loma Wiki (a great community, especially if you are raising kids) which is in the MV-Whisman School District (which provides decent education). Greenmeadow is the nearest community in Palo Alto. Most of Mountain View is now served by Google WiFi. The Mountain View Library is a nice place to study (or use your laptop), but the Santa Clara County Library in Los Altos has a better kids section. Mountain View public schools range from mediocre to decent. There are also a number of excellent private schools in the area. The best public schools in the middle peninsula seem to be Cupertino (especially the magnet schools), Palo Alto, and Los Altos. See the California School Directory for more details.
Weather: The weather in Mountain View is great! It’s normally sunny with comfortable temperatures. I joke that we don’t have weather, we have climate. Every now an then it will get below freezing in the middle of a winter night. The temperature crosses 90F several times a year. It rains periodically between Nov-Apr… but the sun will often come out on the same day. Most of the year you can plan outdoor activities without concern that the weather is going to spoil your plans. If the weather in Mountain View is too boring, cool off 10-20 degrees on the coast by Half Moon Bay, head to Pacifica for some fog, or go inland and get baked in the central valley. If you need snow, head up to Lake Tahoe.
Events: Any given day the question is not if there is an interesting event, but do I have time for one or two. Movies (mid peninsula), Shoreline Amphitheatre, Stanford Lively Arts, Palo Alto Weekly, SF Arts Monthly, MetroActive, SF weekly, BestofBerkeley, Los Altos Online, Cuportino Parks and Recreation, American Conservatory Theater (ACT), Berkeley Rep Theater, BayArea Concerts. You could also check zvents and upcoming for various events. Kid friend events are covered at chatterblock
Museums: Our family really enjoys the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park and you have Fine Arts Museums of SF right around the corner. The Exploratorium is one of the best science museums in the world. Adults as well as kids will have a great time. Where else would you find The Tech Museum but in silicon valley. Our daughter really enjoys the Children’s Discovery Museum (San Jose) and the Bay Area Discovery Museum (Sausalito). The Coyote Point Museum has good exhibits about ecology, a tiny zoo, in the midst of a very nice park. Palo Alto Junior Museum is a grear place for the under five set with a few exhibits which change periodically and a small collection of animals. We enjoy visiting the Museum @ Stanford and SF Modern Art.
Outdoors: I keep a list of interesting hiking & camping destinations. Our favorite local parks are Henry Cowell State Park (redwood and path by San Lorenzo River), Muir Woods (great redwoods), Golden Gate Req Area (Marin Headlands are beautiful), Sam MacDonald County Park, Memorial Grove County Park (closest redwoods – off Alpine, near Sam MacDonald), Venice Beach near Half Moon Bay, and Natural Bridges State Beach (old link) in Santa Cruz for the butterflies, tidal pools, and the interesting geology. Of course there many other state parks & beacheswhich are fun to visit. Our family likes the local zoos: Happy Hollow in San Jose (good for small children – rides included in admission), SF Zoo (our favorite… lemurs exhibit is really great), the Oakland Zoo, and Deer Hollow Farm (farm animals) located at Rancho San Antonio County Park. We also like outdoor ice skating Oct-Apr at Winter Lodge in Palo Alto. Webb Ranch off Alpine Road is a great place to learn how to ride horses. Alcatraz is always interesting and Filoli Gardens is a beautiful site to visit. Bay Nature is a monthly magazine which covers the bay area from a nature-lovers perspective. If you have a GPS receiver, you might want to play Geocaching. Arnel Guanlao suggests good photographic sites in his Bay Area Ramblings. and there is a somewhat out of date photo tours of many of the trails in the bay area
Food: I tend to agree with reviews found in Zagat SF. Restaurant Report seems to do a good job covering high end eateries in the City. There is also the SFGate Top 100 restaurant list. Dine.COMlets you enter your own reviews and see what other people have to say. yelp and jatbar have pretty good coverage of local places thanks to crowdsourcing. Waiters on Wheels and Waiter.COMdeliver food from area restaurants and have a lot of menu’s on-line. Favorite restaurants in the mid peninsula include Bangkok Cuisine (not as good as it used to be, but still nice), California Cafe(decent California cuisine), Estrellita (Mexican, their Oaxaca is wonderful), Oaxacan Kitchen (Palo Alto), Vive Sol (Mexican from same family as Fiesta Del Mar), Hong Kong Flower Lounge in Millbrae (Chinese/Seafood, Palo Alto branch isn’t very good), Kabul Afghan Cuisine, Amber India (weekends has Chaat), Cedro Ristorante Italiano (Menlo Park), Chaat Cafe (decent Indian fast food), Sundance Mine Company (steak), Straits Cafe (Palo Alto is Singaporean/Californian, SF is better and more authentic), Bistro Elan (French), Mediterranean Wraps (good fast food), Faz(Good atmosphere, ok Mediterranean), Dish Dash (Sunnyvale, Mediterranean), Zibibbo (nice Seattle Cuisine), Vaso Azzurro (Italian). For breakfast Hobbee’s and the Original Pancake House in Los Altos. A bit further out are Chez Panisse (Berkeley), Lark Creek Inn, Pearl’s Cafe (Fremont), Eos (SF), Cafe Kati (SF), Banana Leaf (Milpitas), 369 Shanghai Restaurant (San Jose), Thai Buddhist Temple (Sunday in Berkeley), Helmand (SF), Darda (Milpitas), Restaurant Gary Danko (SF), Zuni Cafe (SF), Aqua (SF), Isa (SF). Downside in the bay area: hard to find good German (Dittmer Deli is the only place I have found good sausage), Greek, Bagels (NY Bagels off California in PA best), or NY Style Pizza. You can find European chocolates at Chocolatier Desiree 165 S Murphy Avenue #C 408-245-6090 and at Chocolate Dream Box. Places to try: Hotaru (San Mateo, Japanese) , Khanh (Winchester, Vietnamese), Yung Le’s Fusion (SJ, vietnamese chinese mix), Evvia (Palo Alto, Greek), and Osteria (Palo Alto, Italian)
Transportation: I try to use mass transit when possible, so when I head up to SF I use the Caltrain Schedule hosted by Bay Area Transit Information. I don’t have daily exposure to commute traffic since I walk or bike to work, but I understand that since the “dot com” crash, that commute traffic is merely bad rather than impossible (on the scale of Chicago, not as bad as NYC). If you need to get traffic reports try CalTrans- road conditions, KPIX Traffic Report, or calling 1-800-555-TELL (or #121 on ATTWS) and say “Traffic”. The San Jose Airport (SJC) is more convenient than SFO when I can get flights there. SJC – AirportMonitor lets you watch flights in real-time. When we fly out of San Francisco Airport (SFO), we often use SkyPark Airport Parking. Sometimes fares out of Oakland Airport are cheaper than SJC or SFO. If you mostly use mass transit but need a car periodically check out City CarShare.
Churches & Service: There are a number of good churches in the SF bay area. In the central peninsula I would recommend checking out Peninsula Bible Church, PBC Cupertino, Menlo Park Prez, and Abundant Life Christian Fellowship. Further a field, I would check out The River in San Jose, Calvary Church in Los Gatos, and Los Gatos Christian Church, Peninsula Covenant in Redwood City, and First Baptist of San Francisco. Western Seminary and Fuller Seminary both have extension programs in this area. You might want to check out Renovaré San Jose and Women at the Well for their seminars and retreats. Volunteer Info Center has links to most of the organizations which operate in the bay area.
Higher Education: Colleges in the area include Stanford (Campus Map), UC Berkeley (UCB Extension Continuing Ed), Foothill/DeAnza, San Jose State, Santa Clara University, and UC Santa Cruz (UCSC Extension Continuing Ed)
Shopping: Houses for Sale, Stanford Shopping Center, University Art, Keeble & Shuchat Photography, Beltramo’s (Wine), Outdoor Gear. Furniture stores we like include Ikea, ARKITEKTURA IN-SITU, Form Vintage Modern, Danish Interiors.
Do You Want to Live Here?: If you are thinking about moving to the bay area, the McCormack’s Relocation Guides and/or Relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley could be useful books. The SFBay is a vibrant, multi-cultural area filled with interesting people who have come from all parts of the world, an active art and music scene, lots of great restaurants, and countless outdoors activities. Within a few hours drive in a car are wondrous destinations: wine country, Lake Tahoe (skiing, hiking, etc), rugged ocean coastline and beaches, and incredible parks like Yosemite. There is nowhere else on the planet that can match the SFBay area for high tech opportunities: a combination of world class universities, a critical mass of high tech companies, a culture of collaboration, and 70% of the world’s VC money. There is a dark side: the area’s materialism exemplified by the pursuit of wealth, and the busyness of people which make forming authentic communities difficult. On the other hand, I have noticed the materialism and pace of life which has characterized the SFBay has been spreading throughout the USA, even into the mid-west where there are not as many opportunities, and companies haven’t figured out that an accelerated life means companies need to be flexible. The cost of living in the SFbay is very high… mostly because of the high cost of housing though redfin might drop realtor fees. Some people have raised an alarm over price of homes, suggesting that housing is a bubble which is about to pop. Right now monthly rents are significantly cheaper than what mortgage payments would be for a similar home. My personal belief is that unless someone already owns a home in an expensive market, purchasing a house in the bay area does not make good financial sense at this time… but I could easily be wrong since I still can’t believe how much people are paying today. Pay in the bay area is a bit higher than other areas, see salary.com, payscale.com, salaryscout.com, or indeed.com for real data, but this doesn’t cover the added cost of housing. [Unless you are moving into the area from a location with equally high priced housing, you are going to be renting.] People from small cities or towns complain that buildings are packed to close together, there are too many people, and that house lots are measured in feet, not acres. People from large cities complain that the area is too spread out without adequate mass transit. The Bay area is very secularized, with less than 5% of the populate attending religious services each week. We are hopefully done with rolling blackout and liquification during earthquakes for awhile. For another take, a survey of people about best things about the bay area.
Wine Country: You can get commercial information from NapaValley.COM. If you know what you are looking for, Napa Valley Online is a good online directory. I have found The Best of the Wine Country to be a useful guidebook to the area. Wine is the first order of business. Most wineries offer tasting for a modest fee. Some offer tours or other attractions on site. I would guess there are something like 300 wineries in the area, and I have only visited a handful. My favorites so far are Hess Collection (Napa, decent wine, small interesting modern art museum), Cuvaison (Catistoga, my favorite wine, facility is minimalist), Korbel Champagne (Russian River, nice flower garden), Buena Vista (Sonoma Valley, nice picnic area), Sterling Vineyards (Catistoga, tram to great view – wine not so good), Clos Pegase (Catistoga, some interesting art). Check of napa valley events for seasonal events and activities. There are a number of popular activities in the area: bicycling, hot air balloon rides, mud baths in Catistoga, etc. There are a large number of excellent restaurants. My favorite restaurant is Terra (Southern France+Pacific Rim), followed by Trilogy (Califorian+French), French Laundry (Yountville, French country), and Tra Vigne (Tuscan). We will often stop at Mustard’s for lunch (Yountville, interesting American comfort food) on the drive up to the area. Numerous people have told me that Auberge Du Soleil is an outstanding place to eat and stay and The El Dorado Hotel looked very nice. There are countless B&Bs in the area Many are mediocre, but there are some which are outstanding. Alas, I haven’t visited many of the truly great places to stay because you need to get reservations reasonably far in advance, and I head up to the Napa area more or less at the last minute.
Monterey Peninsula: You can find general information at the Tourist Info. Activities I would recommend are: visiting Point Lobos (one of the most beautiful places on the planet, best just after they open), the Monterey Bay Aquarium (best aquarium I have seen), the Monterey pier to see the sea lions, the Carmelite mission just south of Carmel, and walking along the Monterey Coastal Trail. If you don’t mind a drive, heading south to Big Sur. People watching in downtown Carmel can also be pretty interesting. George Washington Park in Pacific Grove used to be one of the places that monarch butterflies wintered, but the trees have a disease, so the butterflies haven’t been there for a couple of years. [Try Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz for butterflies.] The most romantic place to stay is Old Monterey Inn though be prepare to pay. The Spindrift Inn and Hotel Pacific are small, modern hotels which is extremely nice but also rather expensive. I can also suggest any of the Four Sisters Inns, The Centrella (Pacific Grove), and Tickle Pink Inn (Carmel). I would recommend eating at Stokes Restaurant (in Old Monterey, Californian / Mediterranean, my favorite), Rio Grill (in Carmel, Californian), Flying Fish Grill (Carmel, Mexico meets Japan), passionfish (Pacific Grove, Sustainable sea food with a South American influence), Fishwife (in Pacific Grove, great prices for good fish), Pacific’s Edge (south of Carmel, Continental, great view at sunset), and Tarpy’s Roadhouse (near the airport, American food). Many people like the cozy atmosphere at Fandango (in Pacific Grove) and the food at Fresh Cream. Roy’s at Pebble Beach is not as good as Roy’s in Hawaii. Montrio has a good reputation, but I was disappointed with the quality of the food. Places I would like to try include French Poodle (Carmel), Cypress Grove (Monterey), Bath House (Pacific Grove), Sierra Mar (Big Sur). If you want to go completely overboard head down south to Post Ranch in Big Sur for incredible food and lodging for out of this world prices.
Santa Cruz: Natural Bridges State Beach (old link) in Santa Cruz for the butterflies (Oct-Jan), tidal pools, and the interesting geology. The surfing just north of the boardwalk is the best place to learn on the pacific coast. The water isn’t too deep, the waves come in slowly enough to give you time to think. If only the water wasn’t so cold. Some people like the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk… it’s too commercial for my tastes. The food at Oswald’s is always excellent.
Peninsula Coast: Cypress Inn, Two Fools Cafe, Main Street Grill, Pasta Moon, Duarte’s