“Hella” Fun Things to Do in Northern California

For much more about things to do in Northern California, check out my new post “30 Things to Do in Northern California.” Also, at the bottom of this post, you can sign up for updates by email (since I write about NorCal a lot!) and find many more resources about beautiful Northern California.

Northern California is a different world from Southern California. Northern California lacks the warm weather and perfect beach image of Southern California; palm-tree-lined avenues are replaced by winding roads of oak trees or hip city streets with a touch of gritty. The people are diverse (the most ethnically diverse cities lie in Northern California), and the style is often a ruggedly cool combination of laid-back California, hip-hop, and hipster. Even the slang is different (e.g. “hella”). The region celebrates its love of food and wine with ultra foodie experiences in San Francisco, Sonoma, and Napa Valley. In short, Northern California is the place to explore if you want to see what’s so cool about California, but want a different perspective from Southern California.

Sacramento

The old Tower movie theater in Sacramento

While there are a million things to do in Northern California, including the conventional must-sees like Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and San Francisco, let’s take a look at the 90-mile area between Sacramento (in the valley) and the Bay Area (on the coast). This is a fun collection of experiences, some offbeat, all awesome, that showcase what Northern California is all about.

1. Take your pick from the array of awesome restaurants on Broadway (in Sacramento)

One of the things Northern California is known for is good restaurants, including a great diversity of ethnic food and beautiful outdoor dining. Here you can experience both. Take your pick among Vietnamese, Nepalese, Thai, fusion, Ethiopian, Chinese, Japanese, and more. My recommendations are Andy Nguyen’s for its Buddhist interior and all-vegan Vietnamese menu, Boon Boon Café and Chada for great Thai food, and Tower Café for the classic Sacramento outdoor dining experience.

Tower Cafe

The outdoor garden at Sacramento’s Tower Café

Having a long meal in Tower’s garden, surrounded by cool people, soothing fountains, and gorgeous plants while eating a custard-filled baguette topped with seasonal fruit (the “seasonal french toast”), or one of its interpretations on Asian or Mexican food, is one of my favorite things about living in Sacramento, and I guarantee you will love it, too.

2. Experience the unique vibe at It’s All Yoga (in Sacramento)

Whether you are a total novice or an experienced yogi, this is the place for you. People of all shapes, sizes, experience in yoga, etc. are welcomed with open arms and warm smiles by the studio’s staff, and you will leave wishing there was one of these studios in your neighborhood. Yeah, it really is that good. (And it’s an easy walk from the restaurants mentioned above.)

its all yoga

(Photo courtesy of It’s All Yoga)

3. Taste wine in the middle of nowhere (just south of Sacramento)

Any visit to the Sacramento area should include a stop in the valley’s wine country. While little-known Lodi boasts some great wines and an upscale small-town vibe, my favorite wine experiences in the valley are even farther off the beaten path.

Lodi wine

The quiet vineyards of Lodi wine country

From Sacramento, drive down Freeport Blvd. the along the river, across drawbridges and past houseboats, to the wineries of Clarksburg. Try wines from 8 wineries at the Old Sugar Mill, or drive farther into the vine-covered fields to Bogle Winery. Here you can taste for free and still get the typical California wine-tasting experience of seeing the vineyards, having a picnic, and learning about the region’s wine from the friendly staff.

wine tasting California

Wine tasting at the Bogle Winery outside Sacramento

bogle winery

At Bogle Winery with the vineyards in the distance

4. Go to the Davis Farmer’s market (in Davis)

Davis is one cool university town, known for its bike-friendly atmosphere and innovative programs in food production, viniculture, and even beer making. Being in Northern California, a hub of agriculture and the farm-to-fork movement, Davis has a farmers’ market that you are sure to love. There are tons of locally-grown organic vegetables and fruit, cheeses, baked goods, arts and crafts, Indian and Afghan food, live music, and plenty of people watching of its hippie-meets-hipster crowd. (The market is Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings.) Afterwards, take a walk in the nearby UC Davis Arboretum, a huge outdoor walkway showcasing plants from California and around the world.

Davis farmers market

Davis arboretum

The redwood forest in the UC Davis Arboretum

5.  Say “wow” at the Oxbow Public Market (in Napa)

Oxbow Public Market is an excellent introduction to the food and atmosphere of Northern California. From exciting, multi-ethnic California cuisine to local wines, from oysters to artisan cheeses, and from organic sea-salted caramel ice cream to local olive oil, this place is a foodie’s paradise.

oyster restaurant

It will also introduce you to the California value of being environmentally conscious, as seen in the compost bins, abundance of organic and sustainably produced goods, and even compostable dishes and utensils made from sugar cane fiber and potatoes (at Three Twins Ice Cream). Simply put, this place is awesome and definitely deserves a place on your travel agenda, but come hungry!

Oxbow Public Market

6. Taste amazing wine or make your own blend at the ultra-hip District 4 Wines (in downtown Napa)

(Sadly, this place has closed since this post was published, but there are many excellent tasting rooms in Downtown Napa. You can make a wine blend at Ravenswood in Sonoma). This funky wine tasting lounge is the ultimate place to hang out with your friends and sip wine:

napa tasting rooms

boutique wines

The wines are carefully chosen boutique wines, meaning that they are made in limited quantities and are really good. Sit back and enjoy the atmosphere while learning about Napa wines. Or better yet, pay more and spend the afternoon making your own blend starting with 4 building blocks of a red blend–Cabernet, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc–and combining until you get a blend you love. The cool thing is that you can design your own label and take a specially-prepared bottle of your wine blend home.

wine blend

Making our own wine blend by finding the perfect balance of 4 red varietals

7. Walk through the interactive Cornerstone Gardens (just outside Sonoma)

Experience a mix of landscape architecture, design, and art in these interactive walk-through gardens. Each installation is unique but all remind me of California in their love of plants and bright colors. In addition to the gardens, there are also galleries and specialty shops where you can sample local wines and food.

cornerstone gardens

8. The Botanical Garden at UC Berkeley (in Berkeley, just outside of San Francisco)

There is a lot of cool stuff to do in Berkeley, but for a reprieve from the busyness of the Bay Area, head on up above the campus and wander the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden to see an amazing array of plants from around the world. The garden paths offer beautiful views as they wind up, down, and around the hills. Enjoy some peace and share the love for plants that is so typical of California.

aloe

A spiral aloe at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

So, what do you think? Can’t wait to try these awesome experiences in Northern California? If you’ve been here, what would you add to the list?

Suggested posts:

30 Things to Do in Napa Valley

A Romantic Getaway in Napa Valley

A Must-Visit in San Francisco

Connecting and Disconnecting in Bodega Bay

The Perfect Day-Trip to Berkeley

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29 Responses to “Hella” Fun Things to Do in Northern California

  1. Annette | Bucket List Journey 09/22/2012 at 9:47 pm #

    Love, love, LOVE Oxbow! I live about 40 minutes away, so I enjoy spending my days off using their free wi-fi while progressive eating and drinking :)
    Annette | Bucket List Journey recently posted..A Private Wine Tasting in Napa ValleyMy Profile

    • Jenna 09/24/2012 at 3:26 pm #

      Great idea to spend time there progressively eating and drinking. I should go there one day and just spend the day there…then I could try more of the goodies.

  2. Charu 09/23/2012 at 12:56 pm #

    I love these tips, especially tasting wine in the middle of nowhere. I haven’t spent too much time in Northern Cali but when I do will definitely turn to you for advice!
    Charu recently posted..Ways that Social Media Is Changing the WorldMy Profile

    • Jenna 09/24/2012 at 3:29 pm #

      You will love Northern California (there is SO much here–these tips are just from one area of N. Cal), and I hope we can see each other here, or somewhere else, in the future!

  3. Madeleine 09/24/2012 at 9:22 am #

    I am bookmarking the hell out of this post. I love all the ones I know, so I’m pretty sure I need to check out the ones I don’t…

    • Jenna 09/24/2012 at 3:31 pm #

      I love that you are “bookmarking the hell out of this post,” Madeleine. For the others stopping by here, Madeleine is one of the awesome yoga divas in the photo above!

  4. bringingtravelhome 09/24/2012 at 10:20 am #

    great tips, jenna, and three cheers for my Davis…:) I’ll plug Artober going on next Month – art in davis and at the UC Davis Mondavi Center every day of the month culminating in our first ever el di de los muertos festival downtown on Oct 31st!
    bringingtravelhome recently posted..bookmarked for fallMy Profile

    • Jenna 09/24/2012 at 3:32 pm #

      Wow. I will definitely be interested in those events. Thanks for letting me know. Sacramento has some great Dia de los muertos festivities as well

  5. Tami -- Teacher Goes Back to School 09/24/2012 at 4:29 pm #

    love, love, love!

    those yoga people sure look nice.
    Tami — Teacher Goes Back to School recently posted..Saturday SensesMy Profile

    • Jenna 09/26/2012 at 12:43 pm #

      Yes, they sure do :)

  6. Tom @ Waegook Tom 09/24/2012 at 10:25 pm #

    Ahh this all looks and sounds amazing! I’m now regretting that I’ll only be in Cali for 4-5 days next year, and it’ll all be in San Francisco. The custard filled baguette and seasonal fruit…mmmm….and ARTISAN CHEESE. Seriously, mention quality cheese and my heart starts longing for a place.

    A whole post on cheese, perhaps?

    And now I won’t be able to think of anything for the rest of the day…
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..Going Scandinavian In SeoulMy Profile

    • Jenna 09/26/2012 at 12:44 pm #

      I hadn’t thought of a whole post on cheese but considering how much I love it, and apparently how much you also love it, I may have to consider it!

  7. Cassie 09/27/2012 at 10:27 am #

    Speaking of cheese–cheese tasting in Marin and Sonoma counties! There are several local cheese makers that you can visit!

    Love this post, I need to get up and explore Sacramento more(with a stop at that Davis farmers market!)

    • Jenna 09/29/2012 at 2:43 pm #

      Thank you so much for the suggestion. I think I will just have to check out more cheese-tasting options!

  8. Tom 11/17/2012 at 10:59 am #

    Beautiful photos! Been to all these places and love them. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what NorCal has to offer. However, no palm trees? The streets around the state capitol are totally lined with palm trees, and your first photo of the Tower Cafe is full of them too… ;-)

    • Jenna 11/17/2012 at 10:53 pm #

      True, true. I didn’t really mean that there are not palm-tree lined avenues in NorCal, but certainly the vegetation is different up here. And you’re right, definitely just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much to do around here!

  9. Jeremy Branham 12/12/2012 at 11:34 pm #

    I’ve done two of these! Guess I need to spend a little more time where I live (and drink a little more too!) :)
    Jeremy Branham recently posted..Me, Michael Phelps, and your chance to win a pair of SOL REPUBLIC headphonesMy Profile

  10. Michi 01/31/2013 at 12:44 pm #

    I was in Sacramento at the very end of 2011, visiting friends, and loved it. I had never been before, and found it surprisingly charming!
    Michi recently posted..Snowy days, burning cars, and a bit of history on Northern Ireland.My Profile

    • Jenna 01/31/2013 at 5:36 pm #

      Sacramento is nice. A lot of people poo-poo it because it doesn’t live up to comparisons to San Francisco or L.A. But it has a cool Midtown, good restaurants, a very diverse population, good ethnic food… Too bad we didn’t know each other then–it would have been nice to meet!

  11. Michi 01/31/2013 at 12:47 pm #

    P.S. Do you do yoga?? Any advice for a beginner? I’m thinking of starting once we’re all settled in here.
    Michi recently posted..Snowy days, burning cars, and a bit of history on Northern Ireland.My Profile

    • Jenna 01/31/2013 at 5:38 pm #

      Yes but not much since my kids were born. I need to/want to get back into it. Advice is to start slowly, have fun, and don’t compare yourself to anyone. It is supposed to feel good, not like a competition! And find a teacher you love. As you can probably guess, there are many wonderful ones at that yoga studio in the above photo.

  12. O.Kolin 02/02/2013 at 5:05 pm #

    I’d definitely add Napa, Lake Tahoe, and San Francisco! :-)

    • Jenna 02/03/2013 at 11:28 am #

      I love all those places, too!

  13. jill 02/12/2013 at 11:57 am #

    Great timing of this post. Just scored a hella cheap weekend rate for a car rental in SF – so we’re heading north this Saturday. Maybe we’ll stop by some of these places you’ve mentioned.
    jill recently posted..A Race Through The Hawaiian TreetopsMy Profile

    • Jenna 02/12/2013 at 1:22 pm #

      Sounds fun! Have a great weekend!

  14. Cindy 02/23/2013 at 2:46 pm #

    Heading to Northern California for a few days to visit my daughter. Love these ideas! Trying to plan out some time to see her new house and see some sites…. Definetly will check out the Wineries

    • Jenna 02/23/2013 at 2:56 pm #

      Great! Depending on where your daughter lives, you might be able to check out the wineries near Sacramento. Bogle and the Old Sugar Mill are two great stops just south of Sacramento. There are also some around Placerville, closer to Folsom or the northern part of Sacramento.

  15. Cindy Jensik 03/02/2013 at 2:26 pm #

    Hi Jenna

    My daughter lives in Roseville I think it is close to Sacramento, please let me know if you have any other sites we could see in the area.

    Thanl you so much for the ideas

    • Jenna 03/02/2013 at 11:55 pm #

      The gold rush towns of Placerville and Nevada City, including Empire Mine State Park, are sort of out that way. Auburn is nice, too, but I can’t remember if that’s closer to Hwy 50 or 80. If you like wine, the Boeger winery is supposed to be nice, but there are many places out there to visit: http://eldoradowines.org/

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