I know, it doesn’t sound very sexy, but you’d be surprised how much fun you can have on a weekend getaway to the East Bay. Think of it as a far more affordable and closer alternative to Carmel or Napa, yet with all the same (and often better) attractions: wine tasting, botanical gardens, farmers markets, hiking trails, world-class museums, superb restaurants, and even steam train rides — all within easy driving distance. Check out a few of my top tips below, each one a great excuse for a weekend getaway to the East Bay.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Akshay Nanavati
Livermore Valley Wine Tasting
I’ve been blowing through Tri-Valley on my way to Yosemite for decades, and it wasn’t until recently that I spent a wonderful weekend in Livermore Valley wining, dining, and losing badly to my girlfriend in bocce ball. It turns out Robert Livermore planted the first commercial vines on these rolling hillsides in 1840, and pioneer winemakers such as C. H. Wente and James Concannon recognized the area’s winegrowing potential as well and founded their iconic wineries here in the early 1880s (in fact, Livermore Valley captured America’s first international gold medal for wine in 1889 at the Paris Exposition).
There are more than 50 wineries within the Livermore Valley Wine Country, most within easy driving distance from each other. There are two carless methods to trek from winery to winery: hop aboard the popular Livermore Wine Trolley on weekends (advance reservations required) or reserve e-bikes through Pedego in downtown Livermore, either to visit on your own or as part of one of the shop’s winery tour packages. Even better, book a night’s stay at The Rose Hotel and make a full weekend of your getaway, starting on Saturday with an alfresco lunch at Cafe Garré and ending on Sunday with a cozy dinner at the popular Zephyr Bar and Grill. For more information about the Livermore Valley Wine Country — including a handy wine country map and winery list — visit lvwine.org.
You’ve been warned: If you come to the Blackhawk Auto Museum with auto enthusiasts, you’ll have to drag ‘em out of here. You don’t even want to know how much it cost to build this beautiful museum and stock it with some of the most rare and gorgeous autos ever built. The 70,000-square-foot nonprofit museum was built in 1988 to house and display some of the finest automotive treasures in the world, and there’s no other place on the planet quite like it.
The Blackhawk Auto Museum houses about 90 cars built throughout the world, many of which are on loan from collectors. It’s not only the historic significance of these super-exotic cars that’s impressive, but also the artistic inspiration behind them. Each one is a work of art, a rolling sculpture conceived by the world’s leading designers and engineers and a must-stop for anyone who appreciates art and design. Some of my favorites include the retro-sleek Dodge Firearrows, Alfa Romeo BAT concept cars (which really do look like a bat) and the American-made Duesenberg convertible — the sports car of choice for Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. It’s worthwhile even if you’re not a car nut, as there are other galleries highlighting the spirit of the old West, African art and exotic animals.
East Bay Parks — Hiking, Camping, Biking and More
The East Bay Regional Park District operates 70 parks covering over 125,000 acres, including 1,250 miles of trails and 55 miles of shoreline. My favorite park of the bunch is Del Valle Regional Park, set deep in a valley framed by oak-covered hills about 10 miles south of Livermore. This dog-friendly park has everything you could want for an outdoor getaway: a five-mile-long warm lake that is stocked regularly with trout and catfish; a marina that rents motorboats, patio/pontoon boats, peddle boats, canoes, and kayaks; the Del Valle Family Campground with 150 sites; dozens of miles of horseback and hiking trails, including the Ohlone Wilderness Trail with 28 miles of scenic back country trail for backpackers; and even boat tours of the lake led by park naturalists.
If you are an avid mountain biker like me, then you also want to check out the 5,271-acre Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park, one of the prettiest parks in the East Bay that straddles a mountain ridge with postcard views of Pleasanton and Livermore Valley. The multi-purpose trail system is also popular with hikers and horseback riders.
Niles Canyon Railway’s Diesel Train, Fremont
If you live in the Bay Area and want to take the kids on a diesel train ride, head over to Fremont and hop on board the Niles Canyon Railway. On select Saturdays and Sundays, the train departs from the Sunol Depot for treks through the scenic Niles Canyon. Holidays are a special time; beginning the weekend before Thanksgiving through the week after Christmas is the annual Train of Lights event, during which a brightly decorated holiday train — covered with thousands of festive lights — winds through Niles Canyon on a 75-minute round-trip ride. Tickets for the Train of Lights go on sale October 1 (they go fast!) and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, with seats located either inside or outside. The organization is run by a non-profit charitable organization made up entirely of volunteers who love this historic locomotive. For more, visit ncry.org.
Chabot Space and Science Center, Oakland
I’m always surprised how many people who live in the Bay Area have never even heard about the Chabot Space and Science Center, an interactive learning center in the Oakland Hills. It is, by far, the best place in Northern California to take kids and get them interested in astronomy. Among the Center’s fun and educational exhibits — including a huge telescope for viewing of the stars — is a NASA Discovery Center where you can step into the role of a NASA scientist through embarking on hands-on challenges. Chabot also hosts summer camps for kids too.
UC Berkeley Botanical Garden
What started as a small garden planted by the Dean of Agriculture on the Berkeley campus in the 1870s is now one of the largest botanical gardens in the state. The University of California Botanical Garden. Let me guess — you not only haven’t been there, you didn’t know UC Berkeley had a botanical garden. Today the Dean’s humble garden is now home to 10,000 different kinds of plants from around the world — many rare, unusual, and endangered — that are cultivated by region in naturalistic landscapes covering 34 acres of Strawberry Canyon in the Berkeley Hills. If you’re a gardener (or have landscaping issues at home), it’s an ideal place to talk with the staff about water-wise plant choices: which plants will grow in your own garden, and what they will look like as they mature. Free docent-led tours are led year-round on Sundays; other events such as bird and butterfly walks are scheduled each month. The garden is open to the public daily (except for the first and third Tuesday of every month and certain holidays) and reservations are required.