There's nothing we love more than getting the inside scoop, so we asked California native Lauren Salisbury to dish up the details on where travellers can get the best of the north and Central Coast - without blowing the budget.
As a kid growing up in California’s Bay Area, if you were to ask me what the best thing about Gilroy is, I’d have told you it was the Banana Split. After all, you can get fruit and ice cream served to you right across America, but only at Gilroy Gardens Theme Park can you find a giant banana-yellow attraction that swings you back and forth across the sky.
Now that I’m an adult my palate for adventure has expanded, and I may have a different perspective on what makes a travel destination flavourful, but the fact remains – Gilroy is fresh as ever.
Gilroy: Garlic Capital of the World
Gilroy Welcome Center
Offering a swirl of vibrancy in northern California’s agricultural hub, Gilroy is known as the 'Garlic Capital of the World'. One of the local factories processes more garlic than any other single factory in the world, hence the memorable tag line and fragrant wafts that greet both residents and visitors alike on local roadways.
Each July the city celebrates its claim to fame and hosts the Gilroy Garlic Festival complete with outdoor kitchens, cooking contests, live entertainment, and of course, lots of garlicky food.
But even if garlic doesn’t make your taste buds water, Gilroy makes a great home base to explore the gems of California - without busting your budget. With a central location, the city is less than 80 miles from a whole host of northern California delights, including San Francisco, San Jose and a smattering of Central Coast beaches.
Here are a few of my recommendations of places to discover while using Gilroy as a base. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled, savory delights lay ahead!
Day Trip 1: Classic San Francisco
Distance from Gilroy: 80 miles
With winding streets that climb steep hills, stately Victorian homes and a sparkling bay, San Francisco is an American classic. While my favourite San Francisco activity remains driving the Golden Gate Bridge, I also recommend checking out Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square and Alcatraz Island; they're all iconic stops to add to a classic San Fran itinerary.
First-timer quick tip: San Francisco is usually cooler than elsewhere in the region so be sure to bring a sweater, especially in summer months when fog seeps in.
Day Trip 2: Downtown San Jose
Distance from Gilroy: 33 miles
A shout out to my place of birth – San Jose is happening. While this city may not have the same notoriety as San Fran, it actually has a higher population and brims with its own local delights.
The gateway to Silicon Valley, San Jose and its surrounds are home to some of the most prominent technology companies. At the Tech Museum of Innovation, you can get a hands-on feel for the industry’s history. For outdoor shopping and good eats, head to Santana Row.
Insider Tip: The Winchester Mystery House is one of San Jose’s most curious – and captivating – sights. The Victorian mansion is an architectural maze, with zig-zagging staircases and passages that lead nowhere. Once home to Sarah Winchester, the widow of a gun manufacturer, it is said to be haunted by the ghosts of those who perished from her husband’s rifles.
Day Trip 3: Back to nature in Santa Cruz
Distance from Gilroy: 42 miles
While there are miles of beaches that fill the north California coastline, Santa Cruz is without a doubt the local favourite. The waves here offer some of the best surfing in the state. If sunbathing is more your scene, there are long stretches of golden sand to lay out on.
At the historic Santa Cruz Boardwalk, in operation since 1907, you’ll find a host of amusement attractions. Counted among them is my personal favourite, the Sky Glider, which provides a bird's-eye view of the boardwalk and beach.
Can't-miss tip: It’s not just beaches that you’ll find in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Mountains are home to the state’s famed redwood trees. At Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park you’ll find hiking trails that lead through 40-acres of these ancient towering beauties.
Day Trip 4: Pinnacles National Park
Wikimedia/Samartur (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Distance from Gilroy: 46 miles
If you’re a nature lover, you can’t end your visit to the Central Californian region without spending a day at Pinnacles National Park, which is America’s newest national park. Formed more than 23 million years ago by volcanic eruptions, the unique landscapes beckon to be explored with miles of hiking trails, caves and rock climbing.
Insider tip: A highlight for many visitors are the Balconies and Gulch Caves, systems formed as rocks in the area broke off and landed into chasms forming talus caves. The park’s massive monoliths also impress hikers from the ground and at greater heights, dare devil climbers in search of the ultimate adventure.
Gilroy Welcome Center
And of course, you don’t have to leave Gilroy to enjoy yourself. The Gilroy Premium Outlets remain one of the best places for shopping in northern California (you can’t beat the 25- 65 percent discount on designer brands). Nor do you have to travel far for great wine – the Santa Clara Valley Wine Trail boasts more than 25 award-winning wineries. Most of these wineries are family-owned and offer visitors intimate wine tasting experiences.
Gilroy Welcome Center
Though I’m quite a few years older now than I was on my first visit to Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park, there’s still plenty to enjoy at this horticulture wonderland. In addition to the produce-themed rides, there are six large gardens and a collection of living trees woven into unique designs known as the “circus trees.” It's sure to tempt the young, and the young-at-heart.
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