College Visit Guide: San Francisco Bay Area

Tips for families to maximize a college visit to the Bay Area—exploring San Francisco, Berkeley and Palo Alto.

California’s San Francisco Bay Area is a hotbed of innovation, art, entertainment, fine dining, progressive ideas and diverse peoples. It has the added allure of nearby redwood forests, ocean breezes and mountain trails. In short, the Bay Area has everything a prospective college student could want—and it has some great colleges, too.

The San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco State University, the University of California at San Francisco and the private University of San Francisco are four of the popular schools scattered about the hilly city. UC Berkeley sits atop the famous Telegraph Avenue at the foot of the Berkeley Hills, and red-bricked Stanford University lies south of San Francisco in the peninsula town of Palo Alto.

When working some of these schools into your Bay Area college visit, explore the area with the following tips and suggested itinerary.

Getting Around

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is the popular commuter train that runs from the San Francisco airport through San Francisco and out to Berkeley and the East Bay. It’s easy to navigate and great for a day trip from San Francisco to Berkeley. Check out to plot your trip and calculate your fare.

As parking and driving can be difficult in the more touristy areas of San Francisco, discover the city with the San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI), which comprises an eclectic fleet of historic street cars, buses and cable cars. Plan your journey at

Day 1: San Francisco

Campus Parking

Start out the day at the University of San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park. Founded in 1855, this private Jesuit school is one of the oldest in California. After exploring the pretty, hilly campus, walk to Golden Gate Park or east on Haight towards Ashbury St. to explore the eccentric, hippie Haight district. Duck into Giant Robot (618 Shrader St.), a treasure of comic books, e-zines and Japanese graphic shirts and books.

The University of California, San Francisco, is also very near Golden Gate Park, but in the neighborhood of the inner Sunset. UCSF’s focus is on medicine—from dentistry to pharmacy to biomedical research to nursing. Once your campus visit is over, visit the nearby California Academy of Sciences, or investigate the shops on Irving St. Take your food and drink break at Park Chow (1240 9th Ave.).

From here, venture to the outer Sunset with a visit to San Francisco State University, on the banks of Lake Merced. The school is diverse in its student body as well as its academic coverage. Start your campus visit at the modern Cesar Chavez Student Center, the campus hub. When you’re ready to move off campus, check out the shopping and restaurants on West Portal Ave., from Fresca to the Manor Coffee Shop. Take a breather at Lake Merced—with space for hiking, biking, boating, fishing and golf.

Creative Campus

One of the oldest schools of contemporary art in the United States, the San Francisco Art Institute was founded in 1871. It’s located on Russian Hill, with fantastic views of the city. Nearby is Lombard Street, often called “the crookedest street in the world,” and North Beach’s bohemian cafés. History buffs may get a kick out of the Beat Museum (1345 Grant Ave.), while art students may just want to hang out at Vesuvio Café (255 Columbus Ave.).

Rest Stops

Good places to sleep in the city that are comfortable enough for parents yet hip enough for the college set include the luxury boutique Hotel Argonaut at Fisherman’s Wharf, the Hotel Rex in Union Square and the W Hotel in SoMa.  

Day 2: Berkeley

A walk around campus and some hanging out on its surrounding streets like Shattuck, University and Telegraph avenues should give a good idea of where you’d spend most of your life as a Berkeley college student. The soul of the 60s free speech movement, the university retains much of its progressive, free-spirited tone. The beautiful city feels more spacious and relaxed than San Francisco. While Berkeley, too, offers an array of shops and good food, the style feels homey and the wide streets are bike-friendly.

If you have time while on campus, consider checking out one or more of Berkeley’s excellent institutions, such as the UC Berkeley Art Museum or the Lawrence Hall of Science, an interactive science center for curious kids and adults alike. Nestled in the beautiful Berkeley Hills is Tilden Park with a lake, eucalyptus forests, botanical gardens and a golf course.

Afterwards, head along Shattuck Avenue to get a feel for the bustling, vibrant downtown area. If you want to cruise around Berkeley easily, use the Bear Transit shuttle; it costs 50 cents for the public and stops downtown every 12 to 30 minutes. For lunch, don’t miss the famous Chez Panisse at 1517 Shattuck Ave., American culinary icon Alice Waters' original “California Cuisine” creation.

For lodging, the Claremont Resort & Spa boasts breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay and a world-class spa. Other lodging options include The Doubletree, The Rose Garden Inn, the elegant Bancroft Hotel and Travelodge Berkeley.

Day 3: Palo Alto

One of the leading research and educational institutions in the world, Stanford University also has one of the largest campuses, spanning 8,180 acres, and one of the most impressive entranceways: a long, palm-tree lined drive leading to the center of the historic campus. Take an hour-long walking tour starting at the Visitor Information Services Center located in Memorial Auditorium. Don’t miss the impressive Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts and its world-renowned collection of Rodin sculptures. Admission is free. For a unique tour, visit the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (currently closed for tours until 2009) and see how elementary-particle research is conducted.

The Marguerite Shuttle is also a great way to get around campus, and around Palo Alto; it’s free and open to the public, and runs Monday through Friday. It’ll also take you to downtown Palo Alto, a charming—although increasingly chain-store filled—shopping and dining area. Eat exquisite “new Vietnamese” cuisine at Tamarine or for authentic Italian fare go to Osteria.

The best place in town to stay is the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley, which newly launched its College Connection Program for families visiting Stanford that extends well beyond your campus visit (see sidebar). Its Quattro Restaurant and Bar serves a fantastic weekend brunch. Other lodging options include the Days Inn, the Crowne Plaza, and the Garden Court Hotel.

Weather Tips

Bay Area weather is generally regarded as beautiful year-round, and shouldn’t much factor in to your college tour plans. A predictable chilly fog hovers over San Francisco, keeping the temperature at a 65-degree average year in, year out. But sunny days are frequent surprises, more common in Berkeley, and warmer still in Palo Alto. Summer months are more reliably warm, but also hopping with tourists, offering less of an authentic San Francisco living experience than October through May.

For recommended itineraries for the rest of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, read our South Bay College Visit Guide.

Contributors: Maya Curry, Nicole Fancher, Jill K. Robinson, Donna M. Airoldi

Destinations: Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Francisco

Themes: College Visits, Family Travel

Activities: Sightseeing