Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in San Mateo County, CA

  • Published 2023/05/27

San Mateo County is your best destination for world-class beaches, scenic oceanside vistas, and nature getaway stops.

Formed in 1856, this county resides in the San Francisco Peninsula in Western California.

About three-quarters of the county are large open areas that the county uses for its agricultural progress.

Its county seat, Redwood City, is famous for its mild climate all year round and its extensive shopping district within the San Francisco Bay.

Daly City and San Mateo, both of which are also cities within this county, have all proven their mark in the rodeo industry and the historical heritage of the county respectively.

But aside from beachside opportunities, San Mateo County also flourishes in art, culture, and wildlife abundance.

So, if you think this county is on your bucket list, continue reading.

Because below are the 15 best things to do in San Mateo County, California, that you shouldn’t miss out on:

Experience Nature Camping at Portola Redwoods State Park

Waterfall at the Portola Redwoods State Park

Sundry Photography /

A redwood-filled adventure awaits you at Portola Redwoods State Park in La Honda.

This 2,800-acre park stands out with its redwood forest that starts after a slope downward from a ridgetop.

It features about 18 miles of trails that you can traverse to reach a redwood canyon at the very end.

Hiking trail at the Portola Redwoods State Park

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The park is also home to the secluded Peter’s Creek Grove, known for its breathtaking redwoods within the whole region.

But perhaps, its focal point is its 55-acre campsite, ideal for large camping parties.

Portola Redwoods State Park is also a crumb-clean facility, which means everyone is highly encouraged to keep their trash so as not to attract birds.

You can get to this park via Portola State Park Road.

Thick forest trees at Portola Redwoods State Park

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Check Out the Railroad History of Millbrae Train Museum

View of the Millbrae Train Museum

Sanfranman59, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

San Mateo County’s museums are all remarkable in their own rights.

One of these is the hidden jewel Millbrae Train Museum.

Open every Saturday, this Millbrae museum contains some historical artifacts, objects, photographs, and other memorabilia related to the city’s past.

What’s more remarkable is that the museum resides in what was once a railroad depot, the Millbrae Southern Pacific Train Depot.

Exhibits at Millbrae Train Museum

Pi.1415926535, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Since its opening in 2004, it has also been the go-to place for most community events, like Children’s Christmas Party in December.

It has a preserved Pullman sleeping car inside and an exhibit for a firetruck, which is on permanent display.

Millbrae Train Museum is on California Drive.

Admire the Elegance and Charm of Filoli Historic House & Garden

Glass art at the Filoli Historic House & Garden

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Step back into time with the regal exterior and interior of Filoli Historic House & Garden.

This historical landmark in Woodside spans about 654 acres.

Established in 1975, this site is one of the prime examples of 20th-century country estates.

Gift shop at the Filoli Historic House & Garden

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With its impressive Georgian Revival-design home and its surrounding long acres of gardens and Natural Lands, it’s easily an ideal backdrop for many outdoor events.

Some of these include Dragtopia, Art Walks, and other botanical programs.

Its gardens bloom with a thousand varieties of plants, including California-native species and even desert-specific kinds.

Spring may not be year-round, but it feels like it when you roam the property’s 16-acre English Renaissance gardens.

Filoli Historic House & Garden is one of the Bay’s points of pride on Cañada Road.

Colorful flowers at Filoli Historic House & Garden

Min C. Chiu /

Go on a Historical Excursion along the San Mateo County History Museum

Facade of the San Mateo County History Museum

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Keep your historical excursion alive with a drop by the San Mateo County History Museum.

A staple of Redwood City, this museum takes you back to the rich past of the county during its early settlers’ days.

It also sits within another historic building, which is the 1910 County Courthouse.

Interior view of the dome at San Mateo County History Museum

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This building features mosaic tiles for its flooring and a glass dome with stained art decorations.

It was officially the venue for the museum’s exhibits in 1998.

And now, several years later, the museum hosts displays and public programs focused on the Native American dwellers, as well as the Peninsula’s road to success.

The San Mateo County History Museum opens its doors for you on Broadway.

Bird's eye view of the San Mateo County History Museum

SnapASkyline /

Spend Time in Nature at San Mateo Central Park and the Japanese Garden

At the heart of San Mateo lies San Mateo Central Park and the Japanese Garden.

This 16-acre park had become city property in 1922.

And since then, it has only been a source of nature exploration and active recreation.

One of its outstanding features is its Japanese Garden, a masterpiece by landscape architect Nagao Sakurai.

Complete with a koi pond that hosts public feedings and a teahouse, this section of the park allows you a feel of Japan without getting there.

Its cherry blossoms are a sight to behold from around late winter to the peaks of spring.

San Mateo Central Park also has a different rose garden and offers a mini train ride for children to enjoy.

Prepare for a relaxing day outdoors at San Mateo Central Park and the Japanese Garden on East 5th Avenue.

Browse the Art Exhibits at Sanchez Art Center

Exterior view of the Sanchez Art Center

Adam Pardee Photography /

It’s a celebration of art and talent at Sanchez Art Center.

This non-profit arts center has been serving the community since its formation in 1996.

It has provided a safe haven for Bay Area artists and art enthusiasts since then.

It comes with three exhibition spaces—the Main, the West Wing, and the East Wing Galleries.

A woman posing in front of the tapestries at the Sanchez Art Center

Adam Pardee Photography /

Aside from artwork-filled exhibits, the facility also has a studio space accommodating up to 30 artists.

Join one of its classes and workshops on journaling, filmmaking, and several other art medium specialties.

Sanchez Art Center is off of Linda Mar Boulevard in the city of Pacifica.

A young woman admiring the exhibits at the Sanchez Art Center

Adam Pardee Photography /

Learn to Surf with the Waves at Mavericks Beach

High tides ideal for surfing at the Mavericks Beach

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Half Moon Bay has a massive collection of majestic beaches and parks.

Representing the city is Mavericks Beach, which many may know as a surfing spot for both locals and residents.

This beach also goes by the name Pillar Point Beach.

It coined the term Mavericks after the annual wave surfing competition of the same name held every November and March at this exact spot.

Picturesque view of the Mavericks Beach

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It’s also a dog-friendly beach, and you may even find many visitors walking along the shoreline with their furry companions.

Other activities you can do while at this scenic attraction are hiking, birdwatching, and even whale watching.

Make waves at Mavericks Beach on West Point Avenue.

Sea gulls admiring the beauty of the Mavericks Beach

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Try Your Hand at Paragliding at Mussel Rock Park

View of the Mussel Rock Park

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In bustling Daly City, Mussel Rock Park stands out as an outdoor sanctuary for aerial adventurers.

Primarily known as an ideal paragliding spot, this rock park features multiple trails.

These all intersect at a paragliding point launch on the hillside.

A woman enjoying the waves crashing on the cliffs at Mussel Rock Park

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Its rocky coastline and sandy beach offer a charming point to the park’s centerpiece, which is a man-made rock arch.

This arch goes by the name Tobin’s Arch.

If you’re looking for an undisturbed place to meet a few seals, bask in the sights and sounds of nature, and meditate, this spot is for you.

You can get to the glorious Mussel Rock Park between Skyline and Westline Drives.

Coyote at the Mussel Rock Park

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Picnic in Peace at Pescadero State Beach

Natural rock arch at the Pescadero State Beach

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When it comes to sandy coves and reclusive beaches, Pescadero State Beach comes at the top list of best stops in San Mateo County.

This state beach features tide pools and fishing spots for everyone to enjoy.

This property spans about 2 miles.

Sun rise at the Pescadero State Beach

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It also has picnic facilities you can enjoy by yourself or with a group.

Just a few walks away from this state beach is Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve, which is notable for its migratory and resident birds in flight.

You can get to Pescadero State Beach by heading over to State Route 1, which is about 1.5 miles west of the city of Pescadero.

Waves crashing on the shores of the Pescadero State Beach

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Support Local Artists with a Visit to the Peninsula Museum of Art

Craving an art-focused excursion while in San Mateo County?

The city of San Bruno offers you the Peninsula Museum of Art.

This local art museum features works perfectly representing suburban San Francisco’s art scene.

It once served the communities of Belmont and Burlingame before moving to San Bruno in 2021.

Its exhibitions blend together a selection of art pieces in different mediums, including quilt works, caricature sketches, and acrylic paintings.

This art facility is on the second floor of Shops at Tanforan, ready to get you your immersive artistic inspiration.

The Peninsula Museum of Art is free and open to the public on El Camino Real Suite 204.

View the Stunning Greek-Style Architecture of Pulgas Water Temple

Stunning view of the Pulgas Water Temple

yhelfman /

Alongside effortless beach views, San Mateo County has its fair share of enigmatic historic stops.

A great example of this is Pulgas Water Temple in Redwood City.

This monument serves to commemorate the success of distributing water from one of California’s dams—Hetch Hetchy—to the Bay Area.

Closer view of the column at Pulgas Water Temple

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In 1934, the city welcomed an abundant supply of water and expressed its gratitude at the very spot where the temple stands now.

This temple shines a spotlight on the Beaux Arts architectural style.

Through the creative mind of William Merchant, the spot features a reflection pool surrounded by mangroves of cypress trees.

Pulgas Water Temple is a free attraction on Cañada Road.

View of the Pulgas Water Temple

yhelfman /

Spot Some Whales atop the Summit at Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

Distant view of the Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

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Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park offers one of the tallest lighthouses in all of the country.

First used in 1872, this lighthouse is still a functional one using automated LED beacons instead of the original Fresnel lens.

The structure stands over 100 feet tall, easily recognizable from a mile away.

Although you cannot tour the interiors of the lighthouse, its surrounding grounds can be.

Pathway leading to the Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz /

The high bluff of the park allows you to see elephant seas and whales from a standpoint.

The property is also rich with rare flora and fauna, so check them out.

Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park is a day-use area park, so come by before sunset to make the most of your visit.

Get going to this landmark on Pigeon Point Road in the city of Pescadero.

Night view of the Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

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Learn More about Aircraft History at Hiller Aviation Museum

Interior view of the Hiller Aviation Museum

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Take flight and discover more about the basics of aviation history when you drop by Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos.

This museum specializes in all things aircraft-related.

Its pioneer was Stanley Hiller, Jr.—hence the name.

Opened in 1998, this facility offers a growing collection of early aircraft models, prototypes, and replicas.

Exhibit at the Hiller Aviation Museum

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These artifacts go as early back as the 1860s and go as late as the present.

There are also hands-on exhibits and restructured cockpits to help you feel like you’re managing a plane.

For the children, there are labs, play areas, and flight simulators.

Located along Skyway Road, Hiller Aviation Museum is a child-friendly stop you should visit at least once while in San Mateo County.

Display at the Hiller Aviation Museum

Iv-olga /

Be on the Lookout for Algae, Crabs, and Other Marine Wildlife at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Beach at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

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Marine life exploration is always a quest worth undertaking when you’re in San Mateo County.

And at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, you can complete your quest with ease.

Established in 1969, this reserve gets you on a closer voyage to sea life with its rocky seashore setting and hiking paths.

Tall leafless trees at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

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Between high and low tides, you can even see a few species of algae, sea sponges, mollusks, and more!

The reserve is also a good spot for birdwatching and exploring diverse habitats, including riparian corridors and freshwater marshes.

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is on Nevada Avenue in the community of Moss Beach.

Star fish at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

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Sign Up for a Daily Wine Tasting at La Nebbia Winery

Find your much-needed break with a glass of wine in San Mateo County at La Nebbia Winery.

This Half Moon Bay winery started in 1979.

It takes pride in its Barrel to Bottle tradition of pouring wine to empty bottles—now new glass.

Signage of the La Nebbia Winery

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The winery comes with a garden for outdoor seating options and a bocce court for a bit of entertainment.

It hosts tasting flights served with elegant à la carte charcuterie-style dishes.

La Nebbia Winery indulges you with California fine wining along San Mateo Road.

Final Thoughts

On land or in water, San Mateo County has a plethora of recreational opportunities for you to try out.

This makes it a family-friendly hub ideal for group outings, week-long vacations, or even just a weekend stop.

Be sure you’ve got a copy with you of the best things to do in San Mateo County, California, to help you on your trip.

It’s going to be a long ride, so sit tight and prepare for the best!

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