San Mateo is a coastal city of approximately 100,000 residents located about 25 kilometers south of San Francisco, between Daly City and San Jose.
The city was incorporated more than 130 years ago. Though its beginnings were humble, it has grown into one of the Bay Area’s most affluent communities, and it’s graced with relatively mild year-round weather.
Day trips to iconic San Francisco attractions like Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz are popular, but for those who’d rather not fight the notorious traffic on their own, there are public transportation options and guided tours available.
1. Japanese Garden
San Mateo’s Japanese Garden is a serene oasis situated inside a 16-acre green space located in the city’s Central Park.
The garden was once the estate of a wealthy local mariner and was originally designed by a Japanese landscape architect who had previously worked at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
Since the early 1920s, the garden has been a public space, and it’s most well-known for its stunning cherry and bonsai trees, koi ponds, waterfalls, and majestic multi-tiered granite pagoda.
The garden is a great place for a quiet morning or afternoon stroll away from the crowds.
2. Sawyer Camp Trail
Despite its proximity to one of the state’s largest urban centers, the area around San Mateo is full of easily accessible municipal parks and outdoor recreation areas that are worth checking out.
Sawyer Camp Trail is a six-mile paved trail that offers fit visitors moderate changes in elevation and some of the best views around.
The trail makes its way through a variety of natural environments, and it’s common to see several local animal species, like fox, deer, waterfowl, rabbits, and woodpeckers.
The trailhead is located on Crystal Springs Road in San Mateo, and the most photogenic parts of the trail are near San Andreas Dam and Lake.
3. Old Downtown San Mateo
For lovers of food, history, and architecture, there’s no better way to spend a few hours than by exploring San Mateo’s old downtown area.
In recent years, one of the city’s most walkable neighborhoods has undergone a remarkable transformation, making it a go-to destination for hip eaters and drinkers from all over the Bay Area.
Eateries range from high-dollar steak and seafood restaurants to laidback taco shops – and nearly everything in between.
The area is also full of tech startups and restored historic buildings that run the gamut from Spanish mission-style churches to art deco theaters built in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
4. Hillsdale Shopping Center
Located in San Mateo just off California Highway 101, Hillsdale Shopping Center is a large shopping venue that features more than 100 retailers.
For those who’ve tired of the area’s historical and outdoor attractions, it’s a great place to relax, dine, and shop out of the elements.
The center is anchored by large national retailers like H&M, Macy’s, and Nordstrom. It features several dining options serving everything from California-style pizza and hearty burgers to Asian food, fresh baked goods, and gourmet coffee.
Other mall amenities include one-day secure bag storage, concierge service, and wheelchairs.
5. Bicycle Sunday
Californians tend to be more fit and outdoorsy than most, and opportunities abound for recreation activities when visiting San Mateo.
Bicycle Sunday is a popular end-of-the-week activity appropriate for cyclers of most ages and skill levels. Its course is blocked to traffic from mid-morning until the middle of the afternoon, when most riders choose to participate.
Rides begin on Highway 280 just a few kilometers outside of town and cover about two miles through scenic countryside. A number of interesting attractions are included, like Pulgas Temple and the Filoli Estate, which make great side excursions for those who need a break from the action.
6. Coyote Point Recreation Area
Coyote Point Recreation Area comprises nearly 700 acres that are popular with locals and out-of-state visitors alike.
The park is situated on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay and offers guests a variety of outdoor recreation options, including swimming, windsurfing, fishing, biking, and bird watching.
For those traveling with kids, there’s a massive playground featuring a medieval theme and some interactive exhibits that touch on engaging topics like the animal kingdom and ecology.
The park’s entrance is located on Coyote Point Drive in San Mateo. It can get busy during peak times, such as during weekends in the spring and summer.
7. San Mateo STEM Fair
For more than three decades, the city of San Mateo has held an annual STEM Fair. It was created to foster interest in science, technology, engineering, and math among promising students who live and study in the area.
Though the fair often gets overlooked by vacationers, it’s an excellent activity for those interested in rubbing elbows with locals and enthusiastic kids who’ve put their hearts and souls into their projects.
The event is typically held in the San Mateo County Event Center, which hosts many annual events, festivals, and expos throughout the year. Consider checking their website to see what’s on the calendar of events for when you’ll be visiting.
8. Central Park
Located on East 5th Avenue, San Mateo’s Central Park is an amenity-packed attraction that’s a big hit with visitors interested in experiencing the great outdoors while conserving scarce vacation resources.
The park features covered picnic areas, baseball fields, tennis courts, and a giant playground. Throughout the year, it hosts a number of events, including Easter and 4th of July celebrations and live music performances.
There’s also a mini-train that conveys kids through the park, some eclectic oversized sculptures, and the aforementioned Japanese Tea Garden, a great place for relaxation and quiet contemplation.
9. Neal’s Coffee Shop
Humble local coffee shops don’t often rate as top spots on most visitors’ itineraries, but they’re great community resources for those interested in reasonably priced fare and a jolt of caffeine before or after a long day on their feet.
Neal’s Coffee Shop is located on De Anza Boulevard in San Mateo; they have a second location just down the road in Burlingame.
They’ve been providing the area’s residents traditional family grub since 1996. For those counting their calories or with diet restrictions, they offer a variety of healthy substitutions and entrées.
Perennial favorites include fried chicken and waffles, gyros, burgers, and fresh salads.
10. Junípero Serra Statue
Though he’s not exactly a household name, Junípero Serra is the priest largely responsible for bringing Catholicism to California and western Mexico back in the 18th century.
He established a number of missions from the Baja Peninsula all the way north to San Francisco. There’s now a memorial statue of him in Hillsborough, a few kilometers outside San Mateo.
The statue was originally erected in the mid-‘70s and includes a commemorative plaque listing the missions he founded.
It’s one of those attractions that won’t take more than a few minutes to check out, but it’s worth a quick visit and is conveniently located at the Hillsborough rest area off Interstate 280.
11. Pulgas Water Temple
The Pulgas Water Temple is a unique area attraction built in the 1930s to commemorate the completion of one of the area’s most extensive aqueducts.
It’s located on Cañada Road in Redwood City, about 25 kilometers southeast of San Mateo. It’s situated within a massive protected watershed area that encompasses nearly 25,000 acres.
For much of its existence, water from the aqueducts rushed underneath the temple, but in recent years it has been diverted.
The temple isn’t open every day, and it’s often reserved for special events like weddings, so check online before making a special trip.
12. Filoli Estate and Gardens
Even in an area like San Mateo that’s full of scenic outdoor and historic attractions, the Filoli Estate and Gardens are clear standouts.
They’re located in the city of Woodside, 15 kilometers southeast of San Mateo, and just west of Interstate 280. The property is widely regarded as the most impressive example of English Renaissance design in the country.
The home and gardens are located on a 16-acre tract of land that’s regularly open to the public; an additional 600 acres are part of an off-limits private estate.
The site offers impressive views of the Santa Cruz Mountains and a local reservoir, and includes a café and tea room.
13. Hiller Aviation Museum
Conveniently located on Skyway Road in San Carlos, just ten minutes south of San Mateo, the Hiller Aviation Museum is most well-known for its massive 747 cockpit that affords visitors an up-close look at what was for decades the world’s largest flying machine.
Though the museum tends to attract retired pilots, history lovers, and all-around aviation buffs, it’s also a big hit with kids. For those who’d like a flying experience of their own, there’s a rentable flight simulator.
Most guests spend between one and two hours on-site perusing the impressive collection of aviation memorabilia. The facility hosts many special events throughout the year as well.
14. The San Mateo County History Museum
Local history museums are worthwhile community resources that are often overlooked by all but the savviest and most cost-conscious travelers.
The San Mateo County History Museum is located on Broadway Road in Redwood City, just 10 minutes southeast of San Mateo. It features an impressive collection of artifacts and memorabilia relating to the region’s founding, culture, and economies.
The museum is housed in the county’s former courthouse that was originally built more than a century ago. It’s managed by the local historical society.
It’s not open every day, so check their website or give them a call before making a special trip.
15. Bair Island
Bair Island is a massive area of preserved marshes and wetlands located on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay between San Mateo to the north and Palo Alto to the south.
The island comprises three distinct areas, all of which are part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
The island’s habitats include a number of diverse ecosystems that are home to a huge variety of protected plants and animals.
Hooking up with one of the regular docent-led tours is the best way of exploring the island; they’re appropriate for visitors of most ages and interests.