Daniel Pountney

Night at the museum

Daniel Pountney
Night at the museum

IT'S Friday night, the working week is over and the sun is shining ... let's go to the museum.

Not exactly what I was expecting in California. What about the beach, the park, the pub? But if you're in Oakland, it turns out the museum is the place to be.

Every Friday at the Oakland Museum of California, Off The Grid shuts down the adjacent road and fills it with food trucks — everything from falafel burritos and gourmet burgers to Korean noodles. The atmosphere is friendly as hipsters mingle with young families.

We tucked in to our grub while listening to a Cuban DJ in the museum's courtyard. The band started up and everyone, young and old, got to their feet.

The courtyard stayed packed with a few hundred people salsa dancing all night.

I last visited the Bay area two years ago and fell in love with San Francisco. I was sad to leave because with flights to the West Coast being so expensive, I knew it would be a long time before I could get back to one of the world's greatest cities.

But this spring, Norwegian launched a new service from Gatwick to Oakland — the city just across the Bay Bridge — and fares start at £290 return.

That means San Francisco and its neighbouring regions don't have to be a once-in-a-lifetime holiday destination any more. Take a couple of weeks and you can soak it all up on a road trip through the north of the state.

When you land, downtown San Francisco is a short Metro ride away. But there's no need to rush to get out of Oakland or hire a car just yet.

Jack London Square is a great place for dinner on the waterfront, with Bocanova serving interesting pan-American food such as sticky barbecue pig tails.

The Mai Tai cocktail was invented in Oakland so it would be rude to pass through without trying a few.

These days, though, craft beer is what everyone's drinking and the best place to do it is Drake's Dealership.

The bar was once an auto service yard. It has no roof but it's nice and warm at night thanks to open fire pits in the middle of the tables.

With nightspots like this, plus a great little farmers' market in the Old Oakland district, it's worth taking advantage of lower hotel prices this side of the bridge instead of staying in San Francisco. Our hotel, the Oakland Marriott City Center, had a station outside and it was a 15- minute ride into downtown San Fran. 

When you get into the city, riding the old cable cars is a must-do. The trollies, which cost around £5 per ride, are a fun way to get around. They will get you up and down the hills from the boutique shops around Union Square to Chinatown and on to Fisherman's Wharf for great seafood. 

Nearby is the ferry port for Alcatraz. 

I was amazed at how atmospheric the to ur was, conveying the bleakness of the place and telling some of the horrific events that went on during the times of Al Capone and The Birdman. 

Next day, it was time for the Golden Gate Bridge. Our friends cycled across it and saw whales in the water below but I'd re commend hiring a convertible to cross the structure whas been a local landmark since 19 37. That way you can drive on to beautiful Sonoma County. 

Here, the guide books will tell you each winery requires a fee for tasting or to be part of a tour - but in reality, you'll be poured endless glasses without either. If the staff get tired of filling you up, you can always move on to the picture-perfect Napa Valley further east. 

We were heading to the state capital Sacramento. There, a guide in mid-19th century costume led us round the oldest part of the city which is a living reminder of the gold rush. 

Old wooden buildings still decorated with the names of the companies that built them 160 years ago now house ice cream parlours and gift shops. Plus, there are steam train rides and the chance to pan for real gold at the Sacramento History Museum. There are some less-visited gems here as well, such as Brooks Novelty Antiques & Records, where you can check out old jukeboxes and pinball machines and owner Steve can guide you through tens of thousands of vinyl LPs.

And the River City Saloon — an exact replica of the bar that stood on the site in 1871 — is somewhere you can get a Sarsaparilla (a cross between root beer and mouthwash) for just a few cents.

Away from old town Sacramento is a clean and modern city that comes into its own in the evening.

Our favourite place to eat was Federalist, which is housed in old shipping containers with private dining in the architect's 1907 house at the other end of the garden. There, the chef paired six beers for us with incredible pizzas and salads.

Then it was a short walk to Midtown where bars spilled out on to a closed road where DJs and a dancefloor were set up. More drinks and more dancing.

Despite Trump, I still want to get back to northern California as soon as possible.

This article was published in The Sun newspaper on November 12, 2016.