Known mostly for their cloud-spewing oil refineries, the East Bay cities of Martinez and Benicia—once linked to each other via auto ferry, now by the bridge on Highway 680 across the Carquinez Strait—may be just a blur out your windshield as you head over to Berkeley or San Jose. But antiques browsers, wine lovers and history buffs will find plenty here to explore, making for a nice little getaway. Start in Martinez, then head to First Street in Benicia for a late lunch and more sightseeing.
Downtown Martinez: About a dozen antiques stores populate the six to eight blocks that make up downtown Martinez, and parking is free on Saturday and Sunday. Discover Disney collectibles, vintage jewelry and furniture—you name it. In one store, we found a copy of The Little Red Hen, a favorite children’s book, in such pristine condition we wondered if it was there by mistake. Sunday shoppers will enjoy the farmers market 10 a.m.–2 p.m. through Oct. 26 on Main Street, but take note: Many of the shops are closed on Sunday. Immerse yourself in local history at the Martinez Museum, located in an 1890s Victorian cottage at the corner of Escobar and Court streets. Check out the permanent display of Joe DiMaggio memorabilia; the baseball legend was born here in 1914. Museum admission is free.
John Muir National Historic Site: Tour the 14-room Victorian mansion of famed naturalist John Muir, known as the “Father of Our National Parks.” Be sure to ring the bell in the bell tower, then head outside to walk through the gardens and fruit orchards farmed by Muir and his father-in-law. Also on the grounds, which comprise 362 acres of oak woodlands: the Martinez Adobe, a house built of adobe brick around 1849 by the son of Don Ygnacio Martinez, after whom Martinez is named. If you have time (and proper shoes), take the one-mile hike up Mt. Wanda, named after Muir’s oldest daughter.
Viano Winery: Learn the history of the Viano Winery, started east of downtown Martinez by Conrad and Carmen Viano more than a century ago, from Viano family members who work there. Big perk? The prices: $4 to $7 buys a bottle of Viano vino ($12–$18 for the private reserve). Enjoy your purchase at a picnic table overlooking the vineyards. No, this is not the Napa Valley—and that’s what makes it nice.
First Street, Benicia: Bookended by residential neighborhoods, First Street in Benicia is a shoppers’ and diners’ paradise. The choices for food alone are dizzying; we spotted Indian, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Thai eateries within blocks of each other. Take in gorgeous views of the water at Captain Blythers (123 First St.), located in a converted house so close to the Carquinez Strait, you’ll feel like you’re dining aboard a boat. Next door, the Shoreline Restaurant (127 First St.) wins the “prettiest courtyard dining” award in our unofficial poll. Walk off your meal with a stroll along the Shoreline Trail. But allow enough time to peruse the quaint shops along First Street—you’ll find home furnishings, fine art, treats for your pet—and peek down side streets for hidden gems. Be sure to visit the renovated, two-story brick state capitol building on the corner of First and G streets. Yup, Benicia was California’s state capital for 13 months in 1853 and 1854.
Get festive—The MuirFest Gala 2008, a patriotic celebration by the Concord-based Willows Theatre Company and the Diablo Symphony Orchestra featuring a performance of John Muir’s Mountain Days, takes place July 1–3 at the John Muir Amphitheater along the Martinez Waterfront.
Get there in about an hour: To downtown Martinez: Take Interstate 80 west to Interstate 680 south. Exit at Marina Vista and turn left. To First Street in Benicia from downtown Martinez: Take Interstate 680 north to 780 west. Exit at East Second Street and turn left. Turn right onto Military East Street. Turn left onto First Street.