Believe it or not, it’s time to start planning your winter vacation. What better place to go than Tahoe City? After a good snowfall, the little town glistens beneath a blanket of white, like a Christmas-tree village inside a snow globe.
The oldest settlement on the lake, Tahoe City exudes the sort of charm most people imagine when they think of Lake Tahoe: little log cabins, towering pine trees, and peerless views over cobalt-blue waters. Okay, so it’s not exactly idyllic—there are several ugly shopping centers and motels built in total disregard to the pristine surroundings—but the town still manages to maintain a down-to-earth simplicity that you just won’t find elsewhere on the lake.
If you’ve never been to Tahoe, stay near Tahoe City, not South Lake, for your first trip—unless you’re a gambler, in which case you should head directly to the south shore’s glittering lights and elusive promise of a jackpot. This guide covers the west and north shores. In the coming weeks, I’ll be updating my guides to Incline Village, Squaw Valley, and Truckee. Stay tuned. In the meantime, if you have any questions about planning a winter trip to any of these other destinations, post a comment at the bottom of the respective page. I’ll get back to you tout de suite.
- Soak up the old Tahoe vibe at the lake’s oldest settlement.
- Hide away in a rustic cottage.
- Ski the mountains where the Donner Party got stuck.
- Three-and-a-half hours from the Golden Gate Bridge
- Crowds: Tahoe City’s charms are no secret.
- Traffic: Skier traffic jams the roads every winter-weekend afternoon.
See & Do
Tahoe City’s compact downtown area is perfect for summertime strolling and window-shopping, but winter’s icy sidewalks and waist-deep snow banks make wandering on foot a drag. Instead, drive to Fanny Bridge, where you can lean over the railing, your backside in the air (hence the name of the bridge), and look down at the Outlet Gates, the only outlet for Tahoe’s 40 trillion gallons of water. The gates maintain the lake’s water level and are still operated by a hand-winch system, amazing in its simplicity. This is where the Truckee River begins, and the water’s roar is mesmerizing. Kids love it. The bridge is immediately south of the ‘Y,’ the intersection of Highways 89 and 28.
In winter, skiing is the big activity. But if you come before the snow falls, there’s also great late-season hiking. But don’t wander too far into the woods, lest you get caught unprepared and wind up a statistic on the evening news. Check the forecast before you set out. Period.
Catch a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, the fabled high-mountain footpath from Mexico to Canada; or the Tahoe Rim Trail, the recently completed, 150mi loop trail encircling the Tahoe Basin. To access the PCT, head to the top of Barker Pass Rd, a narrow, partially paved roadway that only locals know (it’s also ideal for road-biking). The 7mi uphill trip takes you right to the PCT. For details on hiking the Rim Trail, check their site. (If you’re an avid hiker with discretionary income, consider making a donation to either of these awesome organizations.)
Restaurants in Tahoe City: Eat Cheap
Stop by Syd’s Bagelry ($) for fresh-from-the-oven bagels and strong coffee. This is where locals go to catch up on gossip and huddle over laptops linked in to the free Wi-Fi. Want to know what’s really going on in Tahoe City? Talk to Dean, the affable owner: he knows everything—and everyone.
Tourists flock to Rosie’s ($$) for breakfast, but you’ll do way better just south of town at the Fire Sign Café ($–$$). Inside a former house, the restaurant has a warm homey vibe, with a roaring fireplace, and a huge menu of scrambles, omelets, and pancakes served with real maple syrup. When you want to carbo-load before a day on the slopes, this is the place.
For perfect smoothies, hearty sandwiches, strong espresso, and quick breakfasts, head to the Bridgetender ($), the long-running Tahoe City institution, right near Fanny Bridge. A tree fell through the roof of the old location across the street, but the new joint has all the dark wood, moody lighting and raucous laughter you’d expect in a proper tavern. Parents, fear not: the dining room is family-friendly. Ten minutes east in Tahoe Vista, Sancho’s serves surprisingly good Mexican grub in baskets, good when you’ve got hungry kids to feed.
In Kings Beach, Lanza’s ($$) is the old-guard favorite choice for Italian-American cooking. Think red-and-white-checked table cloths and parmesan cheese in shakers on the tables. You’d be hard pressed to find a better spaghetti and meatballs at Tahoe. Nostalgia buffs love it. So do I. (Hard-core food snobs will totally disagree, but sometimes you have to suspend the expectation of perfection and simply eat dinner.)
Restaurants in Tahoe City: Eat Fancy
The buzz on the food scene (such as it is in Tahoe City) is about Sol y Lago ($$$), which takes some intriguing culinary risks, especially for a tourist town. The chef bills the cooking as ‘Sierra Latino,’ which basically means a melding of Spanish, Portugese, Chilean, Argentinean, and French, with spicing tempered for the steak-and-potatoes set. The tapas-style presentations are colorful, portions sizable, and flavors bright, but there’s a lot happening on some of the plates: the sweet-tangy-spicy notes sometimes overpower each other. Still, I give them credit for trying something new; they’ll get their bearings. Though some dishes may disappoint, the lake views won’t. Book a window table and come before sunset.
Wolfdale’s ($$$$) imported Cal-Asian cooking to Tahoe in the mid-1980s and has been going strong ever since. Japanese-trained chef-owner Doug Wolfdale makes everything from teriyaki glaze to smoked salmon himself. The menu changes often, but seafood is the stellar standout. The dining room’s elegant simplicity and well-spaced tables make this a good pick for date night, but be forewarned: prices are high and the cooking is occasionally inconsistent. Still, it’s a good, if not great, pick. Make reservations, and bring your credit card.
Tahoe City Bars: Cocktails with a View
I’m not a big fan of Jake’s on the Lake—the food is terrible—but it’s a good spot for a drink by the water, and it’s right in Tahoe City overlooking the vast blue expanse of water. A better choice is Gar Woods, just east of Tahoe City in Carnelian Bay. Locals flock here—and boy, do they like to throw ‘em back. The drink to order: a wet woody. (You read that right.) Skip the food, unless you need something in your belly to soak up the booze.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Cottages and Cabins in Tahoe City
By far the most charming, Tahoma Meadows B&B Cottages ($–$$$) has free-standing cabins tucked beneath giant sugar-pine trees on the west shore of the lake in the tiny settlement of Tahoma, just south of Tahoe City. Each cute-as-a-button, unfussy cottage has homey details like country quilts and a teddy bear on the bed, but the decor manage never to be tacky or overdone, just warm and cozy, like a favorite old sweater. Some units have kitchens, good if you’re on a budget.
Closer to town, the Cottage Inn ($$–$$$) has vintage-1930s cottages with floor-to-ceiling knotty-pine paneling, giving them the classic old Tahoe look, but with modern details like gas fireplaces, tile baths, and Wi-Fi in the main lodge. Some units have lake views, and there’s a private beach. If Tahoma Meadows is booked, make this your next choice.
Ten minutes east of town in Tahoe Vista, Rustic Cottages ($–$$) has simple cottages across the road from the lake. They’re nothing fancy, but they’ve got a bit of charm and make a great inexpensive alternative to a generic motel.
Lodges and B&Bs in Tahoe City
For romance it’s hard to top the Shore House ($$$–$$$$), a lakefront compound of knotty-pine-paneled rooms with gas fireplaces and featherbeds, three miles east of Tahoe City in Tahoe Vista. If you’re here on a date, book a room with a two-person Jacuzzi tub, complete with rubber duckie; otherwise bring a swimsuit for the outdoor lakeside hot tub. Breakfast included. Prices are high, but you just don’t find many places this private and perfectly situated on the shore of the lake.
Three miles south of Tahoe City, the Sunnyside Lodge ($$–$$$) sits smack dab on the lake and has its own docks, where speed boats pull up in summer. Rooms are on the small side, but look spiffy and are a bargain in the off-season—and oh! those lake views. The lakeview dining room downstairs is styled out to look like a mahogany Chris Craft, but the room is better than the food—unless you’re a fan of fried zucchini.
Motels in Tahoe City
The best bargain in town is Mother Nature’s Inn ($–$$). Rooms are dark and have zero view, but because they’re owned by the same people who own the adjoining home-furnishings store, they’re styled out with spiffy-looking bedspreads, curtains, and other details you’d never expect at this price. And if you’re here with a bunch of skiers, they won’t charge you—or mind—if you throw sleeping bags on the floor, something you’d never get away with elsewhere.
Twenty minutes east in Kings Beach, the lakefront Ferrari’s Crown Motel ($–$$) has been owned by the same family since 1958, and they keep the place immaculate. It’s not fancy, but it’s great for families and budgeteers. There’s a lakefront hot tub too.
For a plain-jane motel in Tahoe City, check out the Travelodge ($$), but it’s totally generic—except for the rooftop hot tub overlooking the lake.