When the word Marin comes to the minds of most Bay Area residents, they think Headlands. Muir Woods. Mill Valley or Sausalito.
Unless of course you actually live in Marin County. If you do, you already know that San Rafael is the county seat and is, by far, the largest city here and probably the most impressive. Locals have always had great pride in Marin's "metropolis." And guess what: It's having a moment.
Launched in 2018 as the 14th California Cultural District, San Rafael will celebrate the official launch of its Downtown Arts District starting October 2018. Packed with galleries, independent bookstores, and the headquarters of the Marin Shakespeare Company, San Rafael's Fourth St. is a worthy daytime destination for culture vultures Bay Area–wide. Not too far away, the Marin Civic Center is one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most photogenic architectural achievements.
Of course, there's much here for foodies too with all the micro-brewed beer, artisanal donuts and eats, and craft cocktails you can swallow. Plus, an outstanding film center and all the beautiful nature and outdoor activities you'd expect of Marin.
Here's how to spend a perfect—read: active, tasty, artsy, boozy—day in San Rafael.
Sweet Beginnings in San Rafael
Coffee & Donuts
The best days in San Rafael begin at Red Whale Coffee (169 Paul Dr.), in a generic office park on the north side of town. Trust us, this homey café serves the finest cappuccinos and single origin drips to be found for miles. They even have a popcorn machine. // TBH, the Bay Area has no shortage of bakers doing crazy artisanal things with fried dough. Here in San Raf, Johnny Doughnuts (1617 4th St.) has been the go-to since 2012 for wild-berry-jam-filled Bismarks, caramel apple fritters, and chocolate-glazed "crodoughs" (a croissant-doughnut creation). There are even vegan and gluten-free options, as well as organic coffees and teas from fellow Marin purveyor Equator. Sweet tooths with a hankering for the holey stuff have likely seen the Johnny Doughnuts trucks at festivals and events across Northern California; the brand also has a cafe in San Francisco's Hayes Valley.
Morning in Marin: Of Bikes and Beaches
Bikes > Cars
Marin County is often considered the cycling capital of the world, so if you're going to do it up here, you'll want to go all in with a big bike workout. Get started at Acme Bike (1820 4th St.)—yep, just a couple blocks from Johnny Doughnuts— where you can rent a basic Trek Marlin 7 bike for $35 a day. // Roll east down 3rd Street, which becomes Point San Pedro Road. You'll end up at China Camp State Park, where a sprawling set of trails will lead you either inland or along the coast of the bay. Feel like taking a dip? The water will be chilly, but you can get your feet wet at China Camp State Beach or McNears Beach County Park. Care to spend more time here? There are several great round-trip bike trails ranging from three miles to 11 miles.
Lunch + Light Shopping in San Rafael
Lunchtime: Get in line at Sol Food.
Put your name down at Sol Food (901-903 Lincoln Ave.), the perpetually packed Puerto Rican food spot (they also have a Mill Valley location) where there's guaranteed to be a wait. Since you'll likely have 45 minutes to an hour to kill, go browse some downtown shops.
San Rafael has several women's boutiques, led by the two-decade-old Viva Diva (1327 4th St.,), which specializes in contemporary, self-described 'girlfriendy' fashion choices from the likes of Lena Bernard and Greylin. Downtown San Rafael also has one of the Bay Area's most captivating home furnishing stores: Sunrise Home (831 B St.) stocks an interesting choice of chairs, beds, sofas and more.
There's a pair of eccentric independent bookstores that are calling your name: Opened in 2005, Rebound (1611 4th St.) calls itself the "Biggest Little Bookstore in the Universe"; Open Secret (923 C St.) is the place to go for more than 800,000 books, music items, and pieces of art including painted Tibetan textiles.
When your table is finally ready, lunch promises to be a delicious hour filled with fried plantain–coated shrimp in a "po-boy"; pollo al horno (baked chicken thighs); and pressed revoltillo sandwiches stuffed with scrambled eggs, cheese, tomato and ham.
If waiting in line at Sol Food seems overwhelming, or if you're looking for some of the North Bay's finest Indian cuisine, head to nearby Lotus (704 4th St.) for the Monday through Saturday lunch buffet (Sunday is the regular menu only) of a dozen or more tempting organic dishes for $11.95.
Arts + Culture in San Rafael
An Afternoon of History, Art + Architecture
There are 21 Spanish missions in California, from San Diego to Sonoma. Here in Marin you'll find the 1817 Mission San Rafael Arcángel (1104 5th Ave.) in the heart of downtown San Rafael. // For a totally different vibe, the three-year old Museum of International Propaganda (1000 5th Ave.) has a can't-look-away train wreck collection of hundreds of works devoted to terrible dictators (Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong) as well as all kinds of posters and advertisements. You could complain about how close to home this all feels in the age of mein Trumpf, but at least admission is free.
San Rafael has a pretty mighty arts scene: In fact, this October marks the official launch of the Downtown San Rafael Arts District; located along 4th Street, the neighborhood has been designated as one of 14 California Cultural Districts. You'll find Art Works Downtown (1337 4th St.), a nonprofit hub of galleries and artist studios; the Falkirk Cultural Center (1408 Mission Ave.), an 1888 Queen Anne Victorian mansion that houses three contemporary art galleries plus beautiful gardens outside; as well as several more galleries and the home of the Marin Shakespeare Company at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre. For information on the district's launch events in Fall 2018, go to cityofsanrafael.org.
A couple miles away, near the Marin County Fairgrounds, you can't miss San Rafael's most iconic building: the Marin County Civic Center (3501 Civic Center Dr.). Designed by the master himself, Frank Lloyd Wright, the pink stucco wonder, with its endless sky-blue roof, grand central rotunda, and soaring spire, opened after the architect's death in 1962—he never got to see it finished. It's worth stopping by just for the photo op; but if you're here on a Wednesday or Friday, there are free docent-led tours at 10:30am.
Dinner and a Show in San Rafael
(Courtesy of Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center)
From Rosé to Dinner and Dessert
Begin the evening at a semi-hidden wine bar with a taste for small-batch Napa and Sonoma wines. At two-year old Incavo (1099 4th St, Suite F), the wine list changes regularly, spreading the love among hard-to-find boutique labels such as Claypool, Mark Herold, and former Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson's Twenty Four. // The Basque region is far too often overlooked. But in San Rafael's Santa Venetia neighborhood, Le Chalet Basque (405 N. San Pedro Rd.) has been serving escargots Bordelaise and frog legs for over 56 years. Tripe à la mode, anyone? // San Rafael has a pair of Italian cooking standouts: One is a year old in the West End; the other is a 24-year stalwart in the heart of downtown. Chef Alexander Alioto (formerly chef/owner of SF's Seven Hills) and his Master Sommelier-father Nunzio opened The Kitchen Table (1574 4th St.) last year, and it has already become a San Rafael fixture for rustic-contemporary Italian. Start with the tuna and scallop crudo before heading to the homemade pastas (yes, that Seven Hill favorite ravioli uovo reappears here) and pinsas topped with the likes of crab, leeks, and capers. Meanwhile, Il Davide (901 A St.), from chef/owner David Haydon, has a slightly more upscale, traditional style with equally thoughtful homemade pastas, must-order arancini, six-hour braised Sebastopol lamb shank, a signature panko-fried chicken, and alfredo pasta. // Cross the 101 for dessert at yet another San Rafael food staple. Since 1966, the family behind Silbermann's Ice Cream (196 Northgate One), housed in a former Swensen's, has been scooping chocolate brownie chunk and seasonal flavors—ask for pumpkin in the fall!
The Mill Valley Film Festival (each October) doesn't actually take place exclusively in Mill Valley. One of its main cinemas is the gorgeous Art Deco–inspired Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center (1118 4th St.)—with a history dating back to 1920, it is now home to the nonprofit California Film Institute. Even once the festival's red carpets have been rolled up for the season, the theater shows an extensive array of films on its three screens. You might encounter a new documentary, an Oscar-winning indie film, or a decades-old classic such as The King and I.
Live Music + Craft Cocktails
When you find yourself at the crossroads between an intimate nightcap and a more rowdy hour, San Rafael provides choices—and Terrapin Crossroads (100 Yacht Club Dr.) is its loud, beating heart. The restaurant and bar-slash-music venue is owned by Grateful Dead bass guitarist Phil Lesh, making it a true pilgrimage for 1960s and '70s leftovers as well as modern music enthusiasts. Showtimes vary and performances are often free. // Care for something quieter? Make for Marin's premier (read: only) craft cocktail bar. A former dive has been transformed into The Tavern on Fourth (711 4th St.), where well-studied barkeeps pour excellent $11 cocktails such as a NoLa bourbon milk punch jazzed up with sweet potato espuma and a quirky'Forest Tiki highball with house falernum and pear shrub joining oat-washed whiskey. // Wrap up an action-packed day with a drink at what many consider to be San Rafael's all-around greatest bar, State Room (1132 4th St.). The relatively ambitious cocktail menu and nicely curated wine list are well worth a look. However, you're really here for the beer because State Room is also a brewery! Order up a $12 flight of four house brews (five-ounces each) and toast to a fantastic day in San Rafael.
2019 seems to have been the year of beer in San Rafael with the opening of two hoppy-minded destinations. Tam Commons Taproom (1300 4th St.) resides in a downtown National Historic Landmark Building, complete with 34 taps and global beer-friendly fare. Pond Farm Brewing Co. (1848 4th St.) is a husband-and-wife run brewery and family-friendly taproom in the West End where it's always fun to pair a $12 flight with one of the pop-up food vendors on hand.
Opened in the fall of 2019, California Gold (848 B St.) is the city's most exciting cocktail bar concept yet, serving classic and farmer's market-inspired drinks designed by Isaac Shumway, one of SF's leading bartenders (Bloodhound, Tosca). Ignacio Gonzalez (Smuggler's Cove, Whitechapel) is responsible for the intriguing design inspired by California's pioneering spirit.
(Courtesy of Marin CVB)
Whether you're local or just visiting, Marin County has something for everyone. Just one famous bridge away from San Francisco and next door to the unparalleled vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, Marin County is home to more than 500 restaurants representing nearly every region around the world. It is a virtual playground for wine lovers and culinary enthusiasts alike. Marin is also paradise for outdoor recreation, so lace up your hikers or grab your bike and hit the trails, or spend a day on the water and go kayaking or sailing. Wherever you start, make Marin the backdrop for your next staycation. Learn more at visitmarin.org.
Thank you to our partners at Marin Visitors Bureau.