Though it’s a mere five-minute drive across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Marin County is a world of its own, with a landscape and character very different from the City by the Bay.
Geographically, the county is bounded mostly by water: the Pacific Ocean to the west, San Francisco Bay to the south, and San Pablo Bay to the east. The only land border is with the rolling hills and vineyards of Sonoma County to the north. The western half of the county is largely farmland, protected coast and wilderness, dotted with unincorporated communities whose livelihood depends on agriculture and tourism. The much more heavily populated eastern side contains the county’s commercial and cultural centers.
Marin gained fame in the latter half of the 20th century as a place of hot tub hedonists with a penchant for progressive politics, yoga and Zen. That reputation remains today, with multimillion-dollar eco-mansions tucked into its verdant slopes and community gatherings where tech titans and trust fund babies rub elbows with dairy ranchers and boho artists.
Here’s a look at some of Marin’s distinctive towns and treasures.
Sometimes called the Riviera of California, Sausalito, population 7,000, is a hilly seaside town that mixes upscale boutiques and restaurants with a salty community of houseboat residents and scruffy writers and painters who settled after World War II. Linked with San Francisco via a fabulous 30-minute ferry ride (or a 25-minute drive from downtown), the town welcomes a daily deluge of visitors from around the globe. The main street that runs along the water, Bridgeway, is frequently filled with a U.N. chorus of iPhone-toting tourists singing Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, Australian, Tagalog, Korean, Chinese and more.
Located a two-minute walk from the ferry landing, the Sausalito Ice House Museum and Visitor Center has a one-room display that lovingly illuminates the evolving history and character of the town. Pick up a map there, then amble along Bridgeway for a sidewalk cappuccino at the Sausalito Bakery and Cafe, with gorgeous views of the San Francisco skyline, Alcatraz and the sparkling bay.
You can spend a rewarding hour or three strolling Bridgeway’s chic boutiques, art galleries, craft shops and inviting restaurants. Longtime locals tout the organic coffee house and Italian eatery A Taste of Rome for pizza and pasta; Cibo for espresso; and Sushi Ran for Marin’s best maki and moriawase.
Designed around the site of the former railroad depot, Mill Valley (a 30-minute drive from downtown San Francisco) exudes a calm and coherence that elude most of Marin’s other towns. Playwrights and programmers sip lattes on the terrace of the Depot Cafe, while in the paved Depot Plaza just beyond, a father tosses a football with his son, a woman dressed in a flowing shamanic gown beats a tribal drum, and a trio of schoolgirls clamber through the branches of a venerable tree. The streets that radiate from the plaza pass a marvelous mix of markets, jewelry and clothing shops, wine-tasting rooms and eateries. Walk up Throckmorton Avenue to the Old Mill Park, site of the 1830s sawmill that gave the town its name, and savor its tranquil grove of second-growthredwood trees. For dining, farm-to-table El Paseo, the pub-like Beerworks, Bookoo (Asian fusion) and Avatar Burritos(“Punjabi-style” burritos using naan and Indian ingredients) are foodie faves.
This 13,000-population town might also be considered the county’s cultural capital. The Mill Valley Film Festival, held for 11 days every October, showcases world-class films in an intimate setting. The Marin Theatre Company puts on six provocative plays by contemporary authors every year. And come summer, the beloved Mountain Play musical enchants in the spectacular outdoor Cushing Memorial Amphitheater, set 2,000 feet up the slope of Mount Tamalpais.
With a population of 57,000, San Rafael (half an hour from downtown San Francisco) is the largest town and county seat. The jewel in its architectural crown is the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Civic Center, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark, and wellworth a visit for its elegant, landscape-blending design and distinctive pink stucco walls, blue roof and scalloped balconies.
Tony Tiburon (also half an hour from San Francisco) offers designer fashions, plus wine-tasting rooms; Local Spicerywith more than 550 spices, herbs and salts; and an old-fashioned candy emporium, the Candy Store on Main Street, famed for its classic sweets (handmade fudge, anyone?) as well as its model train. Sam’s Anchor Cafe is the locals’ choice for fresh seafood; eat on the dockside terrace for superlative views of Angel Island and the San Francisco skyline.
In the bucolic burg of Corte Madera, famed bookseller Book Passage has become a bookstore-cum-university, with a rich and ever-changing schedule of author events, language classes, literary salons and writing workshops.
To the west, two-street Point Reyes Station (population 350) is a marvelous microcosm of Marin. One of the country’s most celebrated cheese-makers, Cowgirl Creamery, is headquartered here — its Mt. Tam triple-cream is a taste of heaven — as is the enchantingly eclectic Toby’s Feed Barn, which sells everything from hay to handmade hats to high-end candles, and houses an art gallery that showcases local artists.
Mount Tamalpais, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Point Reyes National Seashore offer exhilarating beaches, meadows, trails and panoramas of the entire Bay Area and beyond. And Muir Woods is a world-class attraction renowned for its majestic redwood trees, the tallest living things on the planet and ancient as well; the oldest tree in the park is at least 1,200 years old. That’s enough to give even a tech titan pause.