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 livelihoods depend 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 bayside 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 United Nations chorus of iPhone-toting tourists speaking Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, Australian, Tagalog, Korean, Chinese and more.
Located a few steps from the ferry landing, community-supported Sausalito Books by the Bay features events and books from local authors, while the Sausalito Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center is the place to pick up maps and tips, including taking a walk along Bridgeway for gorgeous views of the San Francisco skyline, Alcatraz and the sparkling bay.
You can spend a rewarding hour or three dipping into Sausalito’s chic boutiques, art galleries, craft shops and inviting restaurants. Longtime locals tout the casual coffee house and Italian eatery A Taste of Rome for pizza and pasta, Cibo Equator for super-sized sandwiches and cappuccinos, and Sushi Ran for Marin’s best maki and moriawase.
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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 the streets that radiate from the plaza offer a marvelous mix of markets, jewelry and clothing shops, wine-tasting rooms and eateries. Walk up Throckmorton Avenue to the Mill Valley Lumber Yard Park, site of the sawmill that gave the town its name. It’s now home to local shops and the California cuisine-leaning Watershed Restaurant.
In town, Bookoo (Asian fusion street food) 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 provocative plays by contemporary authors every year. And come summer, the beloved Mountain Play musical production enchants in the spectacular outdoor Cushing Memorial Amphitheater, set 2,000 feet up the slope of Mount Tamalpais.
Tony Tiburon (a half hour from San Francisco) offers stylish boutiques, plus wine-tasting rooms such as Squalo Vino and a brand-new Michael Mina restaurant, the Bungalow Kitchen, just steps from the ferry landing. Home cooks will love browsing Local Spicery with its more than 550 spices, herbs and salts; and an old-fashioned candy emporium, the Candy Store on Main Street, is famed for its classic sweets (handmade fudge, anyone?). Sam’s Anchor Cafe is the locals’ choice for fresh seafood and drinks on the dockside terrace with superlative views of Angel Island and the San Francisco skyline. The quaint town also has new late-night ferry service (tickets must be purchased in advance) linking it to San Francisco on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
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 West Marin County. 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 also 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, hiking 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.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 23, 2018. It's been updated to reflect new information.