5 miles N of San Francisco

The first town you’ll enter once you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, picturesque Sausalito is extremely touristy, but also very much a home to its fewer than 8,000 residents. With houses scaling the hillside, and a quaint waterfront that includes its famed houseboat communities, Sausalito feels rather like St. Tropez on the French Riviera (minus the beach, bathing suits, and hotter climes). We locals that don’t live in the city limits do come here, primarily to sail, kayak, or paddleboard on protected Richardson Bay, or to dine waterfront on nice days (all of which you can do, too). But you won’t find us ducking in and out of the very tourist-targeted gift shops. 

Next to the pricey bayside restaurants, antiques shops, and galleries are hamburger joints, ice-cream shops, and souvenir shops where it’s Christmas all year round. Sausalito’s main strip is Bridgeway, which runs along the water; on a clear day the views of San Francisco far across the bay are spectacular. After admiring the view, those in the know make a quick detour to Caledonia Street, 1 block inland; not only is it less congested, it also has a better selection of cafes and shops. Since the town is all along the waterfront and only stretches a few blocks, it’s best explored on foot.

Getting There - The Golden Gate Ferry Service fleet (goldengate.org; tel. 415/923-2000), operates between the San Francisco Ferry Building (at the foot of Market Street) and downtown Sausalito. Service is frequent, running at reasonable intervals every day of the year except January 1, Thanksgiving, and December 25. Check the website for an exact schedule. The ride takes a half-hour, and one-way fares are $12 for adults; $6 for seniors, youth ages 6–18, and passengers with disabilities; children 5 and under ride free (limit two children per full-fare adult). Ferries of the Blue & Gold Fleet (blueandgoldfleet.com; tel. 415/705-5555) leave from Pier 41 (Fisherman’s Wharf); the one-way cost is $13 for adults, $7.50 for kids 5 to 12, free for kids 4 and under. Boats run on a seasonal schedule; phone or log onto their website for departure information.

By car from San Francisco, take U.S. 101 N and then take the first right after the Golden Gate Bridge (Alexander exit); prepare for traffic during summertime, when cars often back up on the bridge while waiting to exit. Alexander becomes Bridgeway in Sausalito. But before hitting town, consider taking a quick detour for a memorable photo-op at the Headlands. To do that, once you merge onto Alexander Avenue, drive under Highway 101 and turn right onto Conzelman Road, right before the ramp heading back to San Francisco. From here, you can pull over along the shoulder (you may have to wait for parking) to get a dramatic vantage point of the red bridge jetting out from tumultuous waters. Drive farther and you’ll glimpse the rolling hills of the Marin Headlands and secluded Rodeo Beach to the right. You might be tempted to keep driving on this dramatic, winding road high above the city behind you. If you do, you’ll eventually get to Point Bonita Lighthouse, the opposite direction of Sausalito but a wonderfully scenic, undeveloped diversion. You’ll find great walking/hiking trails here, too.

What to See & Do - Above all else, Sausalito has scenery and sunshine; once you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you’re usually out of the San Francisco fog patch and under blue California sky—with more comforting climate to boot. (That said, of all of Marin County’s towns, Sausalito is most subject to spillover fog rolling in through the Golden Gate, so if it’s sun you’re after, check the weather before heading here in shorts and a T-shirt.) Houses cling to the town’s steep hills, overlooking a colony of sailboats below. Most of the tourist action, which is almost singularly limited to window-shopping and eating, takes place at sea level on Bridgeway. Sausalito is a mecca for shoppers seeking souvenirs, kitschy clothes and footwear, and arts and crafts. Many of the town’s shops are in the alleys, malls, and second-floor boutiques reached by steep, narrow staircases on and off Bridgeway. Caledonia Street, which runs parallel to Bridgeway 1 block inland, is home to more shops.

Younger children (up to 8 years old) will love the Bay Area Discovery Museum, East Fort Baker, 557 McReynolds Rd. (bayareadiscoverymuseum.org; tel. 415/339-3900; admission $15 adults; $15 ages 1 to 17; $14 babies 6 to 11 months and seniors 65 and older), which is open daily 9am to 5pm except holidays. Set upon 7[bf]1/2 acres at Fort Baker, close to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, this indoor-outdoor hands-on learning and play center is like San Francisco’s science-based Exploratorium for younger kids, complete with a pirate ship to climb on, art studios, interactive science exhibits, and a room devoted to trains. If you need to occupy young, active minds and want to experience a gorgeous setting yourself, this is the place to spend a few hours. (Bring a jacket; it’s often chilly here, even on nice days.) There is a modest, but expensive cafe on-site serving wholesome sandwiches, soups, and salads. If you don’t want to pay a premium for basic provisions, bring your own snacks or lunch and eat at one of the picnic tables.

For science-minded folks fascinated by the Bay Area’s complex geography, visit the wholly original Bay Model Visitors Center, 2100 Bridgeway (www.spn.usace.army.mil/Missions/Recreation/Bay-Model-Visitor-Center/; tel. 415/332-3871). It’s a hangar-like space filled with a working, wet model of the entire Bay Area. Built in 1957 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help scientists understand the complex patterns of the water currents and the tides, it’s capable of duplicating, at a smaller time scale, the way the tides flow in the Bay. Buildings aren’t represented, but major landmarks such as bridges are identifiable as you walk around the space, which is about the size of two football fields, or 1[bf]1/2 acres. Water, which is shallow throughout, is studded with some 250,000 copper tabs that help recreate known current patterns. Admission is free; it’s typically open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm, but summer hours vary.

The facility, the only one of its kind in the world, hasn’t been used for research since 2000, leaving it to educate school groups about Bay conservation. A visit is quite relaxing; many days, you’ll be one of the only guests there, and the only sounds in the enormous room will be the faint sound of the water pumps. The model sits on the site of an important World War II shipbuilding yard, called Marinship (“ma-RINN-ship”). Tucked away to the left of the exit (don’t miss it) is a terrific exhibit, full or artifacts and a video, that chronicles the yard, where an astonishing 93 ships were built in 3 1/2 wartime years.

Nearby, you’ll find one of my favorite things to do in Marin—head to Sea Trek Kayak at Richardson Bay (seatrek.com; tel. 415/488-1000), where you can rent a kayak or standup paddleboard and get out on the calm waters. The experience is unbeatable. Don't worry if you’ve never been in a kayak before or don’t have the right attire; these are unsinkable and virtually untippable, and Sea Trek provides waterproof gear you can slip over your clothes. Rent a single-person kayak or a double and paddle your way around the shoreline to get up close and personal with dozens of sea lions and harbor seals, Sausalito’s charming and famously bohemian houseboat communities, and shorebirds. Afterward, a walk through the parking lot leads to my favorite lunch spot in Marin—Le Garage.

Sleep at the Golden Gate - If your trip allows for a night away from city noise, Sausalito’s Fort Baker boasts one of the most charming upscale getaways in the country in an unforgettable, soothing setting. Called Cavallo Point Lodge (601 Murray Circle, Fort Baker; cavallopoint.com; tel. 415/339-4700), it’s located in the fort’s former general’s quarters that flank the center green. Situated at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, just 10 minutes from the city, each room has postcard-perfect views of the famous red arches, San Francisco’s Marina district, or the rolling hills of the Marin Headlands. Prices range from $359 to $442 for a standard suite up to $650 for a two-bedroom suite, which sleeps six. The resort’s partnership with Lexus means U.S. residents staying at the hotel can borrow a luxury sedan to explore the surrounding areas and city. Even if you can’t stay the night, this historic slice of paradise is worth a visit. Have a meal at Murray Circle or Farley Bar, where you can enjoy Californian cuisine on the plush porch seating while soaking up the view. Or snag a rocking chair, the perfect place to enjoy the hosted wine-and-appetizer hour every evening. Take a cooking class in the sunny working kitchen, where local chefs teach guests how to use the organic bounty of the area. Or for a daily fee, enjoy use of the meditation pool, sauna, and Jacuzzi at the hotel’s spa.

Where to Eat  - The bayfront terrace at Barrel House Tavern ★★, 660 Bridgeway (barrelhousetavern.com; tel. 415/729-9593), has such magical water and city views, even we locals will forge through traffic, park in the nearby by-the-hour lot, and pull up a barstool at this handsome, relaxed New American restaurant. Find the easy-to-miss entrance and head to the narrow back deck on a nice day to order oysters, ribs, or a gourmet burger. Or settle in at one of the inside tables or bar seats and have what you like. Either way, it’s one of the best bets in the area. A few blocks away is Sushi Ran ★★, 107 Caledonia St. (sushiran.com; tel. 415/332-3620), a spot for quality sushi that has become so expensive, it’s priced me out of the market. Still, if someone else is buying, I’ll happily head to the main bar and dining room or adjoining room and covered patio for top-quality nigiri and fancy cooked dishes. A more casual option is Napa Valley Burger Company ★ (670 Bridgeway (napavalleyburgercompany.com; tel. 415/332-1454), where gourmet burgers, fries, and salads are accompanied by a good beer menu. The hippest spot on the waterfront, Bar Bocce ★, 1250 Bridgeway (barbocce.com; tel. 415/331-0555), draws young crowds from San Francisco on nice days. As its name suggests, you can play bocce ball while sipping your drink (there’s not a full bar, but the sangria is yummy). With outdoor seating featuring cushioned benches wrapped around fire pits, and a tiny sandy beach for the kids a few feet away, this is the perfect place to relax and refresh. My all-time favorite spot, however, is Le Garage ★ (85 Liberty Ship Way #109; legaragebistrosausalito.com;  tel. 415/332-5625), a marina-front French bistro with indoor and outdoor seating. The fresh, reliable fare is served up with a hearty side of atmosphere and relaxed tranquility. Don’t miss the grass-fed burger with perfect fries and aioli, mussels in white wine sauce, or the shrimp or lobster salad. Though off the beaten path, it’s an easy stroll from the ferry landing, and you can also drive and park in the restaurant’s designated parking lot.

Picnic Lunch, Sausalito-Style - Perhaps the only way to feed two people for around $20 on the Sausalito waterfront is by packing your own picnic and spreading out in the park next to the marina, but it’s a perfect spot. The best central source for a la carte eats is the Mediterranean-style, family-owned Venice Gourmet Delicatessen at 625 Bridgeway (venicegourmet.com; tel. 415/332-3544; daily 9am–6pm), located right on the waterfront just south of the ferry landing, which has all the makings for a superb picnic, including wines, cheeses, fruits, prosciutto, salads, quiche, and huge, made-to-order sandwiches.

Highway 1: The Famously Scenic Drive - California’s coastal Pacific Coast Highway 1 is famously scenic, and the stretch just north of the Golden Gate Bridge headed north is no exception. Follow it on a clear day and give yourself a few hours to wind the ocean-view cliffside roads leading to wonderful destinations—many of which are worthy of their own day trip. Along the way, look for Muir Beach Overlook, Muir Beach, Stinson Beach (if you want a true California Beach day), Point Reyes town (2 blocks of cute shops and restaurants and the nearby amazing Point Reyes National Seashore, Tomales Bay), and, a mere 75-minute drive north of S.F. in picturesque Marshall, oyster shucking and eating at Hog Island Oyster Co., 20215 Shoreline Highway, Marshall (hogislandoysters.com/locations/marshall/marshall_picnic_area; tel. 415-663-9218)! It’s a thing—actually a 3-hour picnic lunch that regularly sells out, so reservations must be made in advance. But you don’t need a destination to make this memorable drive. Just make sure you have a full tank of gas, water and snacks, sunscreen, walking shoes, and a sense of adventure and let the road lead the way. You’ll find breathtaking vistas and spots to stop and hike or simply snap endless selfies at almost every turn. When you’re ready to head back, you can return the way you came or check GPS to see if finding your way to Highway 101 inland will get you home faster.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.