Visit San Rafael & Novato, CA

San Rafael Visitors Guide

San Rafael is Marin County‘s premier city for several reasons: it is the oldest city in the county, the largest, and it is the county seat. In addition, the city of 52,000 people is the commercial center of the region. Major employers include software and multimedia companies, as well as banks, insurance companies, hospitals, and other industries.

San Rafael is continuously ranked near the top in the San Francisco Chronicle poll of the best places to live in the Bay Area. The town’s restaurants, movie houses, shopping centers, beaches, parks, and mostly fog-free weather make it a desirable place to settle.

San Rafael California Canal Area
San Rafael California Canal Area, aerial view

Named after the Mission San Rafael Archangel, San Rafael is located halfway between San Francisco and the wine country. The mission is located on 5th Ave. between Court and B streets. Constructed in 1817 as a sanatorium, it achieved full mission status in 1823. The buildings are replicas but historical artifacts can be seen in the mission museum which is open seven days a week.


San Rafael has more than 600 guest rooms to accommodate travelers to the city. Attractions are numerous, such as The Marin Civic Center complex, China Camp State Park, the Falkirk Cultural Center, McNears Beach Park and the Marin County Historical Society Museum, among others.


The County Civic Center was the last major structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and is a national historic landmark. It is the only government building ever designed by the famed architect. Its blue curved roof and golden spire attract visitors from around the world. Self-guided tour brochures are available at the center’s gift shop. Docent-led tours are available by appointment. The gift shop features an interesting array of items, most of which are inspired by Wright’s designs. The Civic Center grounds encompass a 20-acre park, an 11-acre lagoon and the Marin Center for Performing Arts, the county’s largest performing arts and convention facility. The Marin Center is home to the Marin Symphony, Marin Ballet and Marin Opera. The Marin County Farmers Market, acclaimed by Bon Appetit magazine and the New York Times, brings farmers and consumers together every Thursday and Sunday at the Civic Center from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

China Camp State Park CA
China Camp State Park

China Camp State Park, on the shores of San Pablo Bay, features hiking, equestrian and biking trails, boat launches, fishing piers, and windsurfing. The 1,648-acre park is named after a shrimp fishing village where hundreds of Chinese settlers lived starting in the 1880s. The village has been preserved as a museum and has displays of historic photographs and other artifacts. Thirty hike-in campsites are available. Further north, McNears Beach Park is a popular local recreation area. The park has an outdoor swimming pool, fishing pier, two tennis courts, picnic areas and almost a mile of sandy beaches.

The Falkirk Cultural Center is a 17-room mansion that was purchased by the community in 1974 to serve as a historic and cultural resource. Built in 1888 in the elaborate Queen Anne style, the national landmark is set in 11 acres of formal grounds that include a sculpture garden.

Downtown San Rafael

Downtown San Rafael is a bustling mix of diverse shops, restaurants, coffee houses, night clubs, and brewpubs. It is an exciting and friendly town to explore, and small enough that it can be walked easily. The Rafael Theatre, a historic downtown movie house, has been renovated to feature the work of independent filmmakers and to showcase classic and foreign films. Not too long ago, San Rafael was a bit rowdier. During the early 1900s, it was a major hub for several railroad lines that once flourished in Marin County. All the coming and going provided good business for dozens of hotels, saloons, brothels and rooming houses.

Mission San Rafael Archangel
Mission San Rafael Archangel | 1104 Fifth Avenue San Rafael, … | Flickr

At the south end of San Rafael, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge leads to San Quentin State Prison, the oldest prison in the state, and then across the bay. A prison museum features documents, photographs, diaries, uniforms, antique handcuffs and different models of gas chambers and gallows. The museum is open Mon. through Sat. Across the bridge are the East Bay communities of Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland.

Novato, CA Visitors Guide

Novato has the distinction of being the northernmost city in Marin County and also the fastest growing. Its population of 49,000 ranks just behind that of San Rafael. Its 28 square miles make it the largest city in land area and provides its residents with plenty of open space in contrast to the more populated Highway 101 corridor. Indeed, Novato has 2,600 acres of dedicated open space and the 1,600-acre Mount Burdell open space area is one of the largest such preserves in the county. There are three wildlife preserves in the unincorporated Novato area and 17 parks within its city limits. In addition, there are 80 miles of bike lanes and trails.

Mount Burdell California
Mount Burdell open space; photo by wikipedia/Mmmclean

Novato’s Old Town offers a step back in time with its shops, restaurants, and bistros housed in buildings from the early 1900s. Also in the neighborhood is the Novato History Museum, located in the restored 1850s home of the town’s first postmaster, and Novato City Hall, housed in a 1890s church. Old Town is the site of the Novato Art, Wine and Music Festival, held each year on the fourth weekend of June. The event features jazz, classical and popular music, national and international cuisine and wine tasting from 32 premium wineries.

In addition to Old Town, visitors will find several shopping centers throughout Novato, including Vintage Oaks on Highway 101 near the Rowland Blvd. exit.

The culture of the original inhabitants of the area, the Miwoks, is celebrated at the Marin Museum of the American Indian and Olompali State Park. The museum includes artifacts such as tule reed boats, baskets, and tools. A hands-on exhibit allows patrons to grind acorns, one of the Miwok’s staples, with a stone mortar. A museum store features Native American gifts and 35-acre Miwok Park has picnic areas and hiking trails.

Olompali State Historic Park is the site of a major Miwok village that dates from 1100 to 1300 A.D. A re-creation of the village is planned. The park’s 700 acres were once part of the old Rancho Olompali, a Spanish land grant that was made to Miwok chief Camilo Ynitia. The chief’s adobe, built around 1840, and the remains of a mansion built by rancher Galen Burdell in the late 1860s can be seen at the park. The park, California’s newest state park, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hikers can explore a three-mile loop trail and the eastern slope of Mt. Burdell.

Olompali State Historic Park, Novato CA
barn in Olompali State Historic Park, Novato CA

Stafford Lake Park, a county facility, is a perfect place to enjoy a picnic and some fishing. The park is west of town on Novato Blvd., and also features a volleyball court, horseshoe pits, and playing fields.

Novato is well situated for exploring the region. Traveling north on Highway 101 leads to the Sonoma County wine region and traveling east on Highway 37 leads to the Napa wine region and on to the state capitol of Sacramento. The coast can be reached by taking Novato Blvd. to the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road and turning west.

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