Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, a steep hillside covered in chaparral and eucalyptus drops from Highway 101 to a flat, sunny shoreline, two miles long and a couple of blocks wide, that faces the Bay: This is the Sausalito that day-trippers from San Francisco know. Most of them walk or bike over the bridge or arrive by ferry, sit and have a coffee at a café on the charming main street Bridgeway, and look back across the Bay at the downtown skyline. Maybe they stay for dinner, sticking to Bridgeway (Barrel House Tavern is a good bet) or venturing a block off Bridgeway into the locals’ zone, aka Caledonia Street, to the top-rated Sushi Ran. A lovely day, to be sure, but it barely touches on what Sausalito has to offer.
Long before the current craze for all things artisanal, Sausalito was where art intersected with industry, a city where people made things with their hands, whether these things were the Liberty merchant ships that helped win World War II or the ceramic pottery and tiles that Edith Heath turned into a modern icon and that now can be found—at a rough guess—on the tables of two-thirds of the restaurants in the Bay Area.
First settled by the Coast Miwok peoples, this southernmost tip of the Marin Peninsula was difficult to reach except by boat and largely ignored by both the Spanish invaders (who called it Sauzelito, after a grove of willows) and the Gold Rush’s forty-niners. In time, though, railroads, ferries, and, eventually, the bridge linked Sausalito firmly to the “mainland.” War brought industry in the form of the Bechtel Company’s shipyards, and by the 1960s, its abandoned slips were colonized by hippies living in houseboats—Otis Redding was staying in one when he wrote “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay.”
“Sausalito was full of artists and writers back then,” says Sausalito native Michael Wiener, onetime head of the famed Spaulding wooden boat works, “because it was beautiful and it was cheap. Now, it’s just beautiful.” And the boats have themselves become a tourist attraction; every September, the Floating Homes Association runs a sell-out houseboat tour.
Other landmarks in the city’s northern industrial zone include Heath Ceramics’ low-slung factory (don’t miss the discounted “seconds” at the outlet store) and the redwood-clad building that housed the now-defunct Record Plant, where the likes of Prince, Metallica, and Fleetwood Mac once laid down tracks. Or, check out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Bay Model, which is just what it sounds like: a working hydraulic model of the entire San Francisco Bay that covers 1.5 acres and is very popular with kids. So is the sustainable-seafood restaurant Fish, located in the Clipper Yacht Harbor marina, where you can sit in the sun and watch the boats go by.