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Explore this quaint town that’s just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco

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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, Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient Sushi Ran. Or, right on the water 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. A lovely day, to be sure, but it barely touches on what Sausalito has to offer.

Sausalito History

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.

More Things to Do In and Around Sausalito

Sausalito’s waterfront offers various adventures and opportunities to experience the area’s seafaring culture. Get out on the water with a kayak or stand-up paddleboard rental from Sea Trek, where true masters of balance (or those seeking to become one) can sign up for a 75-minute yoga, Pilates, or core fitness session on a stand-up paddleboard among the seals on Richardson Bay. Or take the whole family on an excursion aboard Call of the Sea’s 132-foot brigantine, Matthew Turner, on which you’ll enjoy views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Angel Island while learning about sailing, marine life, environmentalism, and maritime history. Those interested in maritime history can get an excellent overview at the Spaulding Marine Center, located in a working boatyard.

Also in the town’s central area, there’s a culinary adventure that is not to be missed: At The Bump Bar by California Caviar Company, guests can indulge in a tasting of sustainable caviars and roe, accompanied by local wines as well as sparkling wines. From June through August, visitors can follow up these activities with a relaxing evening of live music: the city hosts Jazz and Blues by the Bay, a series of free evening concerts, in Gabrielson Park.

If you continue a few miles up Bridgeway, you’ll reach the city’s northern industrial zone. Attractions here include Heath Ceramics’ low-slung factory (don’t miss the discounted “seconds” at the outlet store) and the redwood-clad building that houses the newly resurrected Record Factory (the former Record Plant), where the likes of Prince, Metallica, and Fleetwood Mac once laid down tracks.

Edutourism In and Around Sausalito

Sausalito is full of opportunities for kids and adults alike to combine learning with fun. About a mile up Bridgeway from downtown is 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—the only one of its kind in the world, for any body of water—that covers 1.5 acres and is very popular with kids.

A six-mile drive away from downtown in the other direction, nestled amidst the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is the Marine Mammal Center, the world’s largest marine mammal hospital. Admission to the visitor center and an open-to-the-public hospital is free, but advance online reservations are required. Another must for curious minds is the Bay Area Discovery Museum, an educational interactive STEM experience perfect for kids ages 0-10. The museum sits on 7.5 acres right at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, giving visitors the opportunity to explore exhibits both indoor and outdoor.

Hiking and Bird-Watching Near Sausalito

Though famous for its intermingling of sea and land, head inland in virtually any direction from Sausalito and you’ll find myriad ways to take in some stunning scenery. The mostly flat 1.7-mile long Tennessee Valley Trail in the Marin headlands offers great hiking and biking for the whole family, and ends at the perfect payoff: Tennessee Beach. Drive 8 miles northwest, and the Muir Woods Main Trail offers 30-, 60-, and 90-minute loops to choose from, originating at the visitor center and following Redwood Creek amongst the majestic redwood trees. History and nature are intertwined along the Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail; beginning 6 miles southwest of Sausalito, it snakes along the edge of the Marin Headlands before ending a half-mile later with postcard-worthy views of waves crashing at the foot of the Point Bonita Lighthouse, which dates to 1855, and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. Know before you go: The lighthouse is open Sundays and Mondays from 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm.

About 5 miles away, on the other side of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Rodeo Lagoon and the black-sand Rodeo Beach are great locations for birdwatching. Dog owners should know that their furry friends—as long as they respond to voice commands—are allowed to roam this beach off-leash.

Where to Stay in Sausalito

Though Sausalito doesn’t offer a long list of hotels, the options are every bit as charming as the town itself. Presiding most prominently right above the ferry terminal is The Inn Above Tide. With that prime location come panoramic views of the water and the San Francisco skyline; fireplaces in the rooms and a daily wine and cheese reception in the evenings add to the experience. A few steps away on Bridgeway in the heart of downtown area is Casa Madrona Hotel & Spa. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this Victorian mansion—and its more modern, expanded additions—has spacious rooms, many of them with gorgeous views of the water. Fans of the Bay Area’s psychedelic era can book the Piper Room, where Pink Floyd stayed and were photographed during their first American tour in 1967.

When to Visit Sausalito

Mid-April to early November is considered the best time of year to visit Sausalito for the best weather, but that’s a fairly flexible rule of thumb, given the Bay Area’s temperate climate. For those looking to avoid crowds, the city’s busiest months are June, July, and August. If you visit during the holidays, in December the city hosts Winterfest Sausalito, a two-day celebration featuring a lighted boat parade and fireworks.

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