The sleepy and historic town of Novato in the San Francisco Bay area has a well-heeled and vibrant community, who maintain many popular events and organizations.
Blessed with a huge litany of museums and galleries for such a small area, you could easily spend your vacation just checking out cultural exhibits.
Novato is also immersed in nature, with many protected wildlife parks in and around the city. When you’ve had your fill of Novato’s charming old town, check out some of its wilder spaces.
Here are the 15 best things to do in and around Novato.
1. Visit the Space Station Museum
The Space Station Museum is a fabulous nonprofit run by some very enthusiastic space-nuts. Several famous astronauts, including Al Warden of Apollo 15, have stepped up to help run the little museum.
The museum’s collection has grown over the years and now includes a large array of equipment, including control panels, space suits, replica lunar landers, and even space underwear. The very cool retro Soviet spacesuits are also a must-see.
The museum itself has a surprisingly large community around it, large enough to host regular space festivals and stargazing events. If you manage to catch one of these, you might get the chance to talk to a real astronaut.
2. Learn About Wine at Trek Winery
Nestled in the heart of Novato, Trek Winery is a family-run wine label. The locals who started this winery are passionate about the great outdoors, which is reflected in their lush, plant-filled décor. Take a class here to discover how wine is made, or how to detect aromatic notes in a tasting session.
Attracting a repertoire of local acts, including stand-ups and musicians, Trek is a lively hub for the community as well. Their award-winning casks are available for tasting parties, weddings, and any other big events.
Come here when a band is performing and get serenaded while you swirl your vino.
3. Pick Up Some Local Produce at the Farmer’s Market
A great place to try the best of the region’s produce, this regular market has many food stalls serving up an abundance of local and foreign dishes.
The artsier residents of the wider San Francisco Bay area also show up here to peddle their handicrafts.
Set amid Novato’s old town district, it’s a lovely place to shop on a sunny afternoon.
Check out the hayrides for a great way to spend time with the kids.
4. Explore the Museum of the American Indian
Before it was settled by the Europeans, the Novato area was home to the Miwok Indians. The Miwok had some interesting traditions, including painting their whole bodies in black and white stripes using chalk and charcoal.
The Marin County Museum of the American Indian displays their history and traditions and keeps the knowledge about this tiny ethnic group alive. Regular exhibits also showcase artifacts from different Indian tribes across North America.
The museum is situated on the site of a Miwok village, and the surrounding parkland is well worth exploring.
5. Meet Some Artists at the Marin Contemporary Art Museum
A mecca for the artists around Marin County, this museum is more than just a gallery. The building’s many studios are used by local creators and you can stop by and chat with the painters and sculptors working here. Budding artists will find it particularly inspiring.
The museum is unusually modern and dynamic for a small city, and exhibits are switched regularly in the large gallery space.
The building itself, an off-the-wall take on the Spanish Mission style, is also well worth a look.
6. Take a Day Trip to Point Reyes
Novato township is just over half an hour from one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most scenic points. Point Reyes is a rugged stretch of coastline that is beautiful, both on a fine day and when local storms bring waves thundering over the headland.
Land and marine animals thrive in this protected area, where nature’s gentle balance has been carefully preserved.
The coast’s landmark lighthouse is a popular pilgrimage site in this craggy and windswept corner of California.
7. Try Some Radical Dishes at the Crave Restaurant
There are many excellent restaurants to choose from in Novato but Crave is one of the more experimental eateries. Set in a lovely modern restaurant with stylish décor, its chefs specialize in new dishes and unusual combinations using farm-to-table ingredients.
The food here is part of that great Californian institution; fusion food. These dishes hit the high notes from a range of culinary traditions.
Try their modern and slightly abstract take S’mores for a real treat.
8. Go Bird Watching in Rush Creek
Over 500 acres of wetland sits on the edge of Novato city. This untouched natural habitat is one of the less-visited and more peaceful hiking trails in the area.
In the spring, swathes of purple shooting star flowers and little white snowberries dot the trails around these tranquil waters. Wading birds live here in abundance and it’s the perfect place for nature lovers to stretch their legs.
Bird watching is a big deal in this town, not least because peregrine falcons sometimes grace the creek with their presence. These birds are growing in numbers but are still fairly rare.
Many species of rare plants and trees dot the paths around the Creek, and the beady-eyed may spot savannah sparrows nesting in the scrub.
9. Discover the Town’s Origins at the Novato History Museum
Novato’s history museum makes a good counterpoint to the local American Indian Museum. Together they tell the story of the Marin area’s two main cultures. A treasure trove of 19th-century bric-a-brac, it gives you a feel for what life was like in this old Californian town.
The museum is the old postmaster’s house and the exhibits walk you through the area’s past using documents, artifacts, and oral histories.
Head here before walking the old town to enrich your ambling.
10. Clamber Up Mount Burdell
Mount Burdell is the natural backdrop to the city of Novato. It’s a fairly small mountain, but will still give you some pretty views across the entire Bay Area. Follow the Eagle Rim trail to get to the top.
The Mount Burdell Open Space Preserve is ideal for gentle hikes and outdoor picnics. Enjoy the sight of the area’s many free-roaming cattle, grazing peacefully in the hillside meadows.
If you have the time, Hidden Lake is roughly halfway up the mountain, and a haven for wildlife and home to hordes of salamanders and frogs.
11. Explore the Old Town
The Crimson tower of the spooky Carpenter Gothic-style town hall is just one of many 19th century buildings which make up the old town in Novato. It’s a lovely place to wander and several buildings here have a long and interesting history.
If taxidermy doesn’t freak you out, the Druid’s Hall, which is home to a slightly bizarre esoteric organization, is an impressive building lined with an incredible collection of deer heads.
If that’s all a bit wacky for you, kick back with a beer or a coffee in the idyllic city streets instead.
12. Visit the Hamilton Field History Museum
Hamilton Field was an important local air force base during WWII and it would continue to run until 1974. This unassuming museum is one of the best in the region, despite frequently being overlooked.
It’s free to visit and has a wonderful research library featuring a collection of documents from the war. Medals and equipment line the exhibits and, if you’re big a kid, the cockpit simulator here is lots of fun.
The best thing about this museum is many veterans choose to work here, and they are often happy to share their knowledge and experience of 20th-century conflicts.
13. Visit Olompali State Historic Park
Take a drive north of Novato to visit historic Olompali State Historic Park. This nature preserve was once a village belonging to the local Miwok Indians and it was continuously inhabited for almost 8,000 years.
Interestingly, recent excavations uncovered a silver coin minted in the reign of Elizabeth I, indicating that the inhabitants probably had contact with early English explorers, such as Sir Francis Drake, at a surprisingly early date.
Today many 18th and 19thcentury structures are still standing from the area’s post-colonial period. The tiny visitor’s center does a great job of explaining the history of the area, including the famous Battle of Olompali, fought here in 1846.
14. Rent a Horse to Roam Novato’s Wild Spaces
Novato has a lot of open countryside and what better way to see it than on horseback?
Morning Star Farm is a local institution and provides horses for both adults and children. Situated on Novato Creek, you’re sure to see some fantastic wildlife while you ride.
The farm itself has a little picnic area and a petting zoo, for those who want to make a day of it.
15. Find Your Dinner With a Foraging Group
Marin County has over 450 species of wild mushrooms growing in its damp and leafy surrounds.
As a result, foraging is an increasingly popular local activity, and many groups, including the popular ForageSF, run regular foraging tours around Novato City.
The rules on foraging are complex, so it’s best to enlist some professional help if you do decide to do it. With the help of a guide, you’ll be instructed on how to avoid dangerous poisonous mushrooms, as well as how to cook and prepare them.
Get in touch with nature and find your dinner at the same time.