San Rafael is a city of about 60,000 people in the North Bay area of San Francisco Bay in Marin County. It’s the oldest and biggest town in the county and is known for having very nice weather most of the year. It is conveniently located in a central location only 20 minutes away from San Francisco.
San Rafael is also known for its beautiful scenery that consists of hills, mountains, coastline and stunning architecture.
Hiking is a popular activity in the area, and there are many wilderness areas nearby where one can escape into nature and observe the diverse habitats of the region.
In San Rafael, there are also a lot of restaurants, cafes, municipal parks and shopping areas. These include Northgate One, Montecito Plaza and Marin Square.
Several festivals and events take place in San Rafael throughout the year including the Italian Street Painting Festival and the Marin County Fair.
Below are 15 of the best things to do in and around San Rafael, California.
1. Learn About Local History at the Marin History Museum
Built in the 1930s, the historic Boyd Gate House is home to the main part of the Marin History Museum.
This is where visitors to the San Rafael area can learn more about the vibrant history spanning from the time of the Miwok Indians to the present day.
The on-site exhibits showcase more than 20,000 artefacts, 200,000 photos and various documents. More items are showcased at another location at the Collections Research Facility in Novato.
2. Escape the City in China Camp State Park
China Camp State Park is a unique outdoor space in that it combines a pristine wilderness area with historical features.
The park surrounds an old Chinese-American fishing village along San Pablo Bay. Within this 1,648-acre park, you can participate in a range of outdoor activities including hiking and biking on the numerous trails that are on site.
As you explore the park, you’ll see stunning views, various plants and wildlife and an array of ecosystems including a salt marsh, grasslands, oak woodland and redwood forest.
A well-preserved fisherman’s cottage is also situated in the park, and you can visit the China Camp Museum and learn more about the history of the old village.
You will also find lovely picnic areas and a beautiful beach suitable for both swimming and campsites.
3. Tee Off at Peacock Gap Golf Club
With stunning scenery, a central location surrounded by countryside and plenty of challenges to keep your game fun and interesting, it’s no wonder Peacock Gap Golf Club is said to be the top-rated golf course in Marin County.
This championship 18-hole, par-71 course also features a modern practice facility that includes a driving range, practice green and chipping area. Golf lessons are available.
4. Savour the Taste of the Caribbean at Whipper Snapper Restaurant
As soon as you walk through the door of Whipper Snapper Restaurant, the Caribbean-inspired decor will take you to a tropical island where you’ll savour the taste of fresh, organic Latin American and Caribbean dishes.
All dishes are prepared using local ingredients. On the menu, you’ll find a wide variety of delicious items including tapas, ceviche, salads and entrees such as grilled fish tacos, grilled Cuban cowboy steak and spicy Jamaica chicken. Outdoor dining is available on the patio.
5. Visit the Mission San Rafael Arcangel
The Mission San Rafael Arcangel, or Church of Saint Rafael as it’s also known, was built in 1817 and served as a hospital to treat Native Americans. Years later, it fell into disrepair but was refurbished to its original state in the earlier part of the 1900s.
Visitors stop at the church to admire the architecture and visit the on-site museum which houses an assortment of artefacts including several of the original mission bells.
6. Spend a Day Outdoors at Hal Brown Park
Hal Brown Park features 26 acres of green space where you can relax or participate in a wide range of activities.
The views are picturesque and there are many facilities on site including playgrounds, benches, picnic areas and restrooms.
There’s a walking trail that passes along Corte Madera Creek, and as you make your way along the trail, you’ll enjoy stunning views of Mount Tam. Also on site is a healing garden with a selection of medicinal plants and a labyrinth featuring an artistic mosaic.
7. Visit the Museum of International Propaganda
The 20th century certainly has had its share of cruel and oppressive regimes. The goal of the Museum of International Propaganda is to bring to light the techniques that were used to control and manipulate entire populations.
On display in this museum are numerous exhibits showcasing the effective propaganda that was used.
As you make your way through these exhibits, you’ll see political ads, photos and other items that were blasted through local media in various communist countries such as China and Nazi Germany.
8. Spoil Yourself with a Trip to The Fifth Avenue Spa
If you find yourself needing a day of relaxation and rejuvenation, you’re in good hands at The Fifth Avenue Spa. The expertly-trained, caring and professional staff works hard to create an inviting space where you’ll receive complete, personal attention.
A number of treatments are available including facials, body wraps, body scrubs and a variety of massages such as Swedish and hot stone massages.
9. Visit the Animals at WildCare
Sometimes animals get sick or injured and need some extra help recovering. The main purpose of WildCare in San Rafael is to rescue and care for these animals in need before releasing them back into the wild.
At this animal sanctuary, you can see some of the animals that have been brought in for care. While there, you’ll learn more about how they are cared for and the conservation of local wildlife and their habitats.
Throughout the year, many events take place including workshops, lectures and educational programs.
10. Browse The Marin Civic Center Farmers’ Market
As the third biggest farmers’ market in the state, one would think that The Marin Civic Center Farmers’ Market would be the premier stop for fresh produce and locally-made items, and they would be right.
This market, which takes place every Sunday all year round, has been delivering quality products to residents and visitors since 1987.
Besides locally-grown fruits and vegetables, you’ll find an array of items as you browse the many vendors.
Dairy products, honey, eggs, nuts, meats, homemade bread, baked sweet treats, seafood, coffee, pet food, crafts, handcrafted jewellery and toiletries are just some of the items for sale.
11. Check Out Some Local Art at Art Works Downtown
Art Works Downtown is situated in the centre of San Rafael’s vibrant downtown district in a large, 130-year-old historic building.
This centre is all about art, but it’s about more than simply displaying fine art. On-site are studios spaces for working artists, a framing shop, a jeweller’s guild and more than a dozen low-cost apartments.
As you explore the centre, you’ll be able to admire a wide variety of art across four galleries and a ceramic centre. The four exhibits in the galleries include the Underground Gallery, the Founders’ Gallery, the 1325 Donors’ Gallery and the 1337 Gallery which features artworks by local artists.
Visitors will find a restaurant on site, and a variety of events are held throughout the year including various classes and lectures.
12. Sample Local Craft Beer at Pond Farm Brewing Co.
The family-run Pond Farm Brewing Co. is a relaxing, welcoming place to kick back and savour quality, local craft brews.
Some of the beers on tap in the on-site taproom include Kickwheel Kolsch, Alamere Hazy IPA, Cataract Falls IPA and A World Gone Amuck Vienna Lager.
Outdoor eating is available and food pop-ups are often featured throughout the week.
13. Explore the Falkirk Cultural Center
The Falkirk Cultural Center is a stunning, historic home dating back to 1888. It lies on the grounds of an 11-acre estate that is currently included on the National Historic Register.
The property features striking gardens, a greenhouse showcasing tropical plants and a sculpture garden. Inside the centre are a number of exhibits showcasing modern art. Throughout the year, several different events are held on site.
14. Indulge at LaVier Latin Fusion Restaurant
At LaVier Latin Fusion Restaurant, you get the best of both worlds, and you get it in typical Spanish fashion. The atmosphere is elegant but cozy with tropical decor and first-class service. The food is homemade, delicious and top-quality.
On the menu, you’ll find a wide variety of items including appetizers, salads, soups and main courses. A few crowd favourites are the grilled flank steak, basil chicken, lamb chops and pan-seared salmon.
Vegetarian options are also available, and great effort is made to use fresh, organic, local ingredients as much as possible in all menu items.
Don’t see something that appeals to you on the menu? Custom-made dishes are also available upon request.
15. Take a Tour of the Marin County Civic Center
Constructed in the 1960s, the historic Marin County Civic Center was designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
This stately complex is a stunning architectural wonder, and you can experience it with a 90-minute, guided tour.
A cafe is situated on the second floor.