14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Sausalito
On a sunny day, an image of Sausalito could easily be mistaken for a Mediterranean fishing village. This picturesque seaside town has the ambience of a European vacation resort, especially during summertime, with its quaint boutiques, upscale art galleries, scenic waterfront walk, and yacht-filled marinas. Even locals from "the city" have the impression of getting away when they spend an afternoon here, although it's just a few miles away.
Sausalito has been a favorite retreat of San Franciscans who appreciate the good life, especially since the advent of passenger boat service in 1868. Today, visitors will still see elegant houses nestled on wooded hillsides and can arrive the way wealthy Victorians once did. The ferry ride across the bay offers a spectacular approach to Sausalito, with marvelous views of the Golden Gate Bridge along the way.
Sheltered by the Marin Headlands, which lie just beyond the bridge, Sausalito is usually warmer than the city but is often breezy in the early evening when the fog rolls in. Plan your trip with our list of the top things to do in Sausalito.
See also: Where to Stay in Sausalito
1. Golden Gate Bridge and Vista Point
The most iconic landmark in the San Francisco area is the 1.7-mile Golden Gate Bridge, with its classic arched cables and orange Art-Deco towers reaching nearly 750 feet tall. The Visitor Center is located at the southern end of the bridge in the San Francisco Presidio, and contains both indoor and outdoor exhibits, which explore the history and engineering of the bridge.
In addition to driving across the expanse, many tourists choose to walk the length of the bridge to fully appreciate its grandeur and get amazing views of both San Francisco and the Sausalito Coast. Pedestrians can enjoy the security of the sidewalk, but they should be aware that the weather can shift quickly.
Another popular way to cross the bridge is via bicycle, and tourists can find several rental shops in the area. Cyclists often opt to ride one way to Sausalito and then take the ferry back. Those who would like commentary along the way can take the three-hour guided bicycle or e-bike tour from San Francisco to Sausalito, a great option for those who want to learn about the area's history and enjoy the view without worrying about navigation and planning.
2. Ferry Ride from San Francisco to Sausalito
Getting to Sausalito is more than half the fun, and this exciting 30-minute boat ride is the most dramatic way to arrive in Sausalito. The ferry departs from the San Francisco Ferry Building, a worthwhile destination in itself, especially for foodies who will find many unique gourmet shops and artisanal bakeries.
After pulling out from the Ferry Building dock just a few hundred yards from the Bay Bridge, the ferry offers a fantastic scenic tour of the San Francisco Bay, with its sailboats, commercial ships, flocks of screaming seagulls, and hovering pelicans. The ride takes passengers by the famous island of Alcatraz, and offers a sensational view of the Golden Gate Bridge to the west. Just before the ride ends, passengers see Angel Island and Tiburon in the tranquil Richardson Bay to the east.
3. Shopping and Waterfront Restaurants
Just a few steps away from the ferry landing, the historic downtown of Sausalito invites visitors to go for a leisurely stroll and admire the views from a bench at the water's edge. Tourists delight in Sausalito's charming village ambiance and serene seaside setting, and many of the downtown buildings are picture-perfect old Victorians painted in pastel colors.
Although the town is small, it is well prepared to welcome the crowds of visitors that arrive on summer weekends. The main drag of Sausalito, Bridgeway, is near the ferry harbor which has many waterfront restaurants, cafés, candy shops, ice-cream parlors, art galleries, and touristy boutiques.
A stroll on one of Sausalito's wooden boardwalks is another splendid way to enjoy the scenery. The Southern Boardwalk is near Sausalito's Old Town and is famous for its appearance in a 1947 film starring Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, among other films. The Northern Boardwalk stretches along the yacht harbors near downtown, and is close to many unique shops.
4. San Francisco Bay/Delta Model
Built in 1957 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bay Model is a 3-D representation of San Francisco Bay. It was designed to test the impact of proposed changes to the bay and its waterways, able to simulate tides, currents, and river inflows.
This enormous model covers 1.5 acres and depicts every area of the San Francisco Bay and Delta from the Pacific Ocean to Sacramento and can recreate the 24-hour tidal cycle in less than 15 minutes. The U.S Army Corps of Engineers now uses computer-based models, and the Bay Model has become an educational facility open to the public. Interactive exhibits teach visitors about the bay and its hydrologic features. Guided tours are available by reservation for groups of 10 or more people.
Address: 2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito, California
5. Fort Baker National Park and Bay Area Discovery Museum
Part of the Golden Gate National Parks, the site at Fort Baker was originally inhabited by native Miwok tribes. From the early 1900s, the site was used as an active army post until World War II. Nestled on a forested coastal site at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Baker includes 25 historic army buildings and a sheltered harbor with waterfront paths and trails along scenic bluffs. Several of the Fort Baker historic buildings, former officers' residences, have been restored and converted into a luxury hotel, Cavallo Point, which also has a top-rated fine-dining restaurant.
The Bay Area Discovery Museum is a great attraction for families with children. Based on the philosophy that play helps children cultivate creativity and make discoveries, many of the exhibits include activities that are open-ended and encourage curiosity. Highlights of the museum include the Imagination Playground, which encourages unstructured free play; the Art Studios, which encourage creativity through the artistic process; and Bay Hall, which offers a child-friendly representation of the Bay Area ports.
The Lookout Cove is an outdoor exploration area, and the Wave Workshop recreates the Golden Gate Bridge environment and teaches kids about the wind, waves, and beach habitat.
Address: Fort Baker, 557 McReynolds Road, Sausalito, California
Official site: https://bayareadiscoverymuseum.org
6. Day Trip to Muir Woods
This federally protected forest, 14 miles north of Sausalito, is one of the last remnants of the redwoods forests that once covered much of the Northern California coastal valleys. Muir Woods contains beautiful, ancient redwood trees, appreciated for their auburn-hued trunks and leafy canopies. Wildflowers, bay laurels, and sword ferns also thrive in the shady forest, which is often shrouded by cool, misty fog.
Muir Woods has three miles of well-groomed hiking trails, which may be approached in smaller loop walks. Hikers may take the trail from Muir Wood all the way down to Muir Beach, a small sandy beach with camping and picnic areas. During the winter (from December to February), visitors sometimes spot migrating whales off the coast of Muir Beach.
For those seeking an even more secluded retreat in nature, the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center is tucked away on a quiet hillside about three miles from the Muir Woods State Park. The center has its own small organic farm and offers overnight accommodations, meditation classes, dharma talks, and other programs in the Buddhist tradition.
7. Marine Mammal Center
The Marine Mammal Center's primary work as an animal rescue center is to rehabilitate sick and injured marine mammals. Since 1975, the Marine Mammal Center has rescued more than 18,000 marine mammals along the California coastline, rehabilitating on average of 600 marine mammals every year in its exceptional hospital facilities. A dedicated corps of volunteers provides medical attention and care to distressed marine mammals during a recuperation period.
The Marine Mammal Center is open to the public daily, and visitors can choose to explore the exhibits and viewing areas on their own or take a 45-minute docent-led tour of the center. Docents share stories about the seal and sea lion patients who have been rescued and rehabilitated by the center. The center lies in the Golden Gate Recreational Area near Rodeo Beach, a perfect spot to enjoy a packed lunch (although not a safe beach for swimming).
Address: 2000 Bunker Road, Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito, California
8. The Scenic Walk along Bridgeway
For magnificent views and photo opportunities, take a stroll from the center of town along Bridgeway, a scenic road with old-fashioned street lamps that hold decorative hanging pots of colorful flowers. This waterfront pathway begins around the ferry landing and goes in two directions: north towards the yacht harbors, with the marinas and Mount Tamalpais as a backdrop, or south towards the Bay, with San Francisco in the distance.
An interesting detour is to take the Excelsior Staircase for a lovely perspective of the Vina del Mar fountain and the yacht marina. Continuing along the pedestrian pathway on Bridgeway, visitors may see seals swimming in the bay. Halfway along the pathway is the iconic bronze seal statue, which is covered in water at high tide.
A quaint hidden alleyway off Bridgeway on Princess Street also has some interesting galleries and boutiques. On the section of Bridgeway that faces the Bay are several upscale waterfront restaurants featuring stunning panoramas of San Francisco in the distance.
9. Plaza Viña del Mar Fountain and Park
At the heart of downtown Sausalito near Ferry Pier, this plaza was named after the town's sister city of Viña del Mar in Chile. Fringed with palm trees, the triangle-shaped square has the feel of a Spanish Colonial plaza. The monumental fountain and elephant statues that guard the square were created for the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition and moved to this spot after being rescued from demolition. The fountain features drama masks that are all happy faces.
Locals and visitors alike enjoy spending a few sunny moments at the Plaza Viña del Mar. Several benches in front of the square offer a place for passersby to relax.
10. Sausalito Art Festival
Considered one of America's best art fairs, this annual outdoor festival takes place every year during Labor Day weekend. The festival is held along the Sausalito waterfront and draws crowds of art lovers, as well as those who come for the live music and good food. The Sausalito Art Festival is a prestigious art event, renowned for the high quality of art exhibited and the extensive scope of artwork on display.
An excellent place to admire the talents of local artists is Gallery 111 Art Studios, a collection of several studios, which include the work of over 85 artists. The Industrial Center Building Artists Association brings together a diverse and vibrant community of artists, including painters, sculptors, weavers, jewelry makers, and photographers. The art studios are bright, spacious lofts, and many have sparkling views of the marina.
Address: 480 Gate 5 Road, Sausalito, California
Official site: www.sausalitoartfestival.org
11. Marin Headlands
The Marin Headlands occupy the southern portion of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, providing beautiful views of San Francisco from its many cliff-side coastal trails and vantage points. The Visitor Center, located at Fort Berry, has tourist information about local attractions, as well as various exhibits about the natural history and early settlers of the headlands. Next door, art lovers will enjoy a visit to the artist-in-residence programs at the Headlands Center for the Arts.
One of the most visited attractions in the Marin Headlands is the Point Bonita Lighthouse, which has been guiding ships safely through the Golden Gate Straits since 1855. The lighthouse provides unparalleled scenic views of both the headlands and the San Francisco shore, but tourists should be aware that the half-mile trail to reach it has very steep sections and may not be appropriate for all fitness levels.
The headlands area is also home to historic military attractions, including Fort Baker, as well as Fort Cronkhite and the Nike Missile Site. Fort Cronkhite, home to the Marine Mammal Center, is a former WWII outpost that now houses a variety of administrative offices for the parks service. The grounds include coastal hiking trails, as well as the dog-friendly Rodeo Beach. Just across Rodeo Lagoon, visitors will find the Cold War museum at the Nike Missile Site, which can be explored via a guided tour on Saturdays.
Address: Fort Barry, Building 948 Sausalito, California
Official site: www.nps.gov/goga/marin-headlands.htm
12. Day Trip to Tennessee Valley
An offshoot of the Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area just five miles from Sausalito, the Tennessee Valley has a 1.7-mile nature walk to Tennessee Beach. The gentle trail begins at the parking area and is mostly flat the entire way, making the beach accessible to most visitors.
Tennessee Valley is a peaceful nature site known for its abundant bird life and lush vegetation and is home to three camping areas. In springtime, this is a wonderful place to see wildflowers such as the California poppy, buttercups, and lupine. For more challenging hikes, other trails lead up into the hills above Tennessee Valley.
13. Sausalito Houseboats & Bohemian Artists' Colonies
Houseboats have been part of Sausalito's waterfront since the 1880s, when they were used as warm-weather recreational boats and then pulled ashore during winter. After WWII and during the era of peace and love in the 1960s, the houseboats began to attract a free-spirited Bohemian crowd, and flotillas of houseboats became vibrant artists' colonies. Sausalito houseboats are still home to communities of artists, as the idyllic scenery of the waterfront provides inspiration to painters, photographers, and sculptors.
Sausalito has around 400 floating home docks in five residential marinas and have all the amenities of a regular home. Many of the houseboats are colorful and feature whimsical exterior decor, with potted plants and artwork displayed on the decks.
Two interesting houseboat communities are at Galilee Harbor and Waldo Point Harbor, tucked away in between the yacht marinas. Visitors may take a self-guided tour around the houseboat docks, and on special occasions, some houseboats are open to the public for art viewings.
14. Sausalito Visitors Center and Historical Society
The Sausalito Historical Society maintains three locations in town, as well as a kiosk by the ferry landing. Its main exhibits are housed in a small blue and white house in the center of town, a building which was originally a late 19th-century railroad cold cargo hold and later converted into a retail ice seller's shop in the 1920s.
Doubling as the Visitors Center and the Ice History Museum, it offers tourists a place to gather sightseeing information, as well as explore the various exhibits about the area's history. Tourists will learn about the region's indigenous peoples, the Miwok, as well as the story of Sausalito from the arrival of immigrants in the 1850s, when it was primarily a sailors' and shipbuilding town. Exhibits further explore its transformation into a summer vacation destination in the Victorian era and to the postwar Bohemian influences of artists' colonies.
Tourists can also find the Historic World War II Marinship Exhibit and other rotating exhibits at the San Francisco Bay-Delta Model, and the Phil Frank History Research Room at the Sausalito Civic Center on Litho Street contains archives and additional special exhibits.
Address: 777 Bridgeway, Sausalito, California
Official site: www.sausalitohistoricalsociety.com
Where to Stay in Sausalito for Sightseeing
- Luxury Hotels: Located near the Golden Gate Bridge and providing gorgeous views right from the property, Cavallo Point is also close to several attractions, including the Bay Area Discovery Museum and Vista Point. This 4.5-star luxury hotel is eco-friendly, offering organic spa treatments, a cooking school, and an outdoor fitness program.
The Casa Madrona Hotel & Spa is a four-star boutique hotel located in downtown Sausalito, just steps from the Bridgeway and across the street from the Sausalito Visitors Center. It offers harbor-view rooms and hillside cottages which exude a stylish elegance.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Just a couple of blocks from the ferry and close to several unique shops and galleries, The Gables Inn Sausalito is a great mid-range lodging, which is in a perfect location for exploring Sausalito by foot. Rooms are spacious and well-appointed and include breakfast and free Wi-Fi.
Only a little over two miles from Sausalito, Holiday Inn Express Mill Valley San Francisco Area is a dependable chain option that offers free parking — not always included at in-town hotels. It also has a greater variety of amenities that appeal to families, including a heated pool and hot tub, fitness center, and complimentary breakfast; it's also pet-friendly.
- Budget Hotels: Overlooking Vina del Mar Park and just steps from the ferry landing, Hotel Sausalito is a two-star, European-style hotel that offers cozy rooms with free Wi-Fi. Its location is ideal for shopping and sightseeing by foot, and there are a good variety of cafes and restaurants nearby.
Tucked away in the midst of multiple Marin Headlands attractions, HI Marin Headlands Hostel is a budget hostel with dorm-style and private rooms with comfortable beds. Guests can utilize the communal kitchen, games room, and on-site laundry.
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