15 Best Things to Do in Novato, CA

Novato, CA
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Novato is a city in Marin County, western California, located about 30 miles north of San Francisco.

It's brimming with rich history and culture since Novato was once a territory of Miwok Indians who lived in villages at Mount Burdell’s base.

Your vacation in Novato will be filled with visits to several museums and galleries, plus looking at historical buildings that stand in the downtown area.

The city also encompasses acres of open spaces, beautiful parks, and wildlife areas, making it a perfect destination to embrace nature.

Here are the best things to do in Novato, California!

Embrace Nature at Rush Creek Preserve

Scenic view of Rush Creek Preserve
Jessica Bay / Shutterstock.com

Rush Creek Preserve is a 552-acre Marin county park with plenty of trails and opportunities for wildlife viewing.

The preserve has two primary entry points on Binford Road and Bahia Drive.

Hikers, bikers, and equestrians primarily traverse the wide Pinheiro Fire Road off Highway 101, giving picturesque vistas of the Rush Creek Marsh.

Some wild animals you may spot here include jackrabbits, foxes, coyotes, and deer.

Dead tree at Rush Creek Preserve
Payton Walton, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Rush Creek Preserve covers tidal flats, woodlands, and a marshland. That’s why it’s also regarded as one of the best bird-watching sites.

Nearly 200 regularly occurring species can be viewed here by birders, like the red-winged blackbirds and sandpipers.

Bird lovers can also hike on the Bahia Trail along the Petaluma River Marsh Wildlife Area to observe water birds that nest or visit here.

A rare blue oak woodland close to a salt marsh in Bahia is also a must-see area if you’re spending the day at Rush Creek Preserve.

See Working Artists at the Novato Arts Center at Hamilton Field

The Novato Arts Center at Hamilton Field along Palm Drive provides a glimpse into Novato’s thriving arts and culture.

Previously called the "Hollywood of military bases," the historic airfield now offers a campus setting for artists specializing in different media such as ceramics, oils, and watercolor.

Novato Arts Center at Hamilton Field maintains its original 1930s Spanish-style architecture, and here you can tour four buildings, art classrooms, a museum, plus an art gallery and retail store.

Pathways and an interior garden area link these buildings and facilities.

Visit the Novato Arts Center at Hamilton Field by the second weekend in October for the Open Studios and see more than 60 artists at work.

Ask questions to learn more about their craft and buy handmade art to remember your visit and as support to local artists.

If you get hungry from all the walking and sightseeing, have your fill at Beso Bistro and Wine Bar, serving brunch, lunch, and dinner in its indoor and outdoor patio seating.

Step Back in Time at the Novato History Museum

Founded in 1976, the Novato Historical Guild manages two historical museums where history buffs can get a sense of the city’s past.

One of these is the Novato History Museum situated in the historic downtown.

The museum is housed in the former Postmaster’s House, approximately built in 1850 along DeLong Avenue.

Novato History Museum traces the evolution of the city from land grants to the thriving community that it is today and also shows what daily life was like before in California during the early 19th century.

View historical maps, photos, and newspaper clippings that visualize and describe early Novato.

Have a closer look at agricultural tools, children’s toys, costumes, and other memorabilia and artifacts that tell interesting facts about the city.

Learn About California's Airfield History at the Hamilton Field History Museum

The Hamilton Field History Museum is another museum supported by the Novato Historical Guild along Hangar Avenue.

Located in the 1934 Hamilton Firehouse, it presents the development of the Hamilton Air Field from 1932 to 1975.

The Hamilton Field History Museum was opened in 2010 to preserve and exhibit the history and significance of the airfield, which was named after American aviator Lieutenant Lloyd Hamilton who died in combat during World War I.

Discover several artifacts from the base’s heyday, like uniforms, pins, medals, and a link trainer flight simulator.

You’ll also find maps and photos of the Hamilton Field, planes, and crews at the Hamilton Field History Museum.

Spend Quality Time at Pioneer Park

Located about a mile west of downtown, you can enjoy restful hours at Pioneer Park along Simmons Lane.

Spanning nine acres, Pioneer Park is a perfect place to spend quality time with your family or friends with its spacious and improved children’s playground, picnic areas, and a covered barbeque area.

Participate in a friendly competition in one of its four lighted tennis courts, or enjoy a game of Frisbee and catch on the grassy area.

Have a peaceful stroll on the paved walkway twisting through Pioneer Park, which leads to the historic cemetery serving as the final resting place for many of Novato's famous settlers.

During the summer, watch out for the free movie nights hosted at the park.

Appreciate Local Art at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art

Exterior of the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art
Terrygraham415, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Located within the Novato Arts Center at Hamilton Field, the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art is a vibrant arts center that aims to promote artistic expression and community access to art.

The Marin Museum of Contemporary Art consists of the main gallery, the Ron Collins lobby, the Second Floor gallery, a museum store, and artists' studios.

It showcases the talents of both local and nationally recognized artists through various exhibitions and events and holds educational programs for art enthusiasts.

Find a personal connection to the artworks on display at the galleries or discuss the artist’s motivation in creating the art with your companion.

Step inside the museum store and see a curated selection of gifts and items such as clothing, jewelry, books, toys, and unique creations of artists members.

Purchases made at the museum store support the programs and exhibitions at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art.

Have a Picnic at Miwok Park

Miwok Park is another beloved park in the city, sprawling around 38 acres and built with various amenities for recreation.

It’s located along Novato Boulevard at the site of a native American Miwok village.

Pack your favorite snacks and drinks to eat at the picnic tables along the creek, and take in the gorgeous scenery Miwok Park offers.

Kids can spend time at the shaded playground, and you can have a walk with them on the path along the creek.

Enjoy a volleyball, catch, or Frisbee game in the large, grassy area, or play horseshoes and bocce ball at Miwok Park’s facilities.

Know More about Native American Culture at the Museum of the American Indian

Miwok Park also serves as home to the Museum of the American Indian, which puts a spotlight on the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.

The museum holds more than 2,000 cultural arts and items in its collection that are featured in rotating exhibitions annually.

Some cultural items you may view here include textiles, carvings, beadwork, basketry, pottery, and masks.

Browse the exhibits at the Museum of the American Indian and discover the diversity and beauty of Native American art and culture.

Reflect on the stories of Native American’s past through the historical pieces on display, and marvel at contemporary works that represent current indigenous voices.

As of writing, the Museum of the American Indian is closed for renovations, so check their website for updates on visiting hours.

Go Fishing at Stafford Lake Park

Three miles west of downtown along Novato Boulevard sits Stafford Lake Park providing striking views of Stafford Lake and a destination for anglers.

Fishing enthusiasts may reel in some catfish, bluegill, and bass from the shore of this 139-acre regional park.

Don’t forget your binoculars, cameras, and spotting scope to catch the best views of wildlife you may encounter as you traverse the Terwilliger Nature Trail.

Unwind with outdoor games like Frisbee and catch on the lawn turf.

There’s also a playground at Stafford Lake Park to entertain the young, energetic park-goers while parents relax in the picnic area.

Take in Picturesque Views at OIompali State Historic Park

The grounds of OIompali State Historic Park
Sarah Stierch from Sonoma, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

More information about the Coast Miwok Indians who inhabited Marin can be found at OIompali State Historic Park, nestled on the east-facing slopes of Burdell Mountain.

The name OIompali comes from the Miwok language and means "southern” and “village" or "people."

The 700-acre park also served as home to Catholic priests, a rock band, and a communal group.

In 1977, California and Marin County acquired the site to preserve it.

See here the historic Burdell Mansion, former ranch buildings, and a native garden.

Burdell mansion at OIompali State Historic Park
Sarah Stierch from Sonoma, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It also features the Kitchen Rock, located east of the barns, a large boulder containing mortars used by the Coast Miwok for preparing food.

Have a feast outdoors in the picnic area and soak up the magnificent views at the park overlooking the Petaluma River and San Pablo Bay.

For more adventure, you may also enjoy hiking the lower hillside of Mt. Burdell or seeking the mountain’s peak.

There are also trails for horseback riding.

Have an informative and relaxing tour of the grounds of OIompali State Historic Park, with the address on Redwood Boulevard, which can be accessed from the northbound and southbound lanes of Highway 101.

A barn at OIompali State Historic Park
Aquarianbydesign, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Test Your Biking Skills at the Stafford Lake Bike Park

Have a fun and exciting experience at the Stafford Lake Bike Park within Stafford Lake Park.

This 17-acre bike park site is a project of Marin County Parks with Friends of Stafford Lake Bike Park, welcoming BMX, mountain bike, and dirt jumper riders to enjoy its course.

Stafford Lake Bike Park consists of different zones to accommodate all ages and different skill levels.

The learn-to-ride zone has a pump track for beginners and a perimeter trail open for all skill levels.

Stafford Lake Bike Park also presents the only dual slalom course west of Truckee, where intermediate and advanced riders can refine their biking skills.

Other amenities in the park include drinking fountains, parking, picnic tables, and a restroom.

Stafford Lake Bike Park also hosts ranger-led group training events and friendly competitions, so check out the park events calendar to make the most of your visit here.

Practice Your Swings at Indian Valley Golf Club

If you love golfing, Indian Valley Golf Club is one of the golf courses worth visiting in Marin County and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Built in 1958 in the rolling, oak-studded hills of Indian Valley, this 18-hole course poses a challenge for all levels, whether a beginner or a professional player.

Moreover, golfers love Indian Valley Golf Club for its welcoming atmosphere and captivating vistas it holds.

You may take private lessons at the practice center consisting of driving range, chipping green, practice sand trap, and putting green to improve your skill set.

Drop by its fully-stocked pro shop containing a large selection of golf attire and other golfing needs.

After a round, chill at the 19th Hole Bar & Grill with beautiful views of Stafford Lake and hills, and have a taste of its mouthwatering food and fine cocktails.

Book a tee time at Indian Valley Golf Club along Novato Boulevard.

Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth at Celine’s Sweets

Located downtown, Celine’s Sweets is a place to delight in candies, ice cream, and chocolates.

It started as a Powell’s Sweet Shoppe franchise serving customers in the former First National Bank in 2006.

A decade later, the store changed its name to Celine’s Sweets and was later acquired by a local couple in 2018.

Reminisce sweet memories through your favorite candies, or share ice cream scoops with your family, friends, or special someone and create new unforgettable moments together.

Celine’s Sweets also has gourmet chocolates, truffles, and a large selection of sugar-free candies.

Treat yourself or look for gifts and toys in this retro candy shop on Grant Avenue!

Have a Retail Therapy at Vintage Oaks

If you’re the type who loves shopping or take enjoyment just by browsing from store to store, you may come over to Vintage Oaks.

Explore more than 50 stores, services, and dining options at this spacious, open-air attraction on Highway 101 and Rowland Boulevard.

Check out popular establishments like Target, Costco, DSW, Sephora, Marshalls, and more, and you might find something for yourself or makes a lovely gift.

Fill your stomach with savory food and unwind with a drink on hand at a variety of restaurants you’ll find at Vintage Oaks.

Don your best outfit and enjoy taking Instagram photos at its floral art installation and sculpture addition.

Listen and dance to live patio music and catch great deals and discounts offered at Vintage Oaks.

Enjoy Hiking at Mount Burdell Preserve

Wildflowers at Mount Burdell Preserve
Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mount Burdell Preserve is Marin County's largest open space district close to the city’s residential communities, where you can go on a hike, ride a bike, and observe local wildlife and flora.

Hikers can explore several trails at Mount Burdell Preserve with varying difficulty levels; the Old Quarry Trail is the steepest among the trails.

Traverse the Deer Camp Fire Road through a classic California oakland and stand in awe of the massive old bay trees.

Stop over at Pierre Joske Grove, where you can find peace.

Mount Burdell Preserve’s peak elevation is nearly 1,500 feet, and you’ll see a four-foot stone wall hand laid by Chinese laborers in the 1870s at the summit.

But whether you seek the top or be on the lower hills, you’ll be treated to stunning views of the bay and surrounding hills and encounter several birds and wild animals.

Mount Burdell Preserve has three access points near San Carlos Way, Fieldstone Drive, and San Andreas Drive.

Final Thoughts

Experience for yourself what makes the city of Novato an excellent choice for vacation and recreation.

There are several museums and galleries that await history buffs and art enthusiasts and scenic parks and nature preserves for those seeking outdoor adventures.

Novato also offers an open-air shopping attraction and more unique stores in its downtown area, as well as several restaurants to feed you with delectable dishes and refreshing drinks.

Don’t miss these best things to do in Novato, California!

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