Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in San Rafael, CA

  • Published 2022/03/23

Situated in the North Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area, the city of San Rafael offers visitors the perfect combination of a typical California setting and an urban center.

San Rafael was once the land of Coast Miwok peoples before the Spaniards colonized California.

A portion of the city then served as a mission site and hospital for Central Valley American-Indians who got sick while living at the San Francisco Mission Dolores.

Today, you’ll get to see an urban twist in the city but with the presence of preserved historical sites.

San Rafael is known to have a vibrant and bustling downtown area thanks to its cultural district, as well as a city plagued with nature trails and parks.

San Rafael is the ideal place to explore the great outdoors without traveling thousands of miles away from the urban district.

Here are 15 of the best things to do while in San Rafael, California:

Enjoy the Great Outdoors at China Camp State Park

Rock cove at China Camp State Park

yhelfman /

China Camp State Park is San Rafael’s go-to place for everything outdoors.

Venture 15 miles of multi-use trails ideal for hiking and biking.

Beginner hikers can explore an oak-studded knoll surrounded by salt-marsh habitat by traversing the Turtle Back Nature Trail.

House on stilts at China Camp State Park

AlessandraRC /

Tourists can also check out the Shoreline/Bayview Loop Trail and engage in an all-day hike or mountain bike ride while catching a scenic view of lush green forests and peaceful meadows.

For those who want to take a more challenging route, they can take the Bay View/Bay Hills/ Back Ranch Fire Trail.

This 5.6-mile trail offers a great view of Mount Tamalpais and the Coast Range as you make your way to the top of San Pedro Mountain.

An old boat at China Camp State Park

AlessandraRC /

Catch Live Performances at the Altertheater

San Rafael is an art lovers’ paradise, whether they’re looking into music, visual arts, or performing arts.

At Fourth Avenue, you can catch live theater performances at the Altertheater.

This theater takes pride in performing acts that are centered on the blacks and indigenous people as a way of breaking stereotypes in American theater.

Catch plays and shows performed and written by some of the best talents in the Bay Area.

The Altertheater produces a wide variety of acts every season, so visitors are welcomed with a new show every time.

Visit the Historical Mission San Rafael Arcangel 1817

Exterior of Mission San Rafael Arcangel 1817

Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz /

Mission San Rafael Arcangel at Fifth Avenue remains one of the city’s most prized historical sites.

Named after San Rafael, the patron of good health and travelers, the mission site was California’s first sanitarium under the leadership of Fr. Gil y Taboada.

In 1828, the site was destroyed during an Indian attack, and it wasn’t until 1909 that the Native Sons of the Golden West reconstructed the area by establishing a bell and sign on the original site.

Interior of Mission San Rafael Arcangel 1817

yhelfman /

Today, a replica of the original chapel sits on the mission’s ruins.

Explore the chapel’s contemporary interior and visit the modern parish church, where you can see a bronze sculpture of San Rafael at the forefront.

Also within the area is a small gift shop that doubles as a museum, which holds several artifacts and artworks depicting significant California Missions events.

Check Out San Rafael’s Art Hub at Downtown San Rafael Cultural District

Downtown San Rafael’s art district is an urbanized space where locals and tourists are given unlimited access to world-class arts and culture education and experiences.

Located along Fourth Street, this art district is an open space where the city embraces its appreciation for the arts and an area where the community comes together.

Recognized as one of the 14 California Cultural Districts by the California Arts Council, San Rafael is a center for culminating artistic talents.

Wander downtown San Rafael and take a look at numerous galleries, open studios, exhibits, and check out live music performances.

If you’re planning to stick around the city for some time, Downtown San Rafael Cultural District also hosts art events where you can participate in building pieces for the community.

Dive into Marin County’s Rich History at the Marin History Museum

Exterior of Marin History Museum

Sanfranman59, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Get to know more about Marin County and its early years by swinging by the Marin History Museum down in B. Street.

This local museum is home to over 20,000 artifacts and some 200,000 photographs and volumes that pay homage to the county’s history.

Get a glimpse of the museum’s artifact collection featuring over 25,000 objects gathered during the 1906 earthquake, the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, Northwest Pacific Railroad, and more.

Front exterior of Marin History Museum

Marthature, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The museum also has a wide collection of photographs that date back to daguerreotype-style photos.

Explore lantern slides, 8mm films, and gelatin silver prints, among others that document the county’s most significant events.

You can also tour the museum’s library of rare books, manuscripts, newspapers, and maps that record the locals’ personal experiences as well as the county’s development.

Get Lost in an Old Californian Estate at Falkirk Cultural Center

Step inside a 19th-century estate and revisit old California at the Falkirk Cultural Center.

Spanning a total of 11 acres, the estate gives visitors an educational tour of Falkirk heritage in every corner of the property.

Wander the halls of the Queen Anne and Eastlake-style home while admiring contemporary artworks at the Falkirk Art Galleries.

Built in 1888 by Ella Nichols Park, the mansion stood as a reflection of San Rafael’s potential to become San Francisco’s fashionable suburb.

As you step outside the three-story house, get lost in the estate’s blooming gardens.

Explore the estate’s demonstration gardens, including the Lathe House Garden, Under Oaks Garden, Habitat Garden, Succulent Garden, and more.

These gardens also serve as venues for gardening workshops and seminars for locals and visitors alike.

Sample Craft Brews at Pond Farm Brewing Co.

If you’re looking to cap off a busy day touring the city, you might want to head down to Fourth Street at Pond Farm Brewing Co.

Take a swig of local craft brews from this authentic and family-owned brewpub.

Pond Farm Brewing Co. has over 10 local brews, ranging from chocolate-flavored black lagers and malty Scottish exports to citrusy concoctions and vanilla-infused brown ales.

The brewpub also has a great selection of gluten-free beers that you can order in a one-liter stein.

And while you’re at it, grab a bite of their Bier Bratwurst and Cast Iron Grilled Cheese.

Check Out Red Rock Island from the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge

View of the Red Rock Island from Richmond-San Rafael Bridge

Osaze Cuomo /

Situated in the middle of the San Francisco Bay is Red Rock Island, the only privately owned island in the bay.

Spanning a total of six acres, the island encompasses the Marin, San Francisco, and Contra Costa Counties.

The island remains uninhabited, with Selim Woodworth listed as the only person to live on the island.

The Red Rock Island

Dreamyshade, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The island’s red rock is actually oxidized manganese, which is used as a paint pigment.

The island also has Fraciscan Schist, a valuable type of rock typically used in road building.

You’ll be able to spot this small island from the Richmond-San Rafael bridge with a few pine trees, old mine tunnels, and a few animals gracing the area.

Aerial view of Red Rock Island

Nbv4 at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tour the Museum of International Propaganda

Situated on Fifth AVenue, the Museum of International Propaganda is a must-see for history buffs.

The museum started off as Tom and Lilka Areton’s collection of propaganda materials during their travels.

The museum features political art from over 25 countries that took 30 years to collect.

Check out various forms of propaganda presented in seven themes, styles, and techniques from countries like North Korea, Nazi Germany, Cuba, and more.

Wander the main gallery and witness over 200 unique educational images, propaganda posters, paintings, and sculptures.

Engage in Watersports Activities at McNears Beach Park

Rocky shore of McNears Beach Park

Mx. Granger, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

McNears Beach Park is located in Cantera Way near San Pablo Bay.

In this beach park, swimming is not one of the favored activities due to its rock sand and muddy waters.

A pool and picnic tables at McNears Beach Park

Mx. Granger, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Instead, locals and tourists flock to this area to try out a variety of water activities, such as canoeing, paddleboarding, and kayaking.

The beach park is also near a popular fishing pier that spans 500-feet long, where you can catch some native fish.

The area is also a popular bird-watching site and picnic area.

Hike at the Terra Linda Sleepy Hollow Ridge

Pack your bags and take a hike at the Terra Linda Sleepy Hollow Ridge.

This scenic six-mile trail is a popular spot for outdoor adventurers.

The route involves many shortcut trails, which are perfect for beginner hikers.

Walk through the trail and sneak a peek at the gorgeous wildflowers and rolling hills surrounding the area.

The oak-studded grassland makes hiking enjoyable throughout the year一feel the cool breeze during the hot, summer days and marvel at the eucalyptus forests come August.

Take a Break at Gerstle Park

Unwind and get away from the busy life by hanging out at Gerstle Park.

Previously known as Short’s Tract and Southside, Gerstle Park has always been a place for relaxation.

San Francisco families usually built their summer residences in the area during the late 1800s to take a break from the bustling city life.

Even today, the area remains a quiet and serene space where tourists and locals can walk around, doze off under a large tree, and simply appreciate the calm environment.

Despite being a small area, Gerstle Park remains a favorite for those who want to enjoy their picnic, have a barbecue party, or engage in sports activities like tennis and basketball.

Swing by the Marin County Civic Center

Roof of Marin County Civic Center

User:nandhp, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Your tour around San Rafael won’t be complete without swinging by the Marin County Civic Center.

As renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s last project, the Marin County Civic Center, was considered as one of his most distinctive designs.

The sky blue roof, scalloped balconies, and golden spire present a futuristic look for the Marin County Civic Center.

Interior of Marin County Civic Center

John F. Hughes, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

As you tour the area, you’ll get an all-access pass to the Marin County Board of Supervisors Chambers and get to see custom furniture made by Frank Lloyd Wright that were built by the inmates of San Quentin’s woodshop.

You can also get a panoramic view of the entire area from the balcony while learning about the project’s humble beginnings.

Marin County Civic Center's grounds

Rosangela Perry /

Wander the Santa Margarita Island Open Space Preserve

Walk around the Santa Margarita Island Open Space Preserve if you’re looking to take a break from the bustling city life.

It only takes less than 15 minutes to traverse the preserve’s trail, but you’re sure to find a lot of natural gems in the area.

The open space preserve has a sighting of over 115 species of plants and animals.

Birdwatchers can hang around to see Canvasbacks, Ring-Billed Gulls, Tree Swallows, Anna’s Hummingbird, and more.

Plants like Pacific Poison Oaks, Wild Radishes, Coyote Brushes, and Milkmaids are also scattered throughout the preserve, giving you a panoramic view of an enchanted landscape.

Check Out Artworks Downtown

Artworks Downtown on Fourth Street is recognized as Marin County’s premier non-profit art center.

Check out the center’s art studios, galleries, jeweler’s guild, and more that feature emerging artists from the Bay Area.

The center also features art-related businesses, listing affordable studio spaces, technique classes, and lectures, among others for budding talents.

Tour Artworks Downtown’s Gallery 1337 for local art pieces, or check out the Underground Gallery for a more intimate space that features solo exhibitions and installations from local artists.

Public art displays such as sculptures and rotating installations are also displayed in several downtown locations in the city.

Final Thoughts

San Rafael is a culturally rich city combined with contemporary infrastructures and activities.

With the many things you can do in the area, a weekend trip might not be enough to do all of them.

So, why not mark your calendar and book a longer stay?

Travel to San Rafael today!

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