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Mill Valley: Where History Meets Contemporary Cool

Posted in Blogging Marin on Friday, November 17, 2023 by MCVB Staff

Nestled amidst the picturesque landscapes of Northern California, Mill Valley offers a captivating blend of past and present that's impossible to resist. If you are considering a one-of-a-kind getaway, this is your spot.

The History of Marin County’s Mill Valley

Before the Spanish colonization, these lands were the ancestral lands of the Coast Miwok. The Indians who lived in Mill Valley and its surrounding area belonged to the Huimen group. During the Spanish Mission period, Chief Marin was known as its most famous leader, and it was General Mariano Vallejo who named the county after him.

With the arrival of Europeans, two notable settlers left their mark on the town’s history in the 1820s: William Richardson, an Englishman, and John Thomas Reed, an Irishman. Reed is credited with bestowing the name 'Mill Valley' onto the town since he had established a mill along Cascade Creek which provided the lumber for San Francisco’s Presidio. Richardson Bay is aptly named after William Richardson who was a sea captain and builder. For more history on Mill Valley, visit the City of Mill Valley’s website.

Today, Mill Valley is an incorporated city with a contemporary, forward-thinking spirit that is rich with historical charm. It's where centuries-old redwoods stand tall alongside modern innovation, making Mill Valley a captivating destination that marries tradition with trendsetting vitality. The core architecture of Mill Valley is like that of a cozy European village, with one-story houses and tree-lined streets leading to artisanal boutiques, and cozy cafes.

Cultural Hotspots in Mill Valley

No matter what your taste is, this small city has something to offer. Whether you are a movie aficionado, a food connoisseur, a rock-n-roll fan, a nature lover, or an admirer of theater, Mill Valley will satisfy your senses. Take a closer look at what Mill Valley has to offer in terms of cultural attractions and you will understand why this place is seen as “contemporary cool”.


This year’s 46th annual Mill Valley Film Festival screened 147 movies that represented 41 countries with 85 features across five local theaters over the course of eleven days. This internationally acclaimed festival has been running in Mill Valley since 1977, when it was founded by Mark Fishkin. The best thing about this film festival is that it’s non-competitive, offering a chance for filmmakers to network and forge meaningful connections. As a member of the audience, you get a chance to see diverse and independent films, with post-screening Q&As involving name actors and directors.

The festival began at Mill Valley’s historic Sequoia Theater, and dates to 1929 where there were short “talkies”, vaudeville acts, and music played from a Wurlitzer organ. The Art Deco exterior has remained the same through the years even after major interior remodels. Current plans for the theater will upgrade the venue to four screens from its current two, with seating up to 500 people, and will transition into an education film center with an expanded lobby and rooftop pavilion. Thankfully, the historic Art Deco exterior will remain and continue to be home to the Mill Valley Film Festival. If you haven’t heard about this festival before, mark your calendar for next year!



For those who love musicals and plays, what could be more exciting than watching a musical in the outdoors atop a mountain summit, surrounded by trees? The historic Cushing Amphitheatre on Mount Tamalpais is the setting each Spring for an array of theatrical productions. If you are seeking an unforgettable experience you may not want to miss the opportunity to watch Peter Pan fly through the air, or the Wicked Witch of the West melt at your feet. Currently, the Mountain Play is planning its May 2024 production of Kinky Boots.

There is a historical note here!  The Cushing Amphitheatre is named after Dr. John Cushing who settled in Mill Valley’s Blithedale Canyon in 1873. The doctor had set up a successful summer resort hotel and sanitarium where he transported his guests by horse and buggy from the North Pacific Coast Railroad station in Strawberry to his hotel.



The Sweetwater Music Hall has been a blessing to the ears of the Bay Area since 1972 when it originally debuted as the Sweetwater. Its inaugural night featured an acoustic folk-rock ensemble that drew a crowd lining up halfway down the block for entry. After that night, it took about twenty years for the small 90-seat tavern with a stage to secure its position in music history with notable figures such as Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Sammy Hagar, Carlos Santana, and more. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Sweetwater received acclaim from the Times of London as one of America's premier nightclubs.

The original Sweetwater closed in 2007 and five years later it was revived just a few blocks away as the Sweetwater Music Hall.  Today, that rich musical legacy persists in Mill Valley.



History lovers will appreciate the opportunity to explore this museum located atop Mount Tamalpais. It is built over a historic rail siding on East Peak and houses a gravity car replica. The Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway opened in 1896 and was considered the “Crookedest Railroad in the World”.  The gravity cars were vehicles, similar to San Francisco’s Cable Cars, and accommodated visitors from the downtown Mill Valley Depot up to the summit of Mount Tamalpais. The gravity cars used the energy-efficient force of gravity to take visitors for an exhilarating car ride down to the bottom of Mt Tam. By the time the service was discontinued in 1930, and tracks torn up, thousands of visitors to Mill Valley had enjoyed the thrill of a lifetime.



If you are visiting Mill Valley this December, you ought to come to Winterfest. It will be double the fun this year with back-to-back weekend events. The Annual Tree Lighting ceremony on December 3rd will be accompanied by live performances, then the following weekend on Sunday, December 17th  is the traditional WinterFest event with all the holiday activities. There will be plenty of live music, dance performances, and food trucks to experience, along with lots of fun kid activities, and of course, a special visit from Santa Claus!



A nature lover maybe? It would be hard to describe Mill Valley without mentioning its topography and landscapes. It is surrounded by plenty of hills and canyons that provide lots of opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and running. Mill Valley sits at the base of Mt. Tamalpais and is where mountain biking first started. Muir Woods National Monument, with its groves of tall redwood trees, is a challenging 90-minute hike from downtown Mill Valley on the historic Dipsea Trail, should you choose this route. Otherwise, make a reservation and go by car because you definitely don’t want to miss this destination.



No doubt that after exploring Mill Valley and its surroundings on foot, you will start looking for places to satiate your hunger. The Mountain Home Inn is one restaurant on Mount Tamalpais where you can indulge in exceptional meals while taking in the magnificent views below. The Piazza D’Angelo is located across from the downtown Depot Bookstore, and Floodwater is just short jaunt from there. For an unforgettable atmosphere, stop by The Rock & Rye restaurant at the Sweetwater Music Hall. It comes with a full bar! 
If you are into supporting local farmers, you should check out a shopping bazaar at Strawberry Village where there are a number of restaurants to try including Harmony Restaurant and Thep Lela Thai. 

Overall, Mill Valley presents an extensive array of culinary options for its visitors to enjoy.

It’s not a coincidence that Mill Valley was named one of the ten best places to live in the U.S. by Money magazine and CNN Money! It caters to any preference and any taste. For the best places to stay when in Marin, visit the Marin CVB.