Marin Blog · The Best in Marin Collection

First-Timer’s Guide to San Rafael

Posted in Blogging Marin on Wednesday, December 20, 2023 by MCVB Staff

By Megan Eileen McDonough


San Rafael might not be at the top of your travel wish list, but it should be! As one of the original Spanish mission settlements, the city has quite a fascinating history. Founded in 1817, San Rafael was once home to several Miwok Native American villages. Today, the city feels modern yet quaint, and it’s this winning combination that keeps travelers coming back year after year. For first-time visitors, deciding what to see and do can be tricky, but we've rounded up the best activities and attractions so you don't have to!


What to See

As Marin County's oldest and largest city, San Rafael sure has a lot of cultural intrigue, and with a historic old town, it’s no wonder travelers love spending time downtown. Start your day at the San Rafael City Plaza. It's the middle of town and also quite a photo-op, with its impressive water-wall fountain. Culture buffs can’t miss the Marin County Civic Center, the last commissioned work by internationally acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as the spectacular Falkirk Cultural Center, a Victorian estate turned center for the arts. When your stomach starts growling, pop into one of downtown's ethnic restaurants or do a little shopping at the fashion boutiques. Be sure to take note of the beautiful Victorian buildings that flank the streets on either side.


Things to Do

One of the best tips for touring San Rafael is to do as the locals do. Set aside a few hours for Art Works Downtown, Inc. Located on Fourth Street downtown, there are four art galleries, 28 art studios, a frame shop, a jewelers’ guild and a restaurant. Gallery hop, take a class, or attend one of the regularly scheduled events. Another draw to downtown San Rafael is the numerous year 'round events j planned by the Business Improvement District (BID). When you need a break from the crowds, take a walk through the 1,600-acre China Camp State Park while learning about its history as a shrimping village.


Where to Eat

San Rafael is home to some of Marin County’s best restaurants, so don’t be shy about ordering the special. For traditional Italian fare, head straight to Il Davide, which sources food from local farms and uses organic ingredients in most dishes. Even celiacs can enjoy house-made pasta. Just make sure to request gluten-free pasta. 

For locally sourced cuisine, the Hillside Tavern serves California-inspired dining options at their on-site restaurant at the Four Points San Rafael. An award-winning wine bar makes Il Davide a premier Italian destination, with a vanguard interior and dishes prepared with an inspired presentation.

Take a trip to the AC Hotel where you have a choice of dining at the AC Kitchen for European-inspired, gourmet breakfast, or in warmer months, head up to the AC"s Above Fifith for rooftop dining and beverages. The views from here of Mt Tam are phenomenal.

Mexican fare at Mi Pueblo at Northgate Mall, serving authentic Mexican food and hosting a full bar. Mi Pueblo is known for its specialty house burritos and good combo dishes. If looking for something more informal, try Ounces Outdoors. It is San Rafael’s newest beer garden space with bocce ball and fire pits featuring local craft beer, cider and wine – paired with tasty, shareable, and locally sourced menu items.


Where to Stay

A trip to San Rafael can be as luxurious or as lean as your budget allows, and luckily, there are enough accommodation options to make everyone happy. Try an elevated hotel experience at the AC Hotel in downtown San Rafael. With a classic design and intuitive service, every element of this hotel is infused with European Soul and Spanish Roots that embody their philosophy. The Embassy Suites by Hilton San Rafael is a smart choice, as it’s located 15 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge and 15 minutes south of Sonoma and Napa. The newly renovated Four Points by Sheraton San Rafael, with its relaxed, contemporary atmosphere, is an ideal destination for business and leisure travelers alike. For longer stays, Extended Stay America is a safe bet. Rooms come with fully equipped kitchens and plenty of space to set up a "home" office. If you're looking for a boutique hotel with lots of personality, book a room at The Panama Hotel. There's as much charm inside as there is nature outside.


For all you need to plan your Marin County vacation, visit the Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website or Facebook page.

More information on featured attractions:

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Downtown San Rafael BID

Visit Our Vibrant Downtown.  Our eclectic downtown business and shopping district runs the length of Fourth Street and its side streets.  Come experience it, Downtown to the West End. A...[Learn More]

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Marin County Civic Center

Thousands of visitors come to Marin County each year to see the futuristic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center. It was Wright’s last major commission and...[Learn More]

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Falkirk Cultural Center

Falkirk, an 1888 Queen Anne-style Victorian building is the former home of shipping magnate Robert Dollar. The 17-room mansion was purchased by the community in 1974 to...[Learn More]

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Art Works Downtown, Inc.

Art Works Downtown Inc. is a premier nonprofit art center in a 40,000 sq.ft historic building in the heart of downtown San Rafael on Fourth Street.  Featuring...[Learn More]

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Marin Farmers Market

Marin County is known as a center for organic food and cutting-edge organic farming techniques. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visited Marin County in 2005 to...[Learn More]

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China Camp State Park

China Camp State Park is located on the southwest shore of San Pablo Bay, three miles northeast of downtown San Rafael. The...[Learn More]

Tags: SanRafael