Sausalito’s colorful houseboat community emerged after World War II. (Getty Images)
Craving an escape from the holiday hoopla — the hustle, the bustle, the endless to-do lists? Just over the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito may just be the most charming village on San Francisco Bay, and the perfect destination for a holiday day trip, winter weekend jaunt or destination for out-of-town guests.
With its distinctive Mediterranean flair and famous panoramic views of the Bay and San Francisco’s city skyline, Sausalito is also known for its elegant, Victorian-era homes, rising up woodsy, steep-sided hills, and historic storefronts, many dating to a more rough-and-tumble era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Massive marinas crowded with sailboats, yachts and colorful houseboats line the town’s waterfront, and a grand promenade with renowned seafood restaurants perched on piers beckon day-trippers with fancy food and sublime views.
It’s this charming storybook setting that has made Sausalito world famous over the years, drawing throngs of weekend tourists, who crowd the shops, art galleries and restaurants lining Bridgeway Boulevard, the town’s main thoroughfare.
At night, however, when most visitors are gone, Sausalito changes personality and reveals an alluring inner charm, thanks to several superb inns, fine dining spots, some lively bars and an enchanting and — dare we say — romantic after-dark ambiance. That’s what makes Sausalito my top choice for a relaxing weekend getaway, especially during the holidays.
For a recent Sausalito weekend escape, we stayed at the luxe Inn Above Tide in the heart of downtown and a stone’s throw from the town’s ferry landing. My wife and I booked the inn’s one-night “Bump Bar” package, one of several enticing gourmet packages offered by the inn. Others include itineraries designed by chef and restaurateur Joanne Weir, for example, and novelist Laura Dave, author of “The Last Thing He Told Me,” which was set and filmed in Sausalito.
We checked into our spacious, ground floor room in the late afternoon. Perched just above the waters edge, the room offered mesmerizing (and you might say dizzying) views of the Bay, with Belvedere and Tiburon, Angel Island, Alcatraz and the East Bay and San Francisco shorelines and skylines in the distance. It was an astonishing and unexpected surprise.
By the large bayside window that framed this view, we found the fixings for the Bump Bar package: a platter of white sturgeon caviar, crème fraiche, crackers, a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne, and a small mother of pearl spoon from Sausalito-based California Caviar Company, where their “Bump Bar” serves private parties and events. It was, to say the least, a dreamy way to start our Sausalito weekend getaway.
I love Bay Area history, and Sausalito is steeped in historical lore. It’s where the story of San Francisco began with the arrival of the Spanish exploratory vessel, the San Carlos, in the summer of 1775. Spanish land explorers were the first Europeans to discover San Francisco Bay, and when they entered the bay a few years later, they claimed the already-populated region for their empire.
The Spanish sailors moored their vessel at Angel Island and came to the shores of Sausalito for fresh water and to trade with the local indigenous tribe, the Coast Miwok. They named the spring-fed creek where they gathered water “Saucito” for the little willow trees that grew there. The name stuck, and the area eventually became known as Saucelito — eventually anglicized to Sausalito by the first British settler to arrive in the area, William Richardson.
In 1822, Mexico became the new regional sovereign after winning independence from Spain and ruled this small but important port until the Bear Flag revolt in 1846, leading to the subsequent occupation by the U.S. military and eventual cessation to the United States in 1848, just before the mayhem of the California Gold Rush.
This historic Marin landscape was literally the window and deck side view of our “room with a view” at the inn. Fog-kissed Angel Island caught the evening light, as we enjoyed the caviar and bubbly on the deck. Pelicans glided past in formation, and harbor seals played close by. Nighttime arrived, and the visitor crowds vanished, so we headed out on a short, pleasant walk to nearby Caledonia Street and an evening of fine dining at the acclaimed Sushi Ran, one of the Bay Area’s top Japanese restaurants.
After savoring nigiri and sashimi and plates of tempura, hamachi and crab cakes, we walked back to the inn along the Sausalito yacht harbor’s wide wooden boardwalk, taking in the nighttime sights and sounds of the sailboats moored here. At the edge of the marina, we peeked through the windows of Sausalito Books by the Bay and added it to tomorrow’s must-see list, then popped in for a jazz session and a post-dinner drink at the cozy No Name Bar, one of a few old school, local bars that has survived in Marin.
In the morning, the sunrise over Angel Island was just as magical as sunset had been, and we enjoyed the inn’s bountiful continental breakfast of baked goods, fresh fruit, juices, yogurt, coffee and tea, fueling up for a full day of exploration around town. Sausalito is great to explore on foot, and we love to walk, so we decided to head north along Bridgeway.
First stop was the Sausalito Historical Society’s new Ice House Museum, where fascinating displays reveal the area’s varied and colorful past. Continuing north on Bridgeway, we took a close look at several historic 19th and early 20th century arks, houseboats now moored on land on the waterfront. At the newly reimagined Dunphy Park, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders were launching their craft into the bay, despite the chilly breeze. And nearby, the colorful houseboats of Galilee Harbor provided a revealing look at Sausalito’s famed waterfront community that took shape after World War II and established Sausalito as a magnet for musicians, artists and writers.
Next we visited the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Bay Model, where we saw a massive model of the Bay, displays on the region’s natural history and a fascinating museum on Marinship, the busy shipyard on the Sausalito waterfront during World War II. On a dock just outside the Bay Model, is Sea Trek, Sausalito’s longtime outfitter for kayak and SUP rentals and kayak tours — and a worthy stop for those looking for an on-water Sausalito adventure.
After lunch at nearby Fish, a delightful, casual waterside eatery near the Clipper Yacht Harbor, we visited the Heath Ceramics factory store on Gate Five Road. Heath’s elegant, colorful dinnerware — plates, bowls and cups — and tiles are classic California stoneware, rooted in the crafts movement of the late 1940s and a must-see site in Sausalito.
Walking back to the town center, we diverted off Bridgeway to Caledonia Street, which some locals regard as the real Sausalito. Here we found fun and funky Studio 333, a boutique, gallery and art collective; a local bar called Smitty’s; and some fine restaurants such as Sandrino Pizza & Vino, a stylish, small restaurant offering authentic, thin-crust Italian pizza made by chef-owners Alessandro Spaziani-Montagna and Monika Troggler, who hail from Verona, Italy.
Our long walk brought us back to the center of town, at the tiny but lovely Vina del Mar Plaza, a vestige of San Francisco’s 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, where we enjoyed sitting by the ornate fountain on a park bench, surrounded by carved elephants, and munching cones of Hawaiian ice cream from Lappert’s located just across the street. It made a sweet finale to our sensational Sausalito weekend getaway.
That said, if you’re looking for a holiday-centric last hurrah, Sausalito can provide that too. You’ll find elaborate gingerbread structures at 27 shops, restaurants and businesses downtown, courtesy of the Chamber of Commerce, which is hosting its 17th annual Gingerbread House Tour from now through Dec. 31. In past years, the confectionary creations have included lighthouses, undersea scenes and a full mock-up of Alcatraz. Admire the sweet architecture, as you browse for gifts and dining inspiration — and make the weekend last a little longer.
If You Go
Inn Above Tide: Rooms at this luxurious boutique hotel start at $515 per night. 30 El Portal, Sausalito; https://innabovetide.com/
Sushi Ran: Open for dinner daily and lunch Friday-Sunday at 107 Caledonia St.; https://sushiran.com/
Sausalito Books by the Bay: Open daily at 100 Bay St.; www.sausalitobooksbythebay.com/
No Name Bar: Open until 2 a.m. daily at 757 Bridgeway; https://thenonamebar.com/
Ice House Museum: Open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday at 780 Bridgeway; www.sausalitohistoricalsociety.com.
Bay Model Visitor Center: Open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday at 2100 Bridgeway. Find details at www.spn.usace.army.mil under the Missions/Recreation tab.
Sea Trek: Open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday at 2100 Bridgeway; www.seatrek.com/
Fish: Open from 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily at 350 Harbor Drive; www.331fish.com/
Heath Ceramics: The factory store is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at 400 Gate Five Road; www.heathceramics.com/.
Lappert’s Ice Cream: Open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily at 689 Bridgeway; www.lapperts.com.
Gingerbread House Tour: Pick up a map at the Sausalito Chamber of Commerce, 22 El Portal, or download one at