In our fourth installment of the “Welcome to the Neighborhood” series, we’re heading North over the Golden Gate Bridge to one of Marin County’s iconic towns – Mill Valley.
Today we share insider tips for things to do in Mill Valley, California. While technically not a San Francisco neighborhood, we believe the bridge is just a mental barrier that once overcome, opens up another neighborhood – and world – for visitors and locals alike.
And that other world is just right there. According to google maps, the drive time between the Marina in San Francisco and the center of downtown Mill Valley is less than 20 minutes. To put that in perspective, that’s the same amount of time it takes to get to the Mission from the same spot.
The close proximity of Marin County to San Francisco adds a perfect counterpoint to the “city” experience. We like to think of them as a package deal – each strengthening the appeal of the other. It’s wonderful that these two places exist side-by-side, offering a bounty of city and natural pleasures; next time you’re visiting San Francisco, extend your footprint by just a smidge and you’ll be richly rewarded.
With that, here are our insider tips for things to do in Mill Valley, a straight-out-of-central-casting town that is watched over by the 2,751 foot Mt. Tamalpais.
Things to do in Mill Valley
To start your Mill Valley exploration, we recommend checking out a couple of the natural attractions, followed by putting yourself in the center of the action.
Old Mill Park
Don’t want to go all the way to Muir Woods to see Redwoods, or just want a more intimate experience? Old Mill Park is for you! Just a few blocks from the center of downtown, Old Mill Park is a true hidden gem. Located on an historic mill site, there are towering trees, picnic facilities, play structures, and a creek. Plus, the added bonus of some spectacular homes to be seen from a level walk beyond the park area.
Outdoor Art Club
Visit this historic Bernard Maybeck building in the heart of Mill Valley to get a sense of how the town has always treasured its natural setting. The Outdoor Art Club was founded in 1902 by wives of Bohemian club members who wanted to preserve the beauty of Mill Valley, and Maybeck designed the building shortly thereafter. The club is a private women’s organization of diverse membership, but there are tours and events available to the public. Check the calendar before you go.
The Depot Bookstore and Cafe. Drink in the local scene at this bookstore/cafe. Get a seat outdoors so that you can watch the town going about its business in Depot Plaza. Sitting in that spot, you’ll have no problem imagining the former train depot, whose tracks connected Mill Valley to the ferries.
Shopping in Mill Valley
Once you’ve had your hit of nature, there’s plenty of shopping to be had. Whether you’re a home chef, an oenophile, or a francophile, you can fill a few hours with browsing. Here are a few of our favorites:
Maison Reve. If you “dream in French”, then this is the perfect place to source items for your dream home. The furniture, objet d’art, architectural pieces are either from France or look like they are. And we’re not talking Louis IV France, more like farmhouse France. Yasmin, the shop owner, holds events in the store and also puts on a “French Flea Market” from time to time, so you might want to plan your visit around that.
Where to stay in Mill Valley
Mountain House on Mount Tamalpais has been offering friendly hospitality to visitors to Mill Valley, California for over 100 years. This is the place to stay after a day exploring the natural beauty of this area. There’s also Acqua Hotel on Richardson Bay. This Marin hotel, with a fabulous view of Mt. Tamalpais, is only 10 minutes away from San Francisco..
Explore Mill Valley’s Art & Music Scene
The Throckmorten Theatre has been an anchor for things to do in Mill Valley when it comes to music, films, live comedy and creative arts community events. Formerly known as Hub Theater, the Theater has been around since 1915 and serves as a Mill Valley’s performing arts center. The Mill Valley Film Festival has its roots in this historic building.
Vintage Wine & Spirits, now owned by Mill Valley Market, is an old-fashioned shop specializing in hard to find wine and spirits. We just love a wine shop that carries everything from an $18 Prosecco to a $900 Cab (just browsing, naturellement). Wine lovers will happily get lost in this shop, but if you need guidance, the staff is knowledgeable and super helpful regardless of your budget.
Where to eat in Mill Valley
It’s best to go casual in Mill Valley, and to eat in restaurants that take advantage of the local, organic, healthy(ish) ethos that Marin is known for. The new kid on the block is Watershed restaurant. Chef/partner Kyle Swain recommended we try the carne asada tacos and fried chicken sandwich, both packed full of flavor. I liked the California farm to fork approach and the rustic feeling of the indoor/outdoor seating inside the renovated Mill Valley Lumber Yard.
Nearby was Flour Craft Bakery, a totally gluten-free bakery featuring coffee, soups, salads, scones and cookies, among other items. My insider tip, order the chocolate cookies with a cup of coffee and head outside for a quick game of corn hole with friends.
Pizza Molina has taken over the former location of Small Shed Flatbreads. The pizza joint pays homage to the historic brick oven that takes center stage in the casual restaurant. All of the pizzas are delicious. We like the margherita, but there are plenty to choose from, including vegan offerings. Order up a few, plus a salad and craft beer and you are set for a Mill Valley-style meal you’ll want to come back for.
“Organic Asian Street Cuisine.” When we heard this, we were one of the first to line up, and we weren’t disappointed. There’s a tiny dine-in space; if it is a nice day order your meal to go and enjoy your Gado Gado in Depot Plaza or Old Mill Park.
Joe’s Taco Lounge
It might be fair to call this a Mill Valley institution. We’ve been going here for 20 years, usually after a little jaunt around the trails of Mt. Tam. Joe’s is situated on Miller, outside of the downtown area, making a good stop on your way into or out of Mill Valley. Grab a seat at the counter, and order the fish or crab tacos. There may be a wait, but the staff handles the crowd perfectly.
Bars and nightlife in Mill Valley
If you want to cap off your day of exploring in Mill Valley with a little happy hour, here are three of our favorite places to unwind.
The iconic Sweetwater Music Hall started up in 1972 in a Mill Valley storefront before it moved to its current location in the historical Masonic Lodge on Corte Madera Avenue. One of the best nightclubs in the Bay Area, Sweetwater Music Hall attracts musicians from near and far.
Everyone shows up here – old people from the Redwoods retirement village down the street, young couples with babies, singles looking to mingle, you name it. Sit in the bar area at the front of the restaurant with a glass of Prosecco and watch the foot traffic go by and ponder your next trip to Mill Valley.
Mill Valley Beerworks
We don’t know what took so long for a place like this to open in Mill Valley. It is just perfectly “Marin” – from the interior to the crowd (lots of bicyclers) to the menu. Beer is brewed onsite, plus there’s a huge selection of imported beers. For something different, we love their brewed-on-site Botanical Series (made with juniper berries and bay leaf) and their barley wine. Both are great with the fresh and interesting small plates and boards.
What is your favorite neighborhood in Marin? What are your favorite insider tips for things to do in Mill Valley, California?