North over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco sits the seaside town of Sausalito. For years, I’ve heard about its unique shops, shore-front restaurants, and stunning views of the big city across the bay. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I was finally able to explore Sausalito for myself.

To be completely honest, I was concerned that Sausalito was going to feel excessively touristy. When I travel I make it a habit to avoid the crowds and experience destinations that are off the beaten path. When I headed over to Sausalito, I came prepared with a local friend to show me a more authentic side of town.

Sausalito 101

Sausalito is a 30-minute ferry ride or a 10-minute drive from San Francisco. Despite its close proximity to one of the most exciting and cultured cities in the world, it has a small-town charm and natural beauty that immediately saturate the senses.

We arrived in Sausalito on a Saturday in autumn. By car, we crossed the iconic Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County, where Sausalito sits under pine-tree-covered hillsides speckled with brightly colored homes. I could spot in the distance the distinctive San Francisco skyline past the sparkling waters and impressive bridges. The main drag, called Bridgeway, was lined with small stores and galleries past which travelers meandered leisurely, licking ice cream cones and window-shopping.

Along the Issaquah Dock

All about the water

For our first stop, we drove north along Bridgeway for a mile or so, away from the more touristy part of town, to Le Garage Bistro Francais. The restaurant sits facing a marina filled with sailboats and houseboats bobbing in the water.

At an outdoor table under the warm sun, I devoured a tasty omelet filled with lamb sausage, fennel, garlic confit, and a French feta cheese. All those flavors together made for a very rich and satisfying meal. If that wasn’t enough, we also ordered a French toast to share for desert. The innovative French fare here exceeded my expectations. Also exciting to me, it seemed I was the only traveler in sight!

Next on our agenda was to head even further north, away from downtown Sausalito to a  unique neighborhood: a community of 500 houseboats. These houses are a marvel to see, decorated by the artists and alternative lifestyle enthusiasts who inhabit them. This unique floating community started as a handful of mobile houseboats in the 1940s. Today, most of the homes no longer navigate the open waters, and a majority of them are well-maintained along docks lined with potted plants and sculptures.

One part enchanted garden, one part marina, and one part neighborhood with funky homes, this one-of-a-kind community is a must-see. For convenient and safe access, head over to the Issaquah Dock.

Viewfinder Tip: To experience Sausalito as a local might, arrive on an early ferry or drive over before 10 a.m.

Nooks and crannies

Next we found our way back to the main portion of Sausalito along Bridgeway to explore the small town for its nooks and crannies. As we walked around I was especially taken by Yee Tock Chee Park for its great views of San Francisco. I was tempted by Lappert’s Ice Cream, where tasty-looking treats are served with a line out the door. We skipped over to Caledonia Street, which the locals call downtown, to duck into Studio 333, and I enjoyed perusing work created by local artists. Finally, we ended our visit with a couple of beers and good conversation at Bar Bocce, watching the sunlight dance on the waters before the San Francisco skyline.

A full day in Sausalito left me really impressed. The quaint and beautiful town was well worth the short trip across the water. And despite this area being a popular destination for tourists, it still makes for an enchanting escape, especially if you explore beyond the heavily trafficked area, as I did.

For my next visit to Sausalito, I plan to have a sporty day by renting bikes on the Embarcadero in San Francisco and riding across the Golden Gate Bridge. In the afternoon, I’ll take the ferry back with my bike in tow. You know when a destination hits the spot when you are already planning your next trip back!

How do you like to explore a small town?