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A Local’s Guide to the Best of Central Marin

Nestled between the San Francisco Bay and Mt. Tamalpais lies one of Northern California’s most interesting suburban areas: The “Twin Cities” of Larkspur and Corte Madera in central Marin County.

Just minutes from your door in the Twin Cities, you can be strolling along a creek, sipping wine under the redwoods, tasting critically acclaimed California cuisine, enjoying locally-roasted coffee, or participating in retail therapy at dozens of independent boutiques.

If you’ve got a spare hour (or two or three or four) during your stay in Central Marin, check out this map and list of favorite local walks, restaurants, bars, shops, and activities. You’ll find some of the best attractions the Bay Area has to offer right outside your front door.

Walks/Hikes

Mt. Tamalpais (“Mt. Tam”) stands over Central Marin and waters its redwood-shaded canyons with winter rains that feed tidal creeks and marshland waterways surrounding Corte Madera’s perch on the edge of San Francisco Bay. Translation: The strolling opportunities are endless. Here are five walks/hikes that showcase the best of Central Marin.

  • Larkspur Path to Downtown When the railroad tracks were pulled up from Corte Madera and Larkspur – a.k.a. the “Twin Cities” area – decades ago, the towns were left with several wide, flat paths for walkers and bikers. For a pleasant stroll to downtown Larkspur, head to the intersection of Tamal Vista Blvd. and Wornum Drive, and you’ll be looking directly up the Larkspur Path at Mount Tam. Walk about 10 minutes, until just before the path curves to the left, descend down from the path to the right, and land on William Avenue. Follow William to Magnolia, turn right, and within minutes, you will arrive at the southern end of downtown Larkspur, near Perry’s, Equator Coffee, and Posie Ice Cream (see details in “Food & Drink” below.) Or cross the street to Dolliver Park a.k.a. “Dark Park” for more big tree time, a seasonal creek, a fun playground, and to explore the “fairy-tale charm” of the redwood-forested lanes nearby – or keep walking into Baltimore Canyon (see below.)
  • Corte Madera Marsh Trail On the other side of Highway 101, the San Francisco Bay meets the shore in a jigsaw of marsh, ponds, waterways, shopping centers and industrial areas – with trails crisscrossing the whole puzzle. Park in the pull-out on Redwood Highway just south of Wornum Drive, and you’ll meet up with the wide sidewalk trail that runs to the south. The large tidal pond on your left is home to year-round and migrating waterfowl, including a large group of white pelicans in the winter. You’ll reach the Village at Corte Madera mall in 15 minutes or you can stay on the roadside path along the marsh and creek as long as you like before returning to Book Passage.
  • Corte Madera Creek Path, Greenbrae Park at Niven Park for access to a lovely path along the Corte Madera Creek. Park on Drake’s Landing Road, walk through the park toward the water and head right for postcard-perfect views of Mt. Tam with the creek in the foreground. Head left, pass Marin Rowing’s boathouse and docks, cross under the highway and you’ll get a view of the old trestle and the Northwestern Pacific Railroad’s drawbridge – the spot made famous in Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry.” Moving another five minutes in this direction will drop you at the Larkspur Ferry or take the new pedestrian-bike trail and overpass to Marin Country Mart.
  • Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur This easy, flat in-and-out hike allows you to spend as much or as little time as you like under a canopy of bay, laurel and redwood trees along Larkspur Creek. Drive or Lyft to the Dawn Falls Trailhead in the back of Baltimore Canyon, walk down a short embankment to the bridge, cross over, and head right into the canyon. If you make it to the back in winter or spring, walk up a couple switchbacks and you will see Dawn Falls cascading over the rocks. Do this one on your first day because you’ll want to go back!
  • Ring Mountain, Tiburon Where Baltimore Canyon provides a glimpse of Marin’s redwood canyons, a hike into Ring Mountain Preserve enables hikers to get an up-close look at the windswept, oak-dotted, grassy hills that make up much of the county’s landscape. From the trailhead on Paradise Drive, the moderately-difficult walk ambles up to the hilltop and delivers panoramic views of the bay, from Richmond to Berkeley to San Francisco to Mount Tam. With a ride to the trailhead, able hikers can make it to the top and back in an hour..

Food & Drink

The historic charm of Larkspur and destination shopping of Corte Madera means both towns enjoy more than their fair share of seasonal, critically acclaimed, highly delicious and innovative eateries. Check Yelp for a complete list and scan the picks below for a sampling of the most unique, local favorites.

Coffee & Breakfast

  • Rustic Bakery (Marin Country Mart) Up-and-down the menu, amazing bakery, lunch spot and maker of flatbreads food enough for His Holy Father. Don’t miss this Northern California morsel!
  • Equator Coffees & Teas (Downtown Larkspur) The go-to Twin Cities spot for a sustainable, Marin-roasted pour over in the shade of the redwoods. Afterward, grab a cold-pressed juice at Urban Remedy next door.
  • Emporio Rulli (Downtown Larkspur) The aromas inside this Magnolia Avenue mainstay will transport you back to the homeland, with authentic espresso, pastries, gelato, Italian cookies and panettone good enough to earn acclaim from Martha Stewart and Giada de Laurentiis.
  • Wise Sons Bagelry (Marin Country Mart) – A real Jewish deli in Marin – finally! Stop in for bagels, bialys, and all the good stuff that goes with ‘em.
  • Lighthouse Cafe (Corte Madera) If you’re looking for a big plate of eggs, pancakes, and hashbrowns, try Corte Madera’s branch of Sausalito’s Danish breakfast place.

Lunch

  • Blue Barn Gourmet (Corte Madera Town Center) A wide variety of locally-produced, seasonally-inspired sandwiches, salads and soups shine from the center of the Town Center mall. Arrive early to read the entire menu and consider each specialty grilled cheese sandwich carefully – you’ll be glad you did.
  • Gott’s – (Greenbrae) Napa Valley’s outpost “California roadside food” draws lines all day. Try the Ahi Poke Crispy Tacos, any of the burgers or something from the awesome kid’s menu with one of the local brews or wines and you won’t be disappointed.
  • Avatar’s Punjabi Burritos (Downtown Larkspur) Ever crave a curried lamb burrito or a smoked eggplant enchilada? Avatar’s got you sorted. The Indian-Mexican fusion dishes taste as compelling as they sound crazy.
  • Belcampo (Marin Country Mart) Made from beef delivered straight from their ranch near Mt. Shasta, Belcampo redefines the meaning of “good burger” – and its beef tallow fries are life changing.
  • El Huarache Loco (Marin Country Mart) For all the delectable eateries nearby, the Twin Cities are lacking in great Hispanic options. El Huarache Loco is the remarkable exception, serving authentic huaraches – a thick corn tortilla in the shape of the Mexican sandal served with authentic, out-of-this-world sauces, veggie, and meats. Treat yourself to the Mexican Hot Chocolate for dessert.

Dinner

  • Marin Joe’s (Corte Madera) It’s been serving central Marin since the 1950s and some of the same customers are eating there right now. The 1954 Italian American restaurant and piano bar tosses a Caesar salad at your table, broils a mean steak, shakes a perfect martini and serves its burgers on sourdough. Though the ambiance is “diner classic,” the crowds are decidedly 21st century, so book ahead if you don’t want to be snickered at by the host.
  • Burmatown (Corte Madera) Just a baby in the Corte Madera restaurant family, Burmatown’s home-style approach to Burmese cuisine made it an instant hit when its mother-daughter team opened the doors in 2014. The menu isn’t extensive but it serves all the right dishes – from tea leaf salad to chicken curry noodles to Asian fusion favorites – made fresh daily for the lines of hungry Marinfolk who wait outside for a table.
  • Picco & Pizzeria Picco (Downtown Larkspur) Since 2005, Bruce Hill’s Picco “empire” at the epicenter of downtown Larkspur has gathered acclaim from critics and locals, alike. The Picco dining room reinvents itself regularly and can be relied upon to serve innovative California offerings inside its brick and ivy covered walls. The Neapolitan thin crust pizzeria next door serves what San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer called the “best pizza in the Bay Area” in a lively, casual, mostly outdoor setting. Do not miss the Strauss organic soft-serve vanilla ice cream! You might actually need three: one with olive oil and sea salt, one with hard chocolate shell, and one with chile-caramel sauce. Trust me.
  • Farmshop (Marin Country Mart) Arguably the hottest purveyor of Marin artisanal meals is Farmshop in the Marin Country Mart. The interiors are gorgeous, the food is gorgeous, the cocktails are gorgeous, and the people are gorgeous. Come prepared to dress and pay accordingly – but it might just be worth it.
  • Delivery Staying in tonight? Call San Rafael’s bright and delightful Sol Food, and order the best Puerto Rican food this side of New York City. The combination plates and Cubano sandwiches are intensely satisfying. Pizza wise, local kids never get enough of Stefano’s, a reliable, not too thick-or-thin crust pizza. Or check DoorDash or UberEats to have other local delicacies delivered.
  • Dessert In its downtown Larkspur shop, Posie crafts organic ice cream and fruit into magical flavors like Pink Panther (raspberry, strawberry, and marshmallow) and Pluot Poppy Tea (pluots, Ylang Ylang extract, and poppy seeds). In the Bon Air Shopping Center in Greenbrae, Loving Cup dishes up hipster yogurt and rice pudding while Susie Cakes bakes better than grandma.

Drinks

  • Perry’s (Downtown Larkspur) Grab a seat in the redwood-shaded front yard of a two-story, turn-of-the-century farmhouse. Home of chef Bradley Ogden’s original Lark Creek Inn, San Francisco-based Perry’s now attracts a lively local crowd for American fare, lovely wines, televised sports and indoor and outdoor dining.
  • Left Bank (Downtown Larkspur) Local favorite for French dishes landing in the ideal spot between bistro and chic, Left Bank has a large bar area that is usually packed with revelers who appreciate a good cocktail and a good cone of pommes frites. After drinks, try to squeeze into a table on the outdoor patio after 9pm for the late Happy Hour menu.
  • The Silver Peso (Downtown Larkspur) Looking for something less fancy – a lot less fancy? “The Peso” wasn’t named one of the best dive bars in America for nothing. Grouchy bartenders, shuffleboard, pool tables, and disputes between twenty-something partiers and grizzled regulars can all be found on the corner of Magnolia and Cane behind the serape-covered windows.

Shopping

  • Book Passage (Corte Madera) Marin County is fortunate to have one of the best bookstores in America right here in Corte Madera. The travel accessories, children’s section, and gift shop have some of the most thoughtful supplies and souvenirs a reader could want.
  • Marin Country Mart (Larkspur Landing) James Perse, Unionmade, Hudson Grace and other ultra hip retailers can be found just across the highway at Marin Country Mart, sister property to the elite Brentwood and Malibu country marts. SoulCycle spin classes and International Orange spa treatments are also available for those in need.
  • Downtown Larkspur Wander the historic blocks of Magnolia Avenue and visit independent retailers such as Folio for classy stationary and Coquelicot for fun French imported housewares. Sleek apparel and accessory boutiques include Nicolette, Gala, Renee Howard, The Lingerie Shoppe, Renee Sheppard and KenLynn.
  • Corte Madera’s Malls Just about all your favorite regional retailers are represented in the two reasonably-sized shopping centers just south of Book Passage. Town Center, on the west side of the freeway, has favorites such as REI, Urban Outfitters, Sur La Table, Crate and Barrel and The Container Store, while The Village at Corte Madera’s offerings are more upscale, including stores like Nordstrom, Apple, Tesla, North Face, Michael Star, Restoration Hardware, and lululemon athletica. 

Activities 

  • Movies George Lucas hosted an advance screening of “Return of the Jedi” in the large Century Cinema, just south of Book Passage on Tamal Vista Blvd. See the latest blockbuster on its massive, single screen while you still can: The property has been sold and the movie house will soon be torn down. Head to downtown Larkspur to see art house films and second-run features at an Art Deco theater – The Lark – that narrowly missed the wrecking ball thanks to volunteers who raised funds to resurrect it as a nonprofit. And Century Larkspur Landing, a four-plex across from Marin Country Mart, will have most the other new movies you will want to see.
  • Live Music Terrapin Crossroads is a must-visit for Deadheads and the uninitiated who want to learn. Phil Lesh’s San Rafael waterfront complex of good food, live music, and outdoor fun is really well done and always a good time. Fairfax’ 19 Broadway and Peri’s boast some of Marin’s most lively bar-type, nightclub-y music. And the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley strums out reliable Marin sounds from regionally renown musicians.
  • Yoga Drop in for a power session at New Om World next door to Book Passage.
  • Marin Farmer’s Market Observed as Thursday and Sunday morning church for the county’s food worshippers, the Marin Farmer’s Market at the Marin Civic Center is regarded as one of the best in the country with seasonal offerings and prepared foods from across the state. Other farmer’s markets take place at Town Center on Wednesdays and Marin Country Mart on Saturday mornings.
  • Paradise Drive to Tiburon Time for a scenic drive? Head east on Paradise Drive in Corte Madera. You’ll loop around clockwise and get views of San Quentin, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Paradise Beach Park, and Angel Island before reaching the exclusive hamlet of Tiburon. Stop here for a walk along the harbor, a day trip to Angel Island, a breakfast at New Morning Cafe, or a lunch on Sam’s Anchor Café’s famous wharf-side deck with views of San Francisco, before following Tiburon Boulevard to rejoin Highway 101.
  • Marin Civic Center The county’s Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece juts out from the hills in a space-age homage to mid-century design. Just 10 minutes north on Highway 101, tours take place every Wednesday or visit on your own anytime to appreciate Wright’s ability to enhance a natural setting with a building. To get a glimpse of the interior, aim for the public library or the café on the fourth floor – unless you’re lucky enough to be a county citizen and get to report for jury duty in a National Historic Landmark.
  • Phoenix Lake Turn off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard towards the exclusive town of Ross and cruise Shady Lane and its offshoots to see some of Marin’s most historic and stately manors. If you can get parking at Natalie Coffin Greene Park, do it, (or park back on Lagunitas and walk a bit further) then head up a short trail to Phoenix Lake on the side of Mt. Tamalpais. You can walk around it on the Phoenix Lake Trail in less than an hour and along the way, spy waterfowl, birds of prey, squirrels, turtles, newts and black tail deer – but you can’t swim in it. If you want to get wet, grab a picnic lunch at Woodland’s Market on the way, eat at the historic picnic area near the parking lot, and splash in the creek afterward.
  • San Anselmo Ten minutes west on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard brings you to several blocks of local Marin shopping and dining on San Anselmo Avenue. Along the way, don’t miss Imagination Park donated to the city by filmmaker George Lucas, along with its statues of Yoda and Indiana Jones to commemorate the birthplace of “Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in buildings nearby.
  • Fairfax If you want a feel of crunchy, hippy, Summer-of-Love days Marin, Fairfax is the last place to get it. Find the right healing crystal, stock up on tie-dye, grab an acai bowl, park it under a redwood tree and pretend it’s 1970. Or just line up at the Fairfax Scoop and enjoy today. Got a whole day? Drive past Fairfax to the rural villages of West Marin, Samuel P. Taylor State Park’s redwood-shaded trails and creeks, and on to the glorious coast: Whether you head out to Point Reyes or north to Bolinas and Stinson Beach, you won’t be more than an hour’s drive back to Corte Madera.
  • Stinson BeachOne of the most gorgeous beaches in California is just 7 miles as the crow flies over Mt. Tam. Non-crows must drive a longer, curvier, scenic route that takes about 45 minutes from downtown Larkspur – but on a sunny day, there’s nowhere prettier to take a long walk in the sand or enjoy brunch or a soft serve at the Parkside Cafe.
  • The Wine Country Corte Madera is less than one hour from Sonoma, Napa, the Russian River Valley, and Healdsburg where some of the world’s best the best wines are grown and bottled.  What are you waiting for?
  • The City Hop on the Larkspur Ferry for a gorgeous bay cruise past San Quentin, Angel Island, and Alcatraz to the San Francisco Ferry Building – and beyond!

Maryann Jones Thompson is a travel, business and community journalist based in Marin County. Feel free to email Maryann@ROAMFamilyTravel.com for more insider tips and visitor advice on the Central Marin area.

 

by Maryann Jones Thompson, July 2018

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Keywords: larkspur, corte madera, central marin county, marin county, book passage

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