Nestled in the landscape of Mount Tamalpais, the iconic silhouette captured by early California landscape painters William Keith and Seldon Connor Gile, are Mill Valley’s residential and commercial neighborhoods. Just 14 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the exit from highway 101 is the junction that leads to redwood groves of Muir Woods and the coastal beaches along scenic California Route One photographed by Ansel Adams. Marin locals and tourists flock to Mill Valley for its natural beauty and a uniquely cool vibe, which inspired great musicians — including Bob Weir, Bonnie Raitt, Grace Slick, Sammy Hagar and many more.
Whether you are a Marin local, a first-time visitor, or a San Franciscan looking for new cultural horizons, there are many reasons to seek out the arts in the small, upscale little town of Mill Valley. This town boasts a cultural itinerary that combines miles of hiking and biking trails, as well as nearby surfing, with a walkable village filled with art galleries, high-end boutiques oozing with California-style chic, and a wide range of casual and fine dining.
There are many noteworthy annual events in the arts that might bring you to Mill Valley. In the summer, the outdoor amphitheater set on beautiful Mount Tamalpais at the Cushing Memorial Theater hosts the Mountain Play and a fundraising concert by the non-profit Roots & Branches to support the Mount Tamalpais State Park called Sound Summit. Each fall, the Mill Valley Film Festival turns this suburban town into a Hollywood outpost with film screenings, premieres, parties and red carpet photo opportunities. In the fall (Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival) and in the spring (Marin Open Studios), fairs and tours make it easy to connect with local creators directly. The Mill Valley Arts Commission hosts seasonal concerts and comedy on the Downtown Plaza.
The ancestral land of the Coastal Miwok, Mill Valley is a creative destination every weekend. Here’s a sample cultural itinerary:
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Get settled into the ambiance of Mill Valley by grabbing a matcha latte and avocado toast at the Depot Cafe and Bookstore. Watch the locals in The Depot Plaza, a former railroad stop at the heart of this modern hamlet. Stop inside to see a rotating exhibition of artwork on the walls. Keep an eye out for local kids playing, skateboarding teens, mountain bikers grabbing a snack, or even celebrities like Sammy Hagar, Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, or chef Tyler Florence running errands.
While sipping tea, check to see what’s happening at the Outdoor Art Club, a building designed by architect Bernard Maybeck that hosts cultural arts events regularly, and the Throckmorton Theatre, which offers an ongoing selection of both professional and community theater as well as music, comedy and youth programs.
Grab food at one of many local casual dining options. Explore Mill Valley’s take on Mexican food by trying a taco at either Joe’s Taco Lounge, Playa, Avatar’s Punjabi Burritos, Parranga, or Hook Fish Co. at Proof Lab….or maybe one taco at each place?
Plan ahead. Get tickets for a not-to-be missed performance at the Marin Theatre Company, which has staged creating “groundbreaking, nationally recognized and socially relevant” plays for the American stage since 1966.
Grab a cocktail after the show at local (and beloved) dive bar, The 2 A.M. Club.
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Start the morning downtown with a pastry and latte at Peet’s Coffee & Tea, a Northern California classic known for unique bean blends that create rich, dark-roasted coffee drinks.
Take a walk from downtown Mill Valley to the Cascade Falls (2.5 miles round trip, approximately 25 minutes each way on road and sidewalks), which includes two gallery stops along the way. Check hours at all galleries since COVID led to changing schedules of operation.
O’Hanlon Center for the Arts — This creative community cultivates self-expression through a wide range of artistic media. Visit the Gallery, which offers a rotating selection of juried exhibitions and an annual members show, plus solo shows in the Loft.
Grab a quick to-go lunch at the Mill Valley Market, Sol Food, TamalPie Pizzeria, Cafe del Soul, or SuperDuper Burger before you start an art walk around town. Again, check hours at all galleries since COVID led to changing schedules of operation.
Seager Gray Gallery — Gallery offers a wide range of contemporary artists with two special annual exhibitions — the Art of the Book (May) and Material Matters (March)
Robert Green Fine Arts — Art dealer that has represented California Abstract Expressionist artists since 1969.
Desta Gallery — Dealer and consultant who assists anyone interested in buying art and building a personal collection. The gallery moved to Mill Valley from San Anselmo in 2020.
Kim Eagles-Smith Gallery — An art dealer for over 40 years, Eagles-Smith works with artwork on the secondary market, emphasizing San Francisco Bay Area Figurative Movement, American Modernism, and Abstract Expressionism. The gallery moved to Mill Valley in 2019, which enabled an expanded focus to include Contemporary and Modernist art.
Poet and the Bench — Run by husband (goldsmith) and wife (curator) team, the downtown storefront support local artisans creating handcrafted jewelry, quality designed craft items, and original artwork.
Throckmorton Theatre — Main lobby and the Crescendo Gallery in front often have art exhibitions for public viewing.
Try cocktails at Bungalow 44, Buckeye Roadhouse, Floodwater or Gravity Tavern.
Head out for some Italian food downtown at LaGinestra, Vascos or Piazza D’Angelo.
Plan ahead for another must-do activity in town. Get tickets for a music performance at the Sweetwater Music Hall, which recently transitioned to a non-profit during COVID times so they can keep great music alive for many nights each month. The locale offers a full restaurant with desirable outdoor dining. The original Sweetwater (1972-2007) was in a tiny storefront on Throckmorton Avenue in downtown Mill Valley, which was famous for impromptu performances from rock legends including Bob Weir, Aaron Neville, Big Mama Thornton, Carlos Santana, Clarence Clemons, Elvis Costello, Etta James, Gregg Allman, Huey Lewis, Jerry Garcia, John Hiatt, John Lee Hooker, Maria Muldaur, Mimi Fariña, Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Richie Havens, Robert Cray, Sammy Hagar, Townes Van Zandt, and Van Morrison.
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Grab a light (gluten-free) breakfast before a morning stroll on the Tennessee Valley Trail to Tennessee Beach (3 miles round trip on trails and fire road). Visit Equator Coffee’s downtown location for sweet and savory gluten-free waffles along with coffee drinks made with their locally roasted beans. Try Flour Craft Bakery at the Mill Valley Lumber Yard for a wide selection of gluten-free baked goods.
Spend the afternoon creating your work of art, write a song, take some photos. Check Curtain Theatre offerings of free performances (mostly Shakespeare) in Old Mill Park. Or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, look up some of the other famous Mill Valley hikes (9+ miles or more) that leave from downtown (West Point Inn on Mount Tamalpais or Stinson Beach via the Dipsea Trail). Unlike the other flat walks recommended, many local hike are very steep and only meant for those in excellent physical condition. These multi-hour walks also require appropriate hiking clothes and shoes, and enough water/food.
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Special Note about Tuesdays:
Pre-COVID, Tuesdays were also a big night in downtown Mill Valley with a monthly First Tuesday ArtWalk at exhibition venues around town from O’Hanlon Center to the Mill Valley Community Center, and Tuesday Night Live Comedy (new talent) weekly at the Throckmorton Theatre.
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If you’re visiting from out of town, there are wonderful hotel options in Mill Valley. The Acqua Hotel is in a convenient location off of highway 101 and offers lovely views of Richardson Bay. The Mill Valley Inn is located in the middle of downtown. The Mountain Home Inn is half way up the mountain on a ridge with views of reaching from Mount Tamalpais’ peak to the Pacific Ocean.
Pamela Coddington is a writer and editor. Full disclosure: She is a big supporter of the arts in Marin County and has done work with Youth in Arts, Image Flow Photography Center, di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Smith Andersen North, and Headlands Center for the Arts. Pamela is a graduate of New York University with a B.A. in Art History, and holds a post-baccalaureate degree in writing from U.C. Berkeley. Pamela lives and works in San Rafael with her family.