Walking through Downtown Fairfax can feel like stepping back in time. The hospitable small town nestled in the wooded hills surrounding Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais emits a Hallmark-movie vibe—but only if the movie featured eco-loving locals who hang out at the clothing-optional Frogs Hots Tub sauna downtown.
Stunningly colorful murals and vibrant eclectic artwork capture the town’s creative spirit—and illustrate Fairfax’s claim to fame. It’s no big secret in these parts that mountain biking originated in Fairfax, and cycling is still a favored means of transportation for many environmentally conscious Marinites, including the late Robin Williams, who was often spotted on his bike in the county and was a regular visitor to Fairfax’s bike-oriented cultural outposts.
Spend a day wandering or wheeling around town, and lots of friendly faces are apt to greet you at each establishment, nearly all of which are shops of the mom-and-pop variety, offering an array of goods up and down the old-school chart. Fairfax may be small, but you’ll come to find very quickly that there are many hidden gems to explore.
The change of pace is immediately felt after turning off of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and casually cruising onto Broadway and Bolinas Road. These intersecting streets serve as the center of downtown Fairfax. Downtown’s mixed architecture and appealing aesthetic reflects the town’s diversity, simplicity, sustainability and openness.
Mesmerizing murals and mosaics are scattered throughout Fairfax. Like an urban archeologist, I spent some time studying these detailed works of art celebrating Fairfax’s culture, history and establishments. One very colorful bench honors cycling with a bold label: “REPACK.” A small caption explains, “The name ‘Repack’ stems from the coaster-brake era, after a trip down the hill all the grease in a coaster brake turns to smoke and it’s time to repack the hub.”
The Marin Museum of Bicycling and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame is a well-known destination in town and just reopened after its annual two-week winter shutdown in early January.
The giant mountain bike displayed in front of the building signals a destination that’s unmissable while driving down Sir Francis Drake. There is also a small monumental brick wall out front full of tributes to companies, people and places associated with Marin County’s legendary bike culture.
Now for a little bit of shopping.
Fairfax Variety (located under a dental office on Broadway) has a little bit of everything, and then some. It’s your quirky one-stop shop for kitchen accessories, art supplies, party decorations, greeting cards, toys, candies, figurines, clothing accessories and more. I even saw miniature glossy figurines of animals and mythical creatures that I used to collect as a child. I stopped in front of the display case and was taken back by all the happy memories triggered by the trinkets. Metro-chic Revolution 9 provides playful collections of cute knick-knacks from the past, vintage posters, graphic tees, Funko Pops, stuffed animals and more imaginative goodies.
A bright, eye-catching, sky-blue-painted building immediately lured me into a tranquil gift shop appropriately called Bliss Fairfax. A pristine, pearly interior invites shoppers into a serene and heavenly whimsical atmosphere. Artwork featuring unicorns, adorable treasures for little girls, and displays of sparkly jewelry is all a sweet feast for the eyes.
Other gift shops and boutiques have a more bohemian and earthy ambiance. Mystic Rose is a fun vintage store that conjures more nostalgia as you browse through couture clothing and hard-to-find classic pieces from the ’90s and beyond. I saw a gold 49ers bomber jacket that my mom had bought for the men in our family when I was little. Apparently, nowadays that jacket is hard to find. Who knew? Also, when did the ’90s become vintage?
Marin County is known for going green. The Herban Garden is a perfect example of new eco-friendly boutiques that sell merchandise with a conscience. Candles, clothes, beauty, jewelry, home décor and kitchen-wares are organic, fair trade, hand-crafted and made from recycled materials in the U.S.A.
Keep your eyes peeled while meandering down the street. Some tucked-away places are easy to miss because, so be sure to pay attention to signs guiding you toward elusive establishments located in alleys or upper levels. You never know what kind of gifts you can find.
After popping in and out of quaint shops all along Bolinas Road, I reached a little lush park across from the town hall and police station. It’s the perfect space to walk your dog and/or rest on a wooden bench located in an embrace of towering redwood trees. A stone structure sits in tribute to the armed services and dedicated to all who helped in their efforts.
Goosebumps rushed over me as I read the bronze plaque explaining all of the thoughtful symbolism:
The live redwood represents the different branches of the Armed Forces.
The cut stump, for those cut down in the Supreme Sacrifice.
The decayed stump, that beauty, and good can come from Sacrifice.
The drinking fountain, as our Life’s Blood.
The hedge trees, are our people standing behind the Armed Forces.
The small boxwoods, are our children looking towards them.
It is a moving sight, which can be easily missed if you don’t take the time to stroll around—another token of the old-fashioned sentiments found in this welcoming town with a wanderlust spirit.
Around the corner, you’ll find a more playful space. The community center hosts classes and events. The adjacent Peri Park has picnic tables, jungle gyms, swing sets, and other wonders to entertain your wild child’s whims. The kids will even get a kick out of the Ross Valley fire station located beside the park. Glass garage doors showcase classic and modern fire engines kept in polished crimson condition.
You’ll definitely work up an appetite exploring all day. I started the day off with breakfast at the Hummingbird. Their sourdough french toast is delicious—light, fluffy and savory. The syrup is sweet but not overpowering or cloying. It is a small, homey and friendly hotspot with a very casual atmosphere. They are also known for their beignets and other New Orleans treats—just know that’s it’s a cash-only place, no credit cards accepted.
Downtown hosts international flavors that will suit your multiple cravings. Mexican, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Italian and American cuisine—a little bit of everything for everyone. Grab a beer and brat at Gestalt Haus, where they have plenty of parking for your bike. There are actually a few biker-friendly eateries in town, some of which have been featured on Pacific Sun before. The Gestalt graces our cover this week.
In addition to cycling, Fairfax is known for its nightlife—there are lots of popular local musicians and open mics. Peri’s Silver Dollar Bar’s groovy ambiance has been keeping patrons entertained for 80 years. Live music, bar games and a disco ball illuminating the outdoor patio are all alluring aspects of this iconic joint. You have to love a place that decorates the ladies’ room with Elvis Presley memorabilia. Plus, the neon martini logo made me thirsty for a drink, or two, when I saw it.
More adventures await if you journey outside of downtown. Mt. Tam Watershed and its surroundings have trails for driving, walking (with dogs), biking and horse riding. It’s a slow and long drive up a winding road to the lake and alpine reservoir along Fairfax-Bolinas Road (the road is closed during wicked weather season, so consider yourself warned). I really wanted to see waterfalls, but the muddy hillsides were a little nerve-wracking. Instead of venturing miles ahead, I pulled aside at an early vista spot and got out of the car. The views are breathtaking. Vast and plush forests adorn the mountainscape and in the distance, the paved curving road cuts through evergreen trees leading to the glistening Alpine Lake, which adds the illustrious sparkle as light from the misty sky reflects off of the water.
Now head back to town for a proper shop at the large and legendary Good Earth Natural Foods. Stick around awhile—check out a show at 19 Broadway, where highlights include a first-Friday monthly dancehall Reggae show; or check out a movie at the Fairfax Theater. And here I thought quaint, nostalgic, eco-friendly towns with welcoming folks and tons of fun stuff to do only existed in the movies. Not so!
Tiffany Tchobanian is a freelance writer in Novato, which is also kind of a fun town.
Frogs Hot Tubs
10 School St # B., 415.453.7647.
Marin Museum of Bicycling and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame
1966 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., 415.450.8000.
61 Broadway, 415.457.2580.
14 Bolinas Road, 415.459.7999.
61 Bolinas Road, 415.295.7729.
9 Bolinas Road; phone number is mystically unavailable
15 Bolinas Road, 415.453.1709.
16 Park Road
57 Broadway, 415.457.9866.
28 Bolinas Road, 415.721.7895.
Peri’s Silver Dollar Bar
29 Broadway, 415.459.9910.
Good Earth Natural Foods
720 Center Blvd., 415.454.0123.
19 Broadway Nightclub
19 Broadway, 415.459.0293.
9 Broadway, 415.453.5444.
If it’s open, head up the winding Fairfax-Bolinas Road until you see water.