Some may consider San Rafael the ugly stepsister to her more lovely sisters to the south like Sausalito or Tiburon. With summer fast approaching and as the chilling fog lingers over San Francisco and southern Marin, sunny San Rafael begins to look a lot more beautiful. In addition to her banana belt allure, the fair capital of Marin offers many surprising and lesser known haunts for fun family adventures. With this many amusements, you’ll have a royal ball!

How to get there: Situated a mere 20 miles north of San Francisco, take the 101 North to the Central San Rafael exit and make a left on Fourth Street. Street parking is available along Fourth and parking garages are conveniently located near the Rafael Theatre. Bring plenty of coins to feed the hungry meters.

When: Anytime of a year, you’ll enjoy a happy jaunt downtown.

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What to bring: You’ll need strollers, comfortable walking shoes, sun hats, water and snacks. Wear layered clothing for cool mornings.

What to do: Mission San Rafael Arcangel seems to guard over San Rafael with such calm assurance. Tour the original structure and the larger cathedral. Don’t forget the Mission Museum and Gift Shop for a peek at paintings, a miniature diorama of the original mission, and three of the original bells.

Marin History Museum’s (pictured above) upcoming exhibition, Marin Rocks is sure to be a hit. Marin History Museum Music Center will open soon with the help of more donations. (Watch James and Robert from Metallica in this impassioned video clip about the rich history of music in Marin and how they hope to give children a place to express themselves.) Nearby Boyd Park is another spot children can run around and blow off some steam.

The Youth in Arts gallery space offers children a wonderful opportunity to view local artists’ work and also the creations of children from local schools. Check out their calendar for inventive performances at Marin Center.

San Rafael Public Library hosts lively summer events for children with popular local performers like Tim Cain and James K. Miss Holly, the most devoted librarian around, also hosts entertaining weekly story times. For toddlers who can lap-sit with their caregivers, Sara Sonnet hosts a weekly sing-along and finger play. You can picnic afterwards under the massive red oak on the front lawn.

Where to shop: Thrifty shoppers know to head to Fourth Street for bargain shopping. Try Outgrown for recycled children’s clothing and toys and the Re-Cyclery for used bikes (profits go to Trips for Kids an after-school and earn-a-bike programs for needy children).

Feeling lucky? Gamescape North (pictured above) is jam-packed with board games that will make your kids geek out on game nights.

Further down Miracle Mile, you’ll find Playwell TEKnologies a Lego lover’s paradise. For summer camps in Marin, check out their schedule here.

Where to eat: San Rafael welcomes Café du Cirque (pictured below) a brand spankin’ new play café to Fourth Street. It’s beautifully appointed with a small play area for your little ones to frolic while you enjoy a warm cuppa and cozy conversation with a good friend. Satisfaction is guaranteed when mommy has a play date too.

The colorful tiled door at Lotus invites you to enter a sanctuary where Indian maidens peek out of paintings to delight and fascinate your children. The lunch buffet is an unbeatable deal with mouth-watering temptations like saffron rice, daal, kormas, chuntneys, naan, and rice pudding for dessert. On warm evenings, the ceiling is lifted for sky-viewing and you’ll feel as if you’re sitting in a fragrant palace garden.

For delicious ice cream, pies, cakes, or soup and sandwiches, you’ll find it all at the end of the Double Rainbow. Answer the question of the day, and get a free scoop of your choice. In the mood for tasty pub grub? A plate of greasy fish and chips at The Mayflower never disappoints. Trivia nights will amuse your older kiddos.

Don’t miss: To market, to market to buy whatever you need and it won’t break the piggy bank. At Thursday night Farmers Market, local vendors dish out tasty delicacies even your taco truck-lovin’ friends will enjoy. Everyone loves a trip to the market for live music, jumpy houses, and even a new animal petting zoo.

Second Fridays Art Walks (from 5-8pm) are a hands-on way of exposing your children to local artists as they work in their studios. This tight-knit community is very friendly and happy to answer children’s questions about what it takes to become a great artiste.

Festivals and special events: Stake-out a spot to watch a mini-Tour de Marin at the San Rafael Twilight Criterium on July 7, 2012.

Online:  downtownsanrafael.org

–Nicki Richesin