One of Marin’s most vibrant towns, San Rafael is a stroller-friendly day trip waiting to happen. The downtown area is a California mix of history (check out the town’s original Mission) and modern tastes (the food choices alone reflect the eclectic tastes of the region). Gather up the kiddies and wander the downtown’s main drag, 4th street. This charming stroll, which twinkles at night from the always-festive lights in the trees, is filled with diverse restaurants and unique shops, and it’s just the thing for an entertaining and relaxing weekend outing.

Go: There are special festivals, events, and farmers’ markets in summer and spring, but anytime is a good time to visit downtown San Rafael.

Approximate travel time: San Rafael is located about 20 minutes north of San Francisco.

Where to shop: Score some gently used baby and kids’ clothing, toys, accessories and essentials (strollers, high chairs, etc.) at Play it Again Kids or Marin Kids Consignment (just around the corner on E. Francisco). Browse the children’s book section of the Friends of the Library used bookstore, Friends Books (on C Street), and pick out a new bedtime story to enjoy later. Got a little slugger or a future QB on your hands? Pop into T&B Sports for a sporty fix. Or, if your youngin’ is more of a Monet than an MVP, head to Rileystreet Art Supply.

What to do: If you think your little ones have the patience for it, stop by the iconic Saint Raphael Church (pictured) and the Mission San Rafael Arcangel, established in 1817. Both are worth at least a peek, and the kids might get a kick out of Saint Raphael’s pink exterior. Be sure to check out the event calendar for the nearby Falkirk Cultural Center—they often have fun events just for kids like a Mad Hatter’s Spring Tea Party.

If you’re in town on a Thursday between April and September, stay until the evening and go to the downtown San Rafael Farmers Market—one of the largest weekly social events in Northern California!  The market stretches for several blocks of 4th street (no traffic allowed), features lots of live music, and is made up of over 200 vendors–including lots of tasty hot food you can eat on site.

Possible lunch spots: Downtown SR has a smorgasbord of food choices. Duck into brightly-colored Sol Food where spinning fans and colorful bottles of hot sauce instantly transport your fam to Puerto Rico. Choose from five different kinds of plantains as well as from pollo al horno (baked chicken) or bistec encebollado (steak with onions). It’s all simple, but close to perfect. In addition to its larger restaurant, Sol Food operates two small, mostly to-go style places. (One on the corner of Lincoln Ave. and 4th street, the other directly next door to the restaurant.)

If you’re in an ooh-la-la sort of mood, head to Crêpevine for generous portions of crepes (both sweet and savory), pancakes, omelets, and more! The kiddies will love the kids menu (and you’ll love the $3.50 price). Craving pizza? Amici’s and Napoli are both good choices.

For delicious Indian food, not to mention an affordable lunch buffet, look no further than the delicious Lotus Restaurant. If you’re up for going a bit further down 4th street, you’ll find my favorite Thai restaurant Citrus and Spice, which offers both traditional and California-inspired Thai food at reasonable prices.

Where to get a sweet treat:If you can fit in an ice cream cone after your yummy lunch, downtown SR has the standard Baskin Robbins (around the corner on B Street), the kid-friendly Coldstone Creamery, and San Francisco’s own Double Rainbow. Or, head to Arizmendi Bakeryand grab some sweet pastries for the little ones and a caffeine fix for yourself. There’s a courtyard and water sculpture wall in front of Arizmendi and Coldstone, so if the weather’s accommodating you can enjoy your dessert outside and watch the little ones run around.

Need to know: There are lots of parking lots in downtown SR (see a map, here). If you’re hoping for street parking, meters are $1/hour on 4th street and 75 cents/hour on all other streets. Don’t forget the quarters!

Cost of trip: Inexpensive to moderate, depending on how much and where you eat.

Keep in mind: The Classic Car Parade in May always draws a lot of visitors. San Rafael’s Italian Street Painting Festival is taking a break until 2012, but keep it in the back of your mind, because it is one of Marin’s best festivals and a kid-friendly event if there ever was one!

Future date night idea: The San Rafael Film Center is a Mecca for indie film lovers. The attractions are probably above the heads of your kiddies, but you can always come back solo for a grown-up date night.

Online: http://www.downtownsanrafael.org/

–Abigail Matsumoto