Planning Your Visit to the Sausalito Houseboats
Anyone can do a walking tour of the Sausalito houseboats community, and the gates to most of the docks are unlocked. You’ll see everything from architectural gems to repurposed working boats to, well, a few maintenance-challenged vessels that date back to World War II.
If you don’t plan to drive, Big Bus Tours, a hop-on hop-off service, has a stop in downtown Sausalito and another at the Bay Model that allows you to visit the floating homes. It’s a level one mile (1.6 km) walk from the Bay Model to the center of the houseboats area, and the bottom map below shows the route. Note: Because of their enhanced services we sought them out and Big Bus Tours is now a sponsor of OurSausalito.
This vibrant community of floating homes recently turned 65 years old, but it remains as rebellious and vibrant as ever. You can read about the two most famous “golden era” Sausalito houseboats on the Taj Mahal page and on our Forbes Island page.
Insiders Tip: If you’re hungry when you arrive in the floating homes neighborhood, you have three local favorites to choose from that have been listed multiple times in the Top 10 of our Best Cafes, Deli’s and Diners list:
- Davy Jones Deli has excellent sandwiches
- Bayside Cafe offers tasty sit-down meals, next to Davy Jones at the Harbor Center on Gate 6 Road
- On Gate 5 Road just south of the floating homes area Anchorage 5 serves great American and Mexican breakfast and lunch items.
Insiders Tips: It’s easy to be welcomed as a guest by the owners of the Sausalito houseboats when you visit the docks:
1. Please be considerate about noise levels, and remember that a nurse, paramedic or firefighter who works late may be sleeping nearby when you walk by on the pier.
2. Please do not smoke on the houseboat piers. The walkways are made of wood, and the top planks are dried by years of the hot summer sun, so stray sparks are not welcome.
3. If you ride your bike to the docks, please lock it outside or walk your bike on the piers, as the residents do. Some of the pathways are narrow and this is safest for both walkers and bike riders.
4. Dogs are prohibited from some docks due to visitors not having cleaned up after them. Check the signs and you’ll be OK.
Insiders Tip: One bike tour operator endangers both his clients and local residents by encouraging visitors to ride their bikes on the docks, which the Floating Homes owners have asked people not to do. Steer clear of renting from anyone who says this is OK.
Click here to see what it was like on the Sausalito houseboats when the tidal surge from the 2011 Japanese earthquake reached San Francisco Bay.
Where to See the Sausalito Houseboats
The easiest places to do a walking tour of a wide variety of houseboats are:
- Around the northern Gate 5 Road area (Liberty Dock, Issaquah Dock, South 40 Dock and Main Dock)
- At the Gate 6 Road Waldo Point Harbor area (Kappa’s Marina, Gate 6 1/2 Road behind the seaplane and heliport area)
In the map below I highlighted Liberty Dock and Issaquah Dock to get you started, which are towards the northern side of the Gate Five Road houseboats area. You can park in the Waldo Point Harbor lot for a shorter visit, or park on surface streets for a longer walk.
Marin Transit has Bus Stops on Bridgeway at Gate Five Road.
Insiders Tip: Many members of the local community strongly prefer the term “Sausalito Floating Homes” to “Sausalito Houseboats.” Refer to them this way and you’re more likely to make friends with the residents.
You’ll also see a few of the battered survivors from the old era of improvised houseboats of decades past. Some docks are lined by beautiful flowers in containers that are tended by the owners as their “front yards”, and many of the homes have names and unique decorations.
Some of these homes were once boats of different kinds, and the architectural visions that translated them into floating houses can be fascinating. As has been the tradition, many of the houseboat community members are professional artists.
Stick to the well-maintained docks on your walking tour. There are some improvised walkways and planking near the shore in a few places but you don’t need to traverse any of these areas to admire the best architecture and it’s safer (and more respectful of residents’ privacy) to avoid them.
A paid walking tour of the houseboats, Liberty Ship shipyards area and the yacht harbors of Sausalito is offered on Saturdays and Sundays by a local guide.
Note: The space numbers on the docks on the map below were chosen randomly to get Google Maps to highlight each dock. There is no significance to the numbers chosen, and the houseboats moored there may be of little interest compared to others nearby.
Sausalito Houseboats, Still Rebellious at 65
The famous Sausalito houseboat community chronicled in the late Phil Frank’s fascinating book of historical photos has a history that stretches back well over a century.
The modern community was born in 1945, when the hastily-built Marinship Shipyards were just as hastily shut down at the end of World War II. Returning veterans, artists, maritime workers, musicians and others appropriated the many abandoned vessels, small and large, as living spaces, and for over 25 years the community evolved and grew.
In its most famous era, from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, the area became a checkerboard of improvised floating homes that ranged from the elegant to the innovative-and-creative to the downright dangerous. The population living there likewise became, well… the people ranged from the elegant to the innovative-and-creative to the downright dangerous.
After a series of incidents including a murder, local officials fought a long series of battles with various groups, and eventually struck a compromise where the remaining boats came into harbors, received much-needed sewer hookups and were formally approved as homes.
For some of the residents of the freewheeling boat community a wonderful way of life was lost because of the actions of a relative few.
On the other side of the equation, most of the old houseboats were not connected to sewer lines, which almost everyone agreed had become necessary as the population grew. Walking around the area at low tide in the 1960’s and 1970’s often meant encountering a wall of nasty odors that would repel all but the most hardy travelers. It got so bad that when the wind blew in from across the Bay at low tide you’d wince inside your car driving by northern Sausalito on Highway 101, and accelerate to get out of the bad smell faster!
Fortunately some of the most impassioned and creative members of the original community remain active in Sausalito today, and have worked to preserve the remaining artifacts of our maritime history. In September of 2013 they successfully saved the paddlewheel and smokestack of the Ferry Charles Van Damme from destruction, and they’re working to restore and display them, originally aiming for the boat’s 100th anniversary in 2016.
Some new “anchor outs” have returned to the Bay off Sausalito since the original “Houseboat Wars” ended, and with them some reports of violence on the Bay and conflicts with the Coast Guard, Sheriff, Sausalito Police and the Health Department.
Check out our page on The Sausalito Historical Society for more links on Sausalito history.
The Annual Sausalito Floating Homes Tour
We have now given the Tour its own page, which you can see by clicking here.
See the video below for an example of what you’ll see on the tour.
Video Tour of Sausalito Houseboats
Here’s our favorite video about the floating homes community in Sausalito, with a great summary of the history of the houseboats.