During the Thanksgiving holidays we were fortunate to spend some time in the town of Sonoma, California, well-known for great wines, beautiful weather and a historic plaza that still functions as the heart of the town. This is where the wine country really started—and where California broke free from Spain, after the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846. About twenty minutes east of Sonoma, the larger and more upscale Napa Valley may get more press, but I prefer Sonoma.
I must disclose that we were lucky enough to live and work in Sonoma for over fifteen years. So I’m definitely a bit biased. If you enjoy a more casual atmosphere with a small town feel, Sonoma is a great place to kick back and relax. Beyond the obvious wine tasting, there’s a lot more to Sonoma than one might think. So read on to discover the hidden Sonoma—from an insider’s point of view.
My first bit of advice is to visit Sonoma in the Fall, when the vineyards are a blanket of reds and oranges as you enter the town. You can also drive north along Highway 12 towards Kenwood and Santa Rosa to view even more spectacular colors as you visit the wineries.
A walk around the plaza should never be missed. If you don’t have time to visit a winery, you have a fine choice of tasting rooms along the square. The shops are also fun to explore. Although Chico’s & Ben & Jerry’s are on the square, most of the shops are smaller, one of-a-kind operations. If you like jewelry, clothing or artwork, you’re in for a treat. They even have two excellent choices for shoes. There are many fine restaurants in the mix, but I’ll cover that in another blog.
The Plaza starts where Broadway Street meets Napa Street. Most visitors take a leisurely walk around the four main blocks that circle the historic plaza. But, if you’re an aficionado of art, the Sonoma Art Museum worth a visit. It’s located just one block away from the plaza on Broadway, which is worth exploring. A new Pete’s Coffee house and the return of a Sonoma Williams store to its original building are also in the works. So, lower Broadway Street is worth checking out.
For a walk around the plaza, I suggest starting at Broadway and Napa Street and make a circle around the square for a total of four long blocks. Along the first block (Napa Street) you have Chico’s and an eclectic mix of shops. The Church Mouse is a thrift shop that’s been on the plaza for years. It doesn’t always have the best bargains, but it’s well-organized and full of interesting treasures. There’s also a beautiful courtyard of shops with a small Italian restaurant that we haven’t had time to try yet.
Across First Street East, past Maya Restaurant, take another detour to explore this short block just off the plaza. There’s Bear Moon, an excellent women’s clothing store, Tiddly E. Winks, an old-fashioned 5 & Dime store and several other small shops worth a visit. Across Napa Street is Reader’s Books, an excellent independent book store with fun events every week. Ask for a schedule if you’re staying a few days.
Back on the plaza turning onto First Street East, you’ll find The Corner Store with a great selection of home items—bedding, artwork and plenty of unusual gifts. Be sure to check out their wonderful window displays before you go in. The Sebastiani Theatre, nearby, shows independent films and hosts special events. Keep heading east to visit the Sonoma Mission, which is the last mission on the famous Camino Real, a trail that Father Serra walked from San Diego to Sonoma. The historic Barracks are pretty basic, but worth a peek in the windows. Next door is the famous Sonoma Cheese Factory where you can find a large selection of cheeses, a decent sandwich and other snacks to take across the street for a picnic. You can even purchase wine and drink it legally in Sonoma’s Plaza.
If it’s too early for lunch, there are plenty of delightful cafes with excellent espresso or tea. A little further down the street is the Bear Flag kitchen store. We always enjoy exploring the shop for more kitchen gadgets, cookbooks and their beautiful wine country accessories. It can get pretty crowded at times, but the staff is very helpful. Keep walking down the street for more interesting galleries and shops. They are all worth a visit.
If you’re visiting on a Tuesday, the plaza hosts a Farmer’s Market around 5:30 p.m. from the first Tuesday in May to the last Tuesday in October. Besides fresh produce and local crafts, you’ll find plenty of food vendors and live music. Most people bring blankets or beach chairs and enjoy the action. There’s also a more serious Farmer’s Market on Friday mornings one block east of the plaza in the parking lot by the Train Museum.
But, if shopping is not your thing, there are plenty of opportunities for walks and hikes. The Sonoma Bike Path is just one block east of the square (behind the Cheese Factory & Barracks). This trail leads north past General Vallejo’s Home, which is now a State Park. You can actually visit the home and gardens for a small fee. But walk up the road to get a closer look for free. The trail continues north until you reach Highway 12 where there’s a shopping center complete with Starbuck’s coffee. If you head south on the trail, you pass by some of Sonoma’s older homes, The Patch (a small vegetable stand), and small vineyards. The trail ends at the Sebastiani Winery, which offers tours of it’s historic wine cellar. Turn left and continue up Fourth Street to see more homes and vineyards. You can walk in a loop back to the trail in about 15 minutes.
Another nice hike is the Sonoma Overlook Trail that starts on First Street West behind the Veteran’s Building. This trail takes you up into the hills for a nice view of the town and valley below. It’s well marked and there are benches for viewing. You can even wander into Sonoma’s oldest Cemetery, which is a bit rustic, but full of interesting headstones and monuments to the oldest families of Sonoma.
If you want to cover more area in a short time, Sonoma now has several options for renting bikes. There’s Sonoma Cyclery, Good Time Touring Company (one of the older bicycle touring companies) Sonoma Valley Bike Tours and several others that offer bike rentals with tours of the wineries. We have always borrowed bikes from friends, so we haven’t tried and of these services. But, I can report that you won’t have many challenging hills when riding around the valley and enjoying the historic wineries in Sonoma Valley.
Whether it’s wine tasting, shopping or walking, Sonoma is worth a visit. But, isn’t this also a foodie destination, you ask? That’s a topic I need to cover in my next blog—Savoring Sonoma.