At a Glance: John’s Favorites
- Lodging: MacArthur Place, Beltane Ranch, Kenwood Inn & Spa, Gaige House Inn, Les Petites Maisons, El Dorado Hotel, Sonoma Creek Inn
- Vacation Rentals: Find a place in Sonoma
- Restaurants: the girl & the fig, Cafe La Haye, El Dorado Kitchen, Shiso, Caffe Citti, Juanita Juanita
- See & Do: The Plaza, Sonoma Historic State Park, Jack London State Park, wineries, La Haye Art Center, Bouverie Preserve
Long before the invention of ‘Wine Country,’ sleepy Sonoma was better known for hot springs and history than wineries and weekenders. Today it’s the folksy-hip side of Wine Country, where it’s okay to have bad hair, drive a clunker, and vote Green.
Call it ‘Slow-noma.’ The region has changed dramatically over the past 20 years with the popularization of the grape, but the kick-back farm-town vibe remains. Picnic in the shade of century-old trees on the plaza—the largest town square in California—where you can legally drink wine in public (pack a corkscrew and tablecloth). Even on summer weekends with tourists everywhere, the plaza still feels like an old-fashioned village green. During my last visit, two unaccompanied roosters waddled past on the lawn, crossed the road, then cock-a-doodle-dooed and disappeared. You’d never see that in downtown Napa.
Get your geography straight. There are three Sonomas: the town, the valley, and the county. Think of them as Russian dolls—the town is in the valley, and the valley is in the county. Most of the valley’s 60-some wineries lie north of town, up-valley along Hwy 12, north of Agua Caliente and south of Santa Rosa.
This guide covers the town of Sonoma, and Sonoma Valley. For more on the county, check out our Healdsburg guide. But if you prefer Hummers to hybrids, or complex cabernets to syrupy syrahs, visit Napa instead; our guide to the fancier side of Wine Country is coming next week.
- Picnic on the sun-dappled Sonoma Plaza.
- Turn your teeth purple with jammy zinfandels and spicy syrahs.
- Ride horseback high above the Valley at Jack London State Park.
- Delight the kids at Traintown—before they’re spoiled by Disney.
- Blow off work for a day and be reminded why you live here.
- One hour to Sonoma Plaza from the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Weekend traffic snarls Hwy 12; take Arnold Dr instead.
- Hotels book up on summer weekends; plan ahead.
- Corporate interlopers buying out wineries; stick to the little guys.
See & Do
Start your visit downtown, where you can picnic in the grass on the Sonoma Plaza. In the middle of the park, the 1908 Mission Revival-style City Hall has four identical façades, a creative solution to the dilemma posed when shopkeepers along the plaza all demanded that the front door face their direction.
History is a big deal in Sonoma: the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt happened here. Get the whole story on the plaza’s northern side at Sonoma State Historic Park. Take a free peek inside the Toscano Hotel (20 W Spain St), a preserved 1880s saloon.
Anchoring the plaza’s northeastern corner, the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma is the 21st and final California mission, marking the end of El Camino Real, and the end of that bizarre period in California history, during which more Indians died than were converted to Christianity. The mission’s pièce de résistance is the 1841 chapel and its primitive, iconic statuary. Moody photo ops.
Most shopping around the plaza is so-so, but there are several cool standouts. For art, head to La Haye Art Center, an open studio inside a former foundry, where five locals artists—three painters, a potter, and a bronze sculptor—create, display, and sell their work. Artifax carries rare beads and Asian artifacts. Kitchen-gadget hounds love Sign of the Bear, an indie alternative to Williams-Sonoma.
If you’re too tight on time to hit the wineries up valley, sample local vintages for $1 an ounce at the Wine Exchange of Sonoma. There’s also a fantastic selection of beers to taste, ideal when you’re traveling with your non-wine-drinking buds.
Before your kids start demanding Disneyland, bring them to Traintown, and delight in their squeals of joy. I wish I were three feet tall again to ride the miniature train and Ferris wheel.
Garden fetishists love the changing installations at Cornerstone Gardens, where 20 celebrated landscape designers each created an avant-garde garden plot. Some of the work is simply ostentatious (like this season’s two enormous, blue Adirondack chairs, scaled for Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann), while others inspire new perspectives on the utilization of space and dirt. At the north end of the valley in Kenwood, check out the tripped-out garden sculptures at Wildwood Farm Sculpture Garden, a nursery specializing in Japanese maples. Like the art? Take it home: all of it is for sale.
Explore my favorite mom-and-pop Sonoma Valley wineries.
Read more about Sonoma wineries.
High above Sonoma Valley, 1400-acre Jack London State Park has gorgeous hiking on oak-studded hillsides ranging in elevation from 600ft to 2300ft (watch for poison oak!). Or see it the way Jack did, on horseback; contact Triple Creek Horse Outfit.
In 1913, Jack London constructed his dream mansion here, and on the night before its completion, it burned to the ground. (The foundation still remains.) London died soon after—of heartbreak, some say—and his wife built the ‘House of Happy Walls,’ which is preserved as a museum. It’s worth a quick peek, especially for Bay Area history buffs who appreciate late-19th-century memorabilia from Oakland and SF. Check out the peep hole through which Mrs London used to spy on her guests!
Picture-perfect Glen Ellen is lined with white picket fences, and feels worlds away from the hubbub of Sonoma Plaza—especially on a busy summer weekend. There’s not a lot to do other than visit Benziger Winery (see Sonoma Valley Wineries) or drink beer on the shady banks of a creek at the Jack London Lodge saloon (but those giant TV screen totally kill the historic vibe; bring your TV-B-Gone. Spend the night in Glen Ellen for maximum quiet and excellent star-gazing (see Hotels & Inns, below).
Into wildlife nature walks? Book one of the (coveted) slots on the guided Saturday hikes through Bouverie Preserve, a 500-acre woodland preserve in the hills above Sonoma Valley that has stood undisturbed since the 1930s. It’s home to a whopping 130 species of birds and 350 species of flowering plants. Bring binocs.
Other alternatives to wine-tasting: Take a cooking course at Ramekins Sonoma Valley Culinary School, specifically for home cooks. The fanciest spot for a rubdown is the Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa; book well in advance and comb your hair. At Jim Russel Racing School, learn how to properly drive that expensive sports car you bought during your midlife crisis.
Pack the perfect picnic at Sonoma’s specialty-food stores.
Sonoma Restaurants: A Summary
Tops on every foodie’s list is dinner at Cafe La Haye ($$$), where the hearty cooking has marvelous depth of flavor. The room is tiny—only 35 seats—with an open-truss ceiling, corrugated metal roof, and cool contemporary art adoring the walls.
When I want a guaranteed-festive evening, I head to the girl & the fig. The earthy flavors of southern French cooking inform the menu. Sit outside on the expansive patio under strings of colored lights and pretend you’re in Provence. The latest addition to the town’s high-end-dining scene, El Dorado Kitchen ($$$–$$$$) is Sonoma’s new face of chic. Exec chef Ryan Fancher hails from the French Laundry, making this an important new stop on the culinary circuit.
Modern Japanese and sushi are the focus at Shiso ($$). The chef-owner is passionate about raw fish, but does great things with hot food too. Presentations are gorgeous. For big plates of pasta, rotisseried chicken, and veal parmesan, head to folksy-fun Della Santina’s ($$), where nothing ever changes, and locals want to keep it like that, thank you very much.
In Sonoma Valley, my favorite spot for lunch is Caffe Citti in Kenwood ($$), a mom-and-pop roadside Italian trattoria that makes great pizzas. Dinner’s okay; lunch is the thing. For dinner or brunch up-valley my first choice is the fig cafe & wine bar ($$), a soulful bistro that lives up to the real French definition of the term: a relaxed restaurant serving comfort food for weary travelers.
For breakfast with the locals, head to Pearl’s Homestyle Cooking. For superior Mexican, skip the places around the Plaza, and instead drive to Juanita Juanita. When you’re jonesing for a late-night snack, head north of town on Hwy 12 to find the taco trucks between Boyes Blvd and Agua Caliente. The best of ‘em is the Jesus Taco Truck, with the Christos painted on the back.
Read full-length reviews of my favorite Sonoma restaurants.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Sonoma Hotels and Inns: A Summary
I’ve seen nearly all the hotels and inns of Sonoma, but have only listed my favorite places to stay.
Surrounded by wildflower-studded fields with horses chomping tall grass, the enchanting 1890 Beltane Ranch ($$$), in Sonoma Valley, has double wrap-around porches and sunny, cheerful rooms with simple furnishings. For my money, this is Sonoma Valley’s most charming inn.
Les Petites Maisons ($$$–$$$$) has four freestanding cottages with smartly decorated living rooms, semi-private patios, and full kitchens. You’ll get the most bang for your buck at the Sonoma Creek Inn ($–$$). This place is c-u-t-e! So what if it’s in the middle of nowhere? If location matters, but you’re short on cash, choose the Jack London Lodge ($$–$$$), a family-owned motel in picturesque Glen Ellen.
Three hotels in historic buildings front on the plaza; all have smallish rooms. The Swiss Hotel ($$–$$$$) opened in 1909, and has five rooms done up in country-cute style (think knotty pine and wicker). A step up, the Sonoma Hotel ($$–$$$) anchors the plaza’s northwest corner. Rooms sport a mix of Spanish Colonial furniture, with a few American country-crafts pieces. The hippest of the three is the El Dorado Hotel ($$$), which has been styled out with a few sharp-looking details a la Restoration Hardware. Every room has a balcony, an added bonus.
El Pueblo Inn ($$–$$$) is basically a motel complex built before the days of prefab construction. If you’re with the family and you’re on a budget, make this your first choice—kids love the big pool.
The top-of-the-line inns have all the latest bells and whistles. MacArthur Place ($$$$) sits on the land of a former estate, a compound of freestanding white-washed cottage buildings surrounded by spectacular mature gardens. For an extravagant kiss-and-makeup weekend, call the Kenwood Inn and Spa ($$$$). The formal-fancy rooms are decked out like a château in the Loire Valley. Tops on the fabulousity scale are the spa suites at the Gaige House Inn ($$$$). The bathrooms are the focal point, with tubs of hollowed-out granite boulders. A chef prepares your breakfast.
Read full-length reviews of my favorite Sonoma hotels.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $200
- $$$ = $200 to $300
- $$$$ = $300 & up