There is an unresolved debate revolving around the question: what are the best destinations in Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley? Well, if distance, time and the price of gas make a difference, there is certainly no better answer than the picturesque town of Sonoma, with much more to offer than wineries.
Under 40 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, Sonoma is an historic town in the heart of wine country, easily do-able as a day trip, if not for a weekend. Sonoma is a top choice, having more historic interest than nearby towns in Sonoma and Napa and is also the shortest drive due north from San Francisco.
Beyond the obvious draw of the vineyards for which the rich soil of Sonoma and Napa Valley are world-renowned, there is plenty to do unrelated to wine making and wine tasting. Both counties have a healthy dose of small antique furniture shops, charming inns, resorts with spas, pleasant biking routes, good restaurants and roadside fruit and vegetable stands sprinkled along the local roads. Sonoma, known as the Valley of the Moon possibly from a translation from a Native American tongue, is convenient and abounds in all of these activities and diversions.
Driving into Sonoma on Broadway, from Route 12, a visitor is attracted to a lovely view of the 1908 City Hall in the town’s central plaza, California’s largest, a National Historic Landmark. The layout is much like many European villages, four streets evenly laid out around the park in the middle. Within a corner of this grassy eight acre square is an historic statue honoring the Bear Flag Revolt. This is where the official bear flag of California, later adopted in 1911, was first flown in revolt against Mexico in June of 1846.
Mission of Saint Francis Solanus
Just off Sonoma Plaza, at 114 East Spain Street, is the Mission of Saint Francis Solanus of Sonoma. Dating from 1823, this is the nation’s northernmost of the chain of 21 missions in California built by the missionaries, New World Franciscan order of Spain. The attractive, yet plain and simple, white-washed historical landmark museum was restored in 1911 and is currently open for visitors, operated by the California Department of Recreation and Parks as part of the Sonoma State Historic Park. Five additional historic sites are contained within the state park, all in or near Sonoma.
Blue Wing Inn
Directly across the street, complementing the mission, stands another adobe building, the Blue Wing Inn. Famously one of the oldest hostelries in California, a plaque informs that it was built in about 1840. Purchased by gold rush settlers, it played host to Ulysses S. Grant, Kit Carson, Fighting Joe Hooker, William T. Sherman and members of the Bear Flag Party. No interior access is permitted, so just peer in the windows and let your imagination do the rest.
There are plenty of options for getting around once you park your car in the town parking lot. Rent a bicycle for an hour or more. Take the open-air vintage Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley guided tour which includes stops at four wineries. Partake of samples at the Sonoma Cheese Factory, established in 1931. Grab a beer at the fourth generation family-operated Swiss Hotel Bar and Restaurant on the plaza since 1909, where the walls are crammed with dozens of old town and people photographs. Enjoy the window shopping and excellent dining around the plaza, where many restaurants feature sidewalk tables or charming rear gardens. We enjoyed sitting out back at Della Santina’s, where the owner informed they had sought to re-create a little corner of Lucca, in Tuscany.
So many wine and olive tasting rooms surround the town plaza, the only difficulty is where to settle in for a pleasurable and educational diversion to savor some of the region’s best native produce. A map of tasting rooms situated right on the plaza is found here. Beyond Sonoma itself, there are simply dozens more, listed here. Learn about wine etiquette, wine pairings, the history of wine making, roots and vintages, climate considerations and today’s production process. And, of course, don’t leave without a bottle or more to enjoy at home or to give as a thoughtful gift.
Continuing on Route 12, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is just three miles out of town. Once you see it, you will easily understand why this has been rated one of America’s top spas by Travel & Leisure Magazine. At 40,000 square feet, if you can dream of a treatment, it is quite likely on offer here. There is a natural hot artesian whirlpool, mineral water soaking baths, an outdoor thermal bath, an outdoor lounging loggia and dozens of relaxing and cleansing treatments. For special occasions, there is also a one Michelin-starred restaurant, Sante. The Raindance Lodge by Marriott’s Renaissance is another hotel with spa, located right on Broadway in downtown Sonoma. And, yet another is MacArthur Place, a luxurious setting on seven acres with a Manor House built in 1850. There are 64 rooms only, suites with fireplaces and a well-known steakhouse called Saddles.
Home of Jack London
Yes, Jack London (1876-1916) had it right when he chose a nearby spot, Beauty Ranch, to call home. The Jack London State Historic Park is located south of Route 12 near Glen Ellen. As one of America’s foremost writers of fiction (Call of the Wild and White Fang), Jack London’s Wolf House was his dream home nestled among hundreds of acres of beautiful property. Clever boy, he purchased the 1,000 acre ranch for $26,450 in 1905; it must have represented a virtual fortune back then.