Sonoma County is home to almost 60,000 acres of vineyards, and more than 450 wineries. The food-centric region boasts hundreds of restaurants, from historic roadhouses, to contemporary locavore pubs, to many Michelin-starred destinations. Like any great region, there are numerous natural landmarks here, as well, including historic state parks, and beautiful ranches dating back to the 1800s.
Adding to the pleasure, each geographical area within Sonoma County’s million-plus acres offers its own distinctive treasures, as diverse as coastal ocean cliffs to inland mountain ranges. Indeed, you could easily spend two or three days in each area, and only scratch the surface.
With so many wonderful choices, a first-time visit might seem overwhelming. But take a dip with our highlights guide, and discover a taste of the most celebrated experiences. Follow along as we explore the “must-sees” of Sonoma Valley, the town of Sonoma, and the Carneros area just south of it all.
The birthplace of the California’s commercial wine industry in the 1850s, Sonoma Valley now covers more than 14,000 acres of vineyards, dotted with more than 50 wineries and tasting rooms. Rich with bucolic farms and some 13,000 acres of open parkland, Sonoma Valley also boasts some of the County’s best outdoor recreational activities.
So prime yourself for a busy day with a hearty breakfast at El Molino Central. It doesn’t look like much from the outside of its small white stucco frame, but inside, there are organic heirloom corn kernels being painstakingly hand-ground on a stone wheel for tortillas and tamales. Dig into the mouthwatering chilaquiles topped in soft-scrambled Field of Greens eggs, roasted tomato and Alma’s salsa verde, and be sure to add a side of refried Rancho Gordo heritage beans.
- Community Café, a Mad Men-like retro diner with modern dishes like Truffled Eggs & Toast, a sumptuous soufflé of thick-sliced toasted English muffin stuffed with egg yolks, draped in fontina cheese, broiled, then smothered in sautéed wild mushrooms, asparagus and a drizzle of truffle oil.
- Sunflower Caffe Espresso & Wine Bar, where the specialty is sweet or spicy chai latte “dirty” style, with a shot of espresso added (great with the Peruvian spiced chicken omelet with cilantro lime cream, sweet-spicy aji chile crema and black bean chili).
A visit to Buena Vista Winery is next, to see the oldest commercial winery in California. Founded in 1857, it’s complete with caves that are now historical landmarks. The buildings and cave have recently been renovated for modern safety measures, but remain elegantly dark and mysterious, with a new attraction: an interactive museum of ancient winemaking tools.
Now head to the 400-acre Bartholomew Memorial Park just over the hillside, which is also home to Bartholomew Park Winery. The on-site museum shares the long history of Sonoma winemaking, including a display of primitive agricultural tools used since the park’s original villa was built in 1861.
- Gundlach Bundschu, an historic 1858 winery, with caves carved into a gentle hillside.
- Three Sticks at the Adobe of Sonoma, a sleek new tasting room in the 170-year-old Vallejo-Castenada adobe home.
- Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery, where the famous 1904 winemaking family still crafts its art on 4th Street East.
You’re ready to catch your breath for a few minutes, so dig your toes into the grass beneath the shade trees in the eight-acre Sonoma Plaza (the largest such plaza in California). When you’re ready to get up, lunch is just steps away, at the famous The Girl & the Fig. The French-country restaurant has built its reputation on stellar, seasonal plates like duck egg ravioli with spring mushrooms, onion crema, green garlic, spring peas and baby carrots sprinkled in smoked paprika.
- Café La Haye, an exquisite American bistro
- Angelo’s Wine Country Deli, a true Old World heritage delicatessen showcasing Sonoma-grown ingredients
The Plaza is great for shopping in the many boutiques, art galleries and gourmet food stores lining its sidewalks. You’ll also want to tour the National Historic Landmark adobe buildings right along the walkway, designed in 1834 by the Mexican Governor Mariano Vallejo. Stop, too, at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, designated as the largest visual arts organization in the San Francisco North Bay region.
That evening, stay at El Dorado, a 27-room luxury boutique hotel dating to the 1840s but completely modernized and charming with four poster beds and French doors leading to private balconies overlooking the Plaza and gardens.
- The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, a historic, mission-style property opened in 1840.
- Sonoma’s Best Cottages, a private oasis of four bungalows near the Plaza.
For dinner, the AAA Four Diamond Award Santé restaurant at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is a worthy, and most memorable indulgence in upscale California cuisine. Treat yourself to the 7-course chef’s tasting menu including amuse and cheese plate — sweet butter poached lobster is an entree signature. Sip, too, since the wine list features more than 500 Sonoma and Napa wines.
Carneros spans 8,000 vineyard acres with more than 20 wineries, tucked atop San Pablos Bay just south of the town of Sonoma. There’s lots to see, so fuel yourself with a big breakfast at The Fremont Diner, where chef-owner Chad Harris fills our bellies with Sunset magazine award-winning comfort food like fried chicken and waffles, fried fruit pie, chicory coffee, fluffy biscuits and creamy gravy.
Schug Carneros Estate Winery is another nearby treasure, internationally renowned for its Pinot Noirs. The place is classic, set on a hillside of vineyards bordered by rose bushes, a German chalet-style winery, and stone caves lined with wine barrels.
Zip over to another icon, Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, to toast your adventures with the signature sparkling wine at just around the Hwy. 121 bend. Established nearly 30 years ago, this winery was the first sparkling wine house in the Carneros area, though you’ll learn on your entertaining, educational tour through the caves and vista terrace that the Ferrer family has been making sparkling wines for more than 150 years.
In December of 2013, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Santa Rosa was named the No. 1 restaurant in all of America, courtesy of Open Table. So what better place for a star-studded lunch, featuring a six-course tasting menu prepared by executive chef David Bush paired with wines from St. Francis’ artisan collection? You might have bouillabaisse of fresh fish and shellfish, fingerling potatoes, fennel fronds and grilled crostini topped in rouille with a glass Cabernet Franc, for example, plus grilled bavette of beef with Bloomsdale spinach in sesame-miso vinaigrette, baby turnips, garlic chips and truffled ponzu alongside a glass of Merlot.
- Madrone Vineyards Estate, originally built in 1887, but recently remodeled with a new small bites pairing
- Hamel Family Wines with breathtaking glass and wood architecture; try the Reserve Experience with a cheese-charcuterie board and small bites
Soak up even more beauty at Jack London Historic State Park just minutes away, which the renowned 19th Century author himself called “Beauty Ranch.” You can easily spend at least three hours here, strolling around the House of Happy Walls museum, London’s famous writing cottage, the Wolf House ruins, the delightful and innovative Pig Palace, barns, the lake and bathhouse. Hikers and horseback riders share the 26-mile trails, too, marked by a 2,000 year-old redwood tree.
All this exercise means you can reward yourself with an extra fine dinner, and there is little finer than Glen Ellen Star, where former French Laundry talent Ari Weiswasser draws crowds nightly for his award-winning California-Mediterranean cuisine. The menu changes frequently with the seasons, but always celebrates a fire-fed wood oven for favorites like wood roasted heirloom baby carrots smoothed in Oaxacan mole and topped in sesame seed brittle; and wood oven roasted lamb meatballs atop couscous, red charmoula and preserved lemon. Save room for a sweet finish of homemade salted peanut butter ice cream.
- The Fig Café & Winebar, the sassy little sister to the famous girl & the fig
Need more information, please visit sonomacounty.com.
If you need help in planning your getaway, check out our Napa and Sonoma Valley vacation package.
Carey Sweet is a food, wine and travel journalist based in Sonoma County. You can read her work in the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Time Inc. publications, airline travel magazines, Gannett newspapers and numerous travel magazines and websites. Follow her on careysweet.com.