Sonoma County is home to one of the state’s oldest and most historic cities: Petaluma. It boasts a well-maintained downtown that is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
First settled in 1851 and chartered in 1858, Petaluma straddles the Petaluma River and has been prosperous from its early days, thanks in large part to its importance as a shipping port. That prosperity translated into beautiful homes and impressive commercial buildings, all of which managed to survive the 1906 earthquake that devastated many other Bay Area cities.
Petaluma has evolved through the years, and today it combines the best of the 21st century with a deep respect for the past. In the historic downtown, beautifully renovated 19th century buildings hold acclaimed farm-to-table restaurants and cafés, modern art galleries, unique clothing boutiques, and the small-but-fascinating Petaluma Historical Library & Museum (20 Fourth St., Petaluma, 707-778-4398), which is housed in a former Carnegie Library building. The museum offers docent-led tours of the historic downtown area.
Before exploring Petaluma, you may want to drop in at the Petaluma Visitors Center (210 Lakeville St., Petaluma, 707-769-0429), located in a renovated Mission Revival train depot just steps away from downtown. They’ll provide you with maps, self-guided tour itineraries, and lots more.
Here are five things to do while you’re in town:
Visit Location Scenes from Famous Movies
With immense small-town charm and historic buildings that include an array of architectural styles, Petaluma has often been used for location shoots for classic films such as “American Graffiti,” “Basic Instinct,” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
A self-guided walking tour will take you to key locations for these and other films, most located in and around the historic downtown area (which has a walking tour of its own). You’ll encounter many entertaining diversions along the way, including antique stores, art galleries, excellent restaurants and cafés, and even an heirloom seed store. Download directions for the self-guided Petaluma Film Tour.
In the 1830s-1840s this adobe compound was known as Rancho Petaluma. Now a National Historic Landmark, it was then the largest privately-owned adobe building in what would soon be known as California — and ranch headquarters for the region’s most important early historic figure, General Mariano Vallejo.
Visiting Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park (3325 Adobe Road, Petaluma, 707-762-4871) is like being transported back to the great rancho era: Most of the adobe bricks are original, farm animals roam the property, authentic period furniture and equipment fill the rooms, coyotes and foxes can be spotted in the grasslands, and — on Living History Days — docents in period dress perform chores in the good ol’ ways. The park is beautifully situated amidst quiet farmland and oak-studded hills, and the shaded tables are perfect for picnics.
Browse Antique Shops
Petaluma’s compact downtown is home to an unusually large number of antique shops, each with a distinct personality.
Housed in a magnificent 1926 Neo-Classic Revival bank, Vintage Bank Antiques (101 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma, 707-769-3097) offers three floors crammed with paintings, jewelry, furniture, and objets d’art. The Military Antiques & Museum (300 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma, 707-763-2220) sells everything from battlefield relics to antique firearms, and bayonets.
Some 20 independent dealers contribute to a giant collection of goods at the Petaluma Collective (300 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma, 707-765-2920). And at Doll Mercantile (1510 Bodega Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952, 707-765-6935) you can find dolls made with China heads, German porcelain, hard plastic, and tin; the store also restores or repairs dolls. Discover all of Petaluma’s antique shops.
Enjoy a Segway Nature Tour
Spend an hour exploring four to five miles of trails that wind through the wetlands of Petaluma’s Shollenberger Park. More than 140 bird species — including the snowy egret, tundra swan, golden eagle and wild turkey — live in or visit this beautiful marshy area (download the official list of birds).
This $35 tour fee includes a pre-recorded audio tour, safety helmet, and vest; personal training on the Segway before you start; and a follow-on complimentary glass of house wine or draft beer at the bar and lounge in the Sheraton Sonoma County Petaluma (the tour leaves from the hotel’s parking lot). For more details, contact Segway Tours of Petaluma (222 Weller St., Suite 2, Petaluma, 707-799-6049); the company also offers Historic Downtown and Heritage Home tours..
Paddle the Petaluma River or Petaluma Marsh
If you’re into stand-up paddling or want to give it a try, Petaluma Stand Up Paddle (775 Baywood Drive, #105, Petaluma, 707-765-1131) will rent you a paddle board, give you a mini-lesson (if you need it), and get you paddling away on the river.
Prefer a kayak? The Petaluma Marsh Tour at Clavey Paddlesports (409 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma, 707-766-8070) takes you out on the Petaluma River and into the peaceful waters of the nearby marsh to explore grass- and reed-lined sloughs alive with waterfowl.
Written by Sonoma Insider Jessica Quandt