Smack dab in the heart of Northern California’s Wine Country, the vibrant city of Santa Rosa blends the pleasures of urban culture with the romance inherent in its beautiful countryside.
It’s the perfect destination for people who want to spend their days wine tasting, exploring back-country roads, and engaging in outdoor adventures … and their nights enjoying top-notch arts and entertainment performances or cuisine ranging from comfort-food cafés to Michelin-starred restaurants.
Here are five fun things to do while you’re in town:
1. Visit Luther Burbank Home & Gardens
Known as the Wizard of Horticulture, Luther Burbank was 27 when he moved from Massachusetts to Santa Rosa in 1875. A self-educated agricultural scientist who had already developed the Russet Burbank potato, he would go on to develop about 800 plant creations in Sonoma County’s mild climate and year-round growing season. Among his big successes are the Santa Rosa Plum, July Elberta peach, Flaming Gold nectarine, and Shasta daisy.
The Greek-Revival home where Burbank lived from 1884 to 1906 is now a National Historic Landmark open to the public. The grounds also contain a greenhouse, one acre of gardens planted with Burbank creations, and his grave. The house’s furnishings are original, and the former carriage house is now a museum/gift shop.
Charming and serene, it’s all located in downtown Santa Rosa, which was open countryside when Burbank took up residence. Luther Burbank Home & Gardens 204 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-524-5445.
2. Enjoy an African Trek at Safari West
Riding in an open-air vehicle through Safari West’s 400-acre preserve — while catching sight of gazelles, zebras, cheetahs, antelopes, cape buffalo, wildebeests, giraffes, and other exotic animals — you’ll feel as if you’re on the Serengeti Plains.
About 700 animals reside in this wildlife preserve, and in conditions close to their natural African habitat; you’ll see them socializing, eating, and playing. Spend the night and you’ll sleep in a luxury tent imported from Africa; the beds are plush and the showers are hot. Safari West Wildlife Preserve & African Tent Camp 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, 707-579-2551.
3. Go Boating, Fishing or Swimming at Spring Lake Regional Park
This 320-acre regional park, surrounded by hills, is home to a lake, ponds, oak woodlands, grasslands, meadows, and spring-through-summer wildflowers. Among many popular activities here (including hiking, camping, cycling, and birding), three involve the park’s water features.
Boating: Go boating throughout the year in a canoe, kayak, paddle boat, or windsurfer; rentals available May through September, or bring your own craft (up to 16 feet in length, no gas-powered engines allowed). Life jackets must be worn while on the lake.
Fishing: The lake is stocked with sunfish, catfish, and large-mouth bass, allowing you to catch lunch or dinner (and, if you like, grill it on one the picnic area grills). Anyone over 16 needs a California fishing license.
Swimming: From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the lake provides a lovely 3-acre swimming lagoon with a sandy beach. New in 2016: A colorful, inflatable water playground that lets adults and children (age 6 or older) bounce, climb, slide, and balance on a series of floating play stations (Water Park admission $10 children, $15 adults, or $45 for a family of four).
Spring Lake Regional Park 391 Violetti Drive, Santa Rosa, 707-539-8092.
4. Hang with Charlie Brown & Friends
Go ice skating at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena (AKA Snoopy's Home Ice, 1667 W. Steele Lane, Santa Rosa, 707-546-7147), built in 1969 by local resident Charles M. Schulz, creator of the legendary comic strip Peanuts.
An avid ice skater, Schulz, who died in 2000, could often be found there — usually playing ice hockey. Surrounded by redwood trees and resembling a Swiss chalet, the arena offers daily public skating. The Warm Puppy Café serves sandwiches, burgers, and salads, and you can pick up Peanuts memorabilia in Snoopy’s Gallery and Gift Shop.
Nearby you'll find the Charles M. Schulz Museum (2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa, 707-549-4452), which is dedicated to Schulz’s life, career and art. On a visit you’ll find the world’s largest collection of original Peanuts artwork, watch animated Peanuts specials, view Peanuts products dating from the 1950s onward (dolls, toys, games), and delight in unexpected treasures such as “Wrapped Snoopy House” — a doghouse wrapped and turned into an environmental artwork by legendary artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
And thanks to community fund-raising art projects held in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2010, whimsically decorated statues of four Peanuts characters—Charlie Brown, Woodstock, Snoopy, and Lucy—are scattered throughout Santa Rosa. For details about how and where to find them, read "Explore Snoopy and the Peanuts in Sonoma County."
5. Ride in a Hot-Air Balloon
Graced with extraordinary views, from steep mountains to the Pacific Ocean, Sonoma County hot-air ballooning makes for an unforgettable experience. Most balloons launch in the early morning, when winds are light and temperatures cool — factors that ensure an easy launch and safe landing.
Four excellent companies in Sonoma County offer balloon expeditions, meeting passengers at easy-to-reach sites and transporting them by van to the day’s launch site.
For more details, read "Hot Air Ballooning in Sonoma County," which gives a brief overview of each company – A Balloon Over Sonoma, Above the Wine Country Balloons, Sonoma Valley Balloons, and Up & Away Ballooning.