On your next trip from San Francisco, you don’t need to look very far. Just over 30 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Petaluma has everything a California day-tripper could hope for: Victorian architecture, eclectic shopping, world-famous brews, and serious eats to go with them.
Just cruise north on the Golden Gate, following Highway 101 North about 40 minutes, and you’ll find yourself transported to this charming town where history meets modernity, rolling hills meet a chic downtown, and you discover the town you’ll soon be telling your friends back home all about.
Morning: Start with a Fresh Local Breakfast
Petaluma was once known as “the Egg Basket of the World” in a nod to its agricultural prominence. While some of the town’s rural land has been revamped with a chic, cosmopolitan element, Petaluma’s still fiercely proud of its expertise in producing fresh, local, delicious food. So there’s no better way to start a day in Petaluma than by getting a true taste of what this place is all about.
After the easy drive into town from San Francisco, you’ll want to make a morning coffee and pastry your first order of business. Acre Coffee pours one of the more delicious (and artistic) cappuccinos you’ll ever sip. And the aromas of freshly baked pastries and breads fill the old U.S. Bakery building (circa 1860), where today the Della Fattoria café and bakery offers delicious, wholesome food, beautifully prepared and presented.
Afternoon: Exploring Downtown Petaluma
Post caffeine-and-sugar rush, take advantage of a surge in energy to stroll Petaluma’s charming downtown. Compact but not claustrophobic, with stunning architecture and charming boutiques, the city’s downtown strikes a unique, wonderful balance: Here you’ll find an effortless coexistence of the kind of upscale, quirky, and countrified experiences that define Northern California Wine Country.
While downtown, meander small streets and wide boulevards lined with pretty boutiques, colorful artists’ studios, music stores, toyshops, and plenty of independent coffee spots to help you keep your momentum going.
For women’s clothing, Ooh La Luxe offers unique pieces handpicked for the everyday fasionsita with effortlessly cool California style by twin sisters Cristina and Michelle Wilson — including their own Ooh La Luxe brand. At Ethical Clothing (see photo) you’ll find locally designed and mindfully manufactured clothing in sizes from XS to XL, plus vintage and vintage-inspired baubles and fabulous accessories of every type
Nearby, at the corner of 4th and B streets, the gift shop Field Works Petaluma features an eclectic mix of goods including stationery, bath and body works, and items for the home, as well as personal accessories and gifts. Field Works specializes in one-of-a-kind products that you’re not likely to find anywhere else, including a wide array of Petaluma and Sonoma County merchandise.
You’ll also find a fascinating collection at Truck & Barter, a family-owned, modern day general store. It features carefully curated goods crafted by both independent makers and established brands for gifts, kitchen items, apothecary products, home and garden, bags and accessories, paper goods, and vintage pieces.
For those whose tastes skew more historic than modern, Petaluma has several top-notch antique stores. At Vintage Bank Antiques, 30 dealers present more than 2,000 quality paintings, elegant furniture, and more than 60 cases of choice antique objects, on three floors of a former bank building, itself a grand, architectural treasure. If you’ve got an eclectic eye, opt for Petaluma Collective, where some 20 independent dealers bring together the best of antique home goods, art, toys, kitchenware, vintage clothing, and just about anything else you can imagine.
Vying for the title of “Petaluma’s quirkiest store” — and certainly claiming top honors for “coolest shopfront” — is the The Seed Bank. Housed inside the gorgeous 1920s Sonoma County National Bank building, this “bank” now tenders more than 1,500 varieties of heirloom seeds, plus gardening tools, books, and hand-made gifts.
If you’re not in the mood for shopping, Petaluma’s historic downtown is still a beautiful — and fascinating — place for an afternoon stroll. The city’s architecture and surrounding rural scenery give it an “American small town of yesteryear” look that several big-time movie directors have taken advantage of. From classics like Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married and George Lucas’s American Graffiti, to lighter fare including Flubber and Pleasantville, you may find yourself recalling scenes from the big screen as you wander around town.
Once lunchtime hits, take a break from walking to refuel. Within a few blocks of the Petaluma River’s newly revitalized waterfront, you’ll find loads of sit-down spots to satisfy any craving. Check out Graffiti for riverfront views with your tapas, pizzetta, or seafood; try Wild Goat Bistro for locavore salads and gluten-free sandwiches; or pop into Central Market for Californian-meets-Mediterranean plates with ingredients sourced from the restaurant’s own Petaluma farm. For more ideas, check our listings of all Petaluma restaurants.
For more casual, grab-and-go options, Petaluma also sets a pretty high bar: Pick up a savory pie from the Petaluma Pie Company, then follow it up with an old-fashioned malt or cone from cutesy throw-back LaLa’s Creamery.
Evening: Discover Famed Brewpubs and Restaurants in Petaluma
By night, Petaluma boasts considerably more cool than most small cities. The wildly popular Lagunitas Brewery is based right here and, even if you can’t make it to one of their free (but often packed) afternoon brewery tours, you can still make a night of it at their local taproom.
In the heart of downtown, McNear’s Mystic Theatre hosts regular live music performances. Built in 1911 to showcase vaudeville talent, today you’ll see everything from reggae, to country, to rock on the schedule.
If you’re making it a late night at Lagunitas or the Mystic, never fear: You don’t need to drive back to San Francisco to sleep off the day in style. Petaluma’s Metro Hotel & Café is a whimsical little French outpost just minutes from downtown. The Hotel Petaluma, right in the heart of town, offers affordable rooms in a newly renovated, century-old building. Or how about staying at the Sheraton Sonoma County - Petaluma.
Looking to extend your stay? Check out five of our favorite things to do in Petaluma, find out what this little city’s most famous for, or keep your trip going by following one of several two- or three-day itineraries in Sonoma Wine Country.
Written by Sonoma Insider Jessica Quandt.