Who needs Hollywood? For nearly a century, Sonoma County has been bringing major movie talent to Northern California, setting the scene for period pieces and horror flicks, enduring classics and cult favorites.
But no matter what the movie or how big its actors, Sonoma County’s always the real star — and it’s always ready for a close-up. So grab your camera and hop in the car, because we’re taking you to some of our most iconic filming locations.
Day 1: Get nostalgic for the small-town America of Peggy Sue Got Married and American Graffiti; see the spooky side of one of the country’s prettiest town squares; drink Pinot with Oscar.
Cruisin’ the Boulevard: Kick off your tour in downtown Petaluma, less than 45 minutes north of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge on Highway 101. You’ve got a big day ahead of you, so fuel up with coffee and a freshly baked organic pastry at the divinely scented Bovine Bakery. Serious espresso fiends can energize just down the street at Acre Coffee, a favorite spot for those who love sustainable interior design and art in their latte foam.
Refreshed and caffeinated, leave the car parked downtown and walk up Western Avenue to Petaluma Boulevard North, once a go-to spot for Hollywood directors looking to recreate the small-town America of yesteryear.
George Lucas shot 1973’s American Graffiti, the classic tribute to American teen-hood and automobiles, largely on Petaluma Boulevard and its surrounding streets. On the first block of Petaluma Boulevard North, in a lot next to the Mystic Theater, a young Richard Dreyfuss pulled off one of film’s most memorable stunts and a cop car lost its back end.
And surrounding streets weren’t short on action, either. Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Suzanne Somers cruised Water Street, Kentucky Street, and Western Avenue on four wheels, but the best way to set the scene today is on two feet (click here for an excellent map of exact filming locations).
Of course, if you’re lucky enough to be visiting Petaluma during the town’s annual salute to the film, you won’t need to do much imagining — there’ll be enough hot rods and rock ’n roll music to take you right back to 1962.
If you need a pick-me-up during your trip down memory lane, stop into Lala’s Creamery, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and soda fountain with kitschy charm and seasonal flavors such as Nutella-banana and Petaluma strawberry.
Lala’s couldn’t be in a more picture-perfect spot: Pleasantville, the 1998 movie in which Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire are zapped into a 1950s TV sitcom town, features scenes shot at the corner just outside.
Glance up at the century-old clock tower at the corner of Western Avenue and Petaluma Boulevard North and you can take yet another trip back in time. The clock, along with Western Avenue’s iron-front buildings, provided a perfect backdrop for Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, a 1986 flashback film starring Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage.
Head west on Western Boulevard towards American Alley (which was used for scenes in 1997’s Inventing the Abbotts), then turn right onto Liberty Street. Number 226 is the stunning Queen Ann Victorian that Turner’s Peggy Sue called home, though these days it’s a private residence.
A few blocks away, at the corner of B Street and Fifth Street, you’ll find the Open Door church, where Robin Williams filmed a scene for Disney’s 1997 family flick, Flubber.
Picnic in the Park: Ready for a change of scene? Drive north on Highway 101 for about 30 miles, then take the Central Healdsburg exit and head to the Healdsburg Plaza. Travel + Leisure magazine recently named the Plaza one of the most beautiful town squares in the country, and they’re not the only ones who’ve thought so.
In 1943, Natalie Wood filmed The Happy Land on the square; Wes Craven brought a group of teenage heartthrobs here more than 50 years later to film scenes for the franchise-starting horror movie Scream.
Lunch options near the square range from upscale (Barndiva), to casual (Bistro Ralph), to hoppy (Bear Republic Brewing Co.). Of course, if the sun’s out, you can always pick up sandwiches at Oakville Grocery and picnic right in the Plaza.
An Offer You Can’t Refuse: From Healdsburg, keep driving north about 10 minutes on 101 until you get to the Independence Lane exit for Geyserville. From here you’re heading to the imposing Francis Ford Coppola winery.
The legendary director may not have shot any movies here, but once inside, you’ll quickly feel the Hollywood magic. Sip a glass of the “Director’s Cut” Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, or Merlot as you marvel at the huge collection of movie memorabilia Coppola’s housed here. Go for a wander and you’ll find Don Corleone’s desk from The Godfather, the original car used in Tucker, and even a few shiny bald men named Oscar.
Small Town Comforts: Cruise back south down 101 about 20 miles, then take the exit for Downtown Santa Rosa. Check into the Hotel La Rose, a 1907 stone stunner on Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square, or try the nearby Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel.
About three miles west of Railroad Square, you can also make like Cate Blanchett and Billy Bob Thornton in the 2001 movie Bandits by booking a room at the Flamingo Resort & Spa.
Dinner and a Movie: Spend the evening wandering Santa Rosa’s quaint downtown, sampling the nightlife on Fourth Street, or indulging in imaginative cocktails and Surf & Turf specialties at Stark’s Steakhouse.
For a low-key evening in, pop into Video Droid on Mendocino Avenue. Check out the mural of Sonoma County filming locations by the store’s entrance, then stock up for a movie marathon in the “filmed in Sonoma County” section. You’ll be pointing at the screen and saying “Hey! I’ve been there!” all night long.
Day 2: See the small towns Hitchcock loved; take a peek at Pollyanna’s house; beware of birds in Bodega; make like a Goonie at the beach.
Shadows and Screams: Start your morning back in Railroad Square, which, by the light of day, may start to look familiar. Alfred Hitchcock shot scenes for Shadow of a Doubt, a 1943 suspense ride about an uncle with a terrible secret and the niece who finds him out, right here.
The train station Joseph Cotten’s locomotive pulls into — bringing with it an ominous cloud of black smoke — is still standing 9 Fourth St., though today the building’s a visitors’ information center.
For a bite and a cup with your view of Railroad Square, try A’roma Roasters or Flying Goat Coffee. Or, for a heartier breakfast, head to Omelet Express, then walk it off with a quick stroll through Whistlestop Antiques.
Take the car back up Fourth Street to make a left on Morgan Street, a right on College Avenue, and then a left on Mendocino Avenue. You can’t miss Santa Rosa High School as it comes up on your left. The elegant brick school lent a gothic feel to scenes in Peggy Sue Got Married and Inventing the Abbotts, and can now boast such fictional alumni as Kathleen Turner, Nicolas Cage, Liv Tyler, and Jennifer Connelly.
Make a quick right onto Pacific Avenue and follow it down to McDonald Avenue, arguably the city’s most beautiful — and famous — residential street. A stroll up and down McDonald will take you past gorgeous old homes used in Shadow of a Doubt and Scream.
Make sure you stop and peek through the gates at the McDonald Mansion, an 1870s estate that’s still the grande dame of the neighborhood. Walt Disney used some Hollywood magic to add a false third story onto this historic home in 1960, transforming the mansion into the house where Hayley Mills goes to live with Jane Wyman in Pollyanna.
Coastal Thrills: Next, you’re headed for the Sonoma coast. Drive south on Highway 101 for just a few minutes before taking the Highway 12 exit towards Sebastopol. Drive through Sebastopol, continuing on Bodega Avenue as it becomes Bodega Highway, and wind your way past vineyards, barns, and apple orchards.
About 10 miles down the road, you’ll reach the tiny town of Bodega. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which still gives viewers a temporary case of ornithophobia 50 years after its release, was set right here in town.
Park your car in front of the Bodega Country Store. Just across the road up Bodega Lane, you’ll see the St. Teresa of Avila Church (made famous by a 1953 Ansel Adams photograph and later glimpsed briefly on film during The Birds) and the old Potter School House (the setting for much on-screen running, screaming, and pecking during The Birds).
The two buildings also prettied up the opening credits of Fred Astaire and Petula Clark’s 1968 musical Finian’s Rainbow. (Feel free to snap as many pictures as you’d like in front of both buildings, but do note that the Potter School House is now a private residence).
Back down the road, don’t drive off without a visit to the Bodega Country Store. You’ll recognize it by the life-sized likeness of Alfred Hitchcock out front. This little store is stocked with Birds-themed souvenirs and Hitchcock memorabilia, and also has a big selection of organic groceries and take-out items. It’s the perfect stop off if you’re feeling — ahem — peckish after all that sightseeing. Two doors down from the store, a tiny museum shows off some seriously rare Hitchcock and Birds artifacts.
For lunch, pack up some soups, fresh-baked focaccia, and lobster mac ’n cheese from the Bodega Country Store, or grab a seat at the Casino Bar & Grill just across the street. The locally sourced, ever-changing menu at this roadhouse-style bar may surprise you, but its history shouldn’t: this was the watering hole of choice for Hitchcock’s crew during The Birds’ filming in Bodega.
Walk of Fame: Travel out to Bodega Head, another famous Birds filming location. From Bodega, take 12 to CA-1 and travel through the town of Bodega Bay (more on this location later). Turn left Eastshore Road, a quick right onto Bay Flat Road and continue on Westshore Road until the road dead ends at a cliff-top parking lot.
Bodega Head is another famous Birds filming location. This area’s just as beautiful in our day as it was in Tippi Hedren’s, so get out of the car and take it all in with a walk on one of the headland trails. If you’ve brought along lunch from the Bodega Country Store, a cluster of picnic tables makes this the perfect stop for a quick break.
Stomp the sand off your shoes and hop back in the car to drive further north up CA-1 — and deeper into horror territory. About six miles up the coastal road, Schoolhouse Beach welcomed Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Freddie Prinze Jr. during a scene in 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer. But don’t be scared: Any local will tell you this spot’s really more famous for tide pooling than for terror.
Another five miles up CA-1, take the pull-off for Goat Rock Beach. Look familiar? Try thinking back to a time before Josh Brolin was the 43rd president of the U.S. and Sean Astin was a hobbit. Steven Spielberg shot part of his 1985 cult classic The Goonies, about a band of kids searching for hidden treasure, right here.
To enjoy the same scenery Spielberg did, go for a bluff-top hike or a leisurely walk along the beach, or visit (from a respectful distance) with the colony of seals that calls this beach home.
Seafood and Bay Views: Retrace your tracks and then make a right onto CA-1. About eight miles down the road you’ll be back in the town of Bodega Bay. Dinner options abound along Bay Highway, from waterfront seafood at Lucas Wharf Restaurant & Bar, to burgers, hotdogs, and shakes at The Dog House.
The site of the Tides Wharf Restaurant and Bar was used for scenes in The Birds, and though the original building burned down years ago, it’s since been rebuilt and now serves upscale casual seafood with bay views. Thursday through Sunday, the Terrapin Creek Café on Eastshore Road offers a locally sourced dinner menu in a casual —yet Michelin-starred — neighborhood atmosphere.
That’s a Wrap:
Stick around town for the night and enjoy panoramic water views from a room at the Inn at the Tides or the Bodega Bay Lodge. Or, make your way north on the CA-1 to Jenner, a tiny but charming town with plenty of lodging options including the Timber Cove Inn and the Jenner Inn & Cottages. The River’s End Inn, where sunsets are a downright cinematic viewing experience, is a local favorite. Further up CA-1, near the northern border of Sonoma County, it doesn’t get much more peaceful than a stay at the modern-rustic Sea Ranch Lodge.
Written by Sonoma Insider Jessica Quandt