48 Hours in Petaluma, California
Once known as the egg basket of the world for its poultry industry, today the riverside town of Petaluma is a charming historic gem with an eclectic mix of shops and galleries, a foodie haven, and a gateway to the bountiful delights of Sonoma County.
Surrounded by rolling hills to the east and west, Petaluma (pop. 57,941) nestles on Sonoma County's southern border, just a 45-minute drive straight north on Highway 101 from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
Or, if you fly into the Charles M Schulz-Sonoma County Airport (STS) in Santa Rosa, Airport Express stops at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma, on its way to the San Francisco and Oakland airports.
Plus, the historic train depot in downtown Petaluma is now the southernmost of the six Sonoma-Marin Area Regional Transit (SMART) stations in Sonoma County.
Once you arrive in Petaluma, there is plenty to see and do, from historic buildings to intriguing antiques and boutiques; nature parks to nightlife; fine wines to handcrafted brews; and down-home eateries to gourmet farm-to-table feasts -and more.
There are always multiple choices for what to do next, so here's a suggested two-day itinerary for exploring the many facets of Petaluma. You don't have to do everything on this list or in this order-pick and choose what appeals to you most, to create your own customized Petaluma adventure.
Did we mention that there are always many choices in Petaluma, especially when it comes to food and drink? You can choose to start your day at one of these four favorite local eateries (and it was hard to narrow it down to just four).
Della Fattoria Café offers delicious, wholesome food for breakfast and lunch, beautifully prepared and presented in a charming circa-1860 building. This bakery and café made the Zagat Guide’s “Essential Sonoma County Restaurants” list in 2018, and their delicious artisan bread is available in restaurants and grocery stores in Sonoma and Napa counties, and in San Francisco.
Sometimes the wait can be long to get into Hallie’s Diner, especially for Sunday brunch, but it’s worth it for their classic American diner food made with Sonoma County freshness. Local fan favorites include the cornmeal pancakes, fluffy waffles, and fresh squeezed orange juice.
On the northern end of downtown Petaluma, Wishbone takes “locally grown” to a new level by not only sourcing many ingredients from Petaluma farms, but also running a nearby farm of their own. Wishbone serves fresh, creative, and local food for brunch from 8 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. daily except Tuesday, and 5-10 p.m. for dinner Thursday-Sunday. Seating is limited.
And to the south, Sax's Joint is a 50s-style diner that's renowned for its amazing homemade biscuits, among many other delicious comfort food delights on its breakfast and lunch menus.
After your delicious breakfast, it’s time to stretch your legs by strolling through the 15 city blocks of Petaluma’s charming and historic downtown area. Built on bedrock, Petaluma was one of the few North Bay communities not damaged in the 1906 earthquake. Because of that, its downtown area is filled with Victorian-era homes and historic buildings, now housing boutiques, antique shops, specialty stores, and restaurants.
You might want to start by learning more about the town’s history at the small-but-fascinating Petaluma Historical Library & Museum. Located in a former Carnegie library that was built in 1904, the museum boasts Northern California’s largest free-standing leaded glass dome, as well as exhibits on this area’s poultry, dairy, and Miwok Indian history. And at 10:30 a.m. on most Saturday mornings from May to October, a costumed docent leads a free walking tour of historic Petaluma.
Another good starting point is the Petaluma Visitors Center, where the friendly staff can answer any questions you have, and help you plan your visit to Petaluma. Located just a short walk from the central downtown area, the visitors center occupies a 1914 train depot on the platform that now serves as the new SMART train station. Next door in an old train warehouse you’ll find the Petaluma Arts Center, which hosts art exhibits, classes, workshops, concerts, and other community events.
You can choose to simply start walking through the downtown area, discovering for yourself what it holds. If you love doing a bit of antiquing, Petaluma is the place to be. It hosts antique fairs each spring and fall, and offers an amazing variety of antique stores year-round.
Be sure to stop by 300 Petaluma Boulevard North, where at street level you can wind your way through the Petaluma Collective, where more than 20 independent dealers present their wares. And in the basement, the Military Antiques & Museum sells everything from battlefield relics to antique firearms and bayonets, and military surplus. In a far corner, the fascinating 2,000-square-foot museum displays the owners’ personal collections, with life-size dioramas of service people in action, cases full of creative trench art, uniforms displayed with photos of the people who wore them, and much more.
For a completely different antiquing experience, Vintage Bank Antiques offers three floors of paintings, jewelry, furniture, and objects d’art, all housed in a magnificent 1926 Neo-Classic Revival bank building.
Antiques are just one type of the many wonderful specialty shops you’ll find here. If vintage clothing is your thing, check out ChickaBoom Vintage, which caters to vintage clothing lovers of all genders, shapes, and sizes. Marisa’s Fantasia features Christmas décor all year long, with floor-to-ceiling displays. And Ethical Clothing offers mindfully manufactured fashion. The Petaluma Downtown Association posts a directory of downtown shops.
When you’re ready for a break from browsing, check out the Petaluma River that runs through the downtown area, creating a waterfront area as it flows south to San Pablo Bay.
The riverfront reflects both Petaluma’s natural beauty and its industrial past, making for intriguing contrasts. A good place to explore the river is Steamer Landing Park (6 Copeland St.), which covers about two acres near the D Street drawbridge. As you follow the riverfront trail, watch for birds and other wildlife. A restored livery stable serves as the David Yearsley River Heritage Center, which hosts free boat rides on Sunday mornings, with its growing fleet of rowboats, canoes, kayaks, and a sailboat.
Whether you’ve been walking or rolling, you’re probably ready for lunch about now — which is, again, a time to make choices. If you’re already at the river, the riverside Taps Restaurant & Tasting Room offers hearty pub food with a local twist, as well as dozens of ciders, ales, lagers, sours, and, on occasion, meads.
Tucked away in the back of the historic brick Great Petaluma Mill along the waterfront, Wild Goat Bistro uses local, fresh ingredients in a variety of culinary traditions, for a casual dining experience for lunch or dinner, including specialty Neapolitan-style pizzas, innovative salads, scrumptious main dishes, and sharable small plates. Decorated in mostly reclaimed materials, the 1856 building brims with charm. The seasonally changing menus have something for everyone, anytime of the day — and most of the menu is gluten free, including the yummy house-made desserts.
Out and About
Nature beckons in the afternoon, and Petaluma offers a number of opportunities for appreciating this region’s natural beauties.
In the hills southeast of Petaluma, Tolay Lake Regional Park features a seasonal freshwater lake, Tolay Creek, wetlands, grasslands, and ridges with views of San Pablo Bay and San Francisco. The 3,434-acre park is named for the 200-acre seasonal lake that forms in the valley between its ridges — the largest natural freshwater lake in Sonoma County. Tolay was a spiritual center for the local Coast Miwok tribes as well as Native Americans from throughout California. After years of limited public access only on weekends, the park is now open to all, daily. It currently features 11 miles of trails, but the plan is to eventually create a total of 30 miles of trails, hike-in campsites, a visitor center and bunkhouse, outdoor classrooms, equestrian amenities, and new picnic areas, restrooms, and parking.
One of the best places around for viewing birds and other wildlife, the 165-acre Shollenberger Park offers 16 acres of trails, including a two-mile circular trail and a one-mile cutoff trail across an iron bridge spanning Adobe Creek and running through the Alman marsh to the Petaluma Marina. The park is a haven for migrating birds, with more than 140 species recorded there.
On the water
Take the three-hour Petaluma Marsh Kayak Tour with Clavey Paddlesports. You’ll start on the Petaluma River and make your way to the marsh, exploring the narrow sloughs that are accessible only at certain tide levels. In a single or tandem touring-style kayak (appropriate for beginners), paddle your way through grasses, rushes, and reeds where birdlife and waterfowl are abundant.
You can also rent a paddleboard from Petaluma Stand Up Paddle, take a mini-lesson, and paddle away on the Petaluma River. Their shop is right on the river, so you can launch from there. They also offer guided tours on paddleboards or kayaks, including a six-mile, 2.5-hour marsh exploration.
If getting around on two wheels is more your style, Petaluma offers all levels of cycling routes, from easy recreational biking on a dedicated trail to more challenging hillside treks. The Petaluma Wheelmen Cycling Club hosts local rides, and provides details about Popular Rides from Petaluma. You can also download a map of Petaluma Bicycle & Pedestrian Routes.
And although it’s close to downtown, you’ll feel like you’ve traveled to a remote wilderness area at Helen Putnam Regional Park. It offers six miles of mostly gentle trails amid rolling hills and panoramic views, making it the perfect place for beginning or rusty mountain bikers to build up confidence and skill. It’s also excellent for hiking, and offers great bird watching, five different kinds of oak forest, extensive grasslands, and a remarkable variety of seasonal wildflowers.
It’s time to check into your hotel room, to relax and freshen up before the evening’s activities. As always in Petaluma, there are several options.
If you spent the afternoon in Shollenberger Park, then right next door you’ll find the Sheraton Sonoma Wine Country. Perched on the banks of the Petaluma River, this pet-friendly, 183-room hotel offers a heated lap pool, a fitness facility, a daily social hour, and the delicious onsite Tolay Restaurant.
If you believe that smaller is better, check out the delightfully funky, French-inspired Metro Hotel & Café, in a restored 140-year-old building in the downtown area. Decorated with vintage French posters and colorful French kitsch, the Metro offers 16 charming rooms, two independent cottages, and four designer Airstream trailers. The onsite French café is for hotel guests only, and serves fresh crepes and organic coffee each morning. Although there’s plenty of staff onsite, this is a self-serve hotel — which simply means that you book online, and then check yourself in at any time of the day or night using a phone and keyboard at the front door.
North of town, in addition to tent and RV campsites and rustic Kamping Kabins, the 70-acre San Francisco North/Petaluma KOA Campground offers spacious modern lodges that can sleep up to six people. They range from studio loft lodges (queen bed, sleeping loft with mattress, bathroom, microwave, mini-fridge, and microwave, sleeping four) to deluxe loft lodges (private bedroom, crows nest area, sofa sleeper, dining area, kitchenette, bathroom, and flat screen with cable).
For more ideas, check our listings of Petaluma Hotels & Lodging.
If you’re staying in the Hotel Petaluma and you love delicious fresh seafood, you won’t even have to leave the building for dinner. Onsite, The Shuckery features the most exquisite oysters from pristine waters all over North America, plus fresh seafood of all types. Signature dishes include oysters on the half shell, salmon two ways, Baja-style tacos, barbecued oysters, and calamari relleno.
If you’re in the mood for authentic Italian cuisine, the renowned Cucina Paradiso Ristorante Italiano specializes in classic dishes like homemade soft polenta topped with scattered mushrooms and Italian cheeses, an authentic Caesar salad with anchovies, and pork tenderloin sautéed with porcini, prosciutto, brandy, and mustard.
And housed in a 1911 building in Petaluma’s downtown theater district, McNear’s Saloon & Dining House features traditional but innovative American cuisine, with dishes like Pork Lovers’ Mac n’ Cheese, barbecue tri-tip, and the Moroccan-spiced brick chicken fettuccine. The full service bar includes local wines and microbrews.
For more ideas, read Where to Eat: Restaurants in Petaluma.
If you choose to dine at McNear’s, you can make it dinner and a show all in the same building. Located literally just steps away from the restaurant, the Mystic Theater is a premier North Bay music venue. With a full bar on the premises, the Mystic presents an eclectic music lineup of rock, funk, blues, roots, reggae, ska, Western swing, and more.
Not far away you’ll find The Big Easy, an “underground” venue with a full calendar of live shows featuring both local and national talent. Nearby, sister restaurant Speakeasy serves delicious internationally inspired, tapas-style small plates until 2 a.m. nightly — making these two another easy combo for dinner and a show.
For an evening of live music with dinner in a beer garden setting, there are two intriguing possibilities, located near each other in a light industrial district.
Family-friendly Brewsters Beer Garden features a California interpretation of southern barbecue, more than 30 rotating craft brews on tap, local wines, and craft cocktails. There’s plenty of open-air seating, a bocce ball court, a fire pit for chilly nights, and live music Thursday through Sunday nights.
Nearby, The Block Petaluma is a food truck market and beer garden. Also family friendly, this open-air venue includes fire pits, games, live music, and dozens of beers on tap. There’s a pizzeria on site, and a rotating list of award-winning food trucks that park here.
Also in the downtown area, in addition to a dozen variations of the Moscow Mule, two dozen beers, and an impressive cocktail list, Jamison’s Roaring Donkey offers an intriguing lineup of live music, dancing, trivia nights, open mic nights, and even painting nights. Check their Events listings for details.
Start your day off right by choosing between two other popular local eateries.
Renowned for its pancakes, omelets, scrambles, and more (including a daily lunch and a Sunday brunch), the Tea Room Café (closed Wednesdays) also boasts an in-house bakery, with an array of seasonal sweets as well as signature favorites. Order at the counter, and then your menu is delivered to your table.
Another local favorite, the Water Street Bistro features French-inspired cuisine, with side trips to Morocco, Spain, Mexico, and California, for breakfast and lunch. They serve quiche all day everyday, and duck confit quite often. Order at the counter, and then your order is delivered to your table. In good weather, check out the outdoor patio, which overlooks the Petaluma River.
Going Just a Little Further Afield
After breakfast, history lovers should head to Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park. Located slightly less than five miles northeast of downtown Petaluma, this was once the main residence of Rancho Petaluma, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s agricultural empire from 1834 to 1846. Today this huge adobe building is a state park, where you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back into California’s rancho era, with farm animals, fences made the Old West way (from cactus), and authentic period future. On Living History days, docents don period costumes and perform chores like making candles or tanning hides the way things were done in the rancho days.
There are also several options for exploring this area’s agricultural bounty. Check out the local produce, food products, and community spirit at Petaluma’s three lively farmers markets. The East-Side Farmers’ Market is held year-round on Tuesday mornings; the Walnut Park Farmers Market is open Saturday afternoons from mid-May to Mid-November; and the Theatre District Farmers Market runs from late June to late August, on Wednesday afternoons.
Located on Bodega Road slightly more than eight miles west of downtown, McClelland’s Dairy hosts farms tours and a store featuring the farm’s products during their annual Pumpkin Patch in October (advance reservations required for the 90-minute farm tour). They also offer a variety of private farm tours and birthday party options from spring to fall.
Tours highlighting sustainable farming methods are also available from Tara Firma Farms, which produces grass-fed beef and pastured poultry and pork slightly more than four miles south of town (with a farm store open daily); and at the 140-acre Green String Farm, which produces sustainable vegetables and fruits about five miles east of downtown, with its farm store open daily.
In the rolling hills about four miles southwest of downtown, the Achadinha Cheese Co. offers 90-minute farm tours and cheese making classes. Achadinha is a family operated ranch where they milk their cows and goats and then make their own farmstead cheeses, along with raising beef cows, pigs, sheep, horses, and chickens.
When you’re ready for lunch, there are — of course — several delicious choices.
Perhaps you want classic Italian, with a bit of the rustic elegance of an Italian trattoria. Risibisi earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand award (for remarkable restaurants serving two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less) for its healthy, fresh, Sonoma-Italian cuisine. And at Sugo Trattoria, generations of traditional family recipes of Northern Italy are blended with local ingredients and Sonoma Wine Country style.
For something completely different, consider Real Döner, a casual eatery serving premier Mediterranean and Turkish street food. Or savor hand-ground spices and passed-down recipes at Everest Indian Restaurant, showcasing both Indian cuisine and the owners’ Nepalese background.
Movie Sites, Wine, Beer & Beyond
And Petaluma is just one of many Sonoma County locations that served as backdrops for a variety of Hollywood movies. If you’d like to visit a few of those sites countywide, read Sonoma County Movie Locations Tour Itinerary.
Interested in spending some quiet time sipping and contemplating a few of Sonoma County’s celebrated wines? There are several options in the town of Petaluma.
La Dolce Vita Wine Lounge gathers boutique wines from near and far into one place where you can sip and savor from the comfort of couches. A place for connoisseurs and causal imbibers alike, La Dolce Vita offers flights of wine, wine by the glass, or a half-carafe or bottle for the table. There’s also a rotating menu of Italian-inspired local cuisine, and classic films are screened each night.
Incavo Wine Tasting & Collective showcases a variety of boutique wines from Sonoma and Napa counties. It’s open-air lounge seating offers views of Petaluma’s historic clock tower, letting you enjoy the hustle and bustle of main street while tasting flights of some of the best that Wine Country has to offer. Or, relax inside what has aptly been decorated as a wine cave, and chat with the wine lovers behind the bar. Order wine by the flight, glass, or bottle.
If you like dessert wines, don’t miss Sonoma Portworks, the only Sonoma County winery (and one of a handful in California) specializing in ports and after-dinner drinks. Their tasting room is tucked away in the old Foundry Wharf building alongside the Petaluma River. A pioneer in the industry, in addition to port they also make sherry, grappa, and their own unique take on balsamic vinegar.
For more possibilities, check our listings of all Sonoma County Wineries.
The oldest craft brewery in Sonoma County, Dempsey’s Restaurant & Brewery features bold flavors and robust beers in a friendly pub setting. Fans come for signatures like Golden Ale, Mountain Wheat, Irish Ale, and a Red Rooster Ale imbued with notes of caramel and flowers. The menu offers tasty staples like messy burgers, pizzas, and pulled pork sandwiches.
For more ideas, check out the Sonoma County Craft Beverage Map and our listings of Sonoma County Breweries, Distilleries & Cider Houses.
However you decide to spend your afternoon, make sure to be in Petaluma at dinnertime.
Once again, it’s a matter of choices, choices, choices. At Central Market, everything is made in-house and from scratch, daily, including the bread that comes out of the wood-fired oven fresh each morning. The menu features farm-to-table rustic California-Mediterranean cuisine, with ingredients from the restaurant’s own Petaluma farm.
For even more options, check out Where to Eat: Restaurants in Petaluma.
More to Come
Written by Sonoma Insider Patricia Henley.