Guide to the Sonoma Valley
The lush Sonoma Valley lies nestled between two mountain ranges along Sonoma County's eastern edge. Abundance is the norm here, offering visitors a delightful mix of beautiful vistas, wine tasting, farm-fresh cuisine, California history, art, shopping, and outdoor adventures.
Known as the birthplace of wine in California, the 17-mile long Sonoma Valley includes an amazing variety of landscapes and microclimates, from flat meadows and valleys to rolling hills, and from cool wind and fog to hot sunshine - sometimes all in the same day, as you move from place to place within the valley.
There's so much to see and do, it can be hard to know where to start. To simplify things, we've divided this guide into three sections-southern, central, and northern Sonoma Valley.
Southern Sonoma Valley
Begin your journey through the Sonoma Valley at its southern end, and you’ll find yourself in the cool-climate Carneros wine region, just north of the San Pablo Bay. Here, gently rolling, sparsely wooded hills overlook a wide, flat plain. Cool breezes from both the Pacific coast and the nearby Bay keep this area cool and windy, but not too cold.
Primarily a rural expanse of open spaces and neat rows of vineyards, the southern end of Sonoma Valley also includes several intriguing shops and restaurants, as well as scattered farms and ranches.
Things to Do
Starting in the south and heading north, here’s a quick list of a few of the southern Sonoma Valley’s activities and attractions.
Hike or bike on the flat and graded Lower Tubbs Island/Tolay Creek Trail, running atop levees in this delightfully open wildlife refuge. Offering bay and tidal marshes, mud flats, wetland habitat, and open water, the refuge is an important stop on the Pacific Coast Flyway, and home to large populations of resident and migrating birds. Learn more about hiking in the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Cheer on the drivers in the Toyota/Save Mart 350, NHRA Division 7 Drag Races, NHRA Sonoma Nationals, and other exciting raceway events. Or speed around the track yourself by taking a driving class with Sears Point Racing Experience, which trains both pro drivers and motoring enthusiasts.
In addition to award-winning wines and amazing views, Cline Family Cellars is home to a small museum displaying scale models of all 21 California missions, carefully crafted by German cabinetmakers in 1939 for the California Pacific Exhibition. The museum also features a life-size figure of Father Junipero Serra, mission paintings by artists Robert Morris and Henry Nelson, and two stained-glass panels from San Francisco’s Mission Dolores.
Often called the Schellville Airport by the locals, the Sonoma Valley Airport is a popular destination for fans of classic and vintage aircraft. Take a flight back in time in one of the restored airplanes at the Vintage Aircraft Co.
Shop, sip, eat, play, and explore this wine country marketplace that offers unique stores, boutique wine tasting rooms, an urban craft distillery tasting room, artisanal foods, art-inspired gardens, and live music. Fans of Sunset Magazine can be inspired by the recently completed Sunset Gardens + Outdoor Test Kitchen.
As is frequently the case in Sonoma County, there are too many outstanding wineries in this region to be able to list them all in this guide, so here’s a quick roundup.
The family-owned Cline Family Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards are situated on a historic 350-acre Carneros region estate. A bit off the beaten track, you’ll find Larson Family Winery, Robledo Family Winery, Roche Winery & Vineyards, and Schug Carneros Estate Winery. Check in with the tasting room at Schug to pick up a free map, then take a half-mile walk through rows of estate grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Admire gorgeous views of rolling hills and the San Pablo Bay while learning about grape growing in the Carneros region.
The wide-open Carneros region offers a somewhat limited number of dining options, but it’s all farm-fresh and tasty. Starting in the southern end, look for the red and white cow on the roof of Angelo’s Wine Country Deli, where the sandwiches are made with homemade cold cuts, sausages, and condiments. Fans love the beef jerky, garlic salsa, and garlic mustard.
Also, Carneros Deli offers a wide variety of deli food, plus a small wine tasting bar. Whether you want to grab a breakfast sandwich to start your day, a tasty snack between meals, or salads or sandwiches for a picnic lunch or supper (try the hot chipotle chicken sandwich on sourdough), this is the place.
To the northeast at the intersection of highways 121 and 12, relax in the half-acre outdoor space, under the shaded patio or in the tree-covered wine garden at Kivelstadt Cellars Wine Garden & Eatery. Focusing on unique wine varietals, undiscovered gems of vineyards, and uncommon winemaking techniques, and rather than pouring tastes of wine from bottles, it serves them from kegs, eliminating packaging waste and wine spoilage.
And a little farther east on Highways 12/121, Lou's Luncheonette offers southern-inspired delights made fresh daily with locally sourced ingredients. Try the Kitchen Sink which features fried chicken, gravy, ham, egg, and biscuit, or perhaps you'd prefer a fried chicken platter with your choice of seasoning (like Nashville style chili oil and spices) with white bread, pickles, and mini-slaw.
Enjoy the vintage motor-court ambiance at the Vineyard Inn Hotel, located at the crossroads of Highways 116 and 121. This family-owned, 22-room inn offers a unique sense of rustic elegance.
For a unique group getaway amid the Carneros vineyards, rent A Captain’s House, a spacious 4-bedroom, Civil War-era home at the Larson Family Winery. The home includes two full baths, a gourmet kitchen, and a living room with modern entertainment and a fireplace. The backyard offers a barbecue, and overlooks Sonoma Creek.
If you’re willing to travel a little outside the Carneros region, there are many lodging options in central and northern Sonoma Valley; check our listings of Sonoma County Hotels & Lodging.
Central Sonoma Valley
All that’s delightful about the Sonoma Valley—fine wine, farm-to-table cuisine, beautiful vineyards and hills, California history, and intriguing shops—comes together in its central section, home to the town of Sonoma (pop. 10,648) and, just north of the town limits, a series of neighborhood districts that have been collectively nicknamed The Springs — Agua Caliente, Boyes Hot Springs, El Verano, and Fetters Hot Springs.
Things to Do
There’s so much to see and do in the central Sonoma Valley it’s hard to list them all, but here’s a quick roundup of some of the options, going from south to north.
As you drive up the wide Broadway boulevard (also known as Highway 12) into the town of Sonoma, you may hear the haunting sound of a train whistle off to your right. That’s TrainTown, with a quarter-scale train and four miles of track. The 20-minute ride goes through tunnels and over bridges, and stops to let passengers off in Lakeview, a miniature town and petting zoo. The site also includes six amusement rides.
Featuring local, regional, national, and international artists, past exhibits at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art have included everything from student work from local art classes to furniture masterworks from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and ceramics by Pablo Picasso. The focus of this small nonprofit museum is on the art and ideas of our time, encouraging curiosity and innovation.
The center of the town of Sonoma, the park-like Sonoma Plaza covers eight acres — one of California’s largest town squares. It was here in June 1846 that American settlers rebelled against Mexican rule and raised the bear flag, declaring an independent republic. Today, in addition to a Bear Flag monument, you’ll find leafy trees, a duck pond, City Hall, picnic tables, and children’s playgrounds. Festivals, farmers markets, fun runs, and other community activities are frequently held in Sonoma Plaza.
Downtown Sonoma is steeped in California history, and this state park is not simply a single location but several sites around the central Sonoma Plaza. It includes Mission San Francisco Solano, the last and northernmost of the Spanish-Mexican missions, and General Vallejo’s Home, a two-story gothic Victorian-style house that is now a museum. For more details, see Exploring California History in Sonoma.
Opened in April 1934 (admission was 34 cents), this regal movie theater evokes a bygone era, with lush red draperies, soaring ceilings, and impressive chandeliers. The building’s distinctive marquee and clock tower are a landmark on the Sonoma Plaza, and have been featured in numerous photographs, paintings, and posters.
The Sonoma Valley Historical Society operates this small nonprofit museum in the old Northwestern Pacific railroad depot a few blocks north of the Sonoma Plaza. Former railroad cars house part of the museum, and permanent exhibits document the history of Sonoma Valley trains, the Bear Flag Revolt, early California life, schools, and Chinese immigrants. Temporary exhibits focus on various aspects of local history.
Wine Tool Museum at Buena Vista Winery
Tools handcrafted more than a century ago are the stars of a theatrical show with lights, movement, and narration in Buena Vista Winery’s Wine Tool Museum. The museum tours provide an overview of the history of winemaking and of the Buena Vista Winery, along with tasting a flight of wines. The Buena Vista is California’s Oldest Winery.
Several blocks to the west of the Sonoma Plaza, Ramekins celebrates Sonoma County’s culinary abundance by offering both demonstration and hands-on cooking classes. The center also provides catering services and special event venues, and it offers six hotel suites with king size beds and luxury amenities.
Out in the Springs district, relax and refresh yourself in luxury at the Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, a historic resort. Rated among Travel + Leisure’s top 25 spas, the 40,000-square-foot Willow Stream offers endless opportunities to renew yourself, from relaxing by the fireplace to soaking in mineral baths or indulging in a signature treatment.
You’ll find more than two dozen wine tasting rooms within walking distance of the Sonoma Plaza, and even more in wineries located just a short distance away.
For coffee and baked delights in downtown Sonoma, Basque Boulangerie Café is well known for its hand crafted breads, as well as its breakfast and lunch menus.
In The Springs district north of Sonoma town limits, the accalimed Santé restaurant uses the freshest local produce, meats, poultry, and seafood to create elegantly simple dishes that let the natural flavors speak for themselves. Santé is the flagship restaurant for the historic Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa.
To the east of the Sonoma Plaza, Sonoma’s Best Guest Cottages includes four cozy one-bedroom cottages, each with a queen bed and full kitchen.
A bit west of the Sonoma Plaza, Sonoma Chalet Bed & Breakfast offers private cottages and B&B accommodations on a 3.5-acre estate.
And out in the area known as The Springs, immerse yourself in luxury at the historic Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa.
For more options, check our listings of Hotels & Lodging in Sonoma County.
Northern Sonoma Valley
Two small villages — Glen Ellen and Kenwood — are tucked into the rolling hills, neat rows of vineyards, and wide meadows that make up northern Sonoma Valley, a relatively small region that’s home to more than three dozen wineries.
Things to Do
Here’s a quick list of activities in this beautiful area, starting just south of the town of Glen Ellen and heading north.
Adventurer and novelist Jack London lived on his beloved Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen from 1905 until his untimely death in 1916, at age 40. Today, his ranch is a state park, where you can tour the simple cottage where London lived with his wife Charmian, visit their gravesites, or explore historic buildings and ruins. The park includes lush forest, redwood groves, meadows, and hills with breathtaking views. Explore miles of trails that vary from flat and easy to steep and strenuous, including a portion of the Bay Area Ridge Trail.
Take a guided horseback tour of Jack London State Historic Park, which boasts some of the finest riding trails in the world. Ride past acres of vineyards producing grapes for premium wines, through open oak woodlands, and through shady groves of tall redwoods. Triple Creek prides itself on its gentle, well-cared-for horses; tours are available to suit anyone from first-time riders to experienced equestrians.
Each summer the beautiful stone winery ruins at Jack London State Historic Park are transformed into an under-the-stars stage, against a stunning backdrop of vineyards and rolling hills. Veteran Broadway and Hollywood performers present award-winning concerts combining Broadway and popular songs in high-spirited, feel-good shows that send everyone home smiling (and often singing). The Transcendence Theatre summer season typically runs from mid-June to mid-September.
Located just off Highway 12, the 25-acre Oak Hill Farm is a local landmark, selling its own sustainably grown produce, flowers, floral greens, and wreaths.
This splendid preserve's 535 protected acres support a diversity of wildlife and ecosystems, including vernal pools, mixed evergreen forests, oak woodlands, riparian, chaparral, and grasslands. Normally closed to the public, it's open for half-day guided nature walks on Saturdays in fall and spring (no fee, but reservations required), allowing you to amble the trails and learn about the surroundings.
This small collection of shops and restaurants occupies a beautiful natural setting where Ashbury Creek flows into Sonoma Creek. Formerly a gristmill and a winery, the property includes an exhibit of Glen Ellen’s early history, winemaking, and the lives of Jack and Charmian London.
Nestled between forested hills and a lively creek, this 22-acre property includes geo-thermal mineral springs, once sacred to the local Wappo Indians. Today, you can access the spring waters in three mineral pools. The water temperature averages about 82 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit, and the pools vary from 4.5 to 9 feet deep, with lifeguards on duty. Typically open each year from May to September, the resort also includes hiking and biking trails, basketball and volleyball courts, a baseball field, croquet, ping-pong, horseshoe pits, a kids’ playground, and plenty of picnic and barbecue sites.
This five-acre park-like setting for rare and unusual plants from around the world includes more than 250 varieties of Japanese maples; many species of dogwood, ginkgo, and conifer trees; and bonsai-style beech, maple, and evergreen trees. Outdoor sculptures of steel, ceramic, coated resin, and other weatherproof materials are scattered throughout the grounds.
This botanical garden houses one of the largest collections of documented wild-collected Asian plants worldwide. Take a self-guided or a docent-led tour of this 25-acre hillside property. Wander along paths through flowering Asian trees as well as magnolias, dogwoods, roses, lilies, rhododendrons, and other flowers, including many rare and endangered species.
Located in the Mayacamas mountains on Sonoma Valley’s eastern edge, this nearly 4,000-acre state park is known for fabulous hiking through tree-covered ridges and a canyon redwood forest. It includes a 25-foot seasonal waterfall, the 2,729-foot Bald Mountain, 47 family campsites, and the Robert Ferguson Observatory.
The outside display changes from time to time, but as you drive through the town of Kenwood watch for a 10-foot metal dinosaur or giraffe. They’re usually the largest members of the colorful menagerie of animals handmade from recycled metal. Wander through blazing-pink flamingos, multi-colored peacocks, man-sized roosters, and many other colorful critters. Inside you’ll find wine racks, chairs, and tables, as well as chicken coops, bird boxes, gardening supplies, and pet food.
You can explore a wide variety of winery experiences in the northern Sonoma Valley.
Visit not one but two wine “castles” in northern Sonoma Valley. Gothic spires and archways rise above the massive French Normandy-style building at Ledson Winery & Vineyards, set against a background of scenic, rugged mountains. And the gorgeous Mediterranean-style courtyard and gardens at Chateau St. Jean make a lovely contrast to the winery’s buff-colored walls and red tile roof; this place might easily be mistaken for a chateau or winemaking monastery in the French Alps.
This is just a sampling; learn more about the Sonoma Valley wine region.
From great burgers to innovative cuisine, kick back and enjoy farm-fresh food in relaxed and casual settings throughout the northern Sonoma Valley. Here are a few possibilities, starting in Glen Ellen and heading north.
At Les Pascals French pâtisserie in Glen Ellen, chef Pascal Merle and his wife Pascale offer croissants, brioche, Khun Amun (a morning bun), and assorted quiches, as well as a variety of other pastries, breads, mini-sandwiches, soups, French cookies, and more.
Featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives show, Café Citti recreates the delicious food and friendly atmosphere of an authentic Italian trattoria in the heart of Wine Country.
Palooza Brewery & Gastropub provides a variety of American pub fare, including barbecue, burgers, and small plates, plus local wines and 16 micro-craft beers.
For more dining ideas, check our listings of Sonoma County restaurants.
There are several possibilities for spending the night in unique style in northern Sonoma Valley.
Originally built as a private home in the late 1800s, Gaige House + Ryokan provides an elegant blend of vintage and contemporary décor in 23 guest rooms thoughtfully appointed with Asian flare.
Tucked away off Highway 12, Kenwood Inn and Spa offers gracious treatment, lush surroundings, and luxurious accommodations in a Mediterranean villa-style resort.
Located in a quiet, peaceful setting along Sonoma Creek, The Jack London Lodge provides affordable comfort in 22 rooms.
For more options, check our listings of Hotels & Lodging in Sonoma County.