Olea Hotel at sunset in Sonoma County
Olea Hotel, Glen Ellen

Sonoma Insider Getaway Itinerary

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Sonoma County boasts many "must sees" among its hundreds of wineries and restaurants; its many terrific hotels, B&Bs and inns; and the pretty parks and beaches within its million acres of gorgeous landscape.

Yet there's a secret Sonoma County, where locals and savvy visitors know to go for more relaxed, neighborhood moods and a bit of quirky character. Here, you'll often see winemakers and chefs hard at work, meet innkeepers and probably a family pet or two, and enjoy vast expanses of forest and oceanfront without tourist crowds.

Getting to Sonoma County is easy. Just fly to Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport (STS) in Santa Rosa or drive from San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge to Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, and Petaluma

Get off to a powerful start with Grandma Dierk’s "pull-a-parts," heavenly buns of moist, dense and fried bread dough that's been dusted with cinnamon and sugar. They’re yours to savor at Dierk’s Parkside Café in Santa Rosa. (A second outpost, Dierk’s Midtown Café, is roughly a mile away.)

Dierk's owner Mark Dierkhising is a graduate of the world-renowned Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and has cooked alongside greats like James Beard and Julia Child. Locals crowd into cafe for a mouthwatering mélange of French, Mexican, and classic mid-West comfort food, such as silky duck confit with eggs, hash browns, and fragrant warm applesauce; or chicken fried steak of crispy-battered beef partnered with hash browns, eggs, and rich homemade sausage gravy. 

A colorful sign for SOFA hangs on the outside of a gallery wall
SOFA Arts District

Dierk's Parkside is right next to the SOFA neighborhood, more formally known as the South A Street Art District in Santa Rosa. Cross Mendocino/Santa Rosa Avenue from Dierk’s to tour Sonoma County's largest concentration of art studios, where you'll see works ranging from paintings to photography, collages, glass, and more. 

SOFA is just a bit south of Railroad Square, a historic district brimming with independently owned shops. Here you can enjoy a walking tour, snapping up treasures like rhinestone encrusted cat collars at Western Farm Center, six-panel Japanese screens hand-painted with cranes from Green Fish Trading, handmade felted soap wrapped in softly spun wool from Cast Away Yarn Shop, and delicate china teacups from Whistlestop Antiques

On the western edge of the neighborhood, be sure not to miss the beautifully restored Northwestern Pacific Railroad Train Depot. Made of locally quarried stone, it's a stop on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) train route that travels as far south as San Rafael. 

When you’re hungry again, head back to the SOFA neighborhood to The Spinster Sisters, which offers a creative spin on California cuisine in a funky, fashionable former home. Seasonal stars on the menu include delicious, devilish shrimp and grits decorated with two poached farm eggs, tasso and Tabasco; or a BLT of SCMC bacon, heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, and Sriracha aioli on Italian como toast with mixed greens or fries.

The Barlow in Sebastopol in Sonoma County

Just a block from the restaurant, hop on Highway 12 and head southwest to Sebastopol for a delightful trove of restaurants, wine bars and one-of-a-kind shops.

Begin at The Barlow, a 12.5-acre culinary and arts center set in a former apple cannery. Resident wine bar Region showcases 25 Sonoma County wine producers across 14 appellations; choose from 50 different wines at self-serve WineStation machines, then relax on the sprawling, sheltered patio. 

Post-tasting, mosey a bit south to the Antique Society, a collective of more than 125 mini-stores under one roof, each managed by private curators. You may find sparkling costume jewelry or real gold, a well-loved rocking chair or a velvet armchair—the hunt is half the fun.

Antiquing will put you next door to California Carnivores, the largest carnivorous plant nursery in the United States for the past 25 years. Weird, yes, but it’s really a fascinating place to visit, and certainly celebrates the quirky, creative culture of Sonoma County. Venus flytraps are surprisingly pretty!

An icy cold beer sounds good about now, and Washoe House on Stony Point Road, five miles southeast of Sebastopol, has been pouring them since 1859. This former stagecoach stop, saloon, and brothel has been spruced up a bit these days, but its ceiling remains thickly papered with business cards, photographs, and lots and lots of dollar bills.

You’re on the edge of Petaluma, so continue south and check in to the Metro Hotel & Café, a small, eclectic, Parisian-style hotel set in a restored 140-year-old building. It’s located within walking distance of historic downtown Petaluma and its many antique stores, boutiques, wine bars, and restaurants.  

interior view of Barber Cellars in Sonoma County
Barber Cellars

As another option, the hip, five-story Hotel Petaluma first opened its doors in 1924, and now offers more than 90 guest rooms with upscale amenities, a grand lobby with a courtyard entrance, The Shuckery oyster bar, and the Barber Cellars tasting room, specializing in Zinfandels.

Scoot on over to dinner at Wild Goat Bistro, tucked  behind the historic brick Great Petaluma Mill, which is set along the riverfront. Decorated in mostly reclaimed materials, the 1856 building brims with charm and wows with savory delights like polenta pot pie, the savory crust of stone ground corn capping a hot melange of mozzarella, parmesan, pesto, peas, carrots, panko, and roasted red pepper sauce. 

Sonoma

Metro Hotel & Café offers complimentary organic coffee, pastries, and crepes in the morning. Thus fueled, you’ll head to the other side of Sonoma Mountain for further adventures, this time in the Sonoma Valley. 

Your first stop will be Glen Ellen Village Market, to pick up a picnic and a bottle of Sonoma Valley wine. The specialties here are huge, piled-high sandwiches on your choice of a dozen breads, such as the "The Call of the Wild," with roast beef, bacon, and Cheddar. Sixteen kinds of soups, chowders and chilis are homemade daily, there’s an enormous salad bar, or you can just head straight for the entrée bar stocked with more than three dozen hot items, from Swedish meatballs to enchiladas. 

Sonoma Valley Regional Park trail with grass and trees in Sonoma County
Sonoma Valley Regional Park

To gear up an appetite, set out on a hike at Sonoma Valley Regional Park. This local favorite  looks small from Sonoma Highway, but it's actually a 202-acre oasis with miles of trails, some secluded enough to make you feel you're in your own secret world. 

After you've enjoyed that picnic lunch, take a short drive to downtown Sonoma. There are lots of wine tasting rooms here, but an insider favorite is Hawkes tasting room, nestled in a cottage with a gracious garden. On First Street West, it’s just a few steps off the Sonoma Plaza and impresses with its hallmark Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Hawkes Tasting Room sign in Sonoma County
Hawkes Wine

Lounge a while, then stroll to Tin Barn Vineyards on Eighth Street East. Set way in the back of a group of industrial warehouses, it can be a bit hard to find, but it’s worth the effort. This stylish room, with its gray marble-topped wood bar and pendant lighting, invites you to linger over a relaxed tasting flight, sometimes hosted by co-owner/winemaker Michael Lancaster.

Tonight is pizza time at the award-winning Red Grape (best local pizza, according to the Sonoma Index-Tribune's People's Choice Award several years running) just off the Sonoma Plaza.

Sonoma Creek Inn in Sonoma County
Sonoma Creek Inn

Sonoma lodging options include the Spanish-/cottage-style Sonoma Creek Inn, which has 16 cozy guest rooms, some private outdoor patios and porches, and value-packed discounts on area wine tasting and bike rentals. Or check out these fantastic inns and bed & breakfasts in Glen Ellen: Olea Hotel, Gaige House + Ryokan, Beltane Ranch, Glen Ellen Inn, and The Jack London Lodge.

Written by Sonoma Insider Carey Sweet.