A Visitor’s Guide to Experiencing Local Culture in Sonoma County

As much as we may love escaping to an idyllic destination, we can sometimes get so caught up in the whirlwind of exploring that we overlook the heart of a place – its people.  

Sonoma County is home to farmers, artists, chefs, makers and small business owners. On your next visit, slow down just a bit, and get to know us (and one another) a little better! We’ve brainstormed a few ways to help you do just that. 

Give a Little by Volunteering 

Farm to Pantry
Farm to Pantry volunteer work

One of the most enriching ways to get to know a community is through acts of service, and in Sonoma County, you’ll find a number of opportunities to get involved. Roll up your sleeves and pitch in, and you’ll find new acquaintances who share your compassionate spirit. 

Many nonprofit organizations will ask you to fill out a volunteer application in advance, so you’ll want to factor that into your trip planning. The opportunities below represent just a sliver of what’s available, so if you don’t find what you’re seeking here, search other possibilities here

  • Founded by beloved local celebrity chef Duskie Estes, Farm to Pantry is devoted to gleaning unused fruits and vegetables from farms and preparing them for use by local food banks and other groups. As Estes points out, “The food is out there, all we have to do is go get it.” Participate in the gleaning process, which involves harvesting and sorting produce, by simply signing up on the organization’s website.  
  • Another organization tackling food insecurity includes Redwood Empire Food Bank, which offers opportunities for both food donation and volunteer shifts.  
  • Want to help keep Sonoma County beautiful? Consider engaging with its land and people through environmental stewardship. Sonoma Ecology Center and Occidental Art & Ecology Center each offer an open invitation for participants to join monthly community gardening days. Meanwhile, environmental organizations like Landpaths, Pepperwood Preserve, and Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods offer other ongoing opportunities to tend trails, forests, and beaches.  

Linger in ‘The Third Place’ 

Brewsters Beer Garden
Brewster’s Beer Garden

Defined by sociologists as any place between work and home where folks gather for the sole sake of community, “the third place” can take shape just about anywhere. In Sonoma County, this most often happens in favorite coffee houses, markets, and bars, places that aren’t always included in travel guides. Download the Sonoma County app to find out what local hot spots are nearby. Here are a few ideas: 

  • Wake up early, grab a breakfast sandwich, and get ready to meet the locals. As an agricultural community, Sonoma County is heavily populated by folks who rise with the sun and fuel up at corner cafes, markets, and food trucks. Join them as they start their days at unassuming hotspots like El Coyote or Vineburg Deli in Sonoma, Los Arcos or Criminal Baking Co. in Santa Rosa, or Sebastopol Sunshine Cafe in West County. You’ll likely be rewarded with friendly conversion, neighborhood gossip, and casual reports on the grape growing season. 
Avid Coffee
Avid Coffee

  • Like other cultures across the globe, Sonoma County-ans value their coffee houses, which accommodate work, play, and everything in between. You can’t go wrong with Avid, which serves top-quality brew and has locations across the county. We also like Cafe Scooteria, the motorcycle shop-turned cafe in Sonoma; Taylor Lane in Sebastopol; and the waterfront Cafe Aquatica in Jenner. 
  • When the lights go down, check out some of locals’ favorite Sonoma County bars. Establishments like Washoe House and Steiner’s have been around for decades and have a full cast of regulars to keep things interesting. Others, like Jamison’s Roaring Donkey and Brewster’s Beer Garden, are newer but draw a lively crowd with events like open mic and trivia nights. 

Learn Something New 

Sonoma Community Center
One of the many classes available at Sonoma Community Center

Another great way to connect with locals is through a class.  

Use your trip to Sonoma County to pursue a passion or curiosity, and find like-minded friends along the way. Whether in workshops, field trips, traditional classrooms, community centers, or other settings, the region offers plenty of places to quench your thirst for knowledge … while meeting new people, too.  

  • Nurture your inner artist while simultaneously expanding your social network by dropping into the casual figure drawing or clay studio sessions at Petaluma Arts Center. These unstructured classes simply offer time to create. Looking for more formal instruction? You’ll find it at Sonoma Community Center. To discover more visual and performing arts classes around the county, browse the directory provided by Creative Sonoma, a nonprofit advocacy hub based in Santa Rosa.
Central Milling
Culinary class at Central Milling

  • In a region known for great food and wine, it’s only logical that you’ll find stellar culinary instruction. Central Milling Artisan Baking Center in Petaluma is a wonderful place to learn about heritage grains, then use them in delicious breads, cakes, and cookies. In the town of Sonoma, the expert team at The Epicurean Connection invites groups to learn the cheesemaking process and have a good time in the process. Meanwhile, both Ramekins Culinary School and Relish Culinary Adventures offer events covering every topic from French cuisine to mushroom foraging and even artisan chocolate.  

Written by Amy Bess Cook

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