Just an hour from San Francisco and west of Napa Valley, Sonoma is a California wine country destination that feels undiscovered, yet sophisticated. Go now, because with feature stories in National Geographic and the Smithsonian Magazine, Sonoma is definitely not a secret anymore.
Sonoma is not only for wine and food lovers (although if that’s what you crave, you couldn’t choose a better place). Outdoor enthusiasts and adventure travelers can find their happy place among the ancient redwood trees, kayaking and camping along the Russian River, hiking the Sonoma Coast, or biking the wine trails. If you prefer a more leisurely weekend, you’ll find spas, swanky boutiques, and no surprise, lots of wine tasting rooms.
72 Hours in Sonoma County
Depending on what you want to do, you can choose to stay in one of several picturesque towns. Santa Rosa is the largest city in the county, and offers a good location just 55 minutes from San Francisco. There are several neighborhoods of cultural interest, and as is the norm in Sonoma, good food and wine, too.
The historic town of Sonoma is where the Franciscans built the last California mission, located on a charming town square peppered with wineries and restaurants. If the outdoor life is what you seek, stay in Guerneville under the redwoods, or one of the coastal towns, like Bogeda Bay.
I chose to stay in the town of Healdsburg, because I had an invitation to visit, and because I’d heard that Healdsburg is the new IT place for city dwellers to escape to the country. Napa is still a top destination from the San Francisco Bay area (and everywhere else), but Healdsburg is getting a lot of attention now from folks who like a quieter, less dressed-up type of getaway.
Healdsburg is ideally located, whether you want to explore one of the three major wine producing regions (all within a twenty minute drive), or just stay put and enjoy the fine dining, boutique shopping, and historic square. Since I’d never been to Sonoma County before, this seemed like a good place to base myself.
A Perfect Long Weekend in Healdsburg is a good article for familiarizing yourself more with what Healdsburg has to offer.
This article is updated as of September 2018
Grape Leaf Inn
539 Johnson St.
Built in 1905, the beautifully restored Grape Leaf Inn is located on a quiet residential street just a five minute walk from the Healdsburg square. A lovely porch offers a place to while away the time with a good book or a bottle of wine. The owners also own several wineries any of which are open to guests of the Inn for a tour and tasting.
A real treat is the home cooked breakfast prepared by young chef Will Case. The menu is different day-to-day and it is always delicious. I stayed three nights so had a to try quite a few of Will’s creations. My favorite was an eggs benedict, a treat I don’t often allow myself.
The Grape Leaf Inn offers thirteen guest rooms: two queen, nine king and two suites. I had a chance to peek into several of the rooms which were all light and bright with big comfortable beds and well-appointed bathrooms.
If you seek privacy try the Champagne Suite. Completely detached from the main house the Champagne Suite has a furnished terrace, king-size bed, and most fun of all, an outdoor shower which you access by walking through the indoor version. It was too cold when I was there to shower outside but if you’re sharing the room this could be convenient. It’s a whimsical feature that is also fun to talk about on social media.
Best Western Dry Creek Inn
198 Dry Creek Rd.
Phone: (707) 433-0300
Healdsburg has a variety of accommodations to choose from including the five star Hotel Healdsburg. However, for value and location, the Best Western Dry Creek Inn gets my vote.
Tastefully reminiscent of a Tuscan villa, this hotel is located right off the 101 Freeway and Dry Creek Road.
Rooms are large and comfortable, with all of the traditional amenities. (The Villa Toscana rooms have whirlpool tubs. If you like a good soak, ask for one of these rooms). Breakfast is included with all rooms.
There is also a full gym if want to keep up with your fitness routine, plus a sauna and two swimming pools. In high season, you can find your OM at the bi-weekly yoga classes.
One of the nicest features of this hotel is the outdoor fireplace. There were always people gathered here to enjoy the cool evening air and a bottle of Sonoma County wine. In the mornings, I usually saw someone sitting by the fire reading a book. What really impressed me was even though the hotel is located off the 101, this area always felt tranquil and secluded.
211 North St.
Phone: (707) 433-8182
If you prefer a smaller and more intimate experience, the Camellia Inn, located within walking distance of the square downtown, is a restored Victorian home turned bed and breakfast. The Inn is aptly named after the variety of camellias, which grow on the property.
Breakfast is served in the dining room in the main house. Homemade bread, fresh fruit, yogurt, quiche (made with fresh eggs delivered daily), coffee, and teas are served around a beautiful antique mahogany dining table.
Breakfast at the community table with other guests is one of the things I enjoy about staying at a bed and breakfast. You never know who you may meet, and at least one person usually has some good travel tips.
All the rooms are decorated with period furniture, and luxury linens which the Camellia Inn is known for. I did have an amazing sleep, though I’m sure all the wine I drank at the tasting didn’t hurt either.
On Friday evenings, the Inn hosts a wine tasting with a local winery. Lucky for me, the night I was there, a representative from Paul Matthews Vineyards hosted the tasting. Paul Matthews specializes in Rhone varietals. Pinot Noir is my favorite red wine because it pairs well with a wide variety of foods and is light on tannins.
AND SPEAKING OF WINE TASTING…
This section is updated as of December 29, 2017
Most people traveling to Sonoma plan to go wine tasting. With over 400 tasting rooms and eighteen AVAs (American Viticulture areas), you may have a tough time narrowing down your choices. If you stay in Healdsburg, you’ll be within twenty minutes of three AVAs: Dry Creek, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley. If that’s not enough, there are nineteen tasting rooms in Healdsburg.
You can choose which places to visit based on what kind of wine you like, or what you want to do. The tasting rooms and wineries offer a wide range of options from picnics to private tastings, with food and wine pairing.
435 W. Dry Creek Rd.
Just five minutes from downtown Healdsburg, Flanagan’s recently opened tasting room offers high end Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and sources from some of the areas top vineyards. The tasting room is small but there is outdoor seating with gorgeous views of Dry Creek Valley. Tastings are by appointment and hosted by some of the most fun wine industry professionals I’ve had the pleasure to know.
2303 West Dry Creek Road
Simoncini is a very small, family-owned winery, with state of the art facilities. They make quite a few different wines from a sparkling rosé of Pinot Noir to Zinfandel, Voignier and a late harvest Muscat, to name a few. You definitely want to experience the wine cave and then step outside to enjoy the wooded picnic area with a glass of dessert wine and chocolate. Simoncini is by invitation or appointment only. To enter you have to drive through a gated parking lot.
5610 Dry Creek Rd.
Phone: (707) 433-9545
Truett Hurst has a beautiful property and tasting room in Dry Creek, roughly ten minutes from the Dry Creek Inn.
The property backs up to the Russian River, where it flows into Dry Creek. This would be a great place to relax in one of the big Adirondack chairs by the river with lunch and bottle of wine.
Truett Hurst is known for an excellent selection of zinfandels. The grapes are sourced in the Dry Creek Valley. Other varietals are sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and pinot noir, all from the Russian River Valley. Great wines. Great location. Tastings are $10.00, and you can try as many wines as you like.
Hours: Daily 10:30 am – 5:00 pm
235 Healdsburg Ave.
Phone: (707) 431-9400
La Crema is on the square in Healdsburg. They have a gorgeous tasting room with lots of light; the interior is very modern and sleek. We went there mainly in search of a specific dessert wine for a friend. Of course, we tasted a couple of other wines, too.
La Crema offers a selection of tastings priced from $10– 30.
Hours: Daily 10:30 – 5:30 pm
Tip: Tasting rooms close early, some at 4:00 pm. Be sure to plan accordingly.
Sonoma is largely agricultural, and the food is as fresh as you can get. Eating in Sonoma County is an integral part of any trip. With Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen and Madrona Manor, a Michelin star restaurant, it would be hard to have a bad meal in Healdsburg.
344 Center St.
This Sonoma-centric establishment is a favorite with both locals and tourists. The menu features the bounty of Sonoma County. The wine list features small boutique wineries and has been on the Wine Spectator Top 100 list. Chef-owner Dustin Valette earned his chops working with the best of the best in the hospitality and restaurant industry. He was most recently at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen before opening Valette with his brother Aaron Garzini in the space that was once their grandfather’s bakery.
I went with friends who advised me the Day Boat Scallops En Croüte were not to be missed. I’d say you could almost make a meal out of this dish – it is very rich. The back story is pretty great too. Maybe they’ll tell you if you ask.
You will want to make reservations well in advance and bring your checkbook.
A convenient and fun way to sample the food and drink of Sonoma County (no matter where you stay) is a foodie tour. Most tour guides will also give you insider tips and a history of the area. That always makes the food taste better to me.
Tammy Gass, owner of Savor Healdsburg Food Tours, is an eight-year resident of Healdsburg. I found Tammy to be a reliable resource for all things Sonoma, not just Healdsburg. Her tour includes six stops. Along the way, you’ll sample foods that define local and delicious: scallops, cocktails made with fresh produce, and Sonoma County wines.
Tammy will also give you the 411 on other places to wine and dine in Healdsburg. To book a tour and for more information be sure to visit Savor Healdsburg’s website, where you’ll also find helpful articles on things to do in the area. You can find more delicious photos of the tour in this article: Eating My Way Through A Savor Healdsburg Food Tour
When you’re tired of wine tasting, refresh yourself at a Japanese style tea room.
Taste of Tea serves freshly brewed loose leaf teas, mainly from Japan, though there are a few varieties from other areas. I found this place to be a little oasis of respite from a little to much wine drinking. Wine tasting is hard work!
You can also indulge in a tea facial mask and foot soak. Aside from the relaxing experience, the tea mask immediately brightens and tightens the fine lines of the face. Who doesn’t want that? To top it all off, I had a bowl of house-made green tea ice cream. One can never have too much ice cream (or tea)!
If you find a tea you love, you can purchase some to take home with you, along with the masks, and recreate your own spa experience.
109 North St.
Hours: Friday – Tuesday 11:00 – 6:00
One of my passions is photography, especially landscape photography. Tammy suggested a drive to Gustafson Vineyards for the views and the 300-year old madrone tree. It’s a thirty minute drive from Healdsburg but worth it!
The views are stunning and I fell in love with Sonoma right then and there. I highly recommend visiting this estate vineyard property. The tasting room is only open on Saturday or by appointment. The house is available as a vacation rental so you will need to check if it’s possible to walk freely around the property.
Gustafson produces a large variety of award winning wines, and because of the soil and elevation of the property, they make some excellent cool climate varieties like a Reisling with under 1% residual sugar. See, not all Reislings are sweet.
9100 Skaggs Springs Rd.
Also find Gustafson’s tasting room in Healdsburg located at:
34 North St.
Hours: 12:00 – 7:00
Getting around Sonoma County
In every wine region I’ve visited, a car is really crucial for seeing the sites and getting around to the wineries and tasting rooms. In Sonoma, I drove a 2016 Kia Sorento.
Yes, the Sorento has a fancy navigation system, but since I had Tammy riding with me, I never learned to use it -isn’t navigating what local friends are for? The Sorento was a really nice ride and fit right in with the wide open Sonoma countryside. If you are traveling with a large group, this is a roomy and comfortable ride.
Another must do in Sonoma is a drive to the coast, along Highway 1. I wrote a little about this in my article: Postcard: Sonoma Coast Sunset.
My tip: plan at least a 1/2 day for this. From Healdsburg, you can go north to Jenner, where you must stop for sunset at River’s End, or south to Bodega Bay, where you’ll find more restaurants, great camping, and a bird watching preserve.
Bodega Bay is where Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, The Birds was made, but no matter which direction you go, the scenery is unforgettable. If you only have two days in the area, maybe skip this but if you have three or more, go for it.
For more information on stops along the way and route details read Bodega Bay Road Trip.
The Russian River Valley
The drive through the Russian River Valley to the coast is magical, passing through ancient redwood trees, the tallest living things on the earth. I have friends who biked to the coast via Guerneville. Be safe – the roads are narrow and vision is often limited.
Things to do in this area include hiking and walking at Armstrong Woods State Reserve, water sports on the Russian River, vineyard visits, and camping. This is a twenty to thirty minute drive from Healdsburg, though it seems farther because of the curves in the road. Guerneville is the main town here, and is about halfway between Healdsburg and the Sonoma coast.
Interesting side note: A logger, aptly named Armstrong, recognized the value and beauty of the trees he farmed, and set aside the Armstrong Woods Reserve for preservation. There is no camping inside the reserve, but there is camping within the immediate vicinity.
The Russian River Valley is also famous for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. Korbel vineyards is located here, and if you like sparkling wine, you’ll not want to miss this. The Russian River Valley Wine Growers has an excellent website to help you plan your time there.
I recommend a picnic under the trees or beside the river and a bottle of whatever color wine you like, then a hike, or any outdoor activity. Breathe in the clean air and relax into the scenery. This is what life is really about.
Sonoma truly is a little bit of paradise in northern California. Have you been yet? Have questions? Feel free to reach out via my contact page. I will be updating this article as my travels take me back to Sonoma so subscribe to my email list so you never miss an awesome article.
Thanks to Tammy Gass for helping me coordinate my stay in Healdsburg. Her advice and inside information was invaluable. Also thanks to Lucy at Camellia Inn for hosting me on a Friday night when everything was full. Thanks to the Dry Creek Inn for their generosity, I will definitely be back. And a final thank you to Kia USA for the luxury of driving a brand new Sorento through Sonoma County. I drove a lot, and this car definitely made it easier and more fun.
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