Sonoma in the fall offers world-class food, wine, scenery and history


Every wine aficionado knows that the Sonoma/Napa region is home to a multitude of world-class wineries. But on a recent trip, my wife and I discovered that Sonoma offers so much more, including exceptional scenery, history, food and wine.

We visited Sonoma in the fall, after the grape harvest, and it didn’t take long to discover that this was a spectacular time to be in Sonoma because of the unexpectedly brilliant autumn colors, smaller crowds, and still comfortable weather.

We chose to fly into Oakland and rent a car for the one hour drive to Sonoma, but keep in mind that some airlines fly into the much closer Santa Rosa airport. When we reached the town of Sonoma, there were several things that immediately stood out:

  • The eight acre Sonoma Plaza–the largest in California–dominates the center of town.  Located among the Plaza’s towering shade trees are the  basalt-stone City Hall, a statue commemorating the Bear Flag Revolt (the precursor to the Mexican-American War), the Visitors Center, a kids’ playground and scattered benches and picnic tables that beckon you to sit and take in the scene or enjoy a leisurely picnic.
  • Surrounding the plaza are architecturally diverse, historic buildings, many dating back to the mid-1800’s, that are occupied by assorted restaurants, gift stores, bakeries, hotels and most surprising of all, the Sonoma State Historic Park.
  • The park consists of six different sites in or near the town center, and the fascinating collection of buildings, including a Mission, are woven seamlessly into the fabric of modern day Sonoma. Kitty-corner from the Plaza is the Sonoma Mission (aka Mission San Francisco Solano) which was the last of the 21 missions built in California in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Nearby are the original barracks where Mexican troops lived, the home of General Vallejo, who helped establish Sonoma, and an 1850’s hotel filled with period pieces that the docents take delight in explaining to visitors. Last but not least, a pleasant ten minute walk down the town’s bike & hiking trail, or a three minute drive, takes you to the final piece of this State Park, General Vallejo’s second home, Lachryma Montis, which you shouldn’t miss.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and the steady stream of people strolling around the Plaza made it clear that Sonoma attracts visitors of all ages from near and far. Fortunately, our first hotel, the historic and newly remodeled El Dorado Hotel, directly faced the Plaza which made it easy to explore the area. Its restaurant, the El Dorado Kitchen, is one of the highly regarded restaurants in town, featuring California cuisine and as much locally sourced food as possible.

Visitors who consider themselves “foodies” will find a plethora of places to satisfy their culinary tastes. For example, we ate at the Sunflower Caffe, just a couple of doors down from our hotel, and this casual cafe with its delightful, rustic outdoor patio, offers unusual items like smoked duck breast sandwiches, goat cheese filled piquillo peppers, along with the more traditional salads, sandwiches and smoothies.  Across the Plaza is the Basque Boulangerie, another lunch option, but the abundance of fresh-baked breads and pastries also made it a prime choice for breakfast. Lastly, you will want to peruse the menu of the ever-popular restaurant across from the El Dorado Hotel, the girl & the fig–but make reservations if you want to enjoy their “country food with a French passion”.

After enjoying the hustle and bustle of downtown Sonoma for the weekend, we moved to the MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa located just a few blocks from the Plaza. It’s a great place to relax in an elegantly appointed room, or on your private  patio surrounded by fountains, trees and shrubs. From 5 to 6pm, you can mingle with other guests in the Library and partake of the nightly wine & cheese reception.

No trip to Sonoma is complete without a visit to some of the 450 wineries in  this single county. We started with the Mayo Family Winery where the owner, Jeff Mayo, explained the nuances of winemaking while he introduced us to six of his white and red wines, each of which was an oenological delight. Any wine fan should find this special winery, but don’t try to buy their wines at any store because all of their wine production is sold in the winery’s tasting room or website. They also offer a food and wine pairing option at their second location.

We visited a few other wineries that I would recommend, but really, it’s hard to go wrong at almost any winery:

  • Buena Vista Winery: California’s wine industry started here in the 1850’s; look for the wine cellar carved into the rocky hillside and notice the Chinese laborers’ pick marks on the ceiling.
  • Bartholomew Park Winery: Located only a few blocks from downtown Sonoma, next to Buena Vista Winery, this winery stands out for its unique combination of a wine tasting room, museum, picnic area overlooking the vineyards, plus three miles of hiking trails among the hills and oak trees behind the estate.
  • Acacia Winery: If you are a chardonnay fan, find the Acacia Winery halfway between Sonoma and Napa; the ambiance is just OK, but the wine is top quality.

So next time you are looking to bag the “Travelers Big Four”–food, wine, scenery and history–plan a trip to Sonoma. You won’t be sorry.

Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer in Carlsbad, CA. Find more of his photos and articles at



If you go:

Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau: Succinct overview of history and attractions

El Dorado Hotel and El Dorado Kitchen: in the Sonoma Plaza at 405 First Street West, Sonoma, CA 95476  800-289-3031

MacArthur Place Inn & Spa: 29 E MacArthur St, Sonoma, CA 95476 707-938-2929

Mayo Family Winery: 13101 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen, CA 95442   707-938-9401

Basque Boulangerie: in the Sonoma Plaza at 460 1st Street East, Sonoma, CA 95476   707-935-7687   www.

the girl & the fig: 110 W Spain St, Sonoma, CA 95476  707-933-3000

Sunflower Cafe: in the Sonoma Plaza at 421 First Street West, Sonoma, CA 95476  707-996-6645