The second most renowned North American wine region, Sonoma, has long suffered the fate of being compared to the more famous wine valley that runs parallel to it: Napa. But outside of sharing a border, these two regions couldn’t be more different.
Sonoma wine country is actually double the size of Napa Valley, extending far beyond the town of Sonoma to worthwhile destinations like Healdsburg and the Russian River Valley, the funky town of Sebastopol, and even the pacific ocean.
Look out for Jess’ Healdsburg and West County & Sonoma Coast travel itineraries coming soon
Home to more than 60 grape varieties (though Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the stars) and upwards of 400 wineries spread throughout 18 AVAs, Sonoma is also known for its abundance of farms, creameries, breweries, distilleries, and cannabis dispensaries.
Due to its vastness, there are two common mistakes visitors to Sonoma make. They either plan only a day or two, hardly scratching the surface, or they schedule winery appointments, meals, and hotel stays without realising it can easily take an hour to get from one to the next. As a result, they’re constantly running late to reservations on what’s supposed to be a relaxing holiday.
Looking at a map of Sonoma can be overwhelming.
In order to minimise driving time and to help you navigate planning a trip, we’ve divided the region up into three itineraries that cover Sonoma, Healdsburg, and West County and Sonoma Coast. Each itinerary assumes an early Thursday evening arrival and a Sunday departure.
The first itinerary below covers the town of Sonoma.
While you could easily spend an entire month getting to know Sonoma, these are the not-to-miss spots.
Need to know:
Depending on where you’re landing, your Sonoma destination can range from an hour to roughly 90 minutes (without traffic) from San Francisco. A car is necessary to get around Sonoma wine country, though you can arrange for transportation and tours to and from wineries.
You’ll be wise to make reservations for hotels, wineries and dining spots well in advance.
Understandably, most people who visit Sonoma wine country start with the town of Sonoma. An easy, one-hour drive from San Francisco, Sonoma is anchored by the charming and historic Sonoma Plaza. The birthplace of the California flag, this square played a pivotal role in the state’s declaration of independence from Mexican rule. The historic buildings and adobes are now occupied by shops, wine tasting rooms, hotels, and restaurants. Miles of vineyards and winery estates surround the town, offering a plethora of tasting options.
Check into the MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa for the weekend. Located in the heart of Sonoma and within a mile of the Sonoma Plaza, this idyllic resort completed a massive $25 million makeover in 2019. Relax at the pool or spa before dinner at Layla, the MacArthur’s Mediterranean restaurant, and then enjoy a nightcap at The Bar, a Gatsby-era lounge serving signature cocktails and late-night nibbles.
Embark on an easy stroll to the Sonoma Plaza for a Lavender Mist mimosa and breakfast in the back garden of Sunflower Caffé, known for simple and healthful dishes made from hyper-local ingredients. Afterwards, take a walk around the square, pop into interesting-looking shops, and visit Sonoma State Historic Park, where for a $3 admission fee you can access six historical sites including the Mission San Francisco Solano, the last of the 21 California missions built.
Book a lunchtime tasting at Three Sticks Wines, housed in the Vallejo-Castanada Adobe, the longest-occupied residence from California’s Mexican Period. The food and wine pairing ($95) includes a flight of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (crafted by Bob Cabral, former winemaker for the renowned Williams Selyem) paired with five bites from Sonoma Plaza restaurant El Dorado Kitchen. Or, for $200, you can make it a three-course private lunch.
Schedule a second wine tasting in the intimate salon of Sojourn Cellars, which sources fruit for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from some of the top vineyards in Sonoma County. Moreover, Sojourn is unique in that it also crafts Cabernet Sauvignon from both Sonoma and Napa. Through Sojourn’s comparative tasting format, you’ll learn to identify the nuances from each vineyard source.
Dine at Valley, an unassuming, French-inspired wine bar, restaurant and bottle shop that opened inside a 1836 adobe in 2020. Valley’s list is focused on natural and minimal intervention wines and simple, shareable plates. It combines seasonal ingredients with international flavours like XO eggs, a pink shrimp roll, and fried chicken with cucumber and coconut-peanut curry. End the night with a glass of Champagne from Sigh, a glamorous bubbles bar located just around the corner from Valley.
Following a light breakfast at The Porch at MacArthur, a grab-and-go cafe, drive out to the bucolic Carneros AVA, which borders both Napa and Sonoma. Start the day at Donum Estate; even though it’s only a 10-minute drive from the hotel, once there it feels like a totally different world. The Explore Experience ($150 per person) includes an ATV tour of Donum’s impressive open-air art sculpture collection, working farm, lavender fields and vineyards spread across 190 acres, culminating with a private tasting of their finest wines. Crafted with minimal intervention, Donum’s lineup showcases the diversity and uniqueness of California’s top-producing Pinot Noir regions, including Russian River, Anderson Valley and their home base of Carneros.
Turn left back on Highway 12 and after a few miles, pull over at the old country roadhouse that reads Lou’s Luncheonette. They don’t take reservations, so you may have to wait for a table out on their back patio (often shared with a few chickens), but the spicy fried chicken biscuit sandwiches are worth it.
Make your way back towards the MacArthur and stop by Patz & Hall‘s relaxing Sonoma House for a luxurious sparkling and caviar experience ($110 per person). A trio of sparkling wines, sourced from some of California’s most storied growers (like Larry Hyde, Lee Hudson, and the Martinelli family), are paired with caviar and the staple accoutrements.
The first wine country outpost from the world-renowned, Michelin-starred chef Michael Mina, Wit & Wisdom has been the talk of the town since opening in 2020. From seafood towers to handmade pastas, wood-fired pizzas and hearty meats, the best strategy here is to order several plates and share, though the craft cocktails and duck wings are a must order. You’ll leave feeling stuffed, but your bed at MacArthur is less than a mile away.
Return to the Sonoma Plaza for brunch at Girl + the Fig, a Sonoma staple for nearly 25 years. This buzzing and classic French bistro serves up comforting country food made with local ingredients — Croques Monsieur, quiche Lorraine, duck confit — that will soak up all of the weekend’s imbibing. Before you leave, take one last stroll around the plaza to digest and purchase last-minute souvenirs.