We'll come out and say it: even if you've bene to Napa before, you haven’t experienced the heart of Northern California wine country until you’ve explored Sonoma Valley. With its unhurried European pace and warm, welcoming vibe that encourages guests to stop, savor and stay a while, it’s no wonder they call it “Slownoma.”
Tucked away to the east and often overshadowed by its popular big sister or Napa, the historic town of Sonoma has all the makings of an idyllic weekend road trip — front porch farms stands and fresh, seasonal menus, sweeping vineyard landscapes for endless photo opps and even a miniature horse called “Peanut Butter” who strolls through town each day.
And then there’s the wine. From award-winning Cabernet grown on Moon Mountain to elegant Pinot noir from the Carneros region, with all sorts of Rhone varietals in between, Sonoma juice is just as balanced, interesting and extraordinary, as it is approachable, much like its tasting rooms and its people.
Be it wine, food, art or nature, Sonoma is a town that loves to celebrate the simple pleasures in life, which is most evident in warm months when locals flock to the sun-dappled lawn on the plaza to linger all day with little more than a blanket, delicious local cheese and a chilled Rosé. One visit and you’ll see: slow’n’steady really does win the race. Here are our travel tips and full itinerary for a weekend road trip to Sonoma:
9AM: El Molino Central
Just north of Sonoma's main plaza in the up and coming neighborhood of Boyes Hot Springs, you’ll find El Molino Central. A step up from your typical taqueria, this colorful roadside gem serves home-style Mexican classics with fresh, seasonal ingredients (think: butternut squash enchiladas and Niman Ranch pork tamales). Instead of guac, start with an order of Sikil Pak, a nutty, spicy and utterly addictive Mayan pumpkin seed dip served with their house made, organic stone ground tortilla chips. Their chilaquiles, made with organic soft scrambled eggs, are a weekend special and have been known to sell out, so be sure to go early and enjoy a Blue Bottle coffee while you wait.
1 PM: Bartholomew Park
Still somewhat off the radar of most Sonoma travel guides, Bartholomew Park (or Bart Park as Sonomans call it) offers a refreshingly different, make-your-own-adventure type of experience. Part winery, part land trust and park, the property offers both grassy lawns and a vineyard hillside ideal for picnics, large groups and all-day lingering, as well as a two-mile hike surrounding the property filled with towering redwoods, lush fern groves, a few steep stretches to kick up the heartbeat and a tasting room at the finish line. For the ultimate afternoon, plan ahead with a stop by Watmaugh Strawberry stand on your way over (for the sweetest strawberries on earth) and then grab cheese and crackers at Sonoma’s Best Modern Mercantile, and you might never leave.
6 PM: Tasca Tasca
Wine country is chockfull of Cal-Med cuisine, so a welcome alternative is this Portuguese Tapas bar and restaurant just off the plaza has an old-world vibe and wide appeal. Featuring an extensive menu of shared plates from garden, land and sea, you’ll find authentic fare like caldo verde, boquerones, and bacalhau, alongside inventive regionally inspired offerings like Portuguese mac’n’cheese (with Linquica) and Dungeness crab empanadas. Open until midnight, Tasca Tasca is also great for a wine country nightcap. Porto anyone?
10AM: Fremont Diner
The secret’s out on Sonoma's Fremont Diner so don’t be a rookie and show up at noon. If you do, expect to wait at least an hour, which isn’t so bad given their new mobile bar out back filled with coffee, beer, and wine. Specializing in seasonal country fare, this roadside diner has fried chicken, biscuits, shakes and daily pies. In other words: everything you need to set you straight after a big night in Northern California wine country. Unlike traditional diners, they also offer a few lighter options like their simple, but flavorful farmers toast, topped with avocado, pickled red onion and chili flakes.
1PM The Donum Estate
Tucked into a little corner of Sonoma's Carneros growing region sits The Donum Estate. This Pinot house produces some of the most extraordinary Burgundian style wines in Sonoma County, exploring the elegant grape through both estate fruit and neighboring regions like Anderson Valley and the Russian River. With sweeping vineyard views and jaw-dropping sculpture, wine is only part of the story. It’s an experience with that will wow, delivered in Sonoma’s welcoming, salt-of-the-earth way. Note: The Donum Estate is by appointment only, so be sure to call ahead.
3PM: Cornerstone Sonoma
Like a microcosm of Sonoma, this wine country marketplace on the south side of town is home to an eclectic mix of shopping, food, antiques, tasting rooms and gardens. Shop globally inspired designer goods at Nomad Chic and gifts for the Francophile in your life at Chateau Sonoma before wandering the spectacular maze of landscape installations. Weekends in summer months bring chefs and cooking demos in the new Sunset Magazine test kitchen, as well as a treat for the kids (and kids at heart) with the Sweet Scoops Ice Cream Cart.
5:30 PM: Glen Ellen Star
Not technically in Sonoma proper, you’ll get why it was worth the six-mile drive north of town after just one dinner at Glen Ellen Star. Specializing in wood-fired cooking, their cozy open-kitchen space churns out California-inspired dishes that are just as comforting as they are polished. You could make an entire meal out of their cast iron skillet-roasted vegetables like Brussels sprouts with brown sugar bacon marmalade. Or share a few and save room for one of their chewy, perfectly blistered pizzas and main courses like Brick Chicken or Lamb Ragu. Given that the Star is generally bustling seven nights a week with locals and travelers alike, be sure to make a reservation or go right at 5:30 pm to try your luck at the bar (the best seats in the house) and watch the chefs work their magic.
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Photography by Emma K. Morris