This California City Is the Gateway to Wine Country and Redwood Forests
From the vineyards to the oldest, tallest trees in minutes.
Santa Rosa is a patchwork of hills, valleys, plains, and fields and fields of grapes. As the seat of Sonoma County, its location means one thing: wineries galore. Well, okay, two things if you throw in its convenient access to redwoods, the tallest and oldest trees in the country (no biggie). As one of the largest cities in California’s wine country, Santa Rosa is cosmopolitan enough to host boutique hotels, microbreweries, and hip coffee shops, but sleepy enough that it would be easy enough to wile away a day hiking the Redwood Coast.
Everything about Santa Rosa feels just a little easier, especially if you’re coming from a bustling city like San Francisco (just an hour away). When the summer days are getting this give-me-a-break hot, there’s nothing better than kicking back with a nice view, a chilled glass of wine, and some crisp, freshly sourced produce. Here’s our list of all the best stuff to check out in beautiful Santa Rosa, California.
Step into a cartoon, try to fly a plane, or see a performance in the city’s art centers
Speaking of the Charles M. Schulz museum, it’s a must-do, especially for fans of Charlie Brown and the whole Peanuts gang. The museum has a lot of once-in-a-lifetime stuff for comic strip fans to check out, like a recreation of Schulz’s home studio and a number of pieces of cool, Snoopy-related art, including a wrapped mock-up of the beagle’s house by the legendary Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
If you’re into slightly harder stuff than Peanuts, ramble on over to Jack London State Historic Park, which contains the Call Of The Wild author’s home, as well as beautiful trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.
Those looking for a touch more man-made wonder might want to peruse the Pacific Coast Air Museum. While there are cool inside exhibits, guests will get the most bang for their buck outside on the three-acre field, which is filled with authentic military aircraft, mostly from the Korean War on. Most have been restored, and guests are invited to get up close and personal with the crafts. There’s a flight simulator on site, too, for anyone who gets the urge to take one of these things up for themselves.
Santa Rosa actually draws a fair amount of touring musicians, comedians, and speakers, most of whom perform at the Luther Burbank Center. If you’re looking to take in a show while you’re in town, check out the calendar to see what’s playing. You might be surprised!
Walk amid the outstanding nature California’s known for
Just outside of the city proper, you’ll find the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. Logging in the 19th century wiped out a lot of the region’s primeval redwood forest, but Armstrong preserves at least a portion of what remains of the coast redwood population. Thought to be the tallest living thing on our planet, coast redwoods can live to 1,000 years old, grow to a diameter of about 16 feet, and stand up to 250 feet tall. Some trees have even surpassed that, living up to 2,000 years. They’re truly magnificent, and even those who don’t consider themselves particularly outdoorsy would be remiss to pass up a visit.
If you’re more into the ocean than the forest, Bodega Head Park and Beach has coves to poke around and trails to explore along the bouldered shore. Located about 10 miles from Santa Rosa, the park’s rocky headland leads into Bodega Harbor, which can be filled with crabbers, people grabbing a nice picnic, and whale watchers on the cliffs looking for the migrating beasts.
Dine on wine (and fine, food as well)
There are literally hundreds of wineries in and around Santa Rosa and the Sonoma County region. Though there are too many to mention here, if you want a good overview of what to check out, stop at Miracle Plum, a wine bar and store in the city’s Railroad Square. It’s a great place to sample local, natural wines, and makes for a good first stop for anyone deciding what winery to hit up the next day. Grab a glass, take a break, and then take a walk around historic Railroad Square, which is full of other restaurants, bars, and little shops you can only find there.
This is also where you’ll find Stark’s Steak and Seafood, for instance, which specializes in sustainably caught and farmed protein, and it boasts an entire section just called “mac and cheese” on its menu. One of Stark’s sister restaurants, Bird And The Bottle, is located a nearly-five-minute drive away and has a menu featuring comfort foods of all sorts, from oysters on the half shell to matzo ball soup.
If you’re more interested in picking and nibbling your way throughout the city’s fare, consider one of the city’s farmers markets, which showcase the best of what the region’s farms and producers have to offer. There’s one in the region basically every day, so you’ll never have to worry about missing out. Fun fact: If you’re a cheese lover, there’s a map of “California’s cheese trail” that points out all of the best cheesemakers in the region, so you can stop by and sample the goods. A few spots just outside town in Sebastopol look particularly promising.
While Sonoma County is certainly synonymous with wine, it does produce some delicious beer as well. If you’re a craft brewing aficionado, you’ve probably heard of Pliny the Elder, an imperial IPA that has a perfect 100 rating from Beer Advocate. The company that makes that beer, Russian River, has a brewery in Windsor, just nine miles outside of town, but there’s also a Russian River brewpub in Santa Rosa proper. Both keep the famous IPA on tap, as well as a wide range of other interesting micro-batch beers. We recommend picking up a mixed case and taking it home to enjoy for weeks to come.
Shop the local boutiques
Santa Rosa’s shopping complexes range from retro-cute to the crystal-selling variety. The first, Montgomery Village, was built in the ‘50s as a sort of proto-outdoor mall. Don’t worry, it’s not just chain stores. You’ll also find indie coffee shops, antique stores, a bookstore, a toy store, and the Made Local Marketplace. It’s well worth a walk around, even if you don’t have anything specific on your shopping list.
In that same vein, a few miles away in Sebastopol, you’ll find The Barlow Market District. In this 12-acre outdoor market district, you’ll find stores from 40 different local artisans, including glassblowers and crystal healers. You’ll also find a whole slate of restaurants, bars, and ice cream shops selling everything from yerba mate to sushi.
Where to stay in Santa Rosa
Because Santa Rosa does its fair share of tourist business, it’s got a fairly robust list of hotel options. There are Courtyards and Hyatts and all that, but for our money, you’d be better off in one of the city’s two kitschy, mid-century resorts. Set on a 10-acre campus, The Flamingo has been a Santa Rosa staple for more than half a decade. The resort boasts about 170 guest rooms, plus 14 suites. The hotel’s got a big-time wellness feel going on, which vibes with its copious natural materials and beautiful settings. Check out their robust calendar of events, including daily meditation and yoga classes, as well as drum circles, “sound journeys,” and “conscious coloring.”
A modernized roadside motel, The Sandman is another excellent option with 135 hip rooms. This hotel offers morning yoga classes, as well, but also cornhole and bocce, all with a view of their lovely pool house and bar. We particularly love the Sandman’s “S’mores and Schulz” package, which offers s’mores kits to use at the hotel’s outdoor fire pits, plus tickets to the nearby Charles M. Schulz museum (more on that later).
Those looking for something a little swankier than a tent might prefer Vintners Resort, which sits—as one might expect—overlooking a lovely vineyard. One of the area’s ritziest restaurants, John Ash & Co, is on-site as well, where the seasonal asparagus, endives, oysters, and more are always fresh and locally sourced.