Get to Know Sonoma, CA, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America

From its charming town plaza to its chic shopping, historic buildings, and world-class wine, this Northern California gem is shining like never before.

Last July, as I walked the historic streets of Sonoma, CA (one of our 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2018), I must admit I felt downright pampered just being there.

The town’s plaza is a welcoming green space surrounded on all four sides by great restaurants, stylish wine-tasting rooms, unique shops, and architecture that dates back to Spanish Colonial days. My wife, Michele, and I were only about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, but a world away from the T-shirts-and-fudge scene that typifies too many travel destinations these days.

Sonoma is a place where smart travelers can indulge their taste for authentic, artisanal local food and drink and bask in unrivaled natural beauty without dropping a small fortune.

STEP BACK IN TIME

One of the things we love about Sonoma is the way it has benefitted from decades of historic preservation, starting in the mid-20th century, well ahead of most regions of the U.S. As a result, its Spanish Colonial flavor is on display everywhere you look, with 15 historically significant monuments, buildings, and memorials around the plaza, including a historic mission and former military headquarters.

A TRULY COOL TOWN PLAZA

But, as historic as the town is, Sonoma is all about living in the now, engaging all five senses with cool boutiques, spectacular Mexican, BBQ, and Asian food, arts and crafts, music, theater, and, of course, the exceptional wine-tasting rooms that line the plaza, welcoming and educating tasters from novice to connoisseur with some of the finest wines of the Sonoma Valley region, which happens to be where the California wine industry was born.

The Sonoma Valley Museum of Art offers exceptional exhibitions, interactive education programs, and workshops incredible annual events such as the Sonoma International Film Festival and the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival (devoted to the grape harvest it to September) attract visitors from all over the globe.

NEARBY WINERY TOURS

I’ve been visiting Sonoma Valley for years, and one of my favorite ways to bring home a taste of Sonoma is to choose a fine bottle of wine (or two, or three…) from one of the valley’s 100+ wineries. And if you have never taken a guided tour of a winery, you are in for a surprise. The experience encompasses not only the delicious finished product, but also an array of architecture including chateaus, castles, and villas, educational visits to witness the process from harvest to barrel to bottle, and, of course, a tasty sip or two.

GET OUTDOORS

Don’t forget that the town of Sonoma is situated amid some of the most striking mountains in America, and just about an hour’s drive from the Pacific coast. With 13,000 acres of state and regional parks where you’ll want to hike, bike, and run, the Sonoma Valley’s wild spaces may make it a little difficult to drag yourself back to civilization. One of my favorite day trips out of Sonoma is to head over to Bodega Bay, with headlands overlooking the ocean. Pick up a portable feast of local artisanal cheese, bread, charcuterie, and wine in the plaza and take the winding route up west to the sea—in summer, you may even experience a tefreshing temperature drop from around 90 in Sonoma to the mid 60s along the coast.

STAY IN STYLE

Sonoma boasts an array of distinctive, comfortable lodging. We enjoyed Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn for well under $200 a night, and the splurgey, elegant El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen, right on the plaza.

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