Things to Do in the Sonoma Valley and Downtown Sonoma.
When you start thinking about things to do in Sonoma, California, you may not realize that the county of Sonoma covers nearly 1,800 square miles, stretching from the wine-producing regions near Napa Valley to the Pacific Ocean.
When most people think of Sonoma, they really mean “Sonoma Valley.” That’s the area around the towns of Sonoma, Glen Ellen, and Kenwood in the eastern part of the county next to the Napa Valley. It’s where you’ll find the most things to do and the area covered in this guide.
What to Do If You Only Have a Day in Sonoma
If you’ve only got a day, spend it in downtown Sonoma. The town — which was first settled by the Spanish Fathers who built Mission San Francisco Solano — is just right for a rambling browse. Shops and restaurants face a shaded town square with a quaint courthouse and lots of benches that make great people-watching spots.
Wine Tasting in the Sonoma Valley
If wine tasting is what you want to do in Sonoma, you’ll need a lot of stamina — or a lot of time. More than 100 wineries surround the town of Sonoma. Choosing where to go among that many tasting rooms can be overwhelming, but no need to worry. We did a lot of the hard work for you and picked some of the most enjoyable Sonoma Valley wineries, choosing places that not only have excellent wines but also offer a unique visitor experience. To find out about them, just use our guide to Sonoma Valley’s best wineries.
If you’d rather let someone else do the driving, check out the Sonoma Wine Trolleywhich will take you on a scenic tour that visits four wineries.
Beyond Wine: Food Experiences
California’s wine country is also known for its outstanding restaurants and cuisine, but when you’re traveling in Sonoma, you can also sample and enjoy regional food products.
Do you like Jack style cheese? One of four kinds of cheese invented in the U.S., its origins go back to the Mission period. David Jack was the first to sell the mild, white cheese commercially and his name has been associated with it ever since. Sonoma Jack is the local version, and you’ll find it at the Sonoma Cheese Factory on the plaza. You can also sample their other cheeses, get a sandwich in their shop or pick up some goodies for a picnic in the square.
Before I set out for Sonoma, I always check my pantry to be sure I’m stocked up on olive oil and balsamic vinegar from B.R. Cohn. They’re known for their wines (and for the fact that the owner Bruce Cohn was the Doobie Brothers’ manager), but don’t miss their market for some of the best food products in the area.
When it’s open (May through Christmas), stop at Oak Hill Farm’s Red Barn Store at 15101 Sonoma Highway for fresh organic produce, locally made products, and flowers.
The Sonoma Plaza Farmers Market operates seasonally and is well worth a stop, not just for fresh produce but other food items as well.
Explore Historic Sonoma
Sonoma is one of the state’s oldest towns, getting its start when Mission San Francisco Solano was established in 1823. You can tour the mission using the tips in this guide.
You can also see the historic plaza, nineteenth-century barracks and an important historic home in Sonoma State Historic Park.
Take a Flight in a Biplane
South of the town of Sonoma on Highway 121, you’ll find the hangars of the Vintage Aircraft Company. They offer scenic flights in World War II-era open cockpit biplanes that can seat two in the front seat. Or you can choose the AT6 “Texan,” an advanced trainer plane that will show you how fighter pilots of the 1940s prepared for the careers fighting World War II.
Watch a Race – Or Drive a Race Car
Go a little further south on Highway 121 to the Sonoma Raceway. It’s a major stop on the NASCAR, National Hot Rod Association, and Indy Car racing circuits.
When the pros aren’t roaring around the track at breakneck speeds, you can learn how to drive like they do. At the Sonoma track, Simraceway Driving Center offers racing experiences in their F3 race cars, top end Audi Experience programs, and track days in your own car. They also have Go Karting and Kart Racing options.
Once a year, the raceway also hosts the Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival, where you can see classic race cars both on the track and off.
Take the Kids to Train Town
Train Town in the town of Sonoma is a perfect place to take the kids. Their miniature trains are just big enough for and adult and child to sit side by side. They also have a cute roundhouse area and a few small rides that little ones may enjoy.
Go for a Drive or a Bike Ride
Sonoma’s backroads are perfect for a bike ride — or a drive in the car.
One of the most scenic and easy to follow routes is Highway 12 north out of town, through Boyes Hot Springs and the area called the Valley of the Moon. The name comes from the area’s name in local Indian legends, but the landscape is anything but lunar. You’ll drive through rolling hills, past vineyards and wineries in the 10-mile stretch between Sonoma and Kenwood.
Take a side trip to the town of Glen Ellen or in summer, go a little further west to see the lavender fields in bloom at Matanzas Creek winery.
Sonoma Valley Bike Tours offers a guided, pedal-powered guided tour of the Sonoma area — or opt for their self-guided option that includes a box lunch from a well-known local restaurant.
A Few More Things to Do in Sonoma
When you’re driving toward Sonoma on Highway 120, it’s hard to miss the upside-down fence and the oversized lawn chair outside Cornerstone Sonoma. Inside, you’ll find a marketplace, boutique winery tasting rooms, artisanal foods, art-inspired gardens, and Sunset Magazine’s Gardens + Outdoor Test Kitchen.
Wildwood Farm in Kenwood (north of the town of Sonoma) is the place to go if you’re looking for that special tree for your garden. They sell Japanese maple trees, dogwoods, dwarf Ginkgo Biloba, and other gorgeous garden specimens. If you think you’re going to take one home as a souvenir, bring a vehicle large enough to carry it in.
Morton’s Warm Springs Resort has been a local family favorite since 1946. In warm weather, you can soak in their natural mineral water pools or picnic on the grassy hill nearby.
His famous novel The Call of the Wild may have been set in Alaska, but author Jack London lived in Sonoma, calling his home Beauty Ranch. Today, his ranch is the Jack London State Historic Park where you can visit a museum dedicated to London, see the ruins of a 19th-century winery, touch a 2,000-year-old redwood tree, and visit the cottage where London worked.
Annual Events in Sonoma
Besides the things you can do in Sonoma all year long, you may also want to plan your visit around these annual events:
Th e Sonoma International Film Festival is held in the spring. The long-running festival features scores of independent features, documentaries, world cinema, and short films.
Sonoma Wine Country Weekend happens on Labor Day weekend. It’s a multi-day event that features winemaker lunches and dinners, an all-day tasting of Sonoma foods and wines, and a wine auction.
If you’ve always dreamed of being in the midst of the annual grape harvest, then the Sonoma Grape Camp should be on your bucket list. It happens in September and is a three-day immersion in what it takes to get from grape to glass.
The Sonoma Extra Virgin Olive Oil Festival is held in November at B. R. Cohn Winery.