Dean Clough

January 22, 2023

Portico Darwin: Downtown Sonoma Travel Guide


Unfortunately, I must begin this wine region-focused Travel Guide by bragging.  Because the fact is, I've been to all parts of Sonoma before.  And Napa.  And Anderson Valley.  Santa Cruz Mountains.  Livermore Valley.  Santa Barbara and the Santa Rita Hills.  The Sierra Foothills.  Heck, I've been in a wine region in New Mexico.  And frankly, we've been to nearly as many international wine destinations

Folks, the bottom line is that we have been to a shit-ton of vineyards, wineries, tasting rooms, wine salons, wine shops, wine regions, wine towns, wine hotels, and wine restaurants, all over the place.  I hope I am being clear.

Phew.  I need to sit down.  Going on about oneself is exhausting.  As I should know.

10 Seconds of Seriousness:  I say all of that as an apology for this Guide not being particularly useful if this is your first or an early visit to a wine region, and specifically, Sonoma County. 

Because you will find no romantic prose here about pastoral vineyards set amidst the rolling, emerald (at least now, in January) hills.  Nor is there a list of wineries to visit and tour.  There are no Michelin star-encrusted celebrity chef-helmed restaurants to be found in this Travel Guide, either.  And there's nary a spa.  Shockers all, I know. 

That's because for this, our approximately 500th visit to Sonoma (or Napa; first = 1991), we stayed for 5 nights right downtown.  And while we drove our car here, we used it just one single time (to pick up a pizza during a brief rain shower at dinnertime).  So this is a guide about staying in or near a wine region's central business district, in this case, Textbook (and Diamond Certified) Downtown Sonoma.  And the concept here applies in general to places like Downtown Napa, Healdsburg, Los Olivos, Beaune, and Bagno Vignoni, and to a lesser extent, gems such as Boonville and Murphys.

And by that, I mean a quasi-urban experience, but in Wine Country.  You get the same quality of restaurants, wine tasting (maybe better?), and lodging (at least almost) - but with the convenience of not driving.

With that out of the way, let's move on to today's subject, Downtown Sonoma, A.K.A. as "Sonoma", "Sonoma Plaza", or even "The Plaza".  The latter two stem from the picture-perfect expanse of green park in the dead center of town.  Which is surrounded by nothing but Textbook or better shops, restaurants, bars, and 20+ places to taste wine.  It's a great option for a few nights if you've grown tired of the driving and perhaps even the expense of a traditional wine country visit, here or elsewhere.  It's awfully pretty, too.

Air gateways to Sonoma are SFO, OAK, with the little-known STS being very much an option if you're coming from one its 10 nonstop destinations, which include far-away Dallas.  It also has - by far - branding superior to that of SFO or OAK.

There are, of course, no passenger train options that get you particularly close, and what exists won't really do much for you.  And while there is pretty OK bus service from SF, in the end, you're probably going to need (perhaps even want) a car. 

Getting here is not really the problem, however.  Getting here at the wrong time of the year is a completely different story.  You simply do not want to be here during any warmer-weather holiday.  Or really any summer weekend.  It can be just too fucking crowded, and that can blow up even the best plans.  

When then?  Weather-wise, that's easy.  April - October are perfect, with varying degrees of heat, which can at times get pretty intense, although that rarely matters.  In normal weather years, November - March is rainy, but we just had 4 gonzo bluebird days out of 5 in the dead of January, which is by no means uncommon.  The key is avoiding the crazy-town touristy times.  

With that said, we and others have spent magical Christmas's in Healdsburg, and our trip documented here began on MLK Day.  So it's not necessarily being here on a holiday, it's which holiday.  Here are my preferences in terms of a visit to Downtown Sonoma, and Sonoma and Napa in general:

  • Midweek mid-September
  • Midweek Summer
  • Midweek Spring
  • Midweek Winter
  • Weekend Winter

I think you get the idea.


Conveniently, your phone has a very handy mapping feature!  But here are the stomping grounds for a visit to Downtown Sonoma.

Yes, the green square above is indeed Sonoma Plaza.  Basically, any address on this map is within walking distance of it, albeit a mile at the outer reaches.  Less obvious is the area noted above by General Vallejo Home and Arnold Field:  its entirety is a very nice expanse of urban park.  So plenty of hiking and picnic opportunities, right in town, yet away from The Plaza itself. 

You may also be surprised to see that Downtown Sonoma has quite a mix of homes, and sure, there are the Instagram bungalows and acre-sized compounds.  But there are also plenty of decidedly middle-class homes as well - a win, as it makes the Sonoma scene real, vs. something like Carmel. 

In all, a perfectly charming town.  And where else do Christians and Jews partner on a property?


As you'd guess, there are a ton of high-zoot hotels and resorts around - if you want to drive.  If not, you're really talking Macarthur Place in terms of a quality hotel experience in Downtown Sonoma.  Its setting is unique - a short walk from The Plaza, yet ensconced behind walls of trees that make staying there bucolic and mellow.  We did not stay during this visit, so there's no formal rating, but we have in the past, and if you want a hotel, I doubt you'd be disappointed.

Disclaimer:  there are hotel rooms that dot the plaza, at El Dorado, above Girl & The Fig, and others.  I know nothing about them.

And while I shouldn't mention it in fear of its value eroding with increased prominence, I've also stayed at El Pueblo Inn - you can read about that here.  Definitely an option, but I didn't tell you.

Us?  We had it easy and slept in sleeping bags on the floor of a friend's RV.  

Nah.  We were actually in a gorgeous bungalow, complete with a massive backyard that even has redwood trees.  Think very nice Airbnb or VRBO and you're on the right track.  The problem is that more and more places - Sonoma included - are restricting short-term rentals.  My best advice:  plan early and do your research.  There are private residences available to rent within walking distance of Sonoma Plaza - you just need to look carefully.  


In news sure to stun at least a few, I managed other activities beyond eating and drinking.  In fact, a portion of most of our days were spent in this region below, all of which is just north of W Spain Street.  Make note of the "Bike Path", which is also great for walking.

In and around this area, we enjoyed taking the long way into town via the Bike Path.  Mountain Cemetery is a must-see - it is quite unusual, and in some ways more akin to things we've seen in Europe.  But the prominent winemaking family interred there is pure Sonoma.


And while it's pretty steep, the climb up the hill is fun, although I never did quite make it to the top.  This is a great park I doubt few tourists ever bother to visit.

Although we did not go this time, I should mention the large and gorgeous Jack London State Historic Park, which is in nearby Glen Ellen.  If you feel you must drive somewhere.


LOL eating and drinking in Wine Country!  We kept it surprisingly low-key this time, meaning we only went super-large once, on our last night and at The Girl & The Fig, a restaurant we rarely miss when in the area.  But that doesn't mean we didn't shred - of course we did.  Boozer bars, fine wine salons and of course, world-class dining - it's all here.  As always, I provide links to Textbook or better places if they're available.  In this case, every place is worthy of a visit.

  • Reviewed previously, there's a reason it's here again: Steiner's is a model of a convivial, friendly local's bar
Mary's Pizza Shack (W Spain Location Only):  Killer
  • JFC I don't normally go, let alone review, chains, but we love the bar and food here; we went twice, and don't miss the meatballs
Pangloss CellarsDiamond Certified
  • New to us, this place had everything:  top-drawer wines, with a charcuterie presentation that's just as good, all in a very impressive and comfy setting
The Plaza BistroTextbook
  • More of a restaurant than a bar, but guess which part I visited (twice) and am rating?
Eldorado KitchenDiamond Certified
  • While we had only breakfast here this time, we've had many a fine dining experience, too, over the years
Caddis WinesDiamond Certified
  • A highlight of the trip, this is a tiny wine salon where you are served by the owner, who is also the winemaker; the kicker is that the wines are as good as any
  • Despite ignorance of what Weissβier even is, I literally hadn't had a proper English sausage roll like the one here since using them to nurse my daily hangovers in the cafeteria in Sea Containers House 1998 (paging George Valiant Walker!)
Roger Roessler WinesDiamond Certified
  • Superb Pinot Noirs!  
  • And a huge shout-out to our man in Sonoma, Bart Golf, a friend who works there; Ol' Purple Label was kind enough to tip him off we'd like to visit - and boy, did we visit, and revisit, plenty of great wines
Della Santina'sKiller
  • Come for the patio, stay for the wonderful food and old world service 
The Girl & The FigDiamond Certified 
  • We wrapped it at this Wine Country stalwart and farm-to-table standard-bearer

Not enough for you?  We can thank Roger Roessler Wines for this, a list of all of the tasting rooms and wine salons on and around The Plaza.  You literally can have some of the finest wines in the world with zero driving.



There are a lot of galleries on and around The Plaza!  I didn't go to any!


Do I even have to say it?  It's rarely a priority and wasn't this time, apart from selecting wines.  But, in this case, two places deserve a mention.

Sonoma MarketDiamond Certified
  • Pretty much what you'd expect in terms of a luxury supermarket in Wine Country
Eraldi's Men's Wear and ShoesDiamond Certified
  • Don't be put off by the Bogus website - this store has amongst the best collections of menswear I've seen in a store

I hope you've enjoyed this Travel Guide.  This was at a magical late lunch at Della Santina's on Thursday - you can see I don't mind doing this research.

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