Why Go To Sonoma
Sonoma, a county in Northern California known for its bucolic charms and array of wineries, could also be described as Napa’s rustic, less-refined and more-relaxed sister. Its rolling hills, which rise into the Sonoma Mountains and descend to the Pacific shore, also contain a cache of small cities that are worth a visit: Try Santa Rosa for an urban escape, complete with museums and buzzy restaurants, but pop by Glen Ellen for a slice of small-town Americana. In short, if you want a laid-back introduction to stellar vintages and gorgeous properties, Sonoma – rather than Napa – should be your California wine country destination. If you’re only here for a day, consider signing up for a guided tour. A handful of the best California tours feature daylong excursions in Sonoma.
Best Months to Visit
The best time to visit Sonoma is between June and October when the weather is at its finest, with high temps hovering in the mid-80s in June and the upper 70s in October. Unfortunately, this time of year is also when the crowds are the thickest and hotel rates are at their highest. But the good thing is that wineries are open year-round, with the exception of major holidays. For thinner crowds and lower prices, travelers should book their trip between the months of November and May.
What to Eat
Although Napa wins the most praise for its fine dining establishments, Sonoma contains an array of delicious eateries that are, on the whole, more rustic in ambiance. (And that’s just the way locals like them.)
Obviously, the region is known for its wines, especially its zinfandels at places like Ravenswood. But the region is also known for its dozens of breweries, such as Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg and Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa. And if you need a shot of espresso after all of that vino, visitors suggest you swing by Sunflower Caffé Expresso & Wine in Sonoma proper. The region is also home to several popular casual eateries, such as traveler-recommended Picazo Café & Deli (try the burger) and Angelo’s Wine Country Deli. Experts give Bodega Bay’s Terrapin Creek and Petaluma’s Cucina Paradiso high praise for both atmosphere and cuisine. And along with tasting wine in Sonoma, visitors should also sample the locally made cheeses, olive oils and honeys, which are found throughout the region in various shops and farmers markets.
Getting Around Sonoma
The best way to get around Sonoma is by car. It’s both the most economical and the most practical way to traverse this wide swath of Northern California. Still, to fully enjoy days spent winery hopping, it’s best to opt for another mode of transport, such as a bicycle, bus or trolley. To get to the region, travelers can fly into the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport (STS). Though this airport is small (Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and United Airlines are the only four carriers that service the airport), it’s less than 10 miles north of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Oakland International Airport (OAK) are each about 60 miles south of the region. Amtrak and Greyhound also operate in and out of the area.
Visitors to Sonoma are largely dependent on their own vehicles since there isn’t any extensive public transportation system throughout the county that connects all points of interest. Still, considering wine tasting is one of the best things to do, travelers will also likely need to rely on some other transportation, such as a bike, trolley or bus, or they’ll need to appoint a designated driver. Several car rental agencies, including Avis, Budget and Hertz, are stationed on-site at the Sonoma County airport. Visitors can also rent cars at the San Francisco and Oakland airports.
Sonoma County Transit offers limited bus service throughout Sonoma County, though it’s really more of a commuting alternative for locals than a tourism-oriented option for travelers. Still, visitors might find it useful if they want to visit different towns throughout Sonoma. The color-coded bus routes charge based on a zone system, but a one-way trip through all five zones won’t exceed $5 for adults.
Cycling throughout Sonoma County not only gives travelers a scenic mode of transportation – think rippling hills, crashing waves, farmhouse-peppered meadows – but it also helps them burn off some of those calories from all the wine and cheese. Various bike rental shops offer visitors everything they need for a guided or self-guided tour of area wineries. Sonoma County Tourism also offers a cache of downloadable bike maps for the cyclists who want to venture out on their own. Prices vary, but a half-day guided tour from Sonoma Valley Bike Tours will run you $108, while an all-day bike rental from Wine Country Cyclery will cost $75.
The Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley, a reproduction of a 19th century-era San Francisco cable car, takes visitors on a six-hour tour of a handful of wineries. Each seat on the trolley costs $99, and wine tasting fees at the wineries – which vary based on the season and typically cost between $5 and $10 – aren’t included. Travelers will need to book their seats in advance.
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