Thank you to Visit Santa Rosa for hosting our trip so we could provide this detailed review of our experience.
The largest city between San Francisco and Portland, Santa Rosa, California is widely known as the gateway to wine country. Located about 55 miles north of San Francisco and an easy one-hour flight from Los Angeles, the petite Charles M. Schulz airport – dressed in Snoopy and Charlie Brown paraphernalia – is the welcoming beacon to the area and a tribute to the famed cartoonist who called Santa Rosa home for more than 30 years.
Centrally located in Sonoma Valley, Santa Rosa is the perfect jump-off point to explore Sonoma, Napa, Healdsburg, and the Russian River Valley. But there’s a lot more to this little big town that deserves your time and attention. Discover the pulse point of Sonoma County filled with fun activities for the whole family.
Walk small town Santa Rosa to explore local eateries, cafes, and shops
Slow down and get to know downtown Santa Rosa, a walkable lively city center where boutique hotels can be found for more reasonable rates than other nearby towns. It’s easy to explore the delights of this small downtown on foot – from restaurants, brewpubs, bars, and entertainment.
It feels impossible to have a bad meal in Wine Country, California, with so much of America’s produce grown nearby, so it’s no surprise that we found an exciting array of dining options.
Duck into casual Belly Left Coast for some of the best casual grub and add a hazy IPA, a West Coast IPA, or a Mezcal Margarita with jalapeno and lime. For over 10 years, Chef Gray Rollin was the personal chef to many famous bands and toured with Linkin Park, KISS, Katy Perry, and Blink 182, to name a few, which took him all over the world. His strong ties to Maui are felt in Pacific-fusion menu options such as Hawaiian Kalua Pork Tacos, Pulled Pork Hawaiian Pizza, and Spanish-style Tuna Poke. Try some of our favs like crispy fried deviled eggs with bacon lardons, a Wedge Salad with avocado, or skewered Rosemary NY Steak Bites dipped in smoked gouda fondue. Also, flour tortilla tacos are stellar here too. Try the smoked brisket taco for the perfect beer or cocktail enhancement.
In town, find Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie Bar for a piece of pie with a choice of small batch ice cream, Grateful Bagels, and MAC’s Deli Cafe, a local institution with a huge menu serving milkshakes, egg dishes, and hearty sandwiches overflowing with hot pastrami and corned beef. Perch + Plow offers artisanal cocktails, beers on tap, and local Sonoma County wines in a friendly atmosphere.
For a sensational dinner experience, 19Ten Bar & Provisions showcases creative dishes meant to be shared. Begin with a Hall of Fame or House Cocktail like No Tan Lines made with Pineapple rum and coconut rum, coconut cream, lime, and black pepper bitters. Order our version of a Sicilian dream – a pizza with mortadella, pistachio pesto, and ricotta. Melt-in-your-mouth lemon poached Black Cod with a beet dashi broth is a standout along with the Beef Brisket Tacos smothered in elote and the hot fresh-out-of-the-oven Croissant Beignets that arrive with a miso caramel dipping sauce. Yum!
Explore the surrounding historic neighborhoods
The surrounding neighborhoods offer wide roads with charming turn-of-the-century homes, many reminding me of my New England upbringing. Some homes date back to 1872, while many were built in the 1920s along Lincoln Street in the St. Rose neighborhood. There are many architectural styles to admire such as the Carrillo Adobe from the Mexican Period or Gothic and Greek Revival Style houses from the late 1800s; imposing residences in the Greek Revival, Queen Anne, Italianate, and Stick/Eastlake Styles at the turn of the century; stone buildings constructed by Italian stone masons in Railroad Square; Craftsman and California Bungalow Styles after 1910; and Spanish and Mission Revival styles in the 1920s and 1930s.
The home used in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Shadow of a Doubt can be found here too, where Uncle Charlie visits his relatives. In fall, leaves of all colors cascade along the streets and the air feels fresh, cool and earthy.
Stay at Hotel E in Santa Rosa’s main square
Right in town and adjacent to Old Courthouse Square, stay at boutique Hotel E located in an elegant Beaux-arts building combining old-world charm with modernity. Here you can explore the town just a hop away or find the nearby Hwy 101 to explore beyond. A complimentary breakfast spread is left out each morning with coffee in the lobby. Book the top corner floor room overlooking the park where in winter you can admire the ice-skating rink, holiday décor, and lights accenting the redwood trees – all from above.
Sample tasty brews at 85,000 square foot “Destination” Russian River Brewing Co.
Santa Rosa has gained a reputation as the craft brew capital of the US. Known as the place where wine country meets beer city, plan a beer-tasting day with a tour of 85,000 square foot Russian River Brewing Co., a destination in itself. The new $50 million facility is a perfect place to unwind over a beer flight of Belgium and California style ales – where we soon discovered some of our favorite pours were the Russian River Porter and Intinction, a Pilsner aged in Sauvignon Blanc barrels with the addition of Sauvignon Blanc grape juice from a 2018 harvest. Enhance the imbibing with the ultimate comfort food served here – beef stew and a pork schnitzel sandwich served with Pliny fries loaded with white cheddar fondue, garlic, pickled jalapenos, and parmesan.
A brewery tour showed us how the Russian River spontaneously ferments tasty sour beers Sonambic inspired by breweries in the Lambic region of Belgium. Yeast is not added. Once the beer is brewed, it is transferred to a massive tray (only 1 of 3 in the US) and the beer sits overnight and ferments collecting funky yeast or wild bacteria that may be living in the room or pine walls. The next day it is transferred to oak wine barrels where it ferments wildly and ages for a few months. Wow!
On the tour, admire many photographs of the brewery’s growth. Check out the photo the owner took from high above the Golden Gate Bridge as the massive fermentation barrels cruise into port before being craned into Russian River Brewing Co. The beer story here is an interesting one, as Russian River Brewing Company was originally founded by Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville, CA, in 1997. Vinnie Cilurzo was hired as the expert brewmaster and initial sole employee. For the next 6 years, Vinnie continued to set the bar high for super hoppy and Belgian-inspired beers. Pliny the Elder, first brewed at the Korbel location in 1999, was one of the first commercially brewed Double or Imperial IPAs in America and won numerous awards over the years. It is still their most popular beer more than 20 years later. In 2003, Korbel decided to exit the beer business and transferred the rights to the Russian River Brewing Company name, all beer names, and the recipes to Vinnie and his wife, Natalie. They wrote a business plan, found 2 managing partners, and convinced 30 friends and family to invest in their new brewpub venture. In April 2004, they opened the doors to the next chapter of Russian River Brewing under their ownership.
The brewery feels like a humongous Willy Wonka beer factory as the entire brewery destination encompasses not only beer production for both clean beers and sour barrel-aged beers, admin offices, a brewpub, outdoor beer garden, gift shop, and tasting room with growler fills, but also is equipped for guided and self-guided tours, and offers 2 acres of free parking. The new facility has allowed Russian River Brewing Co. to expand to distribute more draft and bottled beer to markets in which they currently sell as well as open up some new territories within the state of California.
The original downtown Santa Rosa location continues to thrive too, offering small-batch brews and tasty pizza.
Gain a deep appreciation for the Peanuts cartoons at the Charles M. Schulz Museum
Take a deep dive into the life of famed American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, as you learn about his creative process, how history is played out in his cartoons, and how Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the Peanuts gang shaped the nation and our hearts. Enthralling exhibits of the original comic art with rotating galleries and a recreation of Schulz’s studio can be found here as well as some of his very first paintings including recognizable characters he sketched found on the walls of his own children’s bedroom, on display now as they were donated from his home to the museum and research center.
Cruise the Sonoma Serengeti and learn how Safari West became a world-class conservation facility
This wild animal park, born in the 1980s, brings you up close to many of Africa’s animals on 400 rolling acres. Known as the Sonoma Serengeti, book a tour on a refurbished 70-year-old military vehicle to observe the animals on this former cattle ranch converted into a world-class conservation breeding facility. Admire herds of wildebeest, towering giraffes, baby and mama rhinos, big horn cattle, buffalo, antelope, dazzling zebras, and many more unique species eating, playing, and interacting in wide open spaces. It’s easy to be in awe of these majestic creatures, many we had never seen before.
Hundreds of flamingoes in varying pink hues and a variety of birds we have never seen anywhere in the world can also be appreciated up close and in a co-mingling bird sanctuary space that you can walk through. Guests interested in staying overnight and awakening to the sounds of the animals can stay in a luxury glamping tent with hardwood floors, running water, and a deck.
The story of Safari West began in Hollywood with Otto Lang, a movie producer and director who used African exotic animals in films. His son Peter Lang grew up around many animals roaming on his land in LA (Beverly Hills) so he too was into caring for them and eventually wanted to relocate his small but growing collection of exotic wildlife out of Franklin Canyon.
As Peter set out to establish captive breeding programs for the varied and often critically endangered species in his collection, he worked closely with local zoological facilities such as the San Francisco Zoo. It was there he met his wife Nancy who was the lead curator and raptor specialist. Combining their unique skills, they set out to turn a vast swath of oak woodland into a world-class wildlife preserve.
Today, Safari West’s mission still stands true – to actively promote conservation and environmental education while imparting knowledge that helps each individual make well-informed choices in regards to the environment and wildlife conservation. Several land trusts ensure that nothing can ever be built on the undeveloped land.
Find Zen at a spa with a unique treatment
At Vintners Resort, guests can unwind with a luxurious massage, a couples’ massage, or a facial in a serene setting at Vi La Vita Spa. Try a CBD Massage to ease you into tranquility and reduce sore muscles with CBD oil, Birch and Arnica, and CBD cream to reduce inflammation. The peaceful relaxation lounge offers a eucalyptus steam, a stone fireplace, and heated indoor caldarium plunge pool, and an outdoor heated plunge pool and terrace. My massage was so good I faded in and out of consciousness.
At Osmosis, guests can try a unique Cedar Enzyme Bath, one of the only day spas in the US to offer this rejuvenating heat treatment from Japan, where living enzymes deeply and thoroughly clean your skin, leaving a radiant glow. The warm fragrant treatment also offers a myriad of health benefits from improving circulation to relieving joint and muscle pain. Unwind here with a massage, organic facial, or relaxation time in an authentic meditation garden with a cup of herbal blend tea.
Zipline through the redwood forest
Soar through the redwood forest on a zipline ecotour with 7 zip lines, 2 sky bridges, and a magnificent spiral staircase, and rappel back to the forest floor. One of the ziplines is over 1500 feet long – the longest in NorCal! You can even book a sunset or night tour here and stay overnight in a treehouse.
Stroll the Kendall Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens
Built by Ken De Baun in 1990, this facility was originally used as the tasting room and special events site for his winery, Chateau de Baun. Kendall-Jackson then purchased the building in 1996 to be an educational destination for all things food and wine. Today, stroll the winery’s grounds of rose gardens and vines, slowing down in a gazebo surrounded by mature trees. From May through October, guests can be part of a farm-to-table dinner series with seasonal menus.
While Santa Rosa is way more than just wine wine-tasting country, you may want to spend an afternoon at this famed Kendall Jackson estate to sip America’s favorite Chardonnay and other award-winning wines from coastal California vineyards. We recommend the Reserve Food and Wine Pairing with generously portioned flavor-bursting small plates and outstanding estate wines like a 2022 Chardonnay from Jackson Estate Sable Mountain (Anderson Valley) and a surprise 2020 Dakel Chardonnay from Chile.
With wine or without, a trip to Santa Rosa, California is one you will never forget.
–The Family-Friendly California Attraction You’ve Never Heard of But Need to Visit
–5 Family-Friendly California Road Trip Ideas From Los Angeles
–The 10 Most Instagrammable Tourist Attractions in California
–California Road Trip: Los Angeles to San Francisco and Must-Visit Stops Along the Way
–Our First Family Trip To Legoland and The Castle Hotel