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Sonoma Day Trip

Beautiful views, excellent dining, and rich history entwine in this wine country city.

  • Sonoma Mission, image
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    Before the city was established, the site was home to Spain's northernmost California mission.
  • Rattlesnake Cut-off between Montini Open Space Preserve and the Sonoma Overlook Trail, image
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    Boulders line the Rattlesnake Cut-off between Montini Open Space Preserve and the Sonoma Overlook Trail.
  • Hiker in Montini Open Space Preserve Sonoma, image
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    A hiker ascends through oaks on a trail in Sonoma's Montini Open Space Preserve.
  • Coyote in Montini Open Space Preserve Sonoma, image
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    A coyote stares down a photographer in the Montini Open Space Preserve in Sonoma.
  • Bavette of beef OSO Sonoma, image
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    At OSO, bavette of beef comes with cherry tomatoes, roasted potatoes, and a dressing of chimichurri.

The city’s leafy plaza, bustling restaurants, and sweeping hilltop vistas belie Sonoma’s turbulent role in California’s emergence as a state. Gentle trails through the 98-acre Montini Open Space Preserve, one of the area’s newest parks, lead right through that early history. The routes cross open pasture and foothills that once belonged to General Mariano Vallejo, a 19th-century commander who transformed Sonoma from a mission settlement into the northernmost outpost of the Mexican government and the capital of commerce north of San Francisco.

Easily accessible from Fourth Street West, the preserve backs right up to town and boasts a series of short, well-marked paths that lead past shady oak trees and across tiny streams, occasionally opening onto sweeping views of the surrounding valley and San Pablo Bay.

For a longer walk of about four or five miles, take the Rattlesnake Cutoff to Sonoma Overlook Trail (three miles out and back), which ascends through mixed evergreens and wide, grassy meadows to even broader vistas. From its high point in 1846, observers could have watched rebellious U.S. settlers take Vallejo prisoner and raise a flag featuring a bear—the inspiration for today’s state flag—over Sonoma Plaza. They held the town for a few weeks before turning it over to U.S. forces during the Mexican-American War.

These days, the revolutions on the plaza are more peaceful but no less exciting. Since it opened a year ago, OSO has set the pace for urbane cuisine, drawing crowds with creative small plates that include crab-topped deviled eggs and mole-braised short-rib tacos. The sleek space features walls crafted from reclaimed wood and a long, bustling bar.

Nearby, Sunflower Caffé offers gourmet breakfasts, killer grilled cheese sandwiches, salads made from locally sourced ingredients, and champagne cocktails—they’re not kidding when they call it a “Monster Mimosa”—that encourage guests to linger, especially on sunny days when its year-round backyard garden is abuzz.

To provide a true sense of Sonoma’s historic importance, Sonoma State Historic Park weaves six scattered buildings, most of which are found around the plaza, into multiple histories, including the story of Mexican colonization. Standouts include the Mission San Francisco Solano, California’s northernmost mission and the only one built under Mexican rule, and Vallejo’s furnished former home. As adaptive as the town itself, the general began building the house in 1850 and lived there until his death, witnessing California’s admission as the 31st state in the Union and serving as a state senator and Sonoma’s mayor.

Photography by Charlie Gesell, courtesy of Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (Montini Open space Preserve); Megan Clouse (Sonoma Mission); Bree Mayorquin (OSO beef)

This article was first published in October 2015. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.