Standing on the shores of Sausalito, looking out over the water toward the endless possibilities of San Francisco, the pressure to be working constantly can feel overwhelming. Though the harbor is filled with stunning boats, the fog is lifting to make way for the California sunshine, and the eateries are receiving their daily shipments of freshly caught seafood, the desire to get away has taken hold, so it’s time for a road trip.
Driving up the 101 somehow feels therapeutic. While the surroundings are markedly less scenic than trips up the Pacific Coast Highway and to seaside destinations like Bodega Bay, the sense of adventure and the charm of smaller towns overwhelm any fears of missing out on highly sought-after destinations. Because it’s more low-key than the state’s bustling beach towns, the quaint destination of Petaluma, California offers many more relaxing opportunities.
The 45-minute drive almost seems too short, but as the historic buildings of downtown Petaluma come into view and road cyclists fly by, there’s an instantaneous feeling of home that is beyond compare. In the warmer months, lavender fields inspire photoshoots and the Petaluma River is filled with paddle boarders, but during the winter, the town seems to cozy in and exude a holiday-like warmth that invites you to explore.
Before completely diving into the local scene, a stop at Acre Coffee’s roastery provides the jolt you need to appreciate your surroundings. Order a soy-milk latte to go with your savory scallion and romesco waffle or your soft-boiled egg and avocado toast before exploring the building (which was once home to Schwinn Bicycle Company).
This time of year, it’s hard to go anywhere in Northern California without hearing about a crab feed, and the city of Petaluma is no different. While this region is located about 20 miles inland, it is home to a community of true ocean-lovers who take seafood seriously. It’s tempting to travel west and see what the hype is about, but there are dozens of unique activities waiting to be had, from oyster bars to hikes along the Sonoma Coast.
Now that you’re fueled by caffeine and a surprisingly filling breakfast, the 10-minute drive to Helen Putnam Regional Park simultaneously feels like it takes forever and no time at all. The excitement begins to boil, just as the rolling hills make their grand appearance. On the trail, the six-mile expanse overwhelms the senses; the clouds above your head, dirt trail below your feet, and fresh breeze flowing through the brush encompass everything the eye can see.
As the pathway winds through oak groves and past mountainous vistas, life in Petaluma begins to come into focus. Nearing the parking lot, children’s joyous screams can be heard from the playground, parents stop to take pictures of the quaint gazebo, locals pass by on horseback, and life in a tiny town starts to sound even more appealing.
After a nice walk on the outskirts of town, it’s time to take a better look at the heart of the city. The trek helped you up an appetite, and when it comes to unique eateries in downtown Petaluma, it doesn’t get much better than Wild Goat Bistro. The warm interiors and fresh, local ingredients highlight some of the best aspects of the Northern California region. Order the crispy sautéed fingerling potatoes with garlic, shallots, truffle salt, and savory dipping sauce to start. Next, opt for the baked Laurel Chenel goat cheese with mascarpone, Parmesan, and fig-cranberry-walnut compote; you’ll dream of this unctuous concoction for years to come. If you still have room, expand your horizons with the vegan “Gone Wild” pizza. Topped with baby kale pesto, purple cauliflower, Moroccan eggplant, oven-roasted tomatoes, kalamata olives, and vegan Parmesan cheese, this pizza is a work of art. End the meal with the vegan and gluten-free chocolate tart; rich chocolate fills a coconut-almond crust for the ultimate guilt-free indulgence. Once you convince yourself to leave the soothing confines of this comforting eatery, make a quick trip to Hotel Petaluma and check in for the evening.
A magnificent fireplace, beautiful piano, and vaulted ceilings greet you as soon as you walk in the doors of Hotel Petaluma. A subdued grandiosity wafts through the lobby, reminding all who step inside that they have arrived at their luxurious destination. Established in 1923, the boutique hotel’s Art Deco architecture adds a touch of historic character to the modern furnishings of this surprisingly affordable getaway.
While the urge to stay cozied in has begun to intrude, there are several more spots to hit before the day is done. Walk down East Washington Street for half a mile until it runs into Lakeville Street, and you’ll find yourself at the Petaluma Arts Center. The exhibits cover everything from traditional paintings and sculptures to an in-depth look at the artists behind Burning Man. Spending a few hours here is much easier than it seems, as works of art capture your attention around every turn.
After returning to the Hotel Petaluma, the night’s plans begin to emerge. While Alfredo’s on the east side of town comes highly recommended (thanks, in part, to owner David Nolazco, who personally serves each diner), The Shuckery is equally delicious and is located in much closer proximity to the lodging.
Start with the smoked paprika–spiced clam chowder featuring celery, bacon, and potatoes. This luscious combination is so decadent, making it an ideal vacation indulgence. Next, move on to the cauliflower hot wings served with Point Reyes blue cheese dressing; even for those who aren’t crazy about the new cauliflower craze, it’s hard to turn down the buffalo sauce and blue cheese, which make this dish pop. End the meal with a few of Humboldt’s Kumamoto oysters, and it’ll be undeniable that you’ve landed in California.
Continue the night at The Mystic Theatre. Located just steps from The Shuckery, this is one of Petaluma’s best-known destinations. The Mystic Theatre in Petaluma hosts a variety of diverse artists in its 550-person auditorium, and since it was built in 1911, it offers a perfect glimpse into the town’s history.
Between the driving, hiking, eating, and entertaining experiences, the first day of vacation passed by like a fleeting ocean breeze. The morning light begins to trickle into your room as the excitement of things to do in Petaluma floods your mind with possibility.
Before you know it, you’re off to Petaluma's Wishbone for the brunch you’ve been looking for your whole life. But what makes it so special? The care and thought that’s put into everything the eatery does, from raising its own meat, to fermenting its own pickles, to making its own bacon, to baking its own bread. There isn’t a single item on the menu that isn’t made by hand.
The cozy space instantly feels welcoming with its wood tones, blue curtains, and yellow door, so settling in isn’t nearly as difficult as finding a table. Just when you think the hard part is behind you, however, the menu shows up—and there are tons of gems to choose from. Between the buttermilk biscuits with mushroom gravy, the eggs Benedict with lemon hollandaise, the freshly baked sourdough bread, and the polenta bowl with pickles and wilted kale, every dish surprises you more than the last.
After an incredibly inspiring brunch, a leisurely walk is the perfect cure for a full belly, so stop by Tall Toad Music before checking out of the hotel. The selection of instruments is truly impressive, but what strikes you first is how beloved this shop is to the community. With a history stretching 20-plus years, this neighborhood mainstay is easy to fall in love with.
There is still much to do in town, from walking around Shollenberger Park’s wetland area and sampling award-winning olive oil at McEvoy Ranch, to savoring the local goods from Petaluma Creamery, Green String Farm, and Marin French Cheese Company. Since the spring’s lavender fields alone are enough to draw us back, we’ll say farewell—but not goodbye—to Petaluma, CA.
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