They say a city’s soul lives in its public places. If that’s true, then Northern California’s Sonoma Plaza rivals any of Europe’s grand squares or parks. Only eight acres, it’s still California’s largest plaza. And it’s where California began. On September 24, 1961, it was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark.
Get your map here and let’s go!
First stop: The Visitors Bureau, historic in its own right
Wise travelers know to always stop at Tourist Information (TI), wherever they go. You can pick up maps and brochures, but maybe even better, you can get the local angle.
Ask questions: Why do people like to live here? Where do people go for a reasonably-priced meal? What’s the attraction most tourists bypass? Any suggestions for solo travelers? The folks at nearly every TI are kind, patient, and knowledgeable. When you seek their advice, you make their day.
The Visitors Bureau is located right on Sonoma Plaza, in a former Carnegie Library, a special building in its own right. Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish-American millionaire and philanthropist whose interests were education and world peace.
Carnegie firmly believed in the establishment of free public libraries to make available a means of self-education for everyone. When he began his project in 1881, there were very few public libraries in the world. He gave away $350 million, nearly 90% of the fortune he accumulated through the railroad and steel industries.
Between 1883 and 1919, he would fund 1,678 libraries in the United States, 2,509 in all; librarians fondly call this “The Golden Age of Libraries.” About 800 still exist as public libraries, while another 350 buildings serve another purpose.
So I already feel good vibes as I enter the building. The city now owns it and makes good use of the space for the thousands of pieces of information on the region. Divided by region, then again by topic, one hardly knows where to begin. Jose, the Operations Manager, leads a quick tour, encouraging visitors to take any materials of interest. Free bags hold the stack of literature.
Besides knowing just about everything to see/do/eat/drink in Sonoma County–and beyond–the staff offers history lessons, too. I want to just hang out with them, but off I go.
Sonoma Plaza is more than a place with pretty paths
There’s no escaping history when you visit Sonoma Plaza…where California began. Start out in any direction and you’ll soon find landmarks that tell the stories.
Last of the Spanish missions
On July 4, 1824, the last of California’s 21 Spanish missions was established by Father Jose Altimira. It seems the Padre Altimira acted without approval to found Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, but in the end, all was forgiven. Most of the original building was swept away in a thunderstorm; a replica was built in 1840. It’s now part of the Sonoma State Historic Park; visit the mission to see watercolor paintings and a 19th century garden.
Side note: Road trip, anyone? You can drive down famous Highway 101 on the California Missions Trail. The highway sort of follows the Camino Real (Royal Road) and the missions are on or near Highway 101.
California Bear Flag Revolt
THIS is important! Mexico controlled California back in those days and was growing concerned that so many “Americans” were flooding into California. In June 1846, 33 of these settlers entered Sonoma Plaza–without permission–and hung their “Bear Flag” and declared the area the California Republic.
The settlers (or more accurately, the immigrants) were peeved because they weren’t allowed to rent or buy land, as well as being threatened with expulsion. The revolt–and the California Republic–lasted 25 days. But the die was cast and the bear on the flag would go on to be incorporated into California’s state flag when it joined the Union in 1850.
Three weeks later, the United States flag was raised in front of the Sonoma Barracks.
Oldest winery in California
I’ll be honest: the winery is 2.3 miles from Sonoma Plaza. But it’s close and shouldn’t be missed…you can walk there in about 45 minutes. Buena Vista Winery–the first great wine estate–was established in 1857 by Agoston Haraszthy, who modestly dubbed himself “The Count of Buena Vista.”
He came from Hungary in 1842, seeking “purple gold,” grapes and the perfect place to grow them. He wisely decided on Sonoma and set up a business that still thrives. Haraszthy would go on to be called the “father of California viticulture,” because of his fearless innovations and passion for promoting the region as a wine destination.
Unfortunately, The Count met an untimely death in 1869 when he encountered crocodiles during a trip to Nicaragua. The winery went into a tailspin, finally went into auction and was purchased by a rich, but eccentric, couple in 1878. Then came Prohibition, etc, etc.
In 1949–yes, 71 years later–it was discovered that the property was Buena Vista Winery. New owners set out to renovate, plant root stock, and restore the estate. Jump ahead to 2011, when Jean-Charles Bosset, a Frenchman who had visited the winery when he was 11, bought it and brought it to its current magnificent state. The winery’s history is fascinating. If you want to know it all, click here.
MIni-arboretum and bird haven
History? Sure…and more. If you didn’t get a map the first time, return to the Visitors Bureau and ask for the Self-Guided Tree Tour. There are over 30 types of trees in the plaza, carefully placed and easy to find. Start with the London Plane Trees at the bureau/libraray entrance and turn either way.
A community project by the Women’s Association and Sonoma Birding-Sonoma Nature members planned the variety of trees to attract nearly 40 species of birds to the plaza. The birds provide color and song throughout the year. So look up as you walk. You can watch for ground, mid-story, trunk, and tree top dwellers. Everything from a goldfinch to a heron to a turkey vulture!
Art, lots and lots of art…all kinds of art
Public art exhibitions play an important role in Sonoma Plaza. You can see what’s currently on display here. The pieces are presented thanks to a collaboration between Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and the City of Sonoma. There’s a variety of forms and genres, all over the plaza.
The art galleries that surround Sonoma Plaza offer opportunities to view art for perusal and purchase. The Sonoma Art Walk takes place on the first Thursday of each month.
If you can plan your visit to be there on Art Walk Thursday, you can meet the artists who paint, sculpt, photograph, and work with all types of media: ceramics, glass, metal, etc. Stroll the plaza to music and sidewalk performances.
If you consider food to be an art–and I do–there are a zillion restaurants on the plaza. You won’t find fast food chains…thank goodness. But there’s a wide range of types and tastes. You’re only limited by your budget.
And wine? Is wine art? Try to tell Northern California vintners that it’s not! Drop in to one of the tasting rooms and go! Reservations are sometimes required, and a fee may be charged. Some of the venues have lovely patios to sit and enjoy a bottle of the vintage you love.
The Visitors Bureau–of course–can provide enough winery information to keep you busy for the rest of your life. Here’s a link from Sonoma Plaza to get you started.
Sonoma Plaza is also a pleasant place to pause and play
All this history and art is great, but sometimes you just want a nice place to walk and take the kids to run off some energy. Sonoma Plaza’s got you covered.
Paths criss-cross the plaza and there’s plenty of shade. Two large playgrounds have a choice of equipment…and benches for those of us who want to just sit awhile.
The oblong duck pond looks bigger than it actually is and the path goes all the way around it. An island in the middle allows birds to relax without being hassled by humans.
There’s also a small amphitheater for outdoor performances. Bring a picnic…with wine, of course. You can enjoy alcoholic beverages between 11:30 am and sunset.
But no smoking and no dogs allowed.
Don’t forget the city hall
Sonoma City Hall is in the middle of the plaza. Fun fact: it was designed with four identical sides, so every business on all the streets surrounding the plaza could boast that City Hall faced them.
It took over 50 years to get the City Hall. Sonoma was first incorporated on April 4, 1850. Then General Vallejo–in a tricky move that benefited him and other land owners–had it unincorporated in 1862. Sneaky, huh? Finally, the city was re-incorporated on September 3, 1883. Eventually, the cornerstone for Sonoma City Hall was laid in 1906.