Santa Rosa is Sonoma County's largest city, a laid-back place where you'll find plenty of wine tasting, microbrews, "Peanuts" characters, and entertaining things to see and do, from visiting with African wildlife to hiking, biking, and discovering local history. It's just 55 miles north of San Francisco and the perfect perch for exploring the greater Sonoma Valley wine region and towns like Healdsburg and Petaluma.
Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz spent the last 30-plus years of his life living and working in Santa Rosa. This excellent museum dedicated to his works—most notably the seminal "Peanuts" comic strip—has been drawing crowds since 2002, just 2.5 years after his passing. It's home to the most extensive collection of original "Peanuts" art on the planet, as well as a recreation of Schulz's art studio, where he created approximately seven strips a week, licensed Peanuts products like glitter snow-globes and stuffed Snoopy dolls and everything from books on cartoon history to Schulz's own set of ice skates. The museum offers multiple guided tours, including one exploring the life of this famed cartoonist, as well as interactive opportunities like kids' classes in LEGO animation and clay creations.
Schulz built Santa Rosa's Redwood Empire Ice Arena in 1969, and the owner was a regular figure here before his death in 2000. Tucked among the city's beautiful redwood trees, the Swiss chalet-inspired space hosts public ice skating events, drop-in lessons, hockey tournaments, and even a figure skating club. There an onsite cafe for burgers and ice cream and a gift shop boasting one-of-a-kind "Peanuts" memorabilia. It sits right across the street from the Charles M. Schulz Museum.
Sip Wine to Your Heart's Desire
The largest city in Sonoma County, Santa Rosa is at the heart of its wine country, a region of rolling vineyards, charming towns, and home to more than 400 wineries. You can sip and swish at tasting rooms, pair cheese plates with pourings, and visit nearby wineries that boast bocce ball courts, lavender, and picnic areas. Family-owned and operated Balletto Vineyards even has its own baseball diamond for its employees, which hosts games against local sponsored and independent teams, most Sundays April through October.
Go on Safari
Safari West has been Santa Rosa's own jungle safari since the late 1980s—a private-owned wildlife park situated on 400 rolling acres. Here, you can dine in the wild, take a walk behind-the-scenes to visit onsite facilities like the giraffe barn and the aviary, and even spend the night in a glamping tent. The park is home to more than 800 animals and 90 unique species, including striped hyenas, cheetahs, monkeys, rhinos, and warthogs. For an added splurge, book a private Winos & Rhinos and Beers & Buffalo safari.
Explore the Outdoors
It's easy to get outdoors in Santa Rosa. The city is home to Spring Lake Regional Park, a 320-acre public park featuring nearly 10 miles of hiking trails, campsites for both tents and RV overnighting, and a swimming lagoon (open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day) that boasts its own inflatable water park. However, just outside Santa Rosa, a world of open space awaits. Tione-Annadel State Park is known for its spring wildflowers, as well as 40 miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horse-riding trails. There's also Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, where the 2,729-foot-tall Bald Mountain offers incredible views of Marin's Mount Tamalpais and the Sierras. But it's Jack London State Historic Park that provides a real lesson in Bay Area history. Named for San Francisco-born novelist Jack London, the park sits on London's former property and contains the graves of both him and second wife, Charmian. There's also London's 'Wolf House,' a stone mansion that the author began building in 1910 but which caught fire before London ever got the chance to live there. Its ruins remain in the park, along with the Winery Cottage—where London both lived and died—and The House of Happy Walls, a home Charmain built in memory of her husband, and that operates as a museum.
Cheesemongers make California go 'round, and perhaps nowhere are they more prevalent than Sonoma County. The California Cheese Trail, which promotes family farmers and artisan cheesemakers statewide, originated in Santa Rosa, and it's an excellent base for visiting the region's many small-batch cheese purveyors, the bulk of which exist between the city and Sebastopol. Consult the Cheese Trail's website to find out which ones have regular hours or are open by appointment, as well as how to book tours, reserve cheese-making classes, and more. You can also pick up a suggested driving tour map at Santa Rosa's California Welcome Center, located at Railroad Square—or, outside of the city, at San Francisco's Pier 39.
Santa Rosa's Railroad Square is the city's center, a historic square surrounded by mostly brick buildings, many of them housing restaurants, antique shops, clothing boutiques, and even hotels. The neighborhood came about as a result of the Northwest Pacific Railroad, which arrived in 1871, and a bulk of the surrounding structures—some of them former canneries and macaroni factories—date back to that time. Orient yourself at the visitors center, located within the historic depot, then gear up with a cup of coffee from nearby Flying Goat before perusing the neighborhood. The square is also an excellent place for catching plays or indulging in artisanal cocktails, as well as people-watching. Another cool tidbit: Railroad Square also makes an appearance in the 1943 Hitchcock noir, "Shadow of a Doubt," which was shot on location in the city.
Get Your Brew On
Northern California is an undoubted pioneer of the world's current craft brew scene, and you'll find barrel-aged beers, Imperial IPAs, pale ales, and more in Santa Rosa—a hub of award-winning beers and breweries such as Russian River Brewing Company, Plow Brewing, and Third Street Aleworks. It's a premier destination for brew lovers, who come for annual beer festivals like Beerfest The Good One, which takes place in June, to embark on guided brewery tours, and to learn the history of Sonoma County's craft-brewing scene, which began in the late 1970s with the New Albion Brewery.
A great way to see Sonoma County is from the sky, and Santa Rosa is home to several hot air balloon companies that will send you soaring high above the vineyards, taking in the sight of towering redwood groves and the mighty Pacific Ocean. Most balloons take off early in the morning to beat the day's encroaching winds and heat, and end with either a sparkling wine toast or a full champagne brunch. You can book a private balloon ride or take to the skies with as many as 16 to a basket, but every flight is one of a kind.
Embark on a Walking Tour
Santa Rosa is known for its walkability, and exploring its historic neighborhoods on foot is a great way to experience the city. You can pick up a map for one of the city's self-guided walking tours of neighborhoods like Railroad Square, St. Rose—known for its historic 19th-century homes and early 20th-century bungalows—and the Cherry Street Historic District at the California Welcome Center on Railroad Square. The city's 17-acre Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery also offers self-guided and guided scheduled tours, including ones highlighting women's history, "Stones and Images," and popular lamplight strolls featuring costumed portrayals of the town's early settlers. Downtown Santa Rosa also hosts First Friday Art Walks monthly.