The Russian River area of Sonoma County isn’t exactly easy to define, but we like to describe it simply as a collection of small California towns – some quaint, some quirky, some classy – that sit along the flowing Russian River.
From a wine standpoint, the area is best known for producing premium pinot noir and chardonnay, but that’s only a small sampling of what this part of Sonoma County has to offer. Much in thanks to the Russian River itself, there’s also a host of outdoor activities and adventures to be enjoyed on your visit, plus some of the top hotels, restaurants, and shopping in Northern California’s Wine Country.
The most convenient way to reach the Russian River area is to fly into Sonoma County’s airport, the Charles M. Schulz Airport (STS). Otherwise, its roughly an hour’s drive from San Francisco (SFO) or Oakland (OAK). When packing, think layers. While it can get very hot in the summer months, the breeze from the water can always add a chill, especially at night.
It would be a tall order to explore all of the Russian River towns in just a few days, so we’ve created a jam-packed, long weekend itinerary with all the best stops.
Get a taste for three of the best Russian River activities on the 5.5-hour Taste, Paddle, and Pedal Sonoma Tour with Getaway Adventures. You’ll start the day on a bike, pedaling through the beautiful Green Valley wine region and stopping in for tastings at some lesser-known, boutique wineries. Enjoy a buffet-style, Wine Country picnic at the second winery; composed of mostly local and organic ingredients, you’ll chow down on sandwiches, salads, artisanal cheeses, fresh baked bread, and more. After lunch, you’ll head down to the Russian River and jump in a kayak for a relaxing afternoon of paddling (plus floating and swimming if it’s warm enough).
You’ll return to the fun and quirky town of Sebastopol, known as the Gravenstein Apple Capital of the World. Head over to The Barlow, an open-air, pedestrian-only market district that’s chock full of local art galleries, wine tasting rooms, eateries, and boutique shops. Stop in at MacPhail Family Wines‘ chic, indoor slash outdoor urban tasting room for a flight of their current release pinot noir and chardonnays and pick up some ‘proper British cheese’ to snack on later from WM Cofield Cheesemakers.
A Sebastopol staple for 10 years, Lowell’s is not to be missed for a seriously seasonal and farm-fresh dinner (the menu is always changing). Pro Tip: Head over 20 minutes or so before your reservation and take a leisurely jaunt up Florence Avenue to admire the funky junk sculpture creations that line both sides of the street, handcrafted by a pair of locals.
If you want to spend more time in Sebastopol, book a room at Avalon Luxury Inn, an upscale bed and breakfast with just three rooms nestled among the majestic redwoods. But if you’d rather move on to another town, it’s just a 15-minute drive to the tiny town of Forestville (the population is just 3,200). Case Ranch Inn sits on two acres of lush gardens and offers a serene Wine Country stay at their cozy bed and breakfast.
Next, visit the charming and rustic town of Guerneville, but before you head out, fill up on breakfast in Forestville at Backyard where they make literally everything, including their hot sauces in-house. The Buttermilk Fried Chicken Benedict is a secret menu item that you’ll be so glad we told you about.
Then it’s another quick drive to Guerneville. Wine lovers can’t skip a visit to the iconic Korbel Champagne Cellars. They offer complimentary tours and tastings at their historic, 19th-century winery in addition to free tours of their garden, where they’ve planted more than 150 varieties of roses. Grab some sandwiches from the Korbel deli to-go, for you’ll spend the rest of the day enjoying the great outdoors.
A trip to Sonoma County, or Northern California in general, isn’t complete without getting to bond with the area’s magnificent redwoods, some of which are upwards of 1,000 years old. Check this off your list at Guerneville’s Armstrong Redwoods, where the short and beautiful Armstrong Nature Trail is perfect for first-timers. The Discovery Trail is another good hiking option, complete with a tree-hugging platform. If you’re visiting in the summer, head to the timeless Johnson’s Beach – a Russian River tradition for more than 100 years – where you can soak in the rays from the sand or head to the river for swimming, floating, kayaking, canoeing, and pedal boating.
Johnson’s Beach also doubles as a campground if you feel so inclined, but we feel that a trip to the Russian River must include a visit to Healdsburg, a town that’s a little more luxe and upscale than Sebastopol, Forestville, and Guerneville. Only a 10-minute drive from Guerneville, time your arrival around Happy Hour, because delicious craft cocktails await at Spoonbar. The Jalapeno Business (Hanson cucumber vodka, raspberry puree, jalapeno tincture, lemon, and ginger) is the perfect refresher after a day at the beach.
Meander your way around Healdsburg’s historic downtown plaza, popping into boutique shops, wine tasting rooms, and bars that catch your eye. When it’s time to grab dinner, we suggest Dry Creek Kitchen from renowned celebrity chef Charlie Palmer, or for something more lighthearted and casual, PizZando serves up non-traditional pies from its wood-fired oven, like the Soppressata & Brussels (Italian salami, celery root cream, red onion, truffle oil, mozzarella).
You’ll likely be exhausted from your adventurous day, so rest your head right on the Plaza. Hotel Healdsburg, a luxury resort in an urban setting, is within wobbling distance of Dry Creek Kitchen, while the super chic and eco-friendly h2hotel is on-site at Spoonbar.
Hopefully, you arranged your return travel plans for later in the day so that you can have one last Russian River hurrah. We suggest you choose from one of two themes: wine or the great outdoors.
For wine, arrange for tastings at a few of Healdsburg’s many wineries, like J Vineyards & Winery, an ideal stop for sparkling wine lovers, or Ferrari-Carano Vineyards, which boasts spectacular and totally ‘gram-worthy gardens and views. But if it’s another go on the river you crave, check out Russian River Adventures, here you can jump in an eco-friendly SOAR inflatable canoe and lazily float along; it takes a lot less work than a traditional canoe.