Sebastopol is a small town in Sonoma County once known mostly for its apples and plums, but today it is recognized as an off-beat destination for creativity and art, farm-to-table cuisine, small-production wineries and vineyards, and a community that enjoys a more DIY approach to life away from the city. All of those things are precisely why it’s such a great place to visit. Here are our top picks of what to do on a getaway to this Northern California gem.
One could easily spend an entire afternoon — or really an entire day — exploring this 12.5-acre open-air artisan marketplace on the east side of Sebastopol, where you’ll find farm-to-table restaurants, wineries, breweries, galleries, and bespoke shops selling everything from British-style cheese to home goods to plants and gardening supplies. You can even pick up California-grown organic produce at the Community Market, Sonoma County’s only worker-run, not-for-profit, natural and organic foods grocery store. Almost everything at the Barlow is made locally, much of it on-site, so you can watch the cheesemakers and distillers hard at work. Go on the second weekend of the month for double the fun when the industrial-chic space fills up with pop-up makers and merchants. Best of all? Your dog can join in on the adventure.
Luther Burbank, an American botanist and pioneer of agricultural science, is one of California’s most underrated heroes who deserves much more of the spotlight than he tends to get. Without him, we wouldn’t have the russet potato, the shasta daisy (which took 17 years to make), or the plumcot (half plum, half apricot). Visit the Experiment Farm where the horticulturist developed these, as well as over 800 other varieties of fruit and nut trees, flowers, and vegetables. The farm is a city park that is open from dusk to dawn every day of the year. Grab a brochure to take the self-guided tour or schedule a docent-led tour ($5 per person). You can also buy plants in the nearby nursery and, if you want to learn more about the wizard of a horticulturist’s life, you can tour his home and gardens in nearby downtown Santa Rosa.
While wine is a given, Sonoma County, and especially Sebastopol, is known for its Gravenstein apples — an apple so perfect that Luther Burbank said, “It has often been said that if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.” Many of the orchards in Sonoma pivoted to vineyards, but there are still a few left, and even better: some that have become an attraction worthy of a day-trip for city folk looking to pick their own apples. If you want to partake in this quintessential autumn activity, Apple-A-Day’s “U-Pick” season is usually September through early December. Bring a picnic and buy some fresh cider to enjoy at one of their tables, and be sure to get some apple bread to take home.
Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent create eye-catching art made from stuff that would usually just go to the dump (he sculpts and she paints). The colorful pieces can be found throughout Sebastopol — if you drive along Highway 12, west of Santa Rosa, you might spot a giant junk-art Holstein cow towering over actual cows in a farmer’s field. But the place to see many of the couple’s pieces is up and down Florence Avenue, a street that is quite an attraction due to front yards filled with the can’t-help-but-make-you-smile sculptures.
Sonoma isn’t just about vineyards and wineries. There are also some great distilleries, including Spirit Works Distillery. This crafts spirit producer house-ferments, distills, and bottles handmade vodka, gin, and whiskey, all on-site at the microdistillery in the heart of Sonoma County. It’s one of the few distilleries in the United States, much less California, led by a female team, and it was named “2020 Distillery of the Year” by the prestigious American Distilling Institute. See how it all “works” during a tour that includes a tasting (available Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.). If you can’t make that, don’t worry: the tasting room is open Wednesday through Sunday. There you can try tasting or cocktail flights, and once you find the one you like, order a full-sized cocktail that features it.
If you’re craving some culture, there’s no better place to find it than Sebastopol Center for the Arts where you can take in gallery exhibitions, concerts, dance performances, poetry readings, and more, all created by local, national, and international artists. The Center for the Arts also offers workshops of all kinds, including poetry, drawing, ceramics, and book-making, so be sure to plan ahead.
Handline elevates fast-casual to a totally new level. Yes, you still order at the counter, but the seafood-centric food is incredibly thoughtful and made with fresh, quality ingredients. Plus, the space is sleek and stylish and feels nothing like a counter-service restaurant. Start by slurping down oysters from the waters along the coast of California. Then, choose between tacos or tostadas (the tortillas are housemade) and a decadent burger — or, better yet, convince your dining companion to share. Handline also has a great selection of California craft beer and wine from local wineries and soft-serve ice cream that is not to be skipped.
Getting a cone of Two Dog Night Creamery’s ice cream (made with liquid nitrogen, so it’s extra smooth and creamy) is a treat you can feel good about because every scoop you enjoy helps support local Santa Rosa farmers, since almost all of the ingredients used in the ice cream are grown in Sonoma County. They even have vegan options so no one has to miss out.
Sebastopol is home to a lot of wineries, so it’s easy to make a day of wine tasting. A favorite is the Pax Wines Tasting Room, known for its roll-up garage doors, vinyl spinning on the turntable, laid-back vibe, and syrah. Another great winery in the area is Iron Horse Vineyards, where you will sip sparkling wine made solely from the estate vineyards you overlook as you taste. Taft Street is a small winery that began in a garage and both the wine and tasting room embody that kind of casual feel. But that doesn’t mean the wine suffers. The award-winning pinot noir gets high marks for good reason.