Nestled in the heart of California’s wine country, the city of Sonoma blends historic charm and natural beauty with a modern entrepreneurial spirit and a laid-back Californian sensibility. The fact that Sonoma is also within a reasonable distance to San Francisco (45 miles south) or nearby Santa Rosa (22 miles northwest), but without the inflated cost of living of San Francisco or Marin County makes Sonoma a magnet for tourists, retirees, and urban émigrés looking for a home with a more relaxed atmosphere.
The city itself occupies just 2.7 square miles and has about 11,000 permanent residents.(The larger Sonoma Valley community has a population of about 40,000.) In 2020, the median price of Sonoma homes for sale was $810,000, which is comparatively higher than the rest of the county, but far less than the $1.5 million dollar price tag of residential properties in San Francisco or nearby Marin County.
A Brief History of Sonoma
First settled by Native Americans such as the Pomo, Coast Miwok, and Wappo, Sonoma Valley earned the poetic name of the “Valley of the Moon” for how the moon would seem to rise and set in the area’s beautiful hills and mountains.
The pueblo of Sonoma was built around the last of the great California missions, the Mission San Francisco Solano, founded in 1823 by the Franciscan Fr. Jose Altamira. After the Mexican government secularized the Mission, the Sonoma Barracks and the greater pueblo of Sonoma was established in 1835 under the command of Lieutenant (later General and California statesman) Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo.
Sonoma and its contingent of soldiers were founded to preserve Mexico’s claim to northern California. Ironically, however, they would play a historic part in Mexico’s loss of California and its annexation to the United States. In 1846, rebellious American settlers seized Sonoma and General Vallejo, proclaiming the short-lived California Republic during the so-called Bear Flag Revolt. These rowdy rebels, known colloquially as “Los Osos” or The Bears (both for their flag and their ragged appearance), would later join with US forces during the Mexican-American War, resulting in the annexation of California to the Union.
The birthplace of California wine culture
Sonoma is often cited as the birthplace of California wine culture, with some of the first vineyards in the area planted at the Mission San Francisco Solano. Later, Agoston Haraszthy, called the Father of California Wine, founded Buena Vista winery in Sonoma in 1857, the oldest commercial winery in California and a Sonoma County Historic Landmark.
When phylloxera, an insect that’s highly destructive to grape plants, and Prohibition devastated the local vineyards, Buena Vista would lie fallow until the 1940s. That was the time Frank H. Bartholomew and his wife Antonia breathed new life into the vineyards.
Sonoma’s fortunes would wane over the years, its importance eclipsed by nearby cities like Petaluma and Santa Rosa. However, flying under the radar actually helped preserve some of what made Sonoma a sought-after place to live today – the small-town vibe, the historic character, and the scenic beauty.
Now a tourist mecca and an idyllic place in which to retire, Sonoma offers timeless attractions – historic sites, nearby hot springs, fine dining, and cultural events like the annual Sonoma International Film Festival.
Sonoma, CA Homes for Sale
Single-family homes dominate the listings in Sonoma, a reflection of the area’s agrarian heritage and its increasing desirability as a great place to live within easy reach of the Bay Area.
American Craftsman and California Ranch are favored architectural styles. Expansive open plan layouts are the norm, which make the houses perfect for raising a growing family or entertaining.
You might also chance upon listings that evoke elements from the Mission Revival style, which draws on influences from Sonoma’s Spanish and Mexican past. Look to white stucco walls, red-tiled roofs, wide eaves, and deep-set windows that shade from the bright sun.
Condos, townhouses, and multi-family residential homes
Buyers looking for newer residences can also check out the variety of condos, townhouses, and multi-family properties in the Sonoma area. They are concentrated mainly around new developments surrounding the city and its suburbs.
Typical amenities include swimming pools, walking paths, community clubhouses, and more.
There’s no shortage of luxury homes in Sonoma. On the outskirts of the city, houses lie amid rolling hillsides and views of vineyards or mountain slopes draw out the beauty of the Valley of the Moon.
High-end homebuyers will find a wealth of options like vineyard villas, palatial estates, and modern farmhouses. All boast a variety of styles and influences, from Mission Revival and Spanish eclectic to airy modern houses that blend with the land and heighten the scenic vistas of California wine country.
Living in Sonoma, CA
The cost of living in Sonoma is about 40% higher than the national average, and slightly higher than the rest of Sonoma County, buoyed partly by the city’s population of retirees. That said, cost is relative, as nearby Marin County and the Napa Valley have a significantly higher cost of living and property prices.
- Economy and employment
A variety of industries drive employment in Sonoma. Healthcare is a major employer, with the hospitality sector also generating numerous jobs due to the tourist trade and Sonoma’s many natural attractions. Agriculture and winemaking are other important sectors.
Sonoma is part of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, composed of 11 schools covering the entire range of K-12. Schools under the district run solidly in the lower middle end of the pack compared to the rest of the county according to Greatschools.org. On the other hand Sonoma Valley High School in downtown Sonoma is rated well when it comes to preparing its graduates for college.
What’s good for the grapes seems good for people, too. Sonoma’s climate is another big draw for those thinking of moving here. Residents enjoy the balmy Mediterranean-style climate, which offers warm summer days and cool nights, as well as mild winters. Summer’s high temperatures occur in July at 88.6 degrees, with lows of 51.2 degrees. The coldest winter temperatures in January has average highs of 57.2 degrees and lows of 37.2 degrees. On average, Sonoma gets less than 30 inches of rainfall annually, with precipitation usually occurring from October to May.
Sonoma lies along California State Route 12, which runs through the entire Sonoma Valley and connects the city to the county capital of Santa Rosa to the northwest, and Napa to the east. The Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport is located 30 miles northwest, while the San Francisco International Airport and the Oakland International Airport are approximately 60 miles to the south.
The Attractions of Sonoma, CA
While nearby Napa Valley might have a higher profile, Sonoma County as a whole produces almost twice as much wine as their Napa neighbours. Sonoma is a nexus for winery tours and tastings of fine and boutique wines.
- The historic Buena Vista winery is California’s first commercial winery. Nearby Haraszthy Villa is a reconstruction of the manor home of Agoston Haraszthy, acknowledged as the father of California wines.
- The vineyards of nearby Bartholomew Park are testament to the work of Frank and Antonia Bartholomew, who revived Haraszthy’s original vineyards.
- The Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery, founded in 1904, was and one of the few wineries to operate through Prohibition selling sacramental and medicinal wines. The Sebastiani family also gave its name to the Sebastiani Theatre in the middle of Sonoma Plaza.
- The Sonoma Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) produces merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon. Nearby Moon Mountain and Sonoma Mountain AVAs also feature premium cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels.
The city center
The city center, Sonoma Plaza, is a verdant, eight-acre area where you’ll find the city hall and the landmarks of the Sonoma State Historic Park, including the Bear Flag Monument, the Sonoma Barracks, and the Mission San Francisco Solano. An array of shopping destinations and restaurants surrounds the plaza square, making it a fascinating blend of the historic and modern.
Those looking for therapeutic self-care will enjoy taking a trip just a few minutes north to the warm geothermal waters of Boyes Hot Springs. The elegant Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa boasts sumptuous accommodations, fine dining, and the luxurious waters of the Willow Stream Spa. Book a room or a suite for a relaxing weekend getaway, or pamper yourself with a quick daycation!
Avid golfers shouldn’t pass up Sonoma Golf Club. Founded in 1928, the facility boasts of a course designed by Sam Whiting and evokes the spirit of the golden age of golf course design. The club grounds and golf course showcase scenic vistas of the Mayacamas Mountains and the nearby vineyards. The par-72 course features a blend of long and short holes that provide a variety of challenges golfers will appreciate.
Motor sports fans can enjoy the thrills of track-side seating at Sonoma Raceway, which hosts regular events such as NASCAR racing and NHRA drag racing. The 2.52-mile course includes challenging negative camber turns and a variety of alternate layouts to suit different events and vehicles. The raceway also hosts the Sonoma Speed Festival, a celebration of classic racing, with racing events themed around eras of vintage race cars..
The annual Sonoma International Film Festival is another attraction. The five-day event takes place in April, with screenings held in the historic Sebastiani Theater, among other locations around Sonoma Plaza. The festival is all encompassing, with full-length features, documentaries, shorts, and animation.
Hiking and the outdoors
You won’t have to go far to get a taste of the outdoors in Sonoma. Nestled between two ridges of the Mayacamas Mountains, Sonoma is surrounded by hiking trails and parks.
- Just a short distance north of the plaza is the Sonoma Overlook Trail, a pleasant 3 mile hike that offers gorgeous views of the valley and vineyards below.
- What about rest stops offering trekkers a glass of wine? Hike and wine tours combine treks through the rolling hillsides and vineyards with wine tasting rest stops and picnic meals. Similar setups are also available for biking tours in the area.
- The Sonoma Valley Regional Park just north of the city is a 202-acre scenic park with miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. Ridgeline paths offer sweeping vistas of the valley, and picnic and barbecue areas give you the option to have an outdoor meal with friends and family.
- The Jack London Historic Park is a memorial to the prolific writer and nature lover. In addition to the fire-blasted ruins of Wolf House and the museum in the House of Happy Walls, the park includes historic trails to park sites, as well as over 29 miles of backcountry trails through redwood groves, oak woodlands, and grassy meadows.
Sonoma County also has its fair share of camping grounds, from state and regional parks such as the Sonoma Coast State Park north of Bodega Head and the Spring Lake Regional Park just north of Sonoma Valley to private RV parks and luxury camping grounds for those looking for a “glamping” experience.
Animal lovers who want the safari experience can go glamping at Safari West, a 400 acre wildlife preserve stocked with over 90 different species of African wildlife such as antelope, giraffe, primates, and predators. Guests can go on safari tours through savannah-like areas and wooded hillsides, and then retire to luxurious tents set up like hotel rooms, complete with linens, towels, and comfy beds. Safari tours and accommodations will need to be arranged by reservation.
Sonoma Plaza isn’t just a historic civic center, it’s also a vibrant hub for shopping, small businesses, and restaurants. Park your car nearby and be prepared to lose an afternoon as you stroll amongst shops, restaurants, and art galleries that line the town square.
These small businesses, boutiques, and specialty stores offer something for everyone. Hunt for on-trend fashion, classic wear, retro clothing, and so much more. Browse houseware, linens, and furniture. Or take a pilgrimage to the first Williams-Sonoma flagship store just down Broadway. Specialty food stores carry small-batch olive oil, homemade chocolates, and Sonoma valley wine. Browse rare finds, souvenirs, baubles, and other quirky items for eclectic gift options.
The city also hosts the Sonoma Tuesday Night Market in front of the city hall from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. beginning May to September. The night market brings the best Sonoma Valley produce to the heart of the city, with shoppers having their pick of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, locally harvested honey, wine, craft brews, and the entire range of local arts and crafts.
The Sonoma Valley’s warm climate and good soil means bounteous harvests and a rich selection of fresh ingredients to go with the valley’s many fine wines. Hyper-local isn’t just a passing fad here, with many restaurants sourcing their ingredients from their neighbors in the valley, or in the case of establishments like The Girl & The Fig, even running their own farms in the area.
In addition to the Sonoma valley wines, you can count on Dungeness crab, fresh fish and shellfish from nearby Bodega Bay, salmon, steelhead, pastured beef and dairy products, wild mushrooms, olives, and seasonal fruit like figs, peaches, and strawberries.
Gourmands looking for a good meal won’t go away disappointed, as Sonoma Plaza is surrounded by restaurants serving a variety of cuisines. Local eateries have risen to the challenge of providing good food even during challenging lockdowns.
Restaurants that offer delivery, curbside pickup, or outdoor dining include:
- the girl & the fig. Serving inventive takes on Provencal-style cuisine, this restaurant takes advantage of its own farm to serve the freshest hyper-local ingredients like its namesake figs. Sample their signature Fig & Arugula salad paired with a wine list that focuses on California-grown Rhone varietals. Online ordering and takeaway options available.
- Cafe La Haye. A Michelin Plate awardee with dishes that take inspiration from multiple cultural influences, Cafe La Haye has an eclectic menu and a wine selection that runs the range from modest to luxurious. Offers open-air sidewalk seating and takeout.
- El Molino Central. An unassuming Michelin Bib Gourmand awardee, El Molino Central serves homey and flavorful Mexican cuisine such as tamales in Oaxacan red mole, beer-battered fish tacos, and a variety of enchiladas. You can order takeaway, as well as ready-to-heat packaged products like enchiladas and tamales.
Own A Piece of Sonoma, CA, the Valley of the Moon
If you like the lay of the land, find your own perfect piece of Sonoma real estate with the help of Realtor Carolyn Roberts. A long-time northern California resident and real estate professional, Carolyn is a lifestyle and real estate expert in California’s wine country.
She has had more than 40 years of experience and chalked up sales in the multi-millions. Carolyn is also a Previews Property Specialist, a recognition awarded to Coldwell Banker Realtors and brokers who have displayed impeccable proficiency in marketing luxury properties. Carolyn also has the distinction of being a Graduate, Realtor Institute (GRI) and Certified Residential Specialist (CRS).
Having served generations of California homebuyers and sellers, there’s no one better to help you achieve your real estate goals in the area than Carolyn. Give her a call today at 707.953.1798 or send an email to CRoberts99@aol.com.