A Day Out in Sonoma

by Melanie Haiken
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Before you even get into town, the brightly colored signs for Train Town let families know they've come to the right place. And as any California schoolkid knows, the historic missions that were the state's first settlements can be fascinating places to visit; Sonoma's is one of the best. But that's not all; there are parks to play in, quiet country roads and trails to ride bikes on, and a quaint downtown full of entertaining shops to poke around in. And when it's time for lunch, you'll have way too many options to choose from.

Reviewers:

Melanie and her teenage daughters, Linnea and Melia

Why families love it:

A pond full of ducks, a museum full of historic costumes and artificats, a park full of trains, and a quaint, walkable downtown that has more than five ice cream, candy, and chocolate shops within a few blocks.

How to get there:

From San Francisco, drive north on 101 through Marin Country, exiting west on 37 towards Vallejo. Turn north on Route 121, then turn right (staying on 121) where 116 veers off to the left. At the junction with Route 12, turn left on 12 north. Route 12, also called Broadway, takes you straight into town; Train Town is on your right a few blocks before you reach the plaza.

Melanie's Sonoma picks:

1. Train Town

20264 Broadway
Sonoma, CA 95476

Family-run for more than 40 years Train Town has a wonderfully hokey quality that's a refreshing contrast to chain-run water parks and other amusements. The scale model train criss-crosses a ten-acre property, circling a lake and passing through scale-sized farms, scenery, and the town of Lakeview along the way. There's also a merry-go-round, ferris wheel, airplane kiddie ride, swings and a small arcade with games. My kids' favorite activity is climbing around the three historic full-sized caboose cars dating from the 1930s. Read more ...

2. Mission San Francisco Solano (Sonoma Mission)

114 East Spain St. 
Sonoma, CA 95476

The northernmost mission in the chain of 21 catholic settlements that once fed and housed missionaries as they traveled up and down the state, Mission San Francisco Solano -- as it's officially known -- is one of the most accessible and well-preserved. Finished last of all the missions, when California was under Mexican rule, the mission and the oldest buildings in the town that surrounds it are Spanish in style, with red tile roofs and whitewashed walls. Don't miss the barracks and museum, which give an authentic feel for what life was like in a rugged western outpost in the 1800s. Read more ...

3. Sonoma Plaza Park, Duck Pond and Playgrounds

363 3rd St. West
Sonoma, CA 95476

The first stop for families on arriving in Sonoma Plaza is the duck pond, a large, reed-enclosed pond filled with mallards, geese, and even the occasional exotic migratory bird such as an egret or heron. The ducks are quite tame and will let you get close, which kids love, and depending on the season there are often nests or ducklings to add to the fun. The park also boasts not one but two playgrounds, both with new and artful equipment designed for different ages, one for toddlers and the other for school-age kids. There are plenty of benches and grassy areas for picnics. Read more ...

4. Jack London State Historic Park

2400 London Ranch Road
Glen Ellen, CA 95442-9749

Just outside of Sonoma in the hamlet of Glen Ellen, Jack London Park is the site of the famed and extravagant Wolf House that author Jack London and his wife Charmian built for themselves in their quest to become ranchers. Except Wolf House burned down almost immediately upon completion, and many believe the tragedy hasn't London's early death. What you can tour today includes the ruins of Wolf House, the cottage the London's lived in with a coterie of writer friends while embarked on their ambitious building projects, and the House of Happy Walls that Charmian built soon after Jack's death, which is a smaller replica of Wolf House. Read more ...

5. Breakaway Cafe

19101 Sonoma Highway
Sonoma, CA 95476

A hometown favorite, the Breakaway Café is right on Route 12 if you follow it out the north end of town. Beloved by local kids for its heaping plates of waffles and pancakes for breakfast and generous hamburgers and sandwiches for lunch, it's also got plenty of sophisticated seafood and meat entrees to keep grownups happy. The soup and sandwich and soup and salad specials are ridiculously affordable compared to most prices in this upscale town; the crab cakes and Caesar salad are good enough to come back for. Read more ...

6. The Chocolate Cow

452 1st St. East
Sonoma, CA 95476-6757

Tucked into a courtyard off the plaza, the Chocolate Cow can be tricky to find the first time but is worth searching out. Small heads will swivel from the giant plaster cow's behind sticking out of the wall to the cases crammed with tempting fudge, chocolates, caramels, and other candies. The Hawaiian shaved ice will be a hit with the kids, but those craving real ice cream will be happy with the many unusual flavors of gelato, including coffee chip made with real coffee and caramel. Read more ...

Freelance writer Melanie Haiken is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, but travels whenever she gets the chance. She has written about many destinations, both national and international, including San Francisco, New Orleans, Nashville, Costa Rica, the Bahamas, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She lives in San Rafael, California with her two daughters, Linnea, 13, and Melia, 16.

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