When you drive north across Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito to San Rafael seems like one long stretch of city. Farther north, Rohnert Park/Santa Rosa/Healdsburg is basically one long clump of metro. In the middle sits Petaluma.
This geographic separation might have something to do with how Petalumans see themselves: a distinct tribe of denizens, and proudly so, undiluted by other towns encroaching on their border and free of divided loyalties to greener pastures.* It’s a tad too far to be a popular bedroom community for SF commuters, and too pedestrian and middle class for the well-heeled or disenchanted to want to escape to. The hippies didn’t come here in the 60s/70s, and the tech-rich haven’t come here now, at least not in great numbers.
Scenery is part of that too. 2,400-foot Sonoma Mountain sits within ogling distance, but otherwise Petaluma is mostly pool-table flat, without much notable topography (it’s tallest structure is a grain silo). It’s not a treeless delta, but it feels like one at times, with the lazy Petaluma River that flows through it and south to San Francisco Bay. Combine that with its location south of the county’s main winery areas, and tourists are mostly driving through on their way to Healdsburg or quaint country inns to the northwest, while anyone with means is buying property in the hills of Marin.
Too bad, because Petaluma is worth a visit. There’s a reason so many movies, from American Graffiti to Pleasantville, have been filmed here. The beautifully preserved downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places, with century-old Victorians and Queen Anne-style homes and iron-front buildings. (Petaluma was spared the devastation of the 1906 earthquake due to its bedrock foundation.) And the riverfront has been turned into a lovely attraction.
It’s inviting to park and stroll along the main drag of Petaluma Blvd, past casual restaurants, brewpubs, coffee shops, bakeries and quaint shops, some that sit along the riverfront. The Great Petaluma Mill, dating from the late 1800s, houses a number of shops and eateries, including the notable Wild Goat Bistro and nearby Central Market. The cute Italian spot, Risibisi, is another restaurant with foodie aspirations housed in historic digs.
Hotels are limited here. The Sheraton Petaluma is the only four-star, and quite eye-catching as you drive into town on the 101 with a boat-filled marina out its back door. Otherwise it’s a choice between a Best Western, Hampton Inn and some interesting old boutique properties downtown, notably the historic Hotel Petaluma and the colorfully funky Metro Hotel.
The best time to come to Petaluma is during a festival, and it didn’t get any bigger this year than the 100th annual Butter & Egg Days at the end of April (there’s always next year). You can still sign on for the Art & Garden Festival in July, or the Petaluma River Craft Beer Festival and the Fall Antique Faire in September. Summer can get hot here once the morning fog burns off, since the town doesn’t get much bay effect and is in a bit of a valley between two mountain ranges. Which of course can be a plus if you’re coming from the fog-bound Outer Sunset. So plan accordingly, and consider Petaluma on your next Sonoma adventure.
*They’ve also had something tangible on which to attach their civic pride, as in actual industry and an economy that doesn’t rely on tourism and bedroom commuters. For a time Petaluma was known as the ‘egg capital of the world’ and still has a substantial poultry industry. With its water access to the bay, it was also a major freighting point for all the county’s substantial dairy and farm products. More recently, it’s the home of Clover Stornetta Farms and one of the most successful craft breweries in the country, Lagunitas.