As you drive north from the Golden Gate Bridge on Hwy 101, it seems like Sausalito to San Rafael is one long stretch of city. The same goes for Rohnert Park/Santa Rosa/Healdsburg farther north in Sonoma County. But in the middle of those two areas, with open pastures stretching for miles from the city’s edges, sits Petaluma.
This bit of geographic separation gives the town a bit more claim to a personality clearly separate from its neighors, and might have something to do with how Petalumans see themselves: a distinct tribe, 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 bit 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 may be part of that too. 2,400-foot Sonoma Mountain sits within ogling distance, but otherwise Petaluma is 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 flowing through 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, and may be an even better community to reside in. A sort of quaint everytown-USA, 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 as well.
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.
If you plan on staying over, 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 cool morning mist burns off. Which of course can be a plus if you’re coming from the fog-bound Outer Sunset. So plan accordingly for the Petaluma stop 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.