Northern California is a scenic haven offering a host of attractions for families. A short drive from San Francisco’s stunning city limits places you in the heart of wine country, where art and cultural experiences abound. Venture farther afield and you’ll be gifted with protected old-growth forests and pristine coastal nature reserves. The opportunities for exploration are endless.
To help inspire your Northern California family road trip, check out where to eat, play and stay in Sonoma County, Napa Valley and Mendocino County.
Just under an hour northeast of San Francisco, Sonoma County is sprinkled with small farming communities, boutique family-run wineries and vibrant town centers. All manner of art is celebrated in Sonoma, and the county’s signature relaxed vibe emanates throughout its historic plazas, museums, galleries and award-winning restaurants. Laid-back and bursting with charm, Sonoma has all the elements needed for a memorable family vacation.
Courtesy of girl & the fig
The girl & the fig in downtown Sonoma is a culinary dream. French inspired, country food is the restaurant’s passion, which has been perfected over the last 20 years. On the salon du fromage menu you’ll find seasonal cheeses, cured meats, local fruit, fresh baguettes and house-made compotes and pickles. Even the pickiest of palates will be satisfied. Other dishes, like the grilled cheese with matchstick fries, locally-sourced beef burger or croque monsieur are sure to please the kids. Before or after your meal, spend some time at the playground in Sonoma Plaza across the street. Another restaurant to try with the family is Perch and Plow, which overlooks the historic Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa. Gourmet mac and cheese, fried chicken strips with house made pickles, and caramel apple ricotta doughnuts are some of the dishes sure to satisfy.
The Charles M. Shultz Museum is brilliant and will delight Peanuts fans of every age. Upon arrival, request a family guide, which uses interactive activities to help children navigate the space. Plan to spend at least two hours exploring the exhibits, which include comic strip displays, a dress-up area with costumes, larger-than-life sculptures, a theatre and an education room where kids can create their own comic strips. Afterwards, head right next door to the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County. Designed for kids 10 and under, the learn-through-play attraction features cool kid-centric activities, like the science lab, a puppet theatre, kids play café, a crocodile dental clinic and a magical fairy world. Complete your day of play by visiting the Larson Family Winery for a tasting and game of bocce. Bring a picnic or purchase provisions onsite. The property, which was once home to Northern California’s largest rodeo, has adorable farm critters and three extremely friendly Labradors, who all love a good scratch behind the ears.
Courtesy of property
The Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa is centrally located for exploring the county. Spacious rooms and an outdoor heated pool and hot tub make it an excellent option for families. For parents, nightly wine tastings and a welcome cocktail are included with every stay. The hotel is also conveniently located within walking distance of Sonoma Plaza, and directly across the street from the Sonoma TrainTown Railroad – a small amusement park with rides, a petting zoo and quarter-scale railroad.
With its fleet of opulent landmark wineries and picture-perfect vineyards, Napa Valley has defined itself as one of the country’s most distinguished destinations for oenophiles. However, while the region’s illustrious profile continues to soar among wine aficionados, families have become equally enamored by its bounty.
Courtesy of Pizzeria Tra Vigne
As expected, Napa’s culinary scene is matchless – from farm-to-table casual fare to Michelin-rated sensations, and everything in between. For families wanting high-quality food in a child-friendly atmosphere, there are many standout choices. In downtown Napa, the Oxbow Public Market is a gastronomic smorgasbord, featuring a sophisticated selection of grab-and-go eats. Freshly shucked oysters, wine flights, cheese platters, sushi, tapas and artisanal chocolates are just a sampling of the delicious selection available. Heritage Eats is another good find for its globally-inspired rice bowls, salads and bao buns. Dine in-house, or order takeout for a picnic at Fuller Park, in the centre of town. Further north, in St. Helena, Pizzeria Tra Vigne is exceptional. Ask for a seat on the patio, and order the freshly hand-pulled (incredible, amazing, wonderous) Mozzarella al Minuto with grilled crostini. The Brooklyn-style arancini (crispy risotto ball) and Nonna’s spaghetti are also delicious.
Embarking on a wine tour in Napa Valley with the kids in tow may feel daunting. But, if you choose your wineries carefully, the entire family will be able to enjoy the experience. Begin with Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga. The winery is an authentic replication of a medieval Tuscan stone castle, complete with a dungeon, drawbridge and torture chamber. Kids can explore the expansive grounds and climb the winding staircase of the lookout tower. In the tasting chambers, you’ll find a special room for families where children can draw, nibble on breadsticks and sample the castle’s grape juice. For a more intimate affair, book a tasting experience at Alpha Omega in St. Helena. While the atmosphere is more serene, the winery provides children with crayons and a special Exploring the Napa Valley with Traveler Teddie activity book. Sampling Alpha Omega’s cabernet sauvignon will be a pinnacle moment in Napa. Then, spend some time checking out the quaint shops along St. Helena’s Main Street.
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Solage, an Auberge Resorts Collection property in Calistoga, will elevate your time in the Napa Valley. The elegant estate’s family pool, reserved for guests with children 12 years and under, is where you’ll likely spend the majority of your time. Additional features, like lawn games, picnic and ping-pong tables and complimentary cruiser bikes are also available for guests of all ages. Solbar, the resort’s signature restaurant, is a magical farm-to-fork experience. If you request a table outside, the kids can play bocce while you sip local wines or a craft cocktails. The lobster gnocchi, grilled octopus and olive poached Alaskan halibut with morel mushrooms and California asparagus are show-stoppers. A comprehensive kids’ menu is offered as well.
Located about three-hours north of San Francisco, Mendocino County is a wild expanse of dramatic windswept coastal cliffs, rolling farmland and ancient Redwood forests. The magic of Mendocino lies in its contrasting landscapes; each of which offers families a spectrum of activities and adventures.
Courtesy of Philo Apple Farm
If your brood loves food, book a tour of Pennyroyal Farm in Boonville. The boutique family-run operation, in the Anderson Valley, offers visitors the ultimate pairing of fine wine and farmstead cheese. It’s an idyllic, picturesque place where every goat has a name, grapevines are weeded by Babydoll sheep and a llama watches over the milking herd. A guided walking tour is the best way to learn about Pennyroyal’s sustainable farming practices. Highlights for children include visiting the solar-powered barn for an animal meet-and-greet and the cheese and chilled grape-juice tasting that concludes the experience – with estate wine pairings for parents. Afterwards, head to Philo Apple Farm, just down the road, to pick up cold-pressed juice, apple cider and fruit jellies. The small-production orchard borders Hendy Woods, so build in some time to wander through the towering old-growth trees.
Consider the charming oceanside village of Mendocino as your hub for outdoor play. Two enchanting shops to visit are Frankie’s, for a scoop of locally-made Cowlick’s ice cream, and Out of This World – an interplanetary specialty store featuring books, toys, robotics, games and gadgets. From town, you can hike down to Portuguese Beach. Or, take a short drive south to the Big River Estuary for a water adventure with Catch a Canoeand Bicycles Too. California’s second longest estuary is a wondrous scene of winding canals, mudflats, marshlands and dense forest, and Catch’s redwood outriggers will put your family in the heart of the action. Common – yet thrilling – sightings include curious harbor seals, river otters and Great Blue Herons.
Courtesy of property
The Little River Inn, just outside of the village of Mendocino, is owned and managed by a fifth generation innkeeper. The Inn’s classic dining room serves hearty dishes like osso bucco of lamb and welcomes children with a special menu and activity booklet. Pro tip: order breakfast to your room and enjoy homemade scones and Olallieberry cobbler on your ocean view veranda. A nine-hole coastal golf course and full-service spa complete the Inn’s amenities.
If time allows, plan a pre-or-post stay in San Francisco to visit the city’s many family-friendly museums and attractions. Choice recommendations include the Children’s Creativity Museum, the Exploratorium on the Embarcadero and the Museum of Ice Cream. For accommodation, the Westin St. Francis on Union Square is in the heart of the action and makes touring on foot easy – even with little ones.
By Mhairri Woodhall