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Hip to Be Square

Historic and Charming and Little Touristy — Sonoma Plaza

Despite what may be your better intentions, some tourist attractions are simply worth the effort. Unlike, say, the Largest Ball of Twine in North America or The Smallest Flightless Bird in Captivity, there are some attractions in the world that are worth battling the crowds to experience. Buying the T-shirt is up to you.

In Wine Country, as ripe with history as it is with grapes each fall, one such attraction is Sonoma Plaza. I always tell first-timers to check it out, and I have heeded my own advice on at least six-dozen occasions. It’s one place I never seem to tire of, which may have something to do with the fact that you can see it all in under half an hour – less than exhausting for even the most sedentary (myself included, especially during winter months). I think what I like most about Sonoma Plaza is that it is truly a perfect microcosm of Wine Country—history, wine, culture, food, one-of-a-kind shopping, and joie de vivre, all packed into four desperately charming blocks.

Start at Broadway and, be like me, travel around the square counter-clockwise. Not sure why it’s better this way, but it is, trust me. By beginning at Broadway, where it intersects on the southern border with East Napa Street, you get a full-face view of the historic and emblematic anchor: Sonoma City Hall—a commanding stone structure built in 1908 in the Mission Revival style. Beside City Hall is the Plaza’s raison d’etre, the Bear Flag Monument, a dramatic bronze sculpture commemorating the group of American settler who rebelled against the ruling Mexican government in 1846.

Heading east around the square the assortment of shops and restaurants come into view, including several spots worth a stop (hence, my many repeat visits). On First Street East, the iconic Sebastiani Theatre commands attention. Originally built in 1933, the theater for years was in neglect, but in the past decade was given new life with a loving refurbishment. It is now a big-draw venue for films and live performance—the theater serves as the key venue each April for the Sonoma Valley Film Festival (

Further north, at the corner of West Spain Street is Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, the last of the historic chain of 21 missions built in California. Originally constructed in 1823, only a portion of that building still remains; General Vallejo built the current adobe in 1840, as was the nearby Sonoma Barracks, which Vallejo built as a headquarters for himself and his troops. Both of the buildings are protected official historic landmarks and even those who are not the least bit history curious will find them endlessly fascinating.

But in case you’re scared of history overload on this square walk, fear not. It’s time to eat. Though there are several great places to eat on the Plaza, including Maya (; 707-935-3500), La Salette (; 707-938-1927), and the girl and the fig (; 110 West Spain St., 707-938-3634), if there is a mandatory dining experience here, it’s probably Swiss Hotel (18 West Spain St.;; 707-938-2884). There’s plenty of argument that you can have more dynamic and gastronomically perfect experiences on the Plaza, but you won’t find a better, more authentically Sonoma experience than at this boisterous, friendly spot. The classic Italian fare is straightforward and dependable and the wood-oven pizzas are a local staple, the perfect nosh for life on the square.

The Plaza is the beating heart of Sonoma Valley, symbolic and tangible. It’s the stage for many local festivals and events, including a wonderful Farmer’s Market on Tuesday during Spring and Summer. A National Historic Landmark, the Plaza also represents so much California's history. But for me, it is really just an eight-acre slice of perfect Wine Country pastime. And, if you must, T-shirts are available.