The Historic Sonoma Plaza

One of my very first memories of visiting the North Bay as a child include driving down Broadway in a station wagon the size of a small boat and waiting with anticipation for the Sonoma plaza to come into view. Seeing the plaza was not only the visual confirmation that you were in Sonoma, it was the natural starting point to each and every visit.

The things I remember from all those years ago still exist – a shaded, meandering plaza with a duck pond, delightful shops, delicious food and home-made ice cream. A short car ride away afforded us access to state parks, outdoor swimming, and historic wineries.

Of course, the history of the plaza goes way beyond my childhood memories – and even predates California’s statehood.

The areas first inhabitants were Native Americans including Miwok, Wappo and Pomo Indians, who legend has it, referred to the area as the “valley of the moon.” Next came Spanish explorers and then settlers and padres from Mexico, which was then a colony under Spanish rule.

In 1821, Mexico declares independence from Spain and claims the land that is now Sonoma County. San Francisco Solano is the only mission built after Mexico won its independence from Spain and is also the last mission built in California.

Sonoma Mission San Francisco Solano
Mission San Francisco Solano at the Sonoma Plaza

In 1834 the Mexican government secularized all of the California missions, which took the authority to manage the missions away from the church. The Mexican government assigned the commandant of the San Francisco Presidio, Lieutenant Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, to oversee the closing of the Sonoma mission. Vallejo managed the construction of a Mexican pueblo (town) and designed Sonoma around a central plaza, which is still the largest of its kind in California. Vallejo also built the military barracks adjacent to the mission, which are part of the California State Parks system and are open to the public. The Barracks building is filled with California history, artifacts, and has knowledgeable volunteer docents available to lead tours.

Sonoma Plaza Barracks
Sonoma Plaza Barracks


View from the upper level of the barracks looking out at the Sonoma Plaza
View from the upper level of the barracks looking out at the Sonoma Plaza

In 1846, the Sonoma plaza was scene of the Bear Flag Revolt, where a group organized a rebellion against the Mexican army and declared California an independent republic. The rebels crafted and flew their own flag, called the bear flag. In 1911, a slightly modified version of the bear flag became the official flag of California , which still features the grizzly bear, a single star and the words “California Republic.”

California's bear flag flying from the Sonoma Plaza barracks
California’s bear flag flying from the Sonoma Plaza Barracks

Soon after the local revolt, the U.S. military began occupying the state and in 1850, California officially became part of the United States of America. A large bronze statue to commemorate the Bear Flag Revolt stands in the corner of the plaza across from the Barracks.

Bear Flag statue at the Sonoma Plaza
Bear Flag statue at the Sonoma Plaza

The large stone below is the monument to the Bear Flag Revolt erected in 1907 by the Sonoma Valley Women’s Club.

Bear Flag revolt monument at the Sonoma Plaza
Bear Flag Revolt monument at the Sonoma Plaza

In 1960, The plaza was designated as a National Historic Landmark. The Sonoma Plaza National Historic District includes such venues as the Blue Wing Inn, the Sonoma mission, the military barracks, the 1850 Toscano Hotel building next to the Barracks, General Vallejo’s home he named Lachryma Montis (“Mountain tear”) a few blocks from the plaza, and a visitor’s bureau building that was originally built as a Carnegie Library.

The Plaza is a nexus of Sonoma history and a significant part of California’s march towards statehood can be told in the building of the Sonoma mission, the military barracks, and in the Bear Flag Revolt. So many of Sonoma’s early inhabitants clearly valued preservation, which is why many places remain where you can lose yourself in the past. It becomes easy to imagine how people lived a hundred years ago and to see for yourself the very same natural beauty and promise that they originally saw in the area.

The Sonoma Plaza is best enjoyed on foot to allow exploration of the courtyards, cafe’s and the Plaza’s eight acres which includes a duck pond, two play grounds, a rose garden, the visitor’s center and an outdoor amphitheater. A very short walk from the plaza (in opposite directions!) will bring you to the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and the Depot Park Museum.

You can tour the General Vallejo home separately but the most enjoyable way is to pay the modest admission fee at the Mission San Francisco Solano and once you finish your visit there, use the same ticket for access to the Barracks across the street and to the Vallejo property several blocks away (it can seem like a long walk in the heat – you may want to drive in the summer months). Be sure to see the reservoir on the hill behind the house which was fed by a natural spring and surrounded by a brick-lined pergola, the cookhouse and cook’s living quarters right behind the main house, the small “El Delirio” guest house that the family also used as a retreat, and the “Hermitage” on the hill above the reservoir which was a hideaway for Vallejo’s young son, Napoleon.

The Vallejo home blocks from the Sonoma Plaza
The Vallejo home blocks from the Sonoma Plaza


View from the front porch of the Vallejo home looking towards the carriage house
View from the front porch of the Vallejo home looking towards the Swiss Chalet carriage house


Swiss chalet carriage house at the Vallejo home in Sonoma, California
Swiss Chalet carriage house at the Vallejo home in Sonoma


Harp in the Vallejo home livingroom
Harp in the living room of the Vallejo home


Child's room at the Vallejo home in Sonoma
Child’s room at the Vallejo home in Sonoma


Dollhouse and miniature kitchen in the child's room at the Vallejo house
Dollhouse and miniature kitchen (with tiny rolling pin!) in a child’s room

Visitors can pick up the Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley right in front of City hall for an all-day cable car tour of four wineries that includes a gourmet lunch catered by the Girl & the Fig restaurant.

Eat at any number of cafe’s with sidewalk or patio seating – or enjoy food from the Sonoma Cheese Factory and simply walk across the street for a picnic in the Sonoma Plaza.

Lunch at the Sonoma Cheese Factory
Sonoma Cheese Factory-tri-tip for him and the California sandwich for me. Try the cheese!

We enjoyed taking our kids to the Sonoma Creamery – the creamery is no longer in business but the building still exists as the Whiskey Grille (they do have ice cream on the menu!) or visit Sonoma Scoops next door or the Chocolate Cow right down the street for your fix of home made ice cream.

Sweet Scoops home made ice cream shop
Sweet Scoops homemade ice cream shop

The Sonoma Plaza is also home to several art galleries, the Sebastiani movie theater, shopping, numerous wine tasting rooms, and an opportunity for wine education in a “friendly, non-intimidating way” at Corner 103. In addition, the Plaza is host to an old-fashioned 4th of July parade, aTuesday night farmer’s market with music, art and wine shows, the Red and White Ball to support local education, and an annual Easter egg hunt with an appearance by the Easter Bunny.

The historic plaza remains a true town center and a gathering place for both residents and visitors, which is an appropriate tribute to those who have shown their deep affection and respect for Sonoma by working to preserve a local and national treasure.




4 thoughts on “The Historic Sonoma Plaza

  1. Really nice tour of the Plaza.. and you hit all the right spots! Some of those places I have never been to.. Maybe I need another 30 years …

    1. James – take an afternoon to play tourist and visit some of these sites. We had a great time – and learned a lot of California history, too!

    1. Hi Paula (and Julie!) – I have been here for 20 years and I even learned a few things in writing this post. Proof that there is always more to discover about our community and more adventures to be had!

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