While working on an update to a Napa and Sonoma guidebook, I realized that Petaluma, 15 miles west of Sonoma Plaza, might merit its own itinerary. In early June, I drove 40 miles north of San Francisco to figure out whether the small, historic town is worth recommending. Petaluma might not have the public relations clout of Sonoma County’s fancier towns such as Healdsburg, but it’s rife with hidden treasures, not least of which is a devotion to excellent food.
I didn’t stay overnight, but I did drop in to scout Metro Hotel (508 Petaluma Blvd. S.;  773-4900). A stoic Frenchman gave me a comprehensive tour of the 140-year-old building, which was restored in 2004. Most of the whimsical décor is from France: claw-foot tubs, vintage posters, cottage antiques. There’s lots of color, especially purples and reds, and it all evokes a bit of a European-hostel feel. The 14 rooms start at $99, which also pays for a basic pastries-and-coffee breakfast. For adventurous sleepers, there’s a parked Airstream complete with plastic flamingos out front. Metro is half a mile from downtown and on a busy street, so bring earplugs if you’re sensitive to noise.
If you’re looking for food that typifies the area, head to Della Fattoria (141 Petaluma Blvd. N.;  763-0161; no item more than $16), a brunch and lunch spot with Italian farmhouse touches, walls the color of burnt earth, piles of fresh-baked bread (rosemary Meyer lemon, currant walnut, ciabatta) and glass cases of cream-topped cakes. Entrees are made with fresh, local ingredients — I ordered seasonal veggies on polenta from the specials list and am still thinking about its delicately done cauliflower and just-right chile seasoning.
Petaluma’s Seed Bank (199 Petaluma Blvd. N.;  773-1336), in a bright, grand bank building from the 1920s, offers for sale almost 1,300 types of heirloom seeds arranged library-style. Also on the shelves: gardening books and magazines, organic spices, bug and bee houses, soils, pots and garden tools. Three blocks away is the Military Antiques & Museum (300 Petaluma Blvd. N.;  763-2220), a war-themed antique store with a free-admission museum. Docents show off artifacts spanning the Civil War through World War II — many of which should probably be in the Smithsonian.
The lesson learned
Stop in at the visitors center, in a century-old Mission Revival-style train depot (210 Lakeville St.;  273-8258), where I learned that, thanks to Petaluma’s bedrock foundation, the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco broke only one window here.
At Della Fattoria, I spent $20 on polenta and a cappuccino. At the Seed Bank, $15 went for pansies, cilantro and soil in which to plant them. Add $129 (at summer rates) for a one-night stay at Metro Hotel, where breakfast muffins are free, and you could be looking at less than $200 for a weekend, not including transportation.
[For the record, 10:43 a.m. Aug. 3: An earlier version of this post said that Petaluma was east of Sonoma Plaza. It is west.]