Established in 1972, Jordan Winery overlooks nearly 1,200 acres of rolling hills and vineyards. Photo: Jordan Winery

Wanderings: Healdsburg, California

Tucked into a riparian valley between Dry Creek and the Russian River, the Healdsburg countryside is how you imagine Northern California wine country: rolling hills, orderly vineyards, pristine beauty. The moderate climate makes any time of year the perfect time to visit.

Situated nearly two hours north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, this wine country hamlet has been savored by Californians as a well-kept secret. Healdsburg is beloved for maintaining its small-town charisma while offering urban amenities. Roadside stands and country stores offer freshly picked produce and artisanal treats. In town, a variety of boutique shops, tasting rooms and art galleries are organized around a charming central plaza. For every ritzy resort in this town of 12,000, there’s a cozy bed and breakfast, and Michelin star restaurants are balanced by local bakeries and cafés. 

It’s no surprise this treasured community blossomed with the quest for gold. Town founder Harmon Heald was lured north from San Francisco by the 1848 Gold Rush, but instead found his riches in the region’s fertile soil. In 1851, he built a cabin on the west side of the well-traveled road — now Healdsburg Avenue — between San Francisco and the northern mines. He constructed a general store in 1854 and soon after hired a surveyor to lay out streets, 85 lots and a central plaza.

Acting as the community anchor, this plaza maintains its purpose today. This is where musicians play to their hearts’ content for two hours each Tuesday evening during the wide-ranging Summer Concert Series. It’s also where 80 dealers peddle antiques, collectibles and other found treasures during the summer’s Healdsburg Antique Fair. One block west of the plaza, the Healdsburg Farmers’ Market brings purveyors of fruits, vegetables, cheese, olive oil, bread, wild fish and additional craft foods to market on Saturday morning or Wednesday evening, depending on the season. 

Near the plaza, the Hand Fan Museum, the first museum dedicated to hand fans in the U.S., offers a unique collection of fans from around the world, ranging from palm fronds to works of art with hand-painted scenes and encrusted with jewels.

If history is the order of the day, the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society is packed with regional knowledge and examples of basketry from the Pomo Native Americans who settled along the Russian River thousands of years ago. Resident historian Lori Moore offers Walk-a-Bout Tours, recounting tales of Healdsburg brothels in the early 1800s and pointing out buildings with Italianate, Craftsman and Queen Anne architecture. The tour includes a stop outside the 1871 Camellia Inn, which operates as a charming bed and breakfast today, despite its early history as the first hospital in Healdsburg.

Healdsburg offers plenty of fine art, photography and intricate glassware to discover, beginning with an exploration of the Healdsburg Center for the Arts, a nonprofit that rents art space to local artists and hosts a half-dozen art shows each year. The center also has a relationship with the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, acting as a venue for periodic concerts. Each August, the center’s annual fundraiser, Opera in the Garden, is held at Madrona Manor Wine Country Inn. In late summer the center hosts a two-day juried Art Festival, featuring the work of more than 50 artists and artisans.

The town’s arts center is one of more than 20 galleries that participate in the Second Saturdays Artwalk. The largest gallery in the area is Paul Mahder Gallery, with more than 8,500 square feet of gallery space and works by national and international artists presented in a museumlike setting. If regional artwork is preferred, Erickson Fine Art Gallery showcases contemporary works with an emphasis on Northern California.

In Healdsburg, art is not restricted to canvas or clay. The culinary art scene is thriving. From world-class eateries to casual California cuisine, there are nearly 100 restaurants in Healdsburg, many of which are known for their farm-to-table menus.

A fine start is with a wine pairing at Williamson Wines, Lambert Bridge Winery or the ivy-clad estate of Jordan Vineyard & Winery. Additional culinary wonders include the Bravas Bar De Tapas for small plates, paella and an assortment of Spanish wines. Or Valette, for Chef Valette’s “Trust Me” tasting menu. There’s also Chalkboard, with cuisine inspired by a three-acre garden, and Charlie Palmer’s acclaimed restaurant, Dry Creek Kitchen, offers elegant dishes with a seasonal slant. Also worth visiting is Spoonbar in the H2Hotel, where Chef Louis Maldonado serves contemporary American fare. The list goes on and on, and if deciding proves too difficult, the Gourmet Healdsburg Food Tour visits six unique foodie destinations that include a wine and a cocktail tasting.

It goes without saying that Healdsburg is known for its exceptional wine — this is Sonoma County, after all. Nearly 440 wineries and tasting rooms are scattered about Sonoma’s 1,768 square miles. The wine industry here is the largest sector of the county’s economy, attracting $1.25 billion in wine-related tourism, according to Sonoma’s Permit and Resource Management Department.

Many of the finest wine appellations on the West Coast surround Healdsburg: the Russian River, Dry Creek, Chalk Hill and the Alexander Valley are just a few. With Healdsburg as home base, sample a region per day or visit one of the tasting rooms near the town plaza for side-by-side comparisons. Wine Country Bikes and Healdsburg Sip and Cycle also offer winery bike tours.

For help deciphering which vineyard to visit among the hundreds, the Public Library in Healdsburg is home to the county’s Wine Library, a resource often visited by industry experts and enthusiasts.

With all there is to explore and taste in Healdsburg, you’ll want to stay awhile. Options range from rustic inns and cozy bed and breakfasts to luxury hotels and environmental wonders. For a luxurious experience, check into the elegant Madrona Manor (and consider dining at its Michelin-starred restaurant), the Hotel Healdsburg or its counterpart, the LEED-certified H2Hotel. For a more intimate B&B atmosphere, a cottage at the Belle de Jour Inn or the charming Hayden Street Inn are located within walking distance of the plaza.

Painted on the window of Healdsburg’s Chamber of Commerce is the phrase, “Thankfully, there’s Healdsburg.” There are reasons, indeed, to be thankful for this thriving agricultural community and artistic haven for foodies, wine connoisseurs and art aficionados looking for signature Sonoma charm. 

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