"Santa Rosa - "Capital" of the Redwood Empire" Top 5 Page for this destination Santa Rosa by WulfstanTraveller

Santa Rosa Travel Guide: 164 reviews and 322 photos

Sonoma County Seat and History

Santa Rosa is the Sonoma County seat and aside from Sacramento, the largest city between San Francisco and Portland. Its current official population is about 157,000, but the immediate area brings the actual population to about 180,000. The population of Sonoma County is about 480,000.

A Lot to Offer

Santa Rosa offers much, despite the fact that the most "touristy" towns in the county are Healdsburg, Petaluma, and Sonoma. Santa Rosa's architectural heritage is only rivaled by Petaluma, even though Sonoma has older buildings. Santa Rosa has the biggest downtown with some of the grandest and most interesting buildings in the county (despite losing the 1910 courthouse and the castle-like Carnegie library). The core of downtown is usually quite lively, with a large array of restaurants, stores, and a couple museums. It also has plenty of amenities and great atmosphere without the artificial "touristy" feel of places like Healdsburg. The result is that downtown Santa Rosa feels more "real" and alive than Healdsburg or Sonoma (which I do like for their own qualities). The rest of town offers great parks right in the city, and many other places to shop, eat, or relax.

Some History

Santa Rosa was settled in 1838 as the Rancho Cabeza de Santa Rosa by Dona Maria Ygnacia Lopez de Carrillo, mother-in-law of Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, aunt of Mexican governors Pio Pico and Andres Pico, and grandmother of future state governor Romualdo Pacheco. Her son, Julio Carrillo, designed downtown Santa Rosa's plan in 1854 and donated much of the land for it.

Like Petaluma, Santa Rosa was early on one of the more important towns in California, staying prominent for some time until Southern California and satellites of San Francisco boomed. While never growing to the size of the largest early cities and while initially smaller than some mining-related towns, it grew steadily and had a large Victorian downtown. In 1870, it was the 8th largest city in California, behind only San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland, Stockton, San Jose, LA, and Marysville in that order. By comparison, at the time LA had 5,700 people and Santa Rosa had about 3,000. After 1870, when other cities began to rise to prominence or peter out to mere shadows of themselves, Santa Rosa grew slowly but steadily, so that by 1905 it had just over 10,000 people.

Santa Rosa did not win its position as county seat easily. Originally, Sonoma, the region's sole Mexican-era town, was the seat, but once the Gold Rush's first wave was petering out, Sonoma quickly declined into a sleepy backwater while Petaluma and Santa Rosa were growing. Some decided to move the seat and Petaluma was an obvious choice since it was the biggest and richest town in the county. Santa Rosa, however, was growing steadily and is more centrally located. Supposedly, Santa Rosans raided the crumbling adobe hut used as the courthouse in Sonoma, stole all the county documents, and took them to Santa Rosa. The fate was ultimately decided after an election for the state legislature in which James Bennett of Santa Rosa defeated Joseph Hooker of Sonoma (the future General "Fighting Joe" Hooker of Civil War fame) and introduced a bill that resulted in Santa Rosa being confirmed as county seat.

Santa Rosa has also been the home of several significant or famous people who have made noted contributions. Luther Burbank, plant breeder, inventor of the standard brown, Burbank russet potato, and friend of inventors, industrialists, and entertainers lived and worked here. His home and gardens still stand downtown. Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, settled here, working and building an ice arena. Florian Dauenhauer created the first modern hop harvesting machine, since hops were big business here in the past. Robert Ripley, creator of "Ripley's Believe it or Not!" was a Santa Rosa native and one of his first stories was about Santa Rosa's Church of One Tree.

It was also here that the idea of the "Redwood Empire", the coastal region of redwood forests stretching up to the Oregon border, was conceived and promoted.

Cultural and Architectural Heritage

Despite the past and current problems, Santa Rosa is an attractive and historically significant town and it still has a rich heritage.

Downtown, despite some stumbling blocks over the years, is large, attractive, and fairly lively. Fortunately, many of the best old buildings, such as the Rosenberg Department Store, the Rosenberg Building, the Empire Building, the old Post Office and Federal Building, the Hotel La Rose, have survived.

The same is true for the old residential neighbourhoods. For the most part these were spared the devastation of earthquakes, since the buildings were almost all wood, and redevelopment. Santa Rosa has many beautiful and interesting old neighbourhoods full of Victorians, Craftsmen, Bungalows, and other old houses, often on tree-lined streets. Some old houses, especially in the McDonald area, are very large and grand, long housing the town's elite.

Santa Rosa also has other historical sites such as round barns and the location of the 19th-century mystical Fountaingrove community. Santa Rosa's old, overgrown Rural Cemetery is also an interesting and creepy place to visit, providing a touch of history and crumbling mausolea.

Other Culture

Santa Rosa has a good amount of culture today, as well. The town has no shortage of great restaurants, range from inexpensive to very expensive. The represented cuisines are varied and many places are concentrated in the downtown area. If for no other reason, one visiting the area should probably go downtown to eat.

Santa Rosa also has many things to do. It has several museums, including the Sonoma County Museum, Charles Schulz Museum, and Luther Burbank Home and Gardens. It also has some great parks, including a large state park with hiking and camping that connects to a city and a county park extending right into the central part of town.

Earthquakes and Identity Problems

Santa Rosa has unfortunately suffered its share of problems. On 18 April 1906, the so-called "San Francisco" earthquake essentially obliterated Santa Rosa's large downtown, destroying its rich collection of Victorian buildings. Unlike Petaluma, almost untouched in the earthquake, Santa Rosa had to completely rebuild its downtown from scratch. In 1969, another earthquake ruined a number of other buildings. Other buildings were lost to "redevelopment" that devastated many towns from the 1950s through the early 1980s.

Since WWII, Santa Rosa has also struggled to find its right identity. One problem is that it is, and long has been, the biggest town in the area, and the primary regional focus of population, manufacturing, commerce, government, and business. This has always been a key element in the town, whereas the smaller places like Healdsburg saw their business/industry status decline significantly to the point where they became small one-horse backwaters before people "rediscovered" their small-town beauty and quaintness, reinventing them as tourist/luxury towns.

Central to this debate is whether to maintain a "small town" appearance or to make the town more urban. This is no small debate here. On one hand, Sonoma County has a strong anti-growth sentiment and Santa Rosa was used as the epitome of a small American city in Hitchcock's 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt. On the other hand, this is a prosperous, well-developed, and rather cultured area with a strong push for growth emphasizing so-called "new urbanism" and downtown culture, while people recognise that this city now has over 157,000 people and is the political and economic hub of a wider area with close to 500,000. It also already has, and long has had, a rather uban feel to it anyway. By 1930 downtown was already characterized by many three-and four-storey buildings and even a 6-storey building.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Central, has places to stay, eat, or see, & good downtown
  • Cons:Downtown development needs to speed up.
  • In a nutshell:Vibrant, interesting, and too often overlooked.
  • Intro Updated Sep 29, 2010
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Reviews (102)

Comments (7)

  • Kind67's Profile Photo
    Jul 25, 2010 at 12:28 PM

    Just a quick point that Guerneville is actually NW of Santa Rosa. I enjoy reading your informative and detailed posts WulfstanTraveller and thank you very much for them

  • Oct 27, 2009 at 1:31 PM

    i really hope this site is preserved for the history of santa rosa. this is the birthplace of our fine city and without it where does our history really start. we as community members really need to stand up and take control of our historical properties.

  • Jul 28, 2008 at 11:40 AM

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write such interesting and in depth comments and reviews. We are going to be spending a couple of weeks in Santa Rosa and will have your comments along with us to utilize. Much appreciated!

  • atufft's Profile Photo
    Dec 19, 2007 at 12:19 AM

    Outstanding introduction to Santa Rosa! I want more photos on the Charles Shultz museum and ice rink...:-)

  • mvtouring's Profile Photo
    Feb 7, 2007 at 2:04 AM

    Enjoyed visiting this page. You have lovely tips and great pics. thanks for sharing ;-)

  • squidly2's Profile Photo
    Jun 6, 2006 at 9:58 PM

    I'm headed to Sonoma county soon - enjoyed your tips!

  • cachaseiro's Profile Photo
    Nov 6, 2004 at 6:53 AM

    nice tips. i was in santa rosa last year and plan to go back again soon hopefully.

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