Courtesy of Stravrand
Photo by Jessie Beck
Guerneville, a small town on the Russian River, is a favorite warm-weather getaway destination in Northern California.
When the weather’s warm, visitors come to this small Californian town to swim, kayak, sunbathe, and enjoy award-winning ice cream.
The first time I visited Guerneville in the summer of 2014, I felt like I’d stumbled on a getaway gold mine. Just 75 miles north of San Francisco, this Russian River town felt like a world away, maintaining much of its relaxed, small-town charm, yet with plenty of good food, fun activities, and comfortable hotels to fill an entire weekend—and all without the crowds and hype of nearby Napa and Sonoma.
Little did I know, Guerneville has been a popular summer getaway for decades, especially among Northern California’s LGBTQ community, who were an integral part in reviving the town’s tourism after a damaging flood in the 1960s. Nowadays, the area maintains an LGBTQ-friendly reputation—even earning itself the nickname the “Gay Riveria.” In addition to pride flags and welcoming signage, visitors will find establishments like the Rainbow Cattle Company, a gay bar popular among imbibers of all sexual orietnations, and annual events like the Pride Parade in September, lending the area an air of inclusivity.
Each summer, Guerneville becomes a warm, woodsy retreat where visitors of all walks of life come to float down the river, hike among the redwoods, drink cocktails on sunny patios, and cool down with some of the best dang ice cream in Northern California—exactly what keeps me coming back at least once a year. If you’re planning a trip to Guerneville, use this weekend getaway guide to discover the best places to eat, where to stay, and things to do.
According to AFAR editor in chief Julia Cosgrove, “The newest boutique accommodation option in Guerneville is the Stavrand, a fully renovated 21-room inn set on six forested acres of apple, quince, fig, apricot, pear, and plum orchards, some of which date to the 1920s. Request a first-floor room in the Cazadero House and take in the night sky while soaking in your private cedar hot tub. This is a stylish place to come to unwind and appreciate the towering redwoods and pinot noir vineyards all around you. Don’t skip s’mores by the firepit.”
The crew behind Boon Hotel + Spa has something of a mini-empire in Guerneville, operating two restaurants, a tequila bar, and (of course) this boutique hotel. A quiet enclave, this adults-only (but pet-friendly) retreat has a sunny, ’70s lounge vibe, with midcentury decor and retro record players in each of the 14 rooms, breakfast delivered to your room each morning, and a laid-back pool and bar area at the center of it all. In the summer, it also has three glamping tents available—perfect for those who want to spend the whole weekend outdoors, while still enjoying the property’s amenities.
Tucked away in an old-growth redwood grove outside of Guerneville, Autocamp Russian River is a “glamping”-style accommodation. Guests can choose to stay in one of 23 luxurious Airstreams, complete with plush beds and stylish light fixtures, or a safari-style tent that’s equally as comfortable. Everything centers around a midcentury-modern-style clubhouse, complete with a fully stocked canteen, communal firepits, and an “adventure concierge” who can help you plan your outing for the day.
If you’re going with family or a group of friends, a vacation rental with river access is the best way to go. And if you’re lucky, you may find a house within walking distance of Guerneville’s Main Street, where most of the area’s bars and restaurants are clustered, but anywhere between Rio Nido and Monte Rio will do. Just be sure to book as far in advance as possible or be flexible with your dates—summertime weekends book up fast.
In the morning, join the line at Big Bottom Market, a hip café that serves coffee, breakfast, and lunch. Although yes, it makes excellent sandwiches and salads you can grab for your river-day picnic, it’s the fluffy, buttermilk biscuits that draw the crowds (so much so that Oprah named them as one of her favorite things in 2016). Keep it classic and try one with butter and jam, or go all-out with one of the sandwich variations, like the biscuit BLT.
Next to a skate park and community garden in Monte Rio, Lightwave Coffee and Kitchen is worth the detour out of town for breakfast, lunch, or a cup of coffee. Mismatched chairs, painted skateboards, and vintage bric-a-brac come together in a decidedly bohemian decor in the café’s semi–open air sitting area, while picnic tables in the garden offer a serene space to sit. The coffee is hot and delicious, but it also has a small, Mediterranean-inspired menu with dishes like the house shakshuka and “beach laffa,” a flatbread sandwich stuffed with eggplant, egg, and tahini for those who brought an appetite.
It’s hard to miss Nimble & Finn’s as you drive down Main Street: Housed in what was once a bank, this ice cream shop often has a line out the door. Using local, seasonal ingredients, the award-winning creamery churns out mouth-wateringly delicious flavors like Meyer lemon olive oil, rhubarb crisp, and (my personal favorite) lavender honeycomb. After you’ve bought your scoop, wander to the back of the shop for a selfie shoot in an old vault turned photo booth.
Boon Eat + Drink is one of three fantastic Main Street eateries run by the same folks behind Boon Hotel + Spa (in addition to Brot and El Barrio), providing a welcome break from the burgers and diner fare most prevalent in the area. Open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, the restaurant creates fresh, seasonal dishes, such as burrata with charred asparagus and black cod with braised butter beans. If it’s a nice day, ask for a table in the backyard garden, where Boon grows some of its ingredients, such as the beets in the tri-color beet salad.
Opened in 2019, Brot is the latest addition to both Guerneville’s Main Street and the Boon brand. Inspired by the German food that chef Crista Luedtke and partner Margareth Van Der Veen grew up eating, the menu at Brot largely consists of modern twists on classic Bavarian dishes like spätzle, currywurst, and pickled herring on rye. Despite Bavaria’s meat-heavy reputation, the restaurant also has plenty of vegetarian-friendly options, like its veggiewurst, flatbread, and salads.
A few minutes east of downtown Guerneville, Stumptown Brewery has one of the best beer selections in town and is an ideal spot to while away the afternoon over a couple of IPAs, either at the bar or outdoors on its large, dog- and kid-friendly patio. Although the beer is the main attraction here, it also has a solid menu of pub classics, such as char-grilled burgers and wings.
For mezcal and tequila craft cocktails that are as good as you’ll find in any big city, head to El Barrio, an upscale bar with a modern, Mexican-inspired atmosphere. It doesn’t usually serve full meals, but the queso fundido, a hot, cheesy dip served with warm, housemade chips, is a sure crowd-pleaser if you’re hankering for a snack.
During the summer, the water is Gureneville’s main attraction, so be sure to devote at least one full day to simply floating, canoeing, or swimming in the Russian River. If you want to DIY it, bring your own inner tubes for a day of floating. Simply slather on the sunscreen, string your crew together, and begin drifting downriver (ideally with one car on either end so you can shuttle between your start and end points).
If you prefer someone else to handle the logistics, head to Burke’s Canoes in Forestville to rent a canoe or kayak for the day. It costs $75 per canoe (which fits two people), and a shuttle ride from the endpoint in downtown Guerneville back to the parking lot at Burke’s is included in the price of each rental. If you have time, make a pit stop for beers at Stumptown Brewery, which has an area for canoe and kayak “parking” on the riverside edge of its large, outdoor beer garden.
If you prefer to stay in one spot, head to Monte Rio Public Beach, one of the biggest beaches along the Russian River, a 10-minute drive from downtown Guerneville. But no matter how you choose to do it, a day on the river is a long and leisurely affair. We suggest getting drinks and sandwiches from Big Bottom Market before you head out—you’ll thank us later.
Guerneville sits just on the outskirts of the Russian River Valley American viticultural area (AVA), a distinct, wine-growing region within Sonoma County best known for its chardonnay and pinot noir. To sample some of the region’s best, make a reservation for a tasting at Hartford Family Winery, an unpretentious, single-vineyard winery with excellent old vine zinfandels and (of course) chardonnays and pinot noirs. Adjacent to the tasting room, it also has a shady, breezy outdoor patio perfect for enjoying a bottle of wine on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Like many parts of Northern California, Guerneville and its surrounds were once an active logging area. However, the woods within Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve were spared and are today home to a grove of majestic sequoias, also called coast redwoods. Visitors can admire them while strolling along the Pioneer Nature Trail, a paved, accessible path through the reserve’s main features.
Best yet, it’s open year-round and totally free to enter if you park your car outside the reserve, though donations are accepted at the visitor center next to the lot. Otherwise, it costs $10 per vehicle to drive the small loop adjacent to the Pioneer Nature Trail.
Guerneville is 75 miles north of San Francisco and a 90-minute drive by car on Highway 101, depending on traffic. Buses run regularly from Santa Rosa (a 45-minute journey), but Guerneville is best reached by car, especially if you’re staying outside of the main, downtown area.
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