Venture a short distance from San Francisco to find Tuscan-like scenery and vibrant small towns for a relaxing and interesting vacation. The Tri-Valley sits about 20 miles east of the Bay Area and consists of the towns of Danville, Pleasanton, Livermore, and Dublin. When I first learned about a travel writing retreat in this area, I had no idea that it boasted high-quality wineries and diverse restaurants. Visit TriValley hosted a small group of writers and introduced us to the local treasures.
Danville and the surrounding area are easy to get to and travel around. You can reach Pleasanton by BART, a clean and efficient metro train. You will need a car to move around the Tri-Valley but traffic is not a problem. The climate remains mild throughout the year, perfect for visiting wineries and dining on outdoor patios. The following sites and restaurants are a great start for your first visit. I would wager that, like me, you will want to return many times.
1. Explore Downtown Danville
A stroll around downtown Danville starts at the historic railroad station that now houses the Museum of the San Ramon Valley. Next to the museum is ample parking, well-situated for reaching the commercial area. Step inside the old station to learn about the heritage of the area through artifacts and historical photos. The current exhibit, Her Side of the Story: Tales of California Women, is a collection of personally written reminiscences of women who came to California before 1854.
Wandering down the tree-lined Railroad and Hartz Avenues took me past houses and shops of various architectural styles and ages, such as Elliot’s, a bar serving since 1907. Arched wooden bridges spanned the San Ramon Creek, along which park areas provided a pleasant resting spot. A fortuitous diversion brought me down Prospect Avenue to Danville Chocolates. Display cases featured every type of chocolate you could imagine, including a savory dark chocolate-covered pretzel.
2. Dine At A Fabulous Restaurant In Danville
The main avenues provide many options for dining or enjoying a brew on shaded patios with views of passing strollers. We lunched at Danville Harvest, which boasts organic and locally sourced ingredients for its meals. Similar to many nearby restaurants, they had added a tent for more outdoor seating during the pandemic. Our party was too large for any of the outdoor tables. However, the large windows of the dining room allowed the sun to shine in on the wood and leather interior. My passion fruit mimosa perfectly accompanied the Farmers Super Food Salad heaped with fresh fruit and greens.
3. Enjoy The Livermore Valley Wine Country
When thinking of California wine, the Napa Valley primarily comes to mind. However, the Tri-Valley wine country offers rolling countryside with close to 50 wineries to visit. Some of the wineries date back to 1883 and many are family-owned.
McGrail Winery patio offers vast views of the Livermore Valley. Two of the wines we tasted were named after the owners’ grandchildren.
Las Positas Vineyards has a spacious, sun-drenched patio surrounded by tall cypress trees. The attendant brought our five tasting glasses nestled on a spiraling metal rack. I ordered the flourless chocolate cake to accompany my red selections and received three dense triangles of dark chocolate with raspberry, chili-powdered sugar, and caramel on each.
At the Wood Family Vineyards, we were ushered into the back room to tables surrounded by racks of wine barrels. Rhonda, the founder, and her son treated us like relatives as they described each wine and the story behind the wines. We peppered them with questions about their backgrounds and the winemaking process. They delightedly regaled us with many fun stories. They treated us to an erupting Pet-Nat as the perfect send-off.
4. Visit Blackhawk Museum
As someone who loves to visit new museums, Blackhawk Museum was a surprising gem that kept inspiring awe as we moved through the exhibits. The experience lived up to their motto: “Many Worlds, One Museum.” The museum was founded by Ken Bering and Don Williams in Danville in 1988 and has gradually added incredible collections. We started with their collection of classic cars that started as works of art and have been meticulously restored. A 1930 Duesenberg, 1956 Jaguar Roadster, and 1954 Rolls Royce limousine were just a few of the gleaming cars set among vintage gas pumps.
The Spirit of the West gallery demonstrated the westward expansion of Americans and the native tribes it affected. A diorama encompassing multiple vignettes of daily life and historic events stretched across the lengthy room. I spun the wheel, mounted next to the full-sized wagon and oxen, that determined which horrible death I would have encountered along the journey West. It felt like an omen for this Arizona girl to land on “rattlesnake bite.”
Art of Africa held exquisitely-carved wooden statues and masks. Into China, the newest exhibit showcased life-size terracotta soldiers and a complete set of bronze chimes. In the World of Nature, an enormous elephant loomed over us, a rhino charged, a wildebeest waded across a river, and a zebra fled a lion.
5. Enjoy A Show At Bankhead Theater
In the heart of Livermore, Bankhead Theater has been entertaining locals and visitors since 1907. The 500-seat independent theater offers a variety of performances including music, dancing, theater, and comedy. We left Funny Women of a Certain Age with our faces hurting from laughing so hard. The crowd was heartily engaged with the show, roaring at each joke.
Pro Tip: Arrive in Livermore early enough to grab some dinner at one of the many restaurants on First Street. We enjoyed exceptional Italian food and doting service at the family-owned Locanda Wine Bar.
6. Spend A Pleasant Morning In Pleasanton
Downtown Pleasanton offered another authentic small-town atmosphere for relaxing for a few hours. The Saturday morning farmers market on Angela Street bounded with fresh produce and local musicians entertained passersby. Fire-engine-red strawberries the size of my fist filled one table, while cauliflower heads, ranging from white to green to purple, called from another. Luckily, my stomach was stuffed with cinnamon French toast and Mao Feng green tea from Nonni’s Bistro, or I would have bought everything.
A ramble down Main Street brought us past the Pleasanton Museum on Main and Oyo’s, the South American restaurant where we gorged the previous night. The Pioneer Founders of Pleasanton mural is also along the way. It was painted by Barbara Stanton and installed in 2014 to keep the historical figures of Pleasanton alive. Further down Main, we peeked in at the Americana luxury and curving wood staircase of the lobby of the boutique Rose Hotel.
Pro Tip: Leave some time for a cup of coffee or tea at Inklings. The aroma upon stepping inside enticed me, a tea drinker, to order a latte. The tin ceiling and old wooden counter and wall-to-wall bookcase cultivated the desire to slow down and have a long conversation.
7. Learn History At Dublin Heritage Park
Dublin began rising in 1835 at the crossroads of two major stagecoach roads. Spanish explorers, Mexican travelers, gold rush enthusiasts, farmers, and ranchers all found themselves in this area of California during the 1800s. Dublin Heritage Park serves to preserve this history and educate visitors.
Old St. Raymond’s Church, built in 1859, is the only building here that is in its original location. The inside has simple rows of wooden benches and a redwood floor, while the outside sports white shingles leading to a bell tower with arched windows. In the neighboring cemetery, worn stone gravestones are divided into the Catholic and Protestant sections. There is even a tombstone for Carlo, the beloved pet dog of a prominent family named Dougherty.
The Murray Schoolhouse was built in 1856 and moved to Heritage Park in 1975. It was divided into two classrooms that now house an interesting museum of local history. Displays show a typical farm kitchen and information on the migration to the West. Photo albums were collected from local residents to maintain a record of events and news stories. Other buildings in the park include a 1911 craftsman home of George Kolb, who owned the Dublin general store and a 300-acre farm, as well as the Kolb’s hay barn and the Sunday School Barn.
8. Sample Global Cuisine In Dublin
As Dublin is still at the crossroads of two main highways, it seems fitting that it hosts a wide range of international cuisines. Options include Mediterranean, Korean, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Italian, and Southeast Asian restaurants, not to mention American fare.
My group spent a wonderful couple of hours sampling various Burmese dishes at Burma! Burma! on San Ramon Road. We ate family-style with the manager bringing out dish after dish to share. We started with the crunchy tea leaf salad and vegan Samosas. Out of several main dishes, my favorites were the sesame beef and Burmese pad thai. Multiple desserts demanded a taste, including shwe gyi, a Burmese semolina cake served with a scoop of mango ice cream.
Visiting Danville and the surrounding Tri-Valley area offers the perfect mix of diverse restaurants, marvelous wineries, and interesting activities. The small-town feel of American history mixes with a global aura of vineyards and cuisine. It is easily accessible from San Francisco while providing a relaxing escape from the big city.