First time visitors to Washington’s Walla Walla wine country will be pleasantly surprised. The landscape does not mirror the scrubby desert found elsewhere in the eastern region of the state. The well-kept college town, with a population of roughly 32,000, located approximately four hours by car from Seattle, is tucked among the Blue Mountains. It’s surrounded by wheat lands to the north and hundreds of acres of vineyards to the south.
As one of the oldest towns in Washington, historical homes were sometimes built with secret rooms to protect residents from American Indian attacks. By the 1860s, Walla Walla became a major stop on the overland trail to Oregon, and numerous immigrants settled in to plant truck farms and, in some cases, wine grapes. Today, more than 130 wineries call the Valley home, and visitors are rushing to enjoy exquisite lodging that puts wine and food at the forefront.
In downtown Walla Walla, the 14-story landmark Marcus Whitman Hotel offers more than just exquisite rooms. There’s fine dining at the Marc Restaurant, and at the adjacent bar, The Vineyard Lounge, the wine list is focused primarily on local vineyards and producers. Meeting rooms are spread throughout, where numerous wine and other events are staged (the 2010 Wine Bloggers’ Conference was headquartered here).
For more cozy lodging options, there are bed-and-breakfasts to consider, from the turn-of-the-century farmstead, The Inn at Abeja, located on the namesake winery property, to the spacious, Victorian-inspired Vine & Roses. At the Craftsman-style Fat Duck Inn, located just a few minutes from downtown Walla Walla, you can enjoy a farm-to-table dinner prepared by the house chef.
Visitors can stroll in the historic downtown along tree-lined streets to explore the dozens of art galleries, gift shops and clothing and antique stores. Hot Poop, an old-fashioned music and poster store, is not to be missed.
The summer season brings many festivals, including the well-regarded Chamber Music Festival in June, when performance venues include the newly renovated Power House Theater and less conventional sites like four wineries and others still to be determined. The Shakespeare Walla Walla Summer Festival is another draw. Other summertime events include a hot air balloon festival, an antique car show, rodeos, a county fair, parades and even a demolition derby. You can even attend a Walla Walla Sweets game—the semipro baseball team plays in a small outdoor ballpark.
At the world-famous Foundry, a contemporary fine-arts facility, view sculptures by such artists as Matthew Barney, Deborah Butterfield, Dale Chihuly, Jim Dine and Maya Lin. Tours are available by appointment. Other nearby stops include the Fort Walla Walla Museum, a reconstructed 19th-century military reservation, and the Whitman Mission, a national historic site commemorating the original white settlers.
Wine & Food
Walla Walla has several wine tasting rooms, many featuring live music several nights a week, including K Vintners (don’t miss the Blues & BBQ on Thursdays),Walla Walla Vintners offers great hospitality and views, Waterbrook Winery has delicious and affordable reds, Tranche is worth visiting for its Rhône-style reds, and Corliss deserves a visit for its gorgeously restored space.
Major wine events include Cayuse Weekend (April 6–7), Spring Release Weekend (May 4–6), Entwine Grand Auction (June 15–16) and Fall Release Weekend (November 2–4). And because Walla Walla loves its farm country roots, it hosts a weekend Farmers Market from May through October at 4th and Main, downtown.
For a hearty breakfast of shrimp grits or buttermilk pancakes, try Bacon & Eggs. Don’t miss A Wing & A Prayer BBQ & Catering for barbecue. The Colville Street Patisserie has decadent pastries and desserts. Street food is abundant, with notable options like Andrae’s Kitchen, Walla Walla’s first food truck, serving tasty sandwiches, burgers and seven kinds of hotdogs. For fancier fare, try Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen, where the eclectic wine list features local and Mediterranean options.