Drive about four hours southeast of Seattle and it may feel like you’ve been dropped into Napa Valley — or Italy. Walla Walla offers more than 120 wineries (and 40 varietals), along with excellent gourmet fare served al fresco. The small town is a foodie’s delight and a wine-lover’s dream.

En route to Walla Walla, make a pit stop in Prosser, about 191 miles from Seattle. Just outside Prosser, you’ll observe hops and grape vines growing hillside, as wineries surround the quaint town. Big-band swing music plays over speakers in city streets, with coffee perk-ups, restaurants and antique-shopping options — not to mention home to the Chukar Cherries Factory.

From Prosser, it’s another 82 miles to Walla Walla. The Walla Walla Valley’s wine scene is divided into six general areas (West, Downtown, Southside District, Airport, Eastside and Oregon). It may feel a little overwhelming to newcomers. First-time visitors may want to understand that Downtown’s wineries are within walking distance of larger hotels, while Southside District is home to wineries set amid lush fields and Blue Mountain views — the wine you sip may be grown, pressed and bottled on-site.

Abeja Inn & Winery is just one of many wineries dotting Walla Walla’s expansive landscape. (Visit Walla Walla)

While perhaps at first intimidating, wine tastings are straightforward and unfussy. Most tasting room staff are happy — if not eager — to explain the wines from grape to glass and serve wine flights so you can sample a range of reds or whites.

An example: Reservations at Browne Family Vineyards for the outdoor patio tastings consist of 3 ounces each of four reds, four whites, or four sparkling wines, with prices between $20-$25 for the tasting. Of course, 6-ounce pours, and bottles are available across a wide price range, as well, with bottles starting at $15 to $225.

Currently, you can pick up a complimentary tote bag at the Visit Walla Walla booth downtown and embark on creating your own “Walla Walla 12” of varietals that you’ve curated for events such as summer picnics, taco Tuesdays and movie nights (apparently, merlot pairs well with Raisinets).

Global gourmet

Recently, downtown Walla Walla has adopted a decidedly European feel. Dozens of wineries and restaurants have set up sidewalk-style dining in the shadow of leafy trees and overflowing flower baskets. The outdoor tables, chairs and umbrellas were originally in response to COVID-19, but will thankfully stay on permanently. Town buses are dressed up like trolleys, lending an old-timey quality to the everyday. Multigenerational families traveling together fill the streets.

While most Walla Walla windows are dedicated to wine rooms and restaurants, the town’s plentiful independent shops include bookstores, interior decor and clothing boutiques. Only one major Seattle-based coffee chain (rhymes with sparbucks) holds down one of the storefronts.

Al fresco dining adds to the considerable delights of Walla Walla’s food scene. (Lora Shinn)

Perhaps due to the town’s wine focus, many cafes and bistros serve Mediterranean fare, with a locally grown twist. Try souvlaki served your way (wrap, salad, bowl) at Yamas Greek eatery, which you can eat under the bright-yellow umbrellas of the Plaza on 1st. Share Passatempo Taverna’s Roman-style pasta and small plates in the secluded, bamboo-surrounded outdoor dining area. Pull up a shaded chair to enjoy Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen‘s wood-grilled octopus bagna cauda or sweet-onion-flecked kibbeh nayyeh, and the Penn Cove mussels in French Brasserie Four‘s moules frites.

Those who love Mexican food won’t be disappointed, either. Try the stone-ground corn chips with housemade guac at Grandma’s Kitchen, the richly smoked brisket at AK’s Mercado, or the Walla Walla tacos (made with sweet Walla Walla onions, naturally) at Tacos La Monarca‘s food truck. For dessert, pick up a scoop of premium flavor: Bourbon Carmel Pecan or Earl Grey at Pine Cone Creamery.

Not to be outdone, even the breakfasts in Walla Walla are standouts, and also served outdoors. Enjoy the warm morning air with a build-your-own omelet, hash, or scramble at Bacon & Eggs, croissants at Colville Street Patisserie, or flapjacks at Maple Counter Cafe — the latter of which is a cousin to the famed Oak Table Cafe in Sequim, and serves the same three-inch-high apple pancake.

Outside the (wine) box: Other activities

Of course, wining and dining aren’t the only activities — even if they are the most obvious. Travel just outside the town to watch the fascinating 20-minute film offering multiple perspectives on the Whitman Massacre at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. Cyclists can find a paper or online copy of the Walla Walla Valley Bike Map for routes and loops. And visitors at Pioneer Park’s aviary will be treated to a cacophony of tweets, chortles, coos, barks, and boo-hoos from spectacularly dressed pheasants, doves and other birds hailing from continents around the world. There may not be another aviary like it in the Northwest.

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One of Pioneer Park Aviary’s colorful residents. (Lora Shinn)

Also wholly unique: The Museum of Un-Natural History, only open for a few hours on Saturdays. The museum’s eclectic collection of politically charged, slightly racy and amusing, absurdist sculptures were created by comedian Gerry Matthews, who retired in Walla Walla in the late 1980s. Now a spry 90 years young, Matthews is often in the gallery and is thrilled to answer questions and offer repartee. However, he won’t tell you which piece is his favorite (the other works might get jealous).

Gerry Matthews keeps an eye on his treasures at the Museum of Un-Natural History. (Lora Shinn)

The town gets sleepy by around 8 o’clock — and it’s a good idea to rest your head at a hotel within walking distance of the downtown core. The Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center is an upscale, historic option. But The Finch opened late fall 2019, just before the pandemic, and a great “base camp” for Seattle-based travelers. The hotel’s snazzy rooms include Pendleton blankets, 1950s-retro aqua fridges and wall infographics to help you pretend you can distinguish a malbec from a merlot. Take on-site food truck fare to the outdoor picnic benches and Adirondack chairs, or explore the local region’s options from the lobby’s Map Room. Two bunk bed-equipped rooms are suitable for families of four or girls’ getaways. And Friday through Sunday, a spread of granola and homemade muffins accompany the complimentary, local LIVIT coffee.

Rooms at The Finch reflect Walla Walla’s affinity for wines. (The Finch)

On your way out of town, order a steak banh mi or roasted pear salad from Graze’s drive-through window. Consider driving about an hour north, where picnic-ready benches overlook the impossibly photogenic Palouse Falls State Park. Palouse Falls is one of the last active waterfalls remaining from the original Ice Age flooding that carved the landscape 13,000 years ago. Just a small, modern lunch accompanied by high, ancient drama — a suitable coda for a trip to the Dry Side.

Notes: Reservations aren’t simply a good idea but a requirement for Walla Walla’s hotels and restaurants. Book as soon as possible or prepare for disappointment. Carefully read signs before entering restaurants and shops, and respect requests — owners have very different expectations regarding mask usage, but it’s best to keep one handy. Businesses may be closed Monday through Wednesday, so your vacation may be best planned for a Thursday-Sunday stay. Bring your Washington Discover Pass for state parks or catch a fine. Don’t drink and drive, and bring your phone to restaurants as most offer online menus.

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