Adventures With Kids: Riding The SMART Train In Petaluma

Thank you to 510 Families for publishing this post. Be sure to visit their site for more great ideas on things to do with kids in the Bay Area and beyond. www.510families.com

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Last Friday the kids and I ventured over to Petaluma to fulfill the train-obsessed 5-year old’s request to ride their SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit) train. My preparation for this trip was less impressive than usual and pretty much involved me typing my standard search queries into Yelp (cafe/matcha/lunch), throwing a few snacks into my bag, and attempting to get the kids out the door before 9 o’clock. Although there are SMART train stations closer than Petaluma, we’d picked up a copy of the Visit Petaluma magazine on our recent visit to the California State Railroad Museum and the beautiful photos of the downtown area enticed me.

 The Visit Petaluma magazine is full of things to do and shops to check out

The Visit Petaluma magazine is full of things to do and shops to check out

It was an easy hour drive from Oakland to Petaluma and we pulled into Acre Coffee’s Roastery location around 9:45. In addition to their well-crafted beverages, Acre has a small but solid food menu, including pastries made in-house. After ordering (wild Alaskan smoked salmon toast, avocado toast, pain au chocolat, matcha latte with coconut milk, kids’ steamed milks), we grabbed a table by the large windows and the kids happily called out every truck they saw pass by. Eating in public with the strong-willed-just-turned-2-years-old-foodie can be a bit chaotic but we managed to make it through without any major spills or tantrums. The kids said everything was tasty or yum, and I’d definitely return to try more.

 #allthematcha for me

#allthematcha for me

We then made our way to the downtown train station, about a five minute drive. The station shares space with the Petaluma Visitors Center (housed in the historic 1914 train depot) and the Petaluma Arts Center; the small parking lot has free parking, though some is reserved for the Arts Center so be sure to check the signs. Our plan was to ride the train a stop or two down the line and then catch the return train in time for lunch. Remember how I didn’t plan this trip out? Here’s where it started to go a bit downhill. The weekday trains are fairly infrequent and the quickest turn-around had an hour wait on the other end. I’m a fan of spontaneity but this did not seem promising. Whatever. We came to ride the train and ride the train we would.

 Cotati station ... the Petaluma station is a gorgeous, historical building but I didn't get many photos because I was busy downloading the SMART train app to purchase our tickets!

Cotati station ... the Petaluma station is a gorgeous, historical building but I didn't get many photos because I was busy downloading the SMART train app to purchase our tickets!

While waiting for it to arrive, the kids played one of the city’s public pianos and scored a sheet of Mrs. Grossman’s stickers from the kind woman in the Visitors Center (bonus because I’d thought about adding the sticker factory to our itinerary but they don’t have Friday tours and, really, the youngest likely wouldn’t make it through the 50-minute tour).

 Scored one of the table seats

Scored one of the table seats

Important to note is train fare must be purchased either with your Clipper card or through the SMART train app; there are no ticket machines or railway staff at the stations. Even in the middle of a weekday, the trains were almost full but we found a seat and enjoyed the smooth ride to Cotati (chosen for its shortest wait time). The trains are still relatively new and very clean, and the on-board snack bar and restroom availability was nice. As we walked off the train at Cotati, I was hopeful for a nearby cafe or park, or even a patch of grass, but no luck. Other than the car wash across the parking lot and some housing, we were stranded for an hour in the middle of nothing. Fail. The kids inhaled their snacks in the first five minutes and I considered calling a Lyft. But we stuck it out and passed time climbing on the benches and talking to strangers about the future plans for the SMART train (word is they’re extending the line all the way to the Larkspur ferry).

 Killing time at the Cotati station

Killing time at the Cotati station

Once we were finally back to our car, we drove a few blocks to the downtown shopping area; street parking is free but required some circling before finding a spot. I’d wanted to try the famed Della Fattoria but we were all hungry, on the edge of hangry panic (mostly me), and a sit-down lunch was not happening. A few doors down from the main restaurant, we checked out the grab-and-go case at Della Fattoria’s bakery but, at 2:00 p.m., the pickings were slim. After wandering around outside for a few minutes hoping for something more, we decided on a tuna sandwich (Della Fattoria) for the kids and savory veggie hand pie (Petaluma Pie Company) for me.  My $5.95 Saag Aloo hand pie and $2.00 iced tea from Petaluma Pie Company were both satisfying and delicious. After lunch we crossed the street to Lala’s Creamery, a soda counter style ice cream shop that uses organic Strauss dairy and other high quality, local ingredients for their treats (including a large dairy-free selection). The kids shared a generous scoop of vanilla bean and I sampled the Salted Caramel Crack -- the “crack” is chunks of cracker toffee and is totally worth bringing an ice chest to take some home.

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After cleaning up our puddle of ice cream drips, we headed up the stairway connecting Petaluma Blvd N and Kentucky St and checked out the children’s section at Copperfield’s Books. We were all exhausted at this point and it was nice to relax in their cozy reading areas and look through books for a few minutes. As we got ready to leave, I noticed that I’d left my iced tea at Lala’s so back down to Petaluma Pie Company we went to get a new one. I also bought a few individual nectarine and blackberry pies, which I meant to save for after dinner but we, of course, ate them the minute we got home. 

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Despite my bad planning, the trip was a success. Next time, if the train was a must, I’d park at San Rafael, ride up to Petaluma and hang out for a bit before returning to San Rafael for a meal at Sol Food. But really, there’s plenty to explore right in Petaluma … next on my list are the farm tours!