Walla Walla Washington has developed into an important destination for wine lovers. The area boasts a rich grape-growing history. Leonetti Cellars, Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole No. 41 pioneered the wine industry in Walla Walla, which received an AVA designation in 1984 with just four wineries and 60 acres of vineyards.
Today, more than 100 wineries operate in the Walla Walla Valley, and some 1,800 acres of vineyards have become part of the agricultural landscape. The Walla Walla Valley straddles the same latitude line that passes between the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions of France. And, I have to admit, I fell in love with the full-bodied red wines of Walla Walla.
Certainly you’ll want to visit wineries and tasting rooms while you are in the area. But a visit to Walla Walla Washington will show you that there is much more than fine wine to experience.
Walla Walla Washington History
Northwest plateau Indians including the Walla Walla, Cayuse and Umatilla inhabited the region known to them in their native language as Walla Walla, or “place of many waters,” due to an abundance of rivers, lakes and streams. The Lewis & Clark Expedition passed through the area on their journey to the Pacific Ocean. Subsequently, early European settlers discovered the area.
There were French fur traders (thus the town of Frenchtown established in 1823), and then the arrival of missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman established the Whitman Mission in 1836. Whitman Mission served as a wayside for migrating settlers along the Oregon Trail until 1847 when the Whitmans and 11 other settlers were killed and the mission burned down. You can visit the Whitman Mission National Historic Site and hear both sides of the chilling story.
Walla Walla Washington—Iconic Downtown
Walla Walla’s quaint Main Street is home to 34 wine tasting rooms, casual elegant restaurants like Olive and Brasserie Four, and boutique shopping. You can even find a candy store and watch the sweet delights being made.
Bright’s Candies has been in Walla Walla since 1934. When we visited, we saw luscious chocolate flowing from the mixer and smelled popcorn popping in the antique popcorn machine. Recipes handed down from the founders are still used to make old-fashioned confections in the candy kitchen.
During our Travel and Words Travel Writers Conference we had the pleasure of staying at the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel, in the heart of downtown. The grand hotel, named for Missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, was built in the 1920s. On the second floor, you’ll see unsettling paintings depicting the untimely death of the Whitmans in 1847.
It’s a beautiful hotel, as described by writer Lara Dunning, with an elegant lobby, but best of all, it’s in walking distance of all that downtown Walla Walla has to offer. In the evenings, we enjoyed Olive Marketplace and Café known for their pizzas. Another evening we dined at Brasserie Four, just across the street. The small bistro style restaurant serves excellent French dishes with locally sourced produce, charcuterie plates and, of course, Washington wines.
Also within walking distance from the Marcus Whitman Hotel is a historic powerhouse turned theater—Gesa Power House Theatre. The theatre began its life in 1890 as a powerhouse to convert coal and gas to electrical power. It has been repurposed as an event space and theater.
Perhaps you’ll want a taxi to take you the short distance to Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen at 125 W. Alder, but you’ll be happy you dined there. They source locally and then create amazing Mediterranean dishes with perfect combinations of spices. Vegetarians will be pleased. And I loved their lamb dish. Pair with Washington wines and you’ll have a memorable dinner.
Walla Walla Washington Sweet Onions
Nearly everyone has heard of the sweet onions from Walla Walla. The story of the onions goes back more than a century and begins on the island of Corsica off Italy's west coast. It was there that a French soldier found a sweet onion seed and brought it to the Walla Walla Valley. Over decades, this sweet onion developed through a process of hand selecting onions from each year’s harvest for exceptional sweetness, size and shape.
The high water and sugar content that make Walla Walla Sweets so sweet and mild also mean they do not store as well as traditional onions. So I always look forward to getting them when they are ripe—mid-June through September.
Walla Walla hosts a fun Sweet Onion Festival annually in June where you can find onion contests, chef demonstrations and children’s activities.
Walla Walla Washington Farm Finds
In downtown Walla Walla you’ll find the seasonal Farmer’s Market. The Walla Walla Farmers Market is a great place to find those sweet Walla Walla Onions, hand made gifts and produce to put together for an amazing dinner. The market is held every Saturday, May through October, 9 a.m.- 1 p.m.
But the real enjoyment for me was getting out in the countryside and seeing the source for all that is fresh in Walla Walla.
I had heard about Hayshaker Farms – Walla Walla Washington and their team of horses that worked the fields. I had great grandparents who did the same, so I was especially thrilled to see a team of horses plowing a field as we drove down the dirt road to the farm.
A woman was driving the team plowing the field as we toured the farm with the owner, a young mother, who enjoyed talking about their growing practices. The farm is organic, although they have not gone through the certification process. The farm is worked mostly by horse and human power so what we were seeing was typical. They participate in farmers markets and have an honor system produce stand close to the main road.
Another foray into the countryside was to visit a Lavender Farm. The Blue Mountain Lavender Farm, open seasonally and for special events, is located on Short Road in Lowden. The setting is beautiful. As we sipped lavender infused lemonade on the veranda, we looked out over the fields. The owners, a French-American family, began planting lavender in 2000. Currently they have nearly 2 acres and over 25 varieties of lavender.
When You Go to Walla Walla Washington
Walla Walla Washington makes for a marvelous getaway. You can tour wineries, savor the local foods and relax in the countryside.
Walla Walla is approximately 4.5 hours by car (275 miles) from Seattle, and 4 hours (250 miles) from Portland, Oregon and Boise, Idaho. The area is serviced by Walla Walla Regional Airport (ALW), located three miles north of downtown Walla Walla, with daily direct flights to Seattle via Alaska Airlines.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.