You’ll find Washington’s wine country surprisingly family-friendly with history & fabulous food around every corner.
Walla Walla has been known for decades as one of the most fertile agricultural areas in the nation, producing crops such as wheat, asparagus, strawberries, and famous Walla Walla sweet onions. However, it’s most celebrated as Washington’s wine-producing region with more than 120 wineries representing a wide range of varietals. Here parents can explore tasting rooms and great restaurants, while the kids learn about the missionaries and pioneers who settled the Pacific Northwest.
Photo courtesy: Visit Walla Walla
Where to stay?
We chose to stay at family-friendly Courtyard by Marriott Walla Walla. It’s close to downtown, has a pool for the kids, and the option of a one-bedroom suite, so parents and kids can have their own space at bedtime. Rates for a standard room with two queen beds start at $150/night.
KidTripster Tip: We thought that we’d need a hotel pool, but we were wrong. Everywhere that we went, locals told us about the new community pool with slides, diving boards, and splash pads. This pool was recently opened with funds donated from the community, and when I say the citizens of Walla Walla are proud of this pool, that’s an understatement. Cost: Youth (0-3) Free with paying adult; Youth (4-18) $3.50; Adult $5.
However, if you want a true Walla Walla experience, stay at the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel. We’ve stayed at this beautiful hotel in the heart of downtown on a prior visit, and its charm, history, and free breakfast are worth the money. Rates start at $150/night.
Photo courtesy: Visit Walla Walla
What to do?
Many people visit Walla Walla to experience the wineries and tasting rooms. Do make time for that, even with the kids in tow. Tasting rooms downtown are kid-friendly, and many have great outdoor seating areas where you can enjoy a glass of wine while the kids play, read a book or just people watch.
But there’s a rich history outside of the wine culture in Walla Walla to share with your children. Start with the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. Here’s a quick overview if you aren’t familiar with Marcus and Narcissa Whitman: in 1836, the Whitmans founded a mission at present day Walla Walla in an effort to convert local Native Americans to Christianity. In 1843, Marcus Whitman returned east and led the first large wagon train on the Oregon Trail, establishing it as a viable route for pioneers to settle the West. Believe me, there’s a lot more to their story, and it’s worth a visit here to better understand this chapter of American history. Cost: Free.
Another must-visit is Fort Walla Walla. In the fort’s museum, you’ll find more than 50,000 artifacts, as well as a Living History series that tells the story of the many people who’ve lived in the Walla Walla Valley. Part of the museum is dedicated to Lewis and Clark and their time in the valley in 1806. The museum occupies 15 acres within Fort Walla Walla Park, part of the original 640-acre military reservation. Cost: Youth (0-6) Free; Youth (6-12) $3; Adult $8.
KidTripster Tip: With indoor and outdoor exhibits and lots of fenced-in green space, even your busy toddlers will enjoy the experience at Fort Walla Walla. The museum also has the best playground in Walla Walla! Enjoy a picnic in the shade while your kids climb, swing, and play in the wood fort.
No trip to Walla Walla is complete without a visit to the iconic music and stereo store Hot Poop. If you’re looking for a little-known record, you’ll likely find it here. To be honest, my kids loved the store’s name, and each went home with a hot poop t-shirt. The store is located downtown on Main Street within easy walking distance to tasting rooms, restaurants, and boutiques.
KidTripster Tip: While many families head to Walla Walla in the summer, consider a fall getaway for the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede. In mid-October, you and the kids can watch as 50 balloons launch into the crisp, autumn air. Better yet, if you plan early enough, you may be able to score a ride with Spencer Air. Plus, fall is harvest season for Walla Walla’s vineyards and leap peeping season for nature lovers.
Photo courtesy: Fort Walla Walla
Where to eat?
Walla Walla has become a foodie destination with plenty of family-friendly options. First stop: The Maple Counter Cafe. This popular breakfast spot brings together three generations of family recipes. Owner Kory Nagler’s grandparents owned a restaurant in Chicago, and his parents own and operate the Oak Counter Cafe in Sequim, Washington. In Walla Walla, Kory and his wife Rachel have not only created amazing food but also an experience that you won’t soon forget. With locally-sourced produce, meats, and baked goods, this restaurant is incredible! It serves breakfast all day with house specialities like blitzes, omelets, and apple pancakes from a 100-year-old family recipe. The apple pancake, which is really more like a soufflé, is so big that the kitchen staff toots a train whistle when it comes out. To put it simply, I’ve eaten at numerous breakfast restaurants around the world, and I had no idea the BEST breakfast that I’ve ever tasted would be in Walla Walla, Washington.
I also never thought that I’d eat a great meal inside an actual gas station. I was proven wrong when my family and I walked inside a gas station mini mart and found Andrae's Kitchen. In 2012, Chef Andrae Bopp opened this restaurant inside the Cenex Convenience Store and Gas Station near downtown Walla Walla. Ever since, he’s gotten national attention and numerous awards for his ability to redefine food and dining with his out-of-the-box thinking. Come hungry because the portions are huge, and the food is out of this world. Just to give you an example of a few things that we tried: the Voodo fries (Cajun spices, pulled pork, aioli, pickled peppers over French fries), the AK-47 (bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with homemade poutine), and fresh, hot beignets only made on Sundays. There’s also a great kids’ menu with chicken nuggets that my boys couldn’t get enough of.
KidTripster Tip: Those beignets sell out quickly, so go early on Sunday.
Our final restaurant stop this trip: Olive Marketplace and Cafe. At this counter service-only restaurant, my husband and I enjoyed homemade pizza and a beet salad with wine, as this upscale cafe is a wine shop, too. The kids’ menu is big, and the food looked and tasted (yes, I ate off my kids’ plate) delicious. My 10-year-old ordered the kids’ pepperoni pizza, and it was literally falling off the plate that it was served on because it was so big. My 6-year-old ordered the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich with fruit. It’s served a tiny bit warm, which makes it so good. The peanut butter is little melty, and the homemade bread is incredible. It may be the best PB&J that he’s ever tasted. Honestly, I’m still dreaming about this place.
KidTripster Tip: A local moms’ group meets once a week at the Olive Marketplace and Cafe for breakfast. Over the years, they’ve donated numerous toys and books to the market. You’ll find them upstairs, so I’d recommend sitting up there with the kids.
Photo courtesy: The Maple Counter Cafe
Walla Walla is located in southeastern Washington State. It’s about a four-hour drive from Portland, Seattle, and Boise. The area also is serviced by Walla Walla Regional Airport.
Journalist Gemma Gaudette is a married mom of two active boys, who’s constantly dreaming of her family’s next big adventure.
Photo courtesy: Visit Walla Walla
This writer received some complimentary meals for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.