It's easy to understand why Walla Walla, Washington, has been named one of the country’s best small towns by publications such as USA Today and resources such as Fodor’s. This wine town, with its historic brick buildings and tree-lined streets, gives off an unexpected mix of Old West, small-town charm and modern sophistication. Plus, it’s one of the most welcoming communities you’ll ever visit, where locals take pride in sharing the place they love.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to wrap people in a particularly unique Walla Walla experience,” says Ron Williams, executive director of Visit Walla Walla. “That means exposing them to the way we live, with the culinary and wine scene, the deep connection to our diverse agriculture and the amazing rich history of the region as the cradle of the Pacific Northwest.”
The town was named for the indigenous people who had called it home, and the region was later one of the first Anglo settlements of the Northwest and a stopover along the Oregon Trail. Nowadays, it’s rare (although not unheard of) to see a horse hitched up downtown, but impossible to stroll a block without passing a winery. Today, it’s celebrated for its wineries—an industry that has brought with it an equally thriving culinary scene with a farm-to-table focus.
Where to Meet & Stay
The Marcus Whitman, the tallest and most striking landmark of downtown, offers guests the chance to experience both old and new Walla Walla. The historic 133-room hotel and conference center was built in 1928 and houses five on-site tasting rooms and The Marc Restaurant, Vineyard Lounge and The Buzz Espresso Bar. Thirteen thousand square feet of flexible event space can accommodate groups from 10-450, including elegantly appointed ballrooms, executive boardrooms and a rooftop terrace.
“Our location is really appealing because we are one block from Main Street,” says Chris Coates, director of sales for the hotel. “We’ve got so much going on around here that attendees don’t have to drive anywhere to find things to do.”
Whitman College offers the area’s largest indoor performance halls, but because it is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, it can only provide venue space to other 501(c)3 nonprofits, alumni or current faculty/staff. If that fits your needs, the college includes several venue spaces: Cordiner Hall (1,350 guests), Reid Campus Center’s Young Ballroom (350 guests), Maxey Hall’s auditorium (325 guests) and historic Kimball Theatre (95 guests). The scenic campus doubles as an arboretum and outdoor art museum. Clients can rent outdoor equipment from the Outdoor Program (open to all members of the public), too. In the summer, dorm rooms can accommodate as many as 600 guests.
“As far as conferences go, [Whitman] is an all-inclusive onestop shopping option,” says Katie DePonty, director of conferences, events and scheduling for the college. “Whether for a one-night speaker or weeklong conference, everything is provided for, such as catering and equipment, and the proximity to downtown is hard to beat.”
Walla Walla has an abundance of intimate and unique meeting venues, as well. History buffs will enjoy the Fort Walla Walla Museum, located on the grounds of the 19th-century military fort. It offers 3,700 square feet of meeting space, including a 1,920-square-foot room that holds as many as 250 guests, a conference room for as many as 24, and five exhibit halls.
Planners can also work with Visit Walla Walla to find the perfect space in one of the valley’s 130 (and counting) wineries, choosing from chic downtown venues to those offering inspiring views of the surrounding hills. Most work best for small meetings or networking events, and some are available for small group retreats.
Wineries in the Airport District offer unique spaces in the old military base. Family-owned CAVU Cellars’ 2,000-squarefoot tasting room and art gallery are housed in a restored World War II–era warehouse. The building also includes a separate 4,500-square-foot event space lined with wine barrels, which can accommodate as many as 400 for a reception or 300 seated.
More lodging options can be found throughout town or a 10-minute drive from historic downtown, many with meeting spaces, including the Courtyard by Marriott with 120 rooms and three event rooms (one of which can be divided), 3,000 square feet with a capacity of as many as 200 attendees.
Where to Play
Walla Walla offers all the luxuries you’d expect of a wine destination, plus opportunities for adventurous team-building activities. There’s sure to be an experience for every crowd, and because of its rural location, the price point is another draw. “We can give people these incredibly customized experiences for a fraction of the cost of what it’s going to be in a larger destination,” Williams says. He lists horseback riding, golf and wine at Wine Valley Golf Club, attending a Walla Walla Sweets baseball game or a pool party at the town’s new Memorial Pool as some examples.
Stroll downtown on any given night and you’ll likely stumble upon some live music in a winery. Or take an afternoon to visit the wineries outside of town to sip amongst the vines. You can book wine tours in a 1930s Durant deluxe limo (Dream Ride Charters) or Imbibe Wine Tours. Wine-centered team-building activities can also be arranged, Williams says. Groups could participate in a wine-blending experience at Northstar Winery, where they’ll learn about Washington’s wine-growing regions, and leave with their own one-of-akind bottle of Northstar wine. Or become an expert in food and wine pairing in a class at Pepper Bridge Winery, where you’ll pair estate wines with food prepared by a local chef.
Art and wine is another classic pairing Walla Walla does well. Foundry Vineyards, Studio Two Zero Two and CAVU Cellars are a few of the tasting rooms that double as art galleries. The sculpture garden at Foundry Vineyards showcases some of the large-scale works made at the Walla Walla Foundry. Though not open to the public, the foundry collaborates with world-renowned artists, some of whose works can be seen on the Whitman campus. While walking the campus, make a stop at the Sheehan Gallery.
For a fun alternative to the sit-down lunch, consider taking a tour with Walla Walla Food Tours. The tours not only highlight downtown’s culinary offerings, but its history as well, including a special Ghost Food Tour. The company can customize an outing for private parties of as many as 16.