Things to Do in Napa Valley to Create Your Dream Napa Trip
It’s been less than 50 years since Napa put itself on the map at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 competition, when a Napa winery beat a prestigious French one for the top prize at a blind tasting. Since then, Napa has rapidly grown into one of the top wine regions in the world.
Thanks to a wonderful combination of geology and climate in the Napa Valley region, the vineyards grown in the Napa soil prosper and its grapes are developed into some of the most prominent wines in the world.
In sometimes overly developed California, Napa got the opportunity to see through to its full potential thanks to the 1968 founding of the Napa Valley Agriculture Preserve by the Napa County Board of Supervisors and the Napa County Planning Commission. Thanks to their foresight, which deemed that any uses of land not conducive to agriculture would not be permitted, Napa growers were able to cultivate the land and turn Napa into the most famous wine region in the United States – and one of the most famous in the world.
Napa Valley Towns
When visiting Napa, it’s good to have an understanding of the main cities and towns that make up Napa Valley. Here is a brief breakdown of them:
Napa: The city of Napa stands as the entryway to Napa Valley from the south. It’s the place to head to for shopping, museums, and evening entertainment. Napa also has many wineries and top-rated restaurants to choose from.
Yountville: A posh, yet quaint small town with a walkable downtown area a short drive north of Napa. Some of the best wineries in the region have their tasting rooms in Yountville. The famous French Laundry restaurant is also located in Yountville.
St. Helena: With some of the top restaurants and hotels in the county, St. Helena, located in the middle of Napa Valley, has an upscale vibe while still keeping a country feel with the acres upon acres of vineyards stretching around the city.
Rutherford: Those a bit unsure about the glitzy and glamorous side of Napa Valley will enjoy spending time in the laidback, small-town atmosphere of Rutherford, located between Yountville and St. Helena.
Calistoga: If you’re looking for scenic hiking trails or an expansive, ranch-style accommodation, head to Calistoga, located in the north end of Napa Valley. The city is also home to some of the best hot springs in the area.
Moving forward in this guide, “Napa” will refer to the entire Napa Valley, unless specified in an address for a location, in which case it is referring to the city of Napa.
Getting to Napa
By Flight: While Napa does have an airport, it only services private and charter flights, meaning unless you have a private jet, you’re going to have to fly into one of the cities near Napa and make your way there via a car or public transportation. The most popular cities to fly into for Napa are:
Oakland (OAK): Located south of Napa slightly to the east, Oakland airport is 50 miles from Napa and takes about an hour to drive.
San Francisco (SFO): San Francisco’s airport is located 60 miles southwest of Napa and takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to drive, depending on often condensed San Francisco traffic.
Sacramento (SMF): Sacramento is also 60 miles away from Napa and takes about the same amount of time to drive as from San Francisco, and it is located to the east of the valley.
Santa Rosa (STS): This is located 35 miles from Napa in Sonoma County and is the closest commercial airport to the valley, though flights are often a bit more expensive since it’s a smaller airport.
Once landed, head to the car rental or public transportation area of the airport, depending on your preferred method.
Car from Airport (or your home base): When driving to Napa Valley, it’s important to remember that Napa may seem glamorous, but it’s still farm country. Obey the speed limits and be courteous with music and where you park. You’ll also find some roads are dirt and bumpy to get to certain vineyards and wineries so go slower when necessary. Most tasting rooms have adequate parking to accommodate daily visitors. In addition, the wide country landscape means most hotels have ample parking and won’t charge nightly fees, though it’s always good to check your hotel’s policy before booking.
Short on Time Tip: For an extra memorable day, rent a convertible for your day in Napa.
While it is doable to see Napa in a day using just public transportation and using bus stops in the valley and walking, you probably won’t be able to partake in more than a couple tastings due to time constraints so plan on just taking public transportation to Napa if you’re meeting a car and driver or tour service there.
By Cruise: Some cruises stop in the port of San Francisco and if you have a full day in port, you’ll have time to spend it in Napa. Ships typically dock at Pier 35 near Fisherman’s Wharf and there are several car rental services in that area. If you’re don’t want to worry about renting a car during your day in port, some car and driver services will also pick you up and drop you off, though expect to pay a premium for it.
Getting Around Napa
Once in Napa, the easiest way to get around the wine valley is by car, however, that comes with a big caveat. Drinking and driving is closely monitored and strictly enforced with steep fines and even jail time if caught. Therefore, have a designated driver who will be sure to stay sober, or hire a car and driver or shuttle/tour service.
Car Hire with Driver: A private car and driver will pick you up from your hotel or an agreed upon meeting spot. A benefit of this is that you can determine what wine tastings you want to visit and do it on your schedule, plus you’ll have a knowledgeable local who can give you insider views on a winery or vineyard you’re visiting.
Shared Van or Shuttle: To save on pricing, you can also go on a group shuttle tour, but be sure it stops at the tasting rooms you most want to visit and find out how much time you have at each place. Many hotels offer a shuttle service, which can be convenient and help you make new friends with people you can still see around the hotel later. Often these services also have an “in” with the winery, meaning your tasting fees may be waived if they’re not already included in the tour price.
Short on Time Tip: You can also bike around Napa Valley, but due to the expansive nature of Napa, you’ll only be able to visit a small area so it’s an option best left for a longer trip to Napa and not when you have just one day to spend there.
Where to Stay During Your Napa Trip
Napa has a wide range of accommodation options, though be prepared to pay a premium – even for budget hotel lines.
The Carneros Inn is a luxury boutique resort that offers cottages for guests to stay in. Each cottage has sumptuous bedding and accommodation, plus a patio. With an onsite spa and restaurant, you may find it’s hard to ever leave Carneros Inn.
Location: 4048 Sonoma Highway, Napa
Price: From $375
Located within a wooded canyon next to a pristine lake lays Castiloga Ranch, a resort with earthly touches and luxurious lodge accommodations. The spa features relaxing and rejuvenating thermal soaking pools.
Location: 580 Lommel Road, Castiloga
Price: From $685
Napa Valley Lodge
With breathtaking views of the surrounding vineyards, Napa Valley Lodge offers comfortable accommodation in deluxe Yountville. The hotel also has a swimming pool, and you are close to many wine tasting rooms.
Location: 2230 Madison Street, Yountville
Price: From $200
Wine Country Inn
Located in lovely St. Helena, the Wine Country Inn offers a bed and breakfast atmosphere with individually decorated rooms and delicious homemade breakfast. The grounds have a pool, hot tub, and deck overlooking nearby vineyards.
Location: 1152 Lodi Lane, St. Helena
Price: From $230
Best Western Plus Elm House Inn
The national budget hotel chains are your best option for finding affordable accommodations, and with Best Western Plus Elm House Inn you can stay in one without losing the charm of Napa. The hotel is just blocks from the downtown area of the city of Napa and is located in a building more reminiscent of a bed and breakfast, with surrounding gardens and a patio.
Location: 800 California Boulevard, Napa
Price: From $115
Mountain Home Ranch
If you’re looking for budget accommodation unique to Napa, check out the rustic accommodations at the family-run Mountain Home Ranch. The furnishings may be a bit outdated, but they’re comfortable and the rooms and individual cabin units are smack dab in the middle of northern California’s great outdoors.
Location: 3400 Mountain Home Ranch Road, Calistoga
Price: From $71
Hiking and Golf Activities in Napa Valley
Skyline Wilderness Park – This massive park in Napa is ideal for hiking and bike riding. Hike the trails for scenic vistas of the area.
Location: 2201 Imola Avenue, Napa
Day Use Admission: $2 Walk-in; $3 Bike or Horse Ride-in; $5 Car (up to 4 people; each additional person $1); $6 Car with up to 2 bikes.
Hours: Winter (Until Spring Time Change): 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Summer (Spring Time Change to September 31): 8 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Fall Hours (October 1 to Fall Time Change): 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. No admittance to park 30 minutes before closing.
Napa Golf Course – Golf among the wine and vineyards of the valley at the Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park.
Location: 2295 Streblow Drive, Napa
Cost: From $29
Hours: 6:30 a.m. – Dusk
Restaurants to Visit During Your Napa Trip
Located in St. Helena, Market dresses up country cooking like you’ll rarely see. With a country-chic interior of about 15 unassuming tables spread out against stone walls and a massive photograph of Napa country, you’ll feel like you’re dining in someone’s very elaborate farm kitchen. The menu consists of home-grown cooking that is spiced and roasted so perfectly you may forget you’re eating fish and chips (ahem…make that Champagne battered fish and chips) or fried chicken. Premium items such as steak and lobster bisque are also on the menu.
Location: 1347 Main Street, St. Helena
Hours: Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Monday – Thursday, 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m.
If you’re in the mood to get dressed up for a sumptuous dinner in a stylish setting, head to PRESS, located in St. Helena. PRESS uses locally grown meat and produce from nearby ranches and the focal point of the menu is the restaurant’s steak selection. Steak entrees at PRESS range from around $20 up to $60 for top of the line pieces of meat. The ambiance of PRESS is sleek and modern, with expertly placed lighting that infuses the setting with a romantic feel within the window-paned walls. PRESS also has a stellar and extensive wine menu featuring top wines from the region and your server can help you decide what vintage to pair with your meal.
Location: 587 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena
Hours: Wednesday – Monday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Napa is brimming with expensive restaurants, but if you’re not willing to splurge on a meal, but still want the Napa dining experience, take heart in the laidback Rutherford Grill, located in Rutherford. Try their Prime Rib French Dip sandwich – a local favorite – that has tender, melt-in-your-mouth meat and a dipping sauce with just the right amount of tang to complement the sandwich. Rutherford Grill also offers take-out in case you had just a bit too much to drink during your day of wine tasting to fathom a meal out on the town.
Location: 1180 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford
Hours: Friday and Saturday. 11:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.; Sunday – Thursday, 11:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.
If you can get into this place, you’ll be eating at one of the top restaurants – and considered by some to be the top of the top restaurants – in the world. Getting into this Yountville-based restaurant in Napa is the hard part. Reservations open up two months beforehand and if you’re lucky enough to be one of the first to get through to the restaurant via phone or to reserve online, you’ll get a table. But be warned, competition is fierce. Once there, expect to spend hundreds (at least).
Location: 6640 Washington St., Yountville
Hours: Reservation times are available from 5:30 p.m. – 9:15 p.m. for dinner, and 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. for lunch.
Short on Time Tip: Since if you’re short on time you’ll probably be enjoying a nice dinner in Napa Valley after a full day of wine tasting, give yourself as much time in between your wine tasting and you dinner reservations. This will give you time to take a nap, freshen up, and get ready for your dinner.
Wine Tasting in Napa Valley
Top 10 Things to Keep in Mind Before You Start Your Wine Tasting Day in Napa
- Have cash or a credit card on hand for tastings – they’re rarely free in Napa.
- Don’t forget to drink lots of water in between each tasting.
- Eat a big breakfast.
- Don’t forget to eat lunch.
- You don’t have to drink every pour – there’s a spittle jug there for a reason. Drink and spit, or pour out the rest of the glass after a taste. You’re not going to hurt anyone’s feelings by doing so.
- Bring a notebook. You’ll taste a lot of different wines and by the end of the day it may be hard to remember which vintages you liked best from the first couple wineries. Take notes of each wine you taste to help you remember.
- Ask questions. Most people who visit Napa aren’t expert wine connoisseurs and nine times out of ten the wine pourers at tasting rooms are happy to answer your questions and further educate you on the wine you’re drinking.
- Try new kinds of wine. For example, if you only drink white wine, be adventurous and try some of the red pours – you may find you like more than you think.
- Bring cash to tip your driver if you have one. (Or to treat your sober driver friend or family member to dinner that night.)
- Last, and perhaps most importantly, don’t get so drunk that you can’t remember your one day in Napa!
Choosing What Wineries to Visit
There are hundreds of wineries in Napa which are spread out over a large area. This can make it extremely daunting to choose only a few to visit. Plan on visiting just three or four in a day to give yourself adequate time at each winery and enough driving time in between. Also, in order to give yourself a good overview of Napa wineries and vineyards when short on time, plan on visiting a Napa category that falls into each of these three categories: top-notch wine, incredible views, and interactive experiences.
What You’ll Be Drinking
Napa is most known for buttery Chardonnays and well-aged Cabernets. Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc is also widely produced. When visiting tasting rooms in Napa, you’ll have a chance to taste all four and more.
Napa Winery for Top-Notch Wine
Jessup Cellars – This winery specializes in small-batch, high-end wines that are handcrafted. Their tasting room is located in an airy, home-like building in the adorable and upscale town of Yountville, and it offers a sit-down experience to taste their wines. You’ll meet at a table with an employee of the winery who will walk you through several different vintages ranging from Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon to Zinfandel. They also offer a cheese and nut plate alongside the wines, which they recommend how to pair with each wine.
Location: 6740 Washington Street, Yountville
Hours: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Tasting Fee: $20 per person
Chateau Montelena Winery – Housed in a stunning mansion with castle-like features, Chateau Montelena feels like you’ve walked into a vineyard fairy tale. The tastings feature the winery’s highly-rated Chardonnays and Cabernets. After you’ve tasted their wine and gotten a tour of the interior of the winery and wine caves, head outside for gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside and onsite Chinese garden and lake. A big winemaking claim to fame for Chateau Montelena is that it’s the winery featured in the movie “Bottle Shock” about the 1976 blind wine tasting competition in Paris that Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay won and consequently helped to put Napa Valley on the map for wine-making.
Location: 1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga
Hours: 9:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Tasting Fee: $20
Napa Winery for Incredible Views
Kuleto Estates – Once you reach the main gate of this winery and surrounding vineyards, it takes about another 10 minutes to get up the side of a rugged hill to the winery. Winding roads and crowded vegetation surrounds the road leading up to nothing short of an architectural masterpiece. The owner of this property made his millions as a restaurateurand decided to spend some of it building a house that feels like the winery equivalent of the Hearst Castle atop of a hill that overlooks the whole valley.
Location: 2470 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena
Hours: Open daily with tastings at 10:30 a.m., 11:45 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 2:30 p.m. Appointments mandatory.
Tasting Fee: $40
Sterling Vineyards: This winery may cause a bit of a scare for those who have a fear of heights as you have to take an aerial tram from the parking lot to the tasting room, but it’s worth it once you arrive at the top. The winery itself is stunning from the outside with white-walled, stately architecture. The winery is on top of a large hill, offering panoramic views of Napa. Inside, taste Sterling Vineyard’s famous wine in the pleasant tasting room.
Location: 1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga
Hours: Monday – Friday, 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.; Saturday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Tasting Fee: $25-$40 depending on wine flight chosen (includes tram ride)
Napa Winery for Interactive Experiences
Raymond Vineyards – This winery offers wine decanting lessons, blending experiences, and a corridor of senses which lets you test how different smells affect how a wine tastes. It also puts an educational spin on wine-making with its “Theater of Nature” which puts a focus on how biodynamic farming in Napa Valley works. Plus, it’s just pretty cool looking inside with red and silver colors, a club-like atmosphere, and mood lighting in some of the tasting rooms.
Location: 849 Zinfandel Lane, St. Helena
Hours: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Tasting Fee: $20-$30. Call for pricing of other experiences at the winery.
The Hess Collection Winery and Art Museum – The Hess Collection combines stellar wine with an impressive modern art collection in a stone winery in Napa. The art is the private collection of the winery’s proprietor, Donald Hess. Audio guides for your iPod are available for while you tour the art museum. The Hess Collection also offers free winery tours.
Location: 4411 Redwood Road, Napa
Admission: Tasting Fee: $10 (reservations encouraged). Museum: Free
Hours: Tasting Room: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.; Art Museum: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Winery and Vineyard Tour: 10:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Short on Time Tip: Bring your own picnic lunch when visiting the wineries as most of the wineries have picnic areas for enjoying food. This saves on time instead of eating at a restaurant.
Nightlife Worth Including on Your Napa Valley Itinerary
Napa is more about day activities (and day drinking) and doesn’t have too much of a nightlife. However, if you’re looking for some fun after dinner, check out these popular late night venues.
Downtown Joe’s Brewery and Restaurant
Downtown Joe’s has live bands and a great beer selection in a laidback setting in downtown Napa.
Location: 902 Main Street, Napa
As a more lively spot in the fine-dining prominent St. Helena, Ana’s Cantina bar has great Tequila and funky decor.
Location: 1205 Main Street, St. Helena
Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin’ BBQ – Over 400 different bottles of wine available with 40 wines available by the glass. Pair with one of the BBQ-Style menu items.
Location: 975 First Street, Napa
Non-Wine Tasting Experiences
Shopping in Napa Valley
Napa Premium Outlets
If you’re looking for some good shopping during your day in Napa, head to the Napa Premium Outlets mall. From J.Crew to Coach to Barney’s New York, there’s a diverse array of stores – at great discounts.
Location: 629 Factory Stores Drive, Napa
Hours: Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Museums to Include on Your Napa Valley Itinerary
Napa Valley Museum
Located in a farm-looking building in quaint Yountville, the Napa Valley Museum features exhibits teaching visitors about the history and culture of Napa Valley, plus geological details about the land and why it is ideal for growing wine.
Location: 55 Presidents Circle, Yountville
Admission: Adults: $5; Youth under 17: $2.50; Seniors: $3.50
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
This museum focuses on the Upper Napa Valley with an emphasis on the early settlers of the valley and how events such as World War I affected Napa.
Location: 1311 Washington Street, Calistoga
Admission: Adults: $3; Children under 12: Free
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Scientopia Discovery Center
This is a great option to visit if traveling with kids to Napa. The Scientopia Discovery Center has interactive play and learn centers to appeal to kids of all ages and teaches them about science, math, and the earth.
Location: 1785 B Tanen Street, Napa
Admission: $10 for first child, $8 for siblings (Ages 1-10). After 4 p.m., all children are $7.50. Children under 1 year are free with paid sibling, otherwise $5. Adults are free.
Hours: Thursday – Friday, 11 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (October – May) and 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (June – September); Sunday, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Saturdays available for private celebrations.
Other Entertainment For Your Napa Trip
The Uptown Theatre
The Uptown Theatre hosts musical acts, speakers, and comedians – many of whom are well-known performers.The theater has excellent sound acoustics in an intimate setting.
Location: 1350 Third Street, Napa
Admission: Varies depending on performer.
Hours: Most shows start at 7 p.m., but double check the performance time as it is subject to vary.
Napa Valley Opera House
Featuring more than just opera, the Napa Valley Opera House showcases musical acts, dance, and films in addition to breathtaking opera performances in a state of the art theater.
Location: 1030 Main Street, Napa
Admission: Varies depending on performance.
Hours: Varies depending on performance.
Catch a show at the Jarvis Conservatory, which aims to promote the performance arts in Napa. The seating is gorgeous with red upholstery and stone walls. Operas, musicals, and ballets perform on a weekly basis, typically on Saturday nights.
Location: 1711 Main Street, Napa
Admission: Varies depending on performance, though $10 – $15 is the average amount.
Hours: Varies depending on performance.