With its picturesque vineyards, quaint towns, and vast rolling hills, Napa Valley provides a refreshing escape for wine enthusiasts, food lovers, and earthy nature admirers. Whether seeking a serene retreat or want to indulge in wine tastings, there is so much to do in Napa Valley. It promises an unforgettable and rejuvenating escape.
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Peaks and Valleys
Napa Valley, located in Northern California, is renowned worldwide as one of the premiere wine regions. It offers a blend of charming wineries, stunning landscapes, exquisite cuisine, and a relaxed atmosphere, making it an ideal destination for a weekend getaway.
Best time of year to visit
Most people think the best time to visit the Napa area is during harvest season which occurs between August-October. However, locals would encourage travelers to go between March and June when the weather is gorgeous before the intense heat of the summer months hit and the prices are more moderate than peak season. Visitors can't tell a difference in the harvest season, other than paying premium prices. We went in early May and it was wonderful.
Geography of the area
When I was first researching travel in the valley, I thought from a high level view, the cities looked very far from each other. Really though, the entirety of St. Helena Highway is less than 20 miles. On a lightly trafficked day, it's under a 30 minute drive!
Where to stay
Before traveling to the valley, I'd recommend familiarizing yourself with the general area. It will make the planning process and travel logistics much smoother! Plus, since everything is spread out, it's best to minimize the time spent in the car. Here is a high level overview of each city (from south to north) in the valley.
Technically, Sonoma County is a 15 minute drive outside of the Napa Valley. It's known for it's laid-back atmosphere and is like the perfect Red Wine Blend, they have a mix of everything. Wine country charm, historic sites, natural beauty, and cultural heritage. We stayed in an Airbnb roughly 5 miles round trip from the city center. It was so quiet and peaceful, as well as a great way to unwind after wine tastings.
Courtney's note: While we loved our airbnb and exploring Sonoma, we will stay in St Helena or Calistoga. They're centrally located and are more our speed.
It's the largest city in the valley and offers bright, lively riverfront, a main street with renowned restaurants, and a variety of boutiques. If you like to be in the heart of the city, Napa is the place to stay. I've heard wonderful things about the Archer Hotel. Walking distance to everything, it feels more commercial than any of the other cities.
Known for its upscale charm and world-class dining experiences, Yountville is sophisticated. They are home to a variety of Michelin restaurants, like the French Laundry. Washington street is lined with art galleries, boutique shops, and of course, wine tasting rooms. We considered staying at Hotel Yountville or Rancho Caymus Inn.
The HEART of Napa Valley, it blends small-town and sophistication. For my outdoor enthusiasts, it's a great place to hike, bike, and drift (in a hot air balloon) in downtown St. Helena. They only have two fast food restaurants because of a local ordinance passed years ago. So you'll find an assortment of gourmet restaurants! Don't miss the opportunity to visit the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Ken, our driver, eats there with his wife frequently and the value for what you get is insane!! They have their culinary program, a restaurant (that culinary students run), and a wine tasting center!
At the north end of Napa Valley resides charming Calistoga. It's known for its relaxing natural hot springs and laid-back atmosphere. If you're familiar with Northern Michigan like myself, it's very similar to Petosky or Harbor Springs -- HOMEY! There is no shortage of spa resorts and if you want to try a mud bath, you can find it here. Explore Old Faithful Geyser, hike through the valley, or bike the great outdoors along the miles of trails that take you around the countryside and along the Napa River. It's all so charming and the vibrant downtown area is beyond relaxing!
If you're from the greater Northern California area, driving is one of the best ways to visit the valley. Out of state visitors, look into flying into Oakland airport instead of San Francisco International airport (SFO). It's smaller than SFO and about 20 minutes closer to the valley. The best way to explore wine country is with a rental car. Ubers/Lyfts are unreliable in this region, and if you are visiting rural wineries, they won't accept the reservation unless you provide your own transportation.
Looking to save some money? Rent a Telsa or electric vehicle. There are a lot of charging stations in California and it saved us money on gas (we didn't fill up once!). That said, if you're not familiar with driving one, watch a few tutorials prior to driving so its familiar (there is a learning curve). Our rental car was roughly $500 for 4 days and that alone was almost the cost of private transportation to/from the SFO airport and Napa Valley.
Transportation around Napa Valley
If your party is wine tasting around the valley, it's crucial to line up private transportation - whether it's a driver, shuttle, or tour bus. Between multiple wine tastings, you'll be thankful to have a driver to keep you moving through the itinerary.
We used Designated Driver Napa & Sonoma. They will help coordinate your trip if you wish or you can plan your trip yourself (a bit more leg work) and send it to them. Regardless, their service drives YOUR rental car for you. They pick up and drop off wherever you're staying and are with the car the whole day- basically built in tour guides, too!
They have 14 different drivers and they match you with a driver who knows your itinerary best! We had Ken and his speciality is Amizetta Winery. If Amizetta is on your list, it's likely he'd be your driver (unless its a bachelorette party, he declines any of those :P)
The other option to renting a car is arranging drivers/shuttles for any excursions. Here are a few other private drivers (that drive their own car) and were recommended to me by local wineries:
- Paul Bailey | email: firstname.lastname@example.org | +1 707-363-1397
- George Stone | email: email@example.com | +1 707-363-0704
- Nathaniel Beckum | email: firstname.lastname@example.org | +1 916-572-5466
Winery Booking Recommendations
Traveling to the valley for the first time for winery visits can be intimidating. If you're planning on wine tasting, my advice is to plan the number of days, select the wineries (and their locations), logistically map which ones make the most since (and in what order), ensure the winery has the tasting time available (the sooner you know the timeline, the more wiggle room you'll have), book a driver, and then have them review the itinerary before locking in everything.
Drivers are from the area and are such a great resource to utilize; they're like a built in guided tour! If planning feels overwhelming, ask for their direction and recommendations. I promise you'll discover hidden gems that you didn't know existed.
General rule of thumb is when traveling with anymore than 2 people, it's best to make reservations. Napa Valley is busy and everything we ate/drank required a reservation even for our small group of four (except two breakfast spots). Utilize the restaurant's website or OpenTable/RESY to lock reservations in.
Another tip from someone who stacked three wine tastings in each day, do not schedule anything less than 2 hours apart. Most wine tastings are an hour to an hour and a half, plus travel time to and from to the next one. It's not fun to be rushed in between each location on your wine tour. Factor in the time it takes to get to each place and put a 30 minute buffer on that.
Napa Valley is obviously known for the drinking experience, but the culinary adventure you can go on, too, is not to be dismissed. In order of best food we had (everything was fabulous):
- Long Meadow Ranch: Farmstead - located off the St. Helena Highway between Yountville and St. Helena, Long Meadow Ranch is a MUST. Phenomenal atmosphere, farm to table food, and exceptional service. Food recommendations: Burrata cheese appetizer, Wings with Alabama sauce (appetizer) - arguably one of the best things we tasted all weekend long, Long Meadow Ranch Burger and the Pulled Pork Sandwich. Everything we tried we LOVED.
- RH Yountville - located in the heart of Yountville, this sophisticated restaurant has incredible eats. Order the burger and Gem salad with a side of fries and a glass of rose. Decadent in every bite!
- Chef Luis - He will bring all of the ingredients for dinner to YOU. It's definitely a plus staying in a rental as likely there is a full service kitchen. I originally booked him through Airbnb, but learned they take almost 40% of the cost. You can email him directly at: email@example.com and he will coordinate with you there!
- Sunflower Caffe - Downtown Sonoma. Quaint and bright, the Sunflower Caffe is one of the only breakfast places in Sonoma. Open from 8am-3pm, grab a bite on the patio. We loved the avocado toast and homemade blueberry poptart.
- Grace's Table - While there are a lot of restaurants in downtown Napa, we only were able to try this one. We stopped her Sunday morning before our flight and another home run (seriously, is all the food just fabulous in the valley?!). Recommend the fish tacos and fluffy buttermilk pancakes, though everything was TASTY.
- Oxbow Public Market - similar to Ponce City Market in Atlanta, GA, this food mess hall has something for everyone. From bubbles to brews, pop in here for a quick bite to eat or a night cap.
Other popular restaurant recommendations
Our driver, Ken, is a born and raised local and a wealth of knowledge! When we were exploring, here are the other places he recommended:
- Press - St. Helena
- Sushi Mambo - Calistoga
- La Cheve Bakery and Brews - outskirts Napa
- California Brandy House - downtown Napa
- The French Laundry - Yountville. Note: this is a Michelin Star restaurant and very pricey.
Traveling to the valley for the first time can be intimidating. My advice is to plan the number of days, the wineries (and their locations), logistically map which ones make the most since (and in what order), ensure the winery has the tasting time available (the sooner you know the timeline, the more wiggle room you'll have), book a driver, and have them review the itinerary before locking in everything.
Drivers are from the area and are such a great resource to utilize! If planning feels overwhelming, ask for their direction and recommendations. I promise you'll discover hidden gems that you didn't know existed.
There are over 530 wineries in the valley. An explosion to the sheer 50 that were there in 1980s. This blog post would be an book if it went into detail of ALL the wineries. But if it's your first time traveling to Napa, it can be really intimidating planning and knowing just what wineries to pick.
As first timers, we knew that we wanted to see and drink as much as we could in two full days. We did 3 tastings each day, with a large brunch or lunch to break up the day. When we go back, we will do 2 experience tastings maximum and a meal. By the end of day 2, we were wiped.
- Amizetta Winery - by far our FAVORITE! It is a drive up the mountain, but the experience is unlike any other. Best tasting wines too! Best wine: Sav Blanc or Red Blend.
- Far Niente Winery - close second favorite! The grounds are exquisite and so beautiful. The tasting occurred in a private room which was a nice contrast to the other and they had a small snack plate for each of us (much needed)! Best wine: En Route Pinor Noir or 2019 Chardonnay .
- Caymus Vineyards - We loveee their wines and thought it would be cool to see the space. The winery tasting room was remodeled and opened 7 weeks ago at the time we visited. It felt very commercialized and they rushed us through the tasting.
- Darioush - It felt a little stuffy when we first arrived and the tastings happen right in their main lobby. Because it was the end of the day, our guide took us on a tour of the barrel room and cellars. That was VERY cool and definitely enhanced the overall experience.
- Hall Winery - Gorgeous views of the vineyard, not our favorite wine. Still think its a good one to go to though.
- Peju - This was our very last winery at the end of day 2 and we were wined out. It was very chaotic in the space (aka drunk parties of people and people breaking glasses). Felt much different that our other experiences. We wouldn't revisit Peju again as we didn't care for their wines either.
Others recommended: Sterling Winery, Transberg* (Best sparkling wine in the United States), and Robert Mondavi.
Our Wine Tasting Itinerary
- 8am - breakfast at Sunflower Caffe in downtown Sonoma, CA
- 10am - pick up from airbnb
- 10:45am - Cab tasting experience at Hall Wineries
- 12:00pm - Tasting + Food pairing at Far Niente **We were late for this tasting. I should have giving us more time to enjoy Hall and get to FN. It would have been best at 12:45pm.
- 3pm - Darioush Tasting
- 5pm - back to airbnb
- 6:30pm - private Chef Luis comes to the airbnb and cooks for us
- 9am - pick up from airbnb
- 10:30am - Tasting at Amizetta **this is a far drive and at the top of the mountain. Worth every penny & experience though!
- 12:45pm - Caymus Vineyard tasting **We were slightly late for this one since we loved Amizetta.
- 2:15pm - lunch at Longmeadow Ranch
- 4pm - tasting a Peju *we were also slightly late for this one since we were watching the Kentucky Derby.
- 5:30 pm - home.
- Round trip walk 5 miles into Downtown Sonoma for dinner at Girl & The Fig. Ice cream at Sweet Scoops Homemade Ice Cream.
Unique Activities and Excursions
Obviously Napa is known for the wineries, but there's so many other fun things to do! Our short trip was packed full of wine, but there's many activities in the area the whole family can enjoy. If (when) I go back to the area I plan to explore some of these popular activities:
- Hot Air Balloon Ride: There are few things more peaceful than drifting over the vineyards and enjoying panoramic views of rolling hills, beautiful scenery and landscapes! A unique way to really see the whole area. Napa Valley Balloons is a well known company that has great reviews.
- Napa Valley Bike Tours: Adjacent to St. Helena Highway, the Napa Valley Bike trail runs. There are plenty of places for bike rentals or join a guided bike tour to explore the charming downs and picturesque countryside at a leisurely pace.
- Napa Valley Wine Train: If you prefer to see the valley quickly and accessibly, book a lunch and tasting with the Napa Valley Wine Train. Note: the train can only stop at approved wineries so options may be limited.
- Spas and Retreats: Relax in mineral-rich hot springs or indulge in yoga and meditation sessions around the valley. Check out Yountville and Calistoga for serene spas!
- Art and Culture: The vibrant art and culture seen of Napa is beautiful! Visit art galleries, attend live performances at CIA, or pop into local festivals. Check out the Napa Art Walk which is a rotating exhibition of art sculptures downtown featuring regional artists' work.
Napa Valley FAQs
At a minimum I suggest three days not including travel. We spent two days going to wineries, 3 a day, and it was definitely a lot. It would be nice to spread things out a bit. I think you could spend up to one week in Napa and be completely content, too. Taking it at a more leisurely pace and doing some of the other non-wine related activities mentioned above.
August through October is considered 'peak season' in Napa and when grapes are being harvested. This does, however, mean that it is busier and more expensive to travel there. We went in early May and it was perfect. I highly recommend it for lighter crowds and more mild temperatures.
You're asking the wine queen, and in my opinion ABSOLUTELY. Napa would be a great location for a bachelorette party because you have set things to do, and well, wine is involved, duh! But that said, it would be pretty pricey and take a lot of planning in order to get reservations everywhere you want to visit.
More Places to Explore
Whether you're planning a day trip into the Valley or spending a weekend in Northern California for a special occasion, this blog post sums up the best of the best travel plans and areas to explore! If you are a local to the area or have a hidden gem that I glossed over, be sure to leave your recommendations in the comments for readers to utilize. Enjoy your time in beautiful California!
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. It’s my passion to share about traveling that can aid your experience or be shared with others. Let me know if you have any questions; happy to answer them below! Safe travels! XO Courtney Paige