Napa Valley is a lot of fun, and that’s not just the wine talking. Rugged mountains, steamy hot springs, rolling vineyards, and 260 days of sunshine is as appealing for tourists as it is for vines; although I’m willing to bet that we have more fun!
But is there anything to do in Napa besides drinking a lot of really good wine? Well, yes! Lucky for us, wealthy California winemakers threw their “I’m so rich that I don’t know what to do with my cash” money into developing Napa Valley – but there are also some fantastic budget-friendly hidden gems in Napa.
Like a glass of great wine, discovering Napa Valley is all about balance. We are lucky to have Aubrey Terrazas, an Advanced Sommelier and wine buyer in San Francisco who has spent the better part of a decade visiting the Napa region, guide us through the best things to do in Napa. (She also created a guide to the best wineries in Napa for us!) Take it away, Aubrey!
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Napa Valley FAQ’s
Before you plan your trip to Napa, here are a few things you should know!
Is it “Napa” or “Napa Valley?” Are they different?
The town of Napa is located within the Napa Valley, a 30-mile long stretch of valley, ringed by mountains.
Napa Valley takes its name from the biggest city in the area, Napa, and the town of Napa was named after the Napa River which runs through it.
The Napa Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) includes the towns of Carneros, Napa, St. Helena, Yountville, and Calistoga. It takes less than an hour to get from one end of Napa Valley to the other, so it’s a geographically small area.
But when most people say “Napa,” they’re typically referring to ALL of those regions and towns throughout the Napa Valley – not just Napa, the city! So you might hear a Bay Area local say something like “I’m visiting Napa this weekend, we’ll be staying in Calistoga.” Make sense?
If you’re not sure whether someone is referring to Napa the town or Napa the region, just ask!
Oh, and to be totally clear, this post is about things to do in Napa Valley, NOT just Napa the town.
Is the wine in Napa really that good?
Napa is famous for making really good wine. And yes, it’s really THAT good!
Napa Valley is ideally situated to make some of the world’s best wines, thanks to the combination of California sunshine and cool, foggy mornings. Mountains surround the valley on both sides: the Vaca Range to the East and the Mayacamas to the West. Between these two mountain ranges, wineries and vineyards are sprinkled throughout!
Napa was just a quiet, unknown California wine country until the dramatic Judgment of Paris in 1976, when Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena shockingly defeated two excellent French wines in a blind-tasting competition, officially positioning Napa as the New World’s most famous fine wine region. At the time, wine professionals outside of France weren’t taken seriously, so when California stole the show, it was a huge upset.
The movie Bottle Shock dives into the dramatic story, and the day that put Napa officially on the map forever!
What’s the weather like in Napa?
Napa Valley is about 40 minutes east of Sonoma (a neighboring wine country) and the Pacific Ocean, and its daytime temperatures climb much higher than foggy Coastal California. Daytime – especially in the summer – can get to over 100 degrees, so wear something breathable and comfortable!
But if you’ll be staying overnight or past sunset, bring warm layers. It’s much colder during the night than it is during the day – temperatures can plummet 20 degrees within hours.
I’m from Chicago, so I thought I had thick blood for cold weather, but the chilly Pacific breeze is guaranteed after sundown! You’ll be shivering in your sundress, so pack a change of clothes and a warm sweater for the evening.
Things to do in Napa
Soak in Natural Hot Springs
What better way to detox after a day of wine tasting than a soak in natural thermal springs? Soaking in hot springs promotes well-being through detoxification, increased metabolism and blood flow… plus it’s just freakin’ relaxing.
Napa’s center of hot springs and geothermal pools is the town of Calistoga. The Wappo tribe, the area’s original Indigenous inhabitants, settled in Calistoga around 8,000 years ago and believed that the hot mineral water had healing powers (which it does). They called the land coo-lay-no-maock (“the oven place”).
But during the Gold Rush, Samuel Brannan, a Mormon settler hoping to turn the area into a Mormon mecca a la Salt Lake City, established Napa’s northernmost town of Calistoga in the mid-19th century to attract tourists to its natural hot mineral springs. He also became the richest man in California, attempted to overthrow the Hawai’ian King, and led a gang of “vigilantes” to enforce whatever he considered a crime. He died broke and alone after his wife, fed up with his womanizing, violence, and infidelity, divorced him. Isn’t history fascinating??
Today, most of Calistoga’s natural hot springs are located on the properties of hotels and spas, so if hot springs are a must-do, you’ll want to book a spa treatment or a night at one of these resorts.
Note that During the summer months you may want to plan your soak after dark (or not at all) as the town is hottest in Napa Valley (literally! It’s around 20 degrees warmer during the day than Carneros).
There are several options for hot springs in Calistoga:
- Meadowlark Country House & Resort: If you’re a free-spirited type, you might prefer this clothing-optional resort – welcome to Northern California! While the other spas tend to be more covered, Meadowlark welcomes Calistoga’s sunny Mountain scenery with shorter fences and a more open layout (don’t worry, you’re well tucked away from the nightlife and wine tastings). The close proximity to the hills and trees gives this resort a house-in-the-woods sort of feel. Oak trees nestle around the ranch-style resort and pool deck, which makes it feel more private. In addition to their volcanically-charged geothermal springs, Meadowlark has a dry sauna and flagstone terraces for total relaxation. Day passes are $50.
- Calistoga Hot Springs & Spa: The resort property features multiple covered pools, including a 104-degree geothermal pool, an 80-degree lap pool, and various spa services. The water is naturally filtered by Napa’s alluvial soils, leaving trace elements of minerals behind. You can stay overnight, or pool passes are free with the booking of any spa service. From the pools, you can see the sun-soaked Vaca mountain range, which is perfectly golden in the morning light. Palm trees line the deck, and a glass dome covers their geothermal pool, which helps trap the steam and at times gives a foggy, mysterious feel.
- Indian Springs Calistoga: Indian Springs seems to be the most recently renovated of the three spas, with modern and understated decor influenced by Mission-era property. Built in 1913, their Olympic-sized soak is the largest natural mineral pool in Napa Valley. The 17-acre property contains three thermal geysers and a hotel, with two-story white Spanish-style buildings that overlook a pond surrounded by palm trees and non-native tropical vegetation. Their pools are one of the few kid-friendly options in Napa, so if you’d prefer something – um – quieter, you can also pass the time at their smaller adult-only mineral pool.
For a few more suggestions, head over to this guide.
The 55-mile Napa River offers excellent waters for an afternoon of kayaking (or paddle boarding). The river extends from Mt. St. Helena to San Pablo Bay, switching from vast, open waters to narrow, wooded areas lined with dogwood trees.
As you paddle, you’ll be able to see wildlife like otters, turtles, and native birds. Beavers are very active here as well, which stir up the natural (and harmless) algae (making the water a bit murky at times).
Oh, and here’s a fun river fact: After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, they used the rocks from the bottom of the Napa River to rebuild the city!
Take a two-hour guided kayak tour to learn more about the area’s wildlife and history from a local. They can help you identify specific bird species, as well as point out historic buildings damaged by the 2014 earthquake.
Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride
Part of Napa Valley’s allure is its majestic wine country beauty, and a hot air balloon ride is the ultimate way to soak in the undulating hills and mountains, Californian-Mediterranean scrub and pine trees, densely packed vineyards on every twist of the Valley, and luxurious chateaux built by the musings of multi-millionaires.
The balloon can feel very hot, but it’s that hot air that gently lifts you off the ground and gently floats you over wine country. The floating sensation is extremely peaceful and serene; the physical sensation is very soft.
Balloon rides are usually early morning and include pastries and coffee. Note that this is not exactly a budget-friendly option, especially if you’re trying to be romantic: group tours average $300 per person for a one-hour flight, and the price climbs quickly for a private tour. But for a special occasion, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime activity that’s well worth the expense!
This hot air balloon ride takes off from Yountville and lasts for about an hour, and you’ll learn about ballooning’s colorful history as well as local highlights. You can also book with local companies like Napa Valley Balloon Inc and Balloons Above the Valley.
Visit Napa Valley Wineries
Wine tasting is likely what brought you to Napa Valley in the first place, right? Even if you’re not a big wine person, the sloping mountain views and historic châteaux make visiting Napa wineries essential to your trip. Napa Valley famously produces some of the world’s most iconic Cabernet Sauvignon, and you can also find lush Chardonnays, sexy Merlots, and spicy Zinfandels throughout the valley.
$30-50 is about an average price for a tasting, and yes, that’s per person. Napa is pricey! That said, you can usually get this fee waived by buying a bottle or two of wine. You can also sometimes find two-for-one tasting deal coupons by stopping by the Visitor’s Center.
It’s easiest to visit the wineries by car, but if you don’t have one (or don’t have a DD), there are plenty of tours, like this day trip from San Francisco that you can book. Uber and Lyft are available in Napa Valley, but just give yourself some cushion time, as it’s common to wait 15 minutes even from the more easily accessible tasting rooms.
I’ve highlighted my top five “must-see” wineries, but you can find a complete list in our Napa Valley Winery post! The wineries below are all relatively easy to find near Oakville, the heart of the Valley.
- Far Niente is known as “Napa Valley’s Finest Winery” with a storybook-style Chateau at the end of a long, acacia-tree-lined drive. The property was built in 1885, and was later renovated to its current glory. Complete with a vintage car collection, a reflection pond, and lush trees that turn golden in the fall, Far Niente‘s estate is the making of Napa daydreams. The winery focuses on two varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. They’re known to save back vintages, so this is also a great place to taste older Napa – but be ready to shell out some cash for it!
- Beringer Estate is one of the oldest wineries in Napa, and the historic Rhine-style chateau is worth a visit in and of itself. The founder moved to California from Germany in the 1870s; the German influence on the property gives the estate a storybook feel. The ornate chateau could be straight out of Beauty and the Beast, except that it’s landscaped by California succulents and hydrangea! Stroll the cobblestone path around the manicured gardens or explore history in the wine caves.
- Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars: Napa may have never reached its prestige without a 1976 wine tasting where Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars overwhelmingly outperformed First Growth Bordeaux and Burgundy in a blind tasting. The event, now dubbed “The Judgement of Paris,” turned the world’s attention to the quality and potential in this unknown area in Northern California. Today the winery has expanded to include an ultra-modern visitor center, filled with artwork and bronze finishes that overlooks the vineyards so you can experience the beauty of nature in all seasons. Come enjoy a tasting inside or outside with stunning panoramic views of the vineyards. Stag’s Leap remains the epitome of quality California Cabernet Sauvignon, made from estate fruit in state-of-the-art facilities.
- Robert Mondavi is the modern-day father of Napa Valley and the man who traveled the world to champion its quality. During a time where post-prohibition tastes often favored sweet wines, he focused on planting Cabernet vines with superior quality. As a result, his To-Kalon vineyard in Oakville is arguably the most famous in all of Napa. Now led by a female winemaker, the wines continue to be a standard-bearer for Napa greatness. The sunny ranch-style estate wraps around a courtyard with hidden views of Oakville vineyards and offers tastings in a range of styles, from Cabernet Sauvignon to oaked Sauvignon Blanc. You can book a tasting, a tour, or a dining experience. The winery even offers concerts, pending seasonality (and pandemics).
- Opus One Winery is among the most coveted wines globally and in the cellar of any serious wine collector. Owned by the Mondavi family (and just across the street from the flagship winery), the project is a brainchild of the family behind one of the five Bordeaux Châteaux to be awarded First Growth status (which is to say, they know their sh*t). The estate vineyards are right off Highway 29. Every vintage of their rare Cabernet flies off to allocations (pre-arranged agreements to sell the wine to specific collectors or restaurants), but you can taste it by the glass with a tasting (by appointment only, and you’ll want to book well in advance).
Party on a Rooftop
Depending on the time of year you visit Napa Valley, the wineries might close before you can catch the sunset.
But if you’re staying in the town of Napa, Sky & Vine’s rooftop bar has breathtaking views of the Vaca Mountains and Oak Tree forest to watch the day sink into night.
This local favorite sits atop the Archer Hotel in downtown Napa, complete with seating arrangements for all group sizes and heat lamps for the chilly nights. Enjoy a cocktail and bites while you play with their giant Jenga set, or kick back and enjoy the stunning mountainside landscape.
Northern California is one of the furthest western points that you can easily access in the US, so the late afternoon light here is perfectly golden. On a clear day, you can sit back with one of their many on-tap cocktails (I vote for the Margarita) and catch the orange and pink sky play off the crevices in the rugged mountain terrain. They even have great non-alcoholic drinks like the “It’s Just Alchemy” with seedlip spice, tamarind, orgeat, and lemon.
Happy Hour is 8-10pm, which includes specials on both food and drinks. One classic California bite is the Shishito peppers, but be careful—they say every 10 out 20 peppers are hella spicy.
For more rooftop bars in Napa, take a look at this list.
Go Olive Oil Tasting
Napa Valley’s Mediterranean climate is perfect not only for growing grapes but for growing olives! As with wine tasting, you can taste through olive oils to discover their nuances and flavor. Also like wine tasting, you’ll want to take a bottle home!
A few tips for olive oil tasting:
- The three essential words to describe olive oil are delicate, medium, and intense.
- Food changes the flavor of olive oil, so many tastings are not served with bread.
- Coughing is often considered a sign of good olive oil! That shows its more peppery personality, which a lot of enthusiasts love.
Best places for olive oil tasting in Napa
- Roundpond Estate has ripe, round Cabernets from Valley fruit. Their winery’s location is equally ideal for olive oil production! The Rutherford property is very close to Highway 29, but feels more secluded as you enter via their long drive lined with palm trees and vineyards. Most of their tastings are held on their expansive terrace with a view of the Vaca Range. The tasting experience includes a walk through their Italian and Spanish olive trees and a full overview of olive oil production for $40. Their oils tend to be more traditional, with an emphasis on olive quality.
- Longmeadow Ranch is easy to drop in without an appointment for a $5 olive oil tasting. You can find their olive oil tasting at their gift shop and café just next to their restaurant Farmstead, which is chic and elevated casual, despite the fact that it’s in a big blue barn. It’s a charming and easy break from wine tasting, thanks to its St. Helena location and tasty menu options (the restaurant also has a killer burger). They grow their olive trees at their Anderson Valley location in Mendocino, so the flavors tend to be more peppery and subtle than the Roundpond Estate.
- Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Co. is a local favorite that has made various gourmet oils for nearly a century. Their black truffle oil has an interesting umami kick that makes a lovely compliment to pasta, and their blood orange oil is lovely for a summer salad. The tasting takes place in an Americana-perfect white barn with an American and Italian flag hanging from the window. The low-key atmosphere is contrasted by the many luxurious Napa estates, but their quality of product is nonetheless impressive.
Take the Napa Valley Wine Train
Napa Valley’s Historic Wine Train will bring you from Napa to St. Helena and back on a relaxing, scenic 3-hour train ride. While you enjoy a multi-course meal (with wine, of course) you’ll watch vineyards and mountains roll by out the windows. The rail line was originally built in 1864 to bring guests from downtown Napa to the resort town of Calistoga. The train itself has the sort of feel that you´d expect from riding first class at the turn of the 20th century: plush seats, white table cloths, and Honduran mahogany paneling.
If you’re not particular about which wineries you visit but prefer not to drive, you can book an excursion that includes lunch and a visit to an iconic Napa Estate. The most popular experience is the Vista Dome, where you can enjoy a multi-course lunch or dinner with panoramic vineyard views. For more entertainment, book the Murder Mystery Dinner, where the killer is hiding subtly behind their glass of Pinot Noir.
All experiences come with California-style cuisine and a glass of wine (or two). Note that this is not a party bus – the operators of the Wine Train will kick off rambunctious groups, leaving them stranded in Napa.
Shop for Local Specialties
Napa is the largest town in the Valley. It’s small and very walkable, and over the last 180 years, it thrived as the center of local commerce. Merchants from the early Napa trading town built Victorian-style mansions around the local saloons and shopping centers (luckily, the wealth is more diversified now).
Today, things are less quaint and a little more upscale, but there are still plenty of local specialties and treats to discover on a stroll around the charming, historic downtown Napa. Just leave some room in your suitcase for souvenirs!
Shop for gourmet products in Napa
- Oxbow Market is a riverside marketplace and food hall. You can stop in for lunch from a local chef, then meander around sampling artisan chocolates, coffee, and cheeses.
- Ritual Coffee roaster. Founded in San Francisco in 2005, offers preciously roasted coffee to perk you up between tastings. Try a cup and bring home a bag of beans, or sip on your latte as you sample some of Anette’s Chocolates.
- The Olive Press. In case you didn’t make it to an olive oil tasting (see above), you can take home a bottle from The Olive Press – the most highly awarded olive producer in the US!
- Anette’s Chocolates. Anette and her brother have been making local confections with the finest ingredients for over 25 years. Their famous brittles and chocolate truffles make great gifts, or you can get a sample gift box with an assortment of Napa sweets.
- Whole Spice. If you’re working on wine tasting, pay a visit to Whole Spice and smell the spices from around the world (this is something sommeliers actually do, by the way). Imagine how cool you’ll sound the next time you’re sniffing your Cabernet…”Hmmm, I detect hints of curry and fenugreek!”
Local boutiques in Napa
Local boutique shops line First Street in downtown Napa. When you’re not exploring the wine-country chic fashion, you can easily pop into a local art gallery or wine tasting.
- Macbella. A women’s boutique with an Italian-chic mix of both European and American designers like Klaudia Karamandi and Aggi. This is the perfect place to pick up a tasteful dress for the French Laundry, or a meet the parents night.
- Kalifornia Jean Bar. Here you can perfect your California casual look with curated denim, sweats, and tee shirts for men and women. In contrast to chic Macbela, KJB has more of a Tahoe-inspired outdoors-y vibe.
- Nostalgia of Napa. It’s easy to get lost exploring the local treasures, including antique furniture and bar ware, clothing, and vintage accessories.
- Milo and Friends Pet Boutique. Don’t forget the pup! Especially after he was so patient while you’ve been away all day drinking. Milo & Friends is a (fancy) pet store that offers natural treats, California-themed toys (like this kayak), and stylish accessories like tye-dye leashes and bow ties. Instagram cats shop here, too.
Take a Cooking Class
Napa Valley cuisine is the epitome of farm-to-table. The rich agriculture of California inspires colorful, product-driven plates that will teach any meat eater to love veggies.
The access to the fresh, delicious, locally produced food — and wealthy investors — attracts the world’s best culinary talent to Northern California. So take a class from a chef to sharpen your knife skills, make homemade pasta, or even learn how to pick out the best produce at the farmer’s market.
- Cooking with Julie: Julie Logue-Riordan is a private chef and cooking teacher of 25 years. After training under Master Chefs in France and living abroad, she developed an international toolbelt to prepare diverse cuisine with local produce. Her classes revolve around “cooking from the season.” This is a must-have skill for anyone wanting to reduce their carbon footprint by shopping locally! Walk around the farmer’s market and discover the local heirloom varieties. The 3-course menu will be inspired by what looks good at the market, such as Grilled Figs with Almond Picada and Prosciutto, Grilled Steak with Mediterranean Herb Rub and Arugula Salad, and Buttermilk and Mascarpone Ice Cream with Fresh Peaches.
- Culinary Institute of America: The (other) CIA is one of the most esteemed schools for aspiring chefs. You can take a private class with one of their instructors in Napa. Depending on the length of your stay, they also offer “Boot Camps” and multi-day group classes. You can take classes to leasrn how to perfect flatbread, prepare a dim sum brunch, or even taste wine in under 90 seconds. They even provide a partnership with America’s Test Kitchen, so you experiment with new techniques from celebrity chefs!
Learn Napa Valley History
Before Cabernet Sauvignon took over the Valley with massive agricultural gentrification, the Wappo tribe called the area home for close to 10,000 years. In fact, the Northern Californian paradise didn’t become part of the United States until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Mexican Cession in 1848.
Learn a newfound appreciation for Napa Valley’s dynamic history, from immigrant labor to wine mavericks that put Napa on the (wine) map at the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville.
The museum’s colorful architecture and local art are worth a visit even for non-history buffs. They attract some noteworthy exhibits too, like recently, a showcase of artwork from actress Lucy Liu!
True to California form, many of their rotating exhibits highlight pop culture, like their “Dangerous Games” exhibit where you can take a tour through the dangerous and toxic toys we used to play with as kids, like the Slip ‘n Slide or the gooey Creepy Crawlers. Another popular recent exhibit is the Tiki: Art of the Exotic exhibit where you can brush up on Polynesian Pop history while you sip on a rum cocktail from their curated Tiki bar.
Go Craft Beer Tasting
After a full day of tasting wine for Palate Club, do you know what I want? B-E-E-R! Luckily there is a half-mile radius in downtown Napa with multiple craft breweries to cleanse the palate.
- Stone Brewing overlooks the Napa Valley in the historic brick Borrero Buildings. They highlight local, organic products for their dining menu, but I wouldn’t call it healthy — they’re best known for their BBQ. The smoky flavors are perfect with their most popular beer, the Stone IPA. Leashed dogs are welcome for their outdoor patio, and service dogs are welcome indoors.
- Fieldwork Brewing is located in Oxbow Public Market offers a rotating list of draft beers and flights. This is an excellent option for groups with diverse palates, as you enjoy their various craft beer selection with food from any of the many stands in Oxbow. Personally, I love El Porteño Empanadas for a savory beer snack. Many of their beers are inspired by the classics of Germany and Belgium, which tend to be a bit less hoppy and sweet than American beers. I’m a fan of the Cobra Mai, a Maibock German Lager, which is a pale and hop-forward lager.
- Trade Brewing offers a variety of classic pub food with Jamaican cuisine from Vibrant Foods. Committed to the artisan method, their claim is, “Craft is our Trade. Beer is our Passion.” Their most popular beer is the Bricklayer American Blonde, which is a pale and malty ale with a crisp finish.
Napa Valley is as much about its natural beauty as it is about its full-flavored Cabernets. The area’s status as an Agricultural Preserve means thousands of acres of scenic mountainside trails, Redwood alcoves, and diverse flora to explore. Here are some of the top hikes in Napa Valley:
- Alston Park is a dog-friendly area with three miles of unobstructed hills bordered by Redwood Creek. The hike is lovely and very open, but with little shade protection (which you can witness by the matted dry grass on the trails). It feels more prairie-like than the other hikes here and fairly easy to do as a jog. Canine Commons is the off-leash area section in the upper area of the park, leading to a shady canon and sprawling views of Napa. Read more about Napa’s Dog Owner guide.
- Skyline Park has over 25 miles of trails for all levels. The 3.4 mile River to Ridge Trail meanders through a variety of landscape, from sunny oak trees to grasslands and even a Bay Laurel forest next to a small lake. Those ready for a workout can take the Rim Rock Trail from here with a steep elevation change that leads to rewarding panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay and Mt. Tamalpais. The trail parking starts at $5/day.
- Linda Falls is a hidden gem near St. Helena in Howell Mountain. You’ll pass one of Napa’s most diverse displays of Douglas fir, oaks, and the local yellow Mariposa lily on the 15-minute hike. Lizards are active in the warmer months, though it’s more common to catch the Black-tailed deer or the adorable Desert cottontail rabbit. The cherry on top is a 50-foot waterfall dubbed Linda Falls. Only 20 minutes from Highway 29, this hike is an excellent option for a quick but rewarding escape from the tasting room bustle.
Visit a Distillery
The Napa Valley Distillery offers tastings at their speakeasy-style Grand Tasting Saloon ($30). Their classic copper alembic still influences their Old-West charm down to their Probation-era batched cocktails. You can tour the distillery or just go straight to their 1300 sq ft saloon with Gold Rush-era decor. As the first distillery in Napa after Prohibition, they host various rooms and vibes inspired by all of our favorite drinking trends: tiki, Speakeasy-style art deco, and the Wild West.
Although they offer Rum, Gin, and Brandy, they set themselves apart with their bottled cocktails. Try their Negroni, which is a favorite cocktail in the Bay Area traditionally made with Campari, gin, and red vermouth. Their quirky sensibility and love for history even pours into their ongoing events. You can tune in to learn about a different type of Spirits during their Ghost Stories live from the distillery on Thursdays. Speaking of…
Go Ghost Hunting
Of course, a historic booze city like Napa will have lingering spirits! Paranormal investigators Ellen MacFarlane and David Sisk are more than college kids with a spooky summer job — they use their skills of other-wordly communication to help families and even law enforcement gain clues into missing persons cases, demystify UFOs and life energy theories, and advocate for spirit crossings for trapped souls. Expect not only a freaky history lesson, but conversations with the spirits.
On this 90-minute walking tour, you will explore local folklore and both the current and former Napa courthouse areas where they used to conduct public hangings. Without giving away all the surprises, your guides take you to various haunted areas in downtown Napa, including sites of infamous murders such as the Fred Coombs murder-suicide (as in, the brother of Napa’s founder, Nathan Coombs).
Ellen and David attempt to contact the spirits using dowsing rods or paranormal sensitivities. You may even get the chance to speak to the legendary serial killer Billy Roe, who confessed to 26 murders after his arrest! The Napa Ghosts tour starts at 8pm and lasts 90 minutes.
Eat an Incredible Meal
The idyllic climate of Northern California that attributes to its world-class wine also lends itself to a rich assortment of local products year-round. And these local products are in good hands with some of the top chefs in the country. The same type of person that is attracted to the region’s prestigious vineyards also usually seeks out a top-notch dining experience, so restaurants of all budgets push the envelope for quality.
Here is a list of some of the best restaurants in Napa Valley. Since meals range from $10-1000, I arranged it by budget.
- Pro tip: Many people forget to arrange a ride home after their meal and can end up waiting up to 45 minutes for a cab. If you’re planning a night at a destination restaurant, ask your restaurant how long the meal usually takes and schedule an Uber or cab. The nicer restaurants will often offer this for you if you ask at the start of the meal.
- The Pickled Pig in Calistoga has low-key farm to table bites, and specializes in, you guessed it, pork! Check out their award-winning smoked wings or their Piggy Deluxe Burger with black garlic mayo and homemade dill pickle chips.
- The Model Bakery which has a location in Napa, St. Helena, and Yountville is an artisanal bakery which specializes in cookies, muffins, and breads. Try their fan favorite the Morning Glory Muffin with apples, carrots, cinnamon, raisins and coconut or their English Muffins, which were one of Oprah’s “Favorite Things” in 2016!
- The Station, which is located in an old gas station, is a great place to stop for organic coffee with grab-and-go bites. They have really good cappuccinos as well as some solid avocado toast, and a really cute outdoor patio to sit out back to enjoy your coffee and snacks!
- Oxbow Public Market is a 40,000 square foot market that has over 20 local vendors and a riverside deck. Check out El Porteño Empanadas, and try the carne empanada with Grass-fed beef, onions, green olives, raisins, and cage free hard-boiled eggs, or stop by Hog Island Oyster Bar and try some fresh, California-coast local Hog Island Oysters, Manila Clams, and Tomales Bay Mussels!
- Zuzu is a Spanish-inspired restaurant and tapas bar in downtown Napa overlooking the Napa River. Try their Akaushi flat-iron steak with roasted jalapeno chimichurri, or the Tunisian brik pastry stuffed with Dungeness crab, organic egg, and green onions.
- Boon-Fly Cafe is on the southern side of the valley near Carneros. Although the setting has a casual roadhouse feel, the farm-to-table cuisine takes a more polished approach to classic American dishes like burgers, fried chicken, and porkchops. If you make it in for their daily brunch, the donuts are a must.
- Oenotri is a stylish restaurant in the heart of Napa serving southern-Italian cuisine. They build their rustic dishes from locally-sourced food, so this is a place to get a super fresh and delicious meal. Try their Chef’s 6 to share with the table, which includes house-made salumi with marinated olives, spiced nuts, pickled onion, and house-made crackers. If pasta is more your thing, try their gigli with pork ragu, tomato, garlic, onion, and parmigiano-reggiano.
- Press is a swanky, modern steak-house with a world-class Napa Valley Wine list, and the perfect place to have a fancy dinner in St. Helena. Check out their truffle-glazed chicken with smoked bacon, salanova lettuce, sauce vin jaune, or their pan-seared scallops with honey tangerine, heart-grilled fennel, habanada broth. Really you can’t go wrong with anything here, and the knowledgeable staff will help you pair your meal with an excellent glass of wine. Most restaurants in Napa will have a great wine list, but if you’re ready to geek out on back vintages, Press is an essential visit!
Visit a Castle
Some wineries you visit for the wine. Some you visit for the scenery. And some, you visit because they’re so absolutely ridiculous you just have to see it for yourself. Morbid curiosity, perhaps?
Castello Di Amorosa is in that last category. Meant to be an authentic replica of a 13th-century Tuscan castle, the owner (who also owns V.Sattui winery) used more than 1 million antique bricks taken from Hapsburg palaces and imported handcrafted hardware from Italy. The castle is sprawling and no expense has been spared, from the lake to the terraces and courtyards to the armory to the …er, torture chamber.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your personal preferences) it’s not a functioning torture chamber – it’s just for show. And because, according to the owner, real 13th-century Tuscan castles have torture chambers, so in order to achieve true authenticity, Castello Di Amorosa has to have one, too.
Whether you chalk that up to “people with too much money doing ridiculous things” or you have a deep appreciation of medieval replicas, you just have to go see it for yourself. Ah, maybe that’s the true reason behind the torture chamber…
Explore Your Senses
Jean-Charles Boisset is a larger-than-life wine entrepreneur with roots in Burgundy and business in Napa. He loves to push boundaries in everything he does, including his Raymond Cellars winery. Here, you can experience the “sensory wall” where you can feel and smell all the textures and scents that we use to describe wine.
If you get friendly with the tasting room associate, you might even get to peek into their Crystal Cellar, which includes go-go girl mannequins and purple lights. Raymond also offers fun experiences like “Winemaker for a Day” where you can blend your own wines (even artist John Legend made his own blend here). After your tasting, you can visit the property’s house peacock. Yep, there’s a peacock.
Another of his wineries, Buena Vista, hosts a full light & sound show that walks you through the history of winemaking (ok, it’s technically in Sonoma, but only 25 minutes from the town of Napa). Buena Vista was founded in 1857 and is also packed with history. After you immerse yourself in lights, sounds, and Cabernet, visit their winemaking museum with tools used for harvest and vinification that look like ancient torture devices.
Go on an Art Walk
Napa’s Art Walk is a rotating collection of installation sculptures from regional artists scattered throughout Downtown Napa. The city requires large real estate projects to donate 1% towards a public art fund, so the city is bursting with free art installations. I love this option because you can absorb a piece of the rich local culture and explore the town of Napa for free! Free is hard to come by in Napa!
Every two years, the city juries commission 10 sculptures to display around town. The most recent collection features seven artists from Western states with ten sculptures built with kinetic art—art defined by movement or light to create dimensions in the space, or that requires movement for the full effects.
For the complete experience, download the free Otocast app and look up “Napa Artwalk” for a guided audio tour.
Watch live music
Wine has a way of making people dance, and luckily the nightlife in Napa is flooded with live music. The first thing you need to know is that Napa Valley is home to a number of summer music festivals, including Yountville Live in March, BottleRock Napa Valley in May, Napa Valley Jazz Getaway in June, and Robert Mondavi Concert Series and Festival Napa Valley in July.
If you’re visiting outside of festival season, here are some of the best places to catch live music.
- Blue Note Napa is an intimate jazz bar & restaurant on the first floor of the Napa Valley Opera House. Expect dim lights with a Greenwich Village vibe and classic cocktails.
- RH Yountville Wine Vault is a luxe two-story wine bar with cedar walls and plush seating. They sometimes offer live music in their tasteful outdoor dining area that incorporates art, design, and wine. However, the only dancing you can expect here is watching the fire pit glimmer off the chandeliers.
- Downtown Joe’s Napa offers a very no-fuss alternative to the chic setting at RH Yountville. The American restaurant & brewery has river views, plastic chairs, and a judgement-free setting. You could take your mama dancing here.
How to Get to Napa
The easiest way to get to Napa is to fly into either San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento and rent a car. Napa Valley is about an hour north of San Francisco and Oakland, and an hour west of Sacramento.
You can rent a vehicle from the airport you fly into, or directly in Napa. Note that California roads are often winding, so if you get car sick, opt for a comfy SUV rather than a sports car!
- From Downtown San Francisco: If you are staying downtown but HAVE to see the Golden Gate Bridge, take Highway 101 on the way North to Napa but I-80 on the way back. This route will save you from the $8.35 southbound Golden Gate bridge toll. Be sure to plan your route from your hotel, as going downtown to the Golden Gate Bridge adds about 30 minutes to your course. If you’re not interested in driving over the Golden Gate bridge, you can take the Bay Bridge from downtown to get to I-80.
- From Oakland: If you plan to go directly to Napa, you can save 20-30 minutes by flying into Oakland and bypassing the jam-packed Bay Bridge and San Francisco traffic.
- From Sacramento: If you fly into Sacramento, your route will likely be I-80 W. The path between Sacramento and Napa is efficient, but you’ll miss the coastal views of the Bay.
Travel Tip: Keep in mind that the Bay Area is rated one of the worst areas for traffic in the country, so give yourself plenty of cushion time, especially during rush hour (7-10 am or 4-7 pm). Be prepared to get stuck behind a tractor or bus without a passing lane, which can significantly pressure test your schedule.
If you want to skip driving, there are options to get from San Francisco to Napa Valley. Extranomical Tours and Gray Line San Francisco both have reputable wine country tours that include San Francisco pickup. Uber and Lyft will also get you there for around $120 one way.
You can also take a bus and train combination through Amtrak to get from San Francisco to Napa Valley in 3-4 hours for around $40 round trip – this is definitely the cheapest option!
How to Get Around Napa
It’s definitely easiest to get around Napa with a car – but if you won’t have one, or you just want to focus on enjoying the wine, you do have a few options.
- Rent a Car: You can rent a vehicle from the airport you fly into, or directly in Napa once you arrive. It’s challenging to get around Napa without a car, so draw straws and pick a Designated Driver (another pro tip: be sure that everyone pitches in to get the DD a nice dinner at the end of the day).
- Ride Sharing Apps: Lyft is available in Napa Valley and start around $15 for a 15-minute drive. Wineries could be 45 minutes away from one another, or just up the street, so I suggest planning ahead. In my experience, it takes around 10 minutes for a Lyft to show up, but expect longer for more remote locations. If you have appointments, plan with extra time, as you may need to wait for your ride to show up in more isolated locations.
- Rent a Limo: If you’re balling out or looking to party, limo or party bus rentals are the best way to get around Napa Valley. Napa Shuttle Limousine provides custom packages depending on your itinerary. Limos start at $99, depending on the company.
- Hire a Driver: Companies such as Designated Drivers Napa Sonoma offer local drivers. Because they drive your car, the cost tends to be lower than private shuttles or tours. Make sure your driver is licensed and insured by referencing the California PUC’s Transportation Carrier Lookup. Their name should be listed there if they are licensed.
Travel Tip: Most of these options require you to pre-plan your itinerary. Many wineries require reservations, and they can fill up quickly during the busy season. In general, I suggest making reservations, as you can plan your route and you won’t waste time getting turned away if the tasting room is full.
But If you’re not particular about where you go and want more guidance from a local (and transportation as well), consider one of Napa’s many wine tours!
Where to Stay in Napa Valley
Napa Valley is actually a region that includes several small towns, all of which typically have a little walkable area and are close to wineries. So before you pick a place to book, think about which part of Napa Valley you want to base yourself in: Napa, Yountville, Calistoga, or St. Helena.
Keep in mind that it takes anywhere from 35-90 minutes from upper Nappa Valley to lower Napa Valley depending on traffic, so it’s helpful to think of which wineries you want to visit before you book your hotel to keep your driving time down!
Napa, the largest city, has fabulous boutique hotels and plenty of restaurants – plus, it’s got a scenic river to go kayaking on. St. Helena and Yountville are charming and walkable towns, with phenomenal world-class restaurants. But you might also consider staying in Calistoga, which has more of a romantic-getaway vibe and a plethora of spas thanks to its natural geothermal hot springs!
Here are my picks for where to stay in Napa:
- The beautiful Archer Hotel in downtown Napa is a great place to base yourself for a romantic weekend getaway, right downtown and within walking distance to wineries and shops. The rooms are luxurious (look at that tub!) and the hotel features a swanky rooftop bar that is frequented by locals!
- La Casita is a charming little Spanish style bungalow located in Napa’s Old Town, walking distance from all of downtown Napa, with a hot tub and a cute backyard patio.
- If you plan on visiting wine country with a group (hello, bachelorette party?) this stunning hill-side retreat with breathtaking 360’ views of Napa Valley in Calistoga is what Napa dreams are made from. Wake up to mountain views, hang out on the sprawling decks with views of the rolling hills and vineyards, and sip wine by the gorgeous fire pit!
About Our Guest Poster: Aubrey Terrazas is a wine writer and Master Sommelier Candidate who has lived in San Francisco, Chicago, and Lyon, France. She is a Co-founder and wine buyer at Palate Club. Aubrey also runs Terra Vine, a wine marketing agency between the USA and Europe.
Which of these amazing things to do in Napa are you most excited about? Tell us in the comments below
Psst: Planning more boozy travel? We have done lots of research in this area, you’re welcome.
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