Last week David and I traveled to Napa Valley to celebrate our three year anniversary. It wasn’t our first time to wine country. We’ve made as many as six trips there in our nine years together. Each time we go, we experience a different part of the region in a different way. After a half-dozen visits, we’ve just about learned what to do, where to stay and more so I’m attempting to compile some of it in this Napa Valley Travel Guide.
About an hour and a half North of San Francisco, the Napa Valley wine region is divided into 16 sub-regions spanning 35 miles wide and 5 miles long so it’s impossible to see everything in one visit. Each time we’ve gone, we’ve focused on one or two regions which, over time, has allowed us to become more familiar with the region and hone in on what we like best.
Where to Stay
Whether you’re looking for a hotel chain, bed-and-breakfast, private cottage or family-owned inn, you’ll find it in Napa Valley. We’ve stayed everywhere from the Westin in downtown Napa to more boutique accommodations. On our most recent trip, we stayed at Calistoga Ranch, which is nestled in the woods. Each guest has their own private lodge with an outdoor shower. It’s rustic and remote – the perfect place to get away from everything and unwind.
My favorite place that we’ve stayed is Bardessono, a luxury boutique hotel in the Yountville sub-region, where we celebrated our one year anniversary. This hotel is right in downtown Yountville making it easy to stroll to nearby restaurants and other local shops.
Where to Eat
With all the wine in Napa Valley, it would be remiss if the food wasn’t good. To that end, there are a plethora of award-winning restaurants to choose from. On our most recent trip, we were more enthusiastic about breakfast and lunch than we were dinner. After a day of wine tasting, we often opted out of a fancy dinner in favor of something light from the room service menu. Luckily, most of these restaurants serve breakfast, lunch and dinner so you can choose for which meal you’d like to visit. Make a reservation during busy seasons.
Gott’s Roadside (St. Helena): As the name suggests, this is a roadside food stand that you’ll see throughout California. It serves the standard fare of burgers, fries, milkshakes and has some of the best fish tacos I’ve ever tasted. Hit this place up on a sunny day and nosh on comfort food at picnic tables under a vast expanse of umbrellas. Love this place!
Sam’s Social Club (Calistoga): Part of the Indian Spring’s Resort, Sam’s serves tasty New American fare in an ambient and cozy space. The patio is lined with twinkle lights and the outdoor fire pit is the ideal place to sip a pre or post-dinner drink.
Farmstead (St. Helena): Part of the Long Meadow Ranch winery and cattle ranch, Farmstead is the place to visit for local, farm-to-table food. The restaurant itself is a renovated barn. Spend some time roaming around the grounds. The on-site garden grows the kale, chard and other vegetables you’ll no doubt find on your plate and the gift shop sells the olive oil made there as well as other unique gifts and food items. Make a reservation or else plan to wait for a table.
Lucy Restaurant and Bar (Yountville): Bardessono’s on-site restaurant is the place for fresh, inventive, seasonal food straight from the hotel’s garden.
R&D Kitchen (Yountville): This chain is part of the Hillstone Restaurant Group. We love it for the hearty salads and the sunny outdoor patio.
Brix (St. Helena): A solid option for California-inspired, farm-to-table fare if you’re staying near Yountville or St. Helena. Ask to sit outside for the great views.
Catelli’s (Sonoma): A local favorite serving fresh family-style Italian food in a vibrant setting. There are several gluten0free options.
Bouchon Bakery (Yountville): A buzzy bakery where you can grab a quick French-style pastry and coffee or a sandwich. The sun-drenched outdoor seating is hard to come by at busy times, but it’s worth snagging an empty seat – or two – wherever you can.
Boonfly Cafe (Sonoma): Part of the Carneros Inn, this casual roadside restaurant is the perfect spot for a quick lunch between wineries. You’ll find a variety of comfort items with a California-twist on the menu. David and I stumbled on this place on one of our trips – just as we were getting hangry – and were glad we did!
Oxbow Public Market (Napa): If you’re a foodie, plan to stop here. You’ll have your choice of local cuisine from oysters to authentic Mexican food at the variety of food stalls within the market. On a nice day, enjoy your food on the outdoor deck.
Archetype (St. Helena): Small and unassuming from the outside, inside, you’ll find a charming, bright and open space with some of the friendliest service I’ve experienced in Napa. There’s something on the menu for everyone, including lots of fresh and healthy options – vegan and gluten-free items included! We had breakfast here and would have loved to go back for dinner.
Sol Bar (Calistoga): Whether you choose to sit in the inviting restaurant, at the stylish bar or on the cozy patio, you’ll leave feeling satisfied. Our late lunch hit the spot after a day of wine tasting so much so that we went back for breakfast on our last day.
The Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil (Rutherford): There’s little more to say about our culinary experience at this multiple Michelin-star restaurant except that it was outstanding. The food is decadent and the service was impeccable. We celebrated our one year anniversary here. Save this one for a special occasion!
Where to Drink Wine
The answer to this one is pretty much anywhere! Seriously, there are approximately 400 wineries in Napa – 600 if you include it’s neighboring wine region, Sonoma, and you really can’t go wrong. There’s truly something for everyone. Pro tip: Do your research. Make reservations at the wineries you most want to visit but leave some flexibility to stop at others on a whim. Not all wineries require reservations but during peak times, it’s best if you have one. Ditto if you want a special tour, but that goes without saying.
In our earlier years visiting Napa, we didn’t take copious notes so I’m missing a lot from this list, but some of the most memorable wineries we’ve visited include (* indicates a favorite):
What to Do
Aside from wine tasting, there’s a lot more to do in the Napa Valley although, unsurprisingly, some of it still involves wine!
Take a Bike Tour: The first time David and I visited Napa Valley together, we wine tasted via bike tour with Napa Valley Bike Tours. As a first-timer, it was a fun way to see the area, get great exercise and an ideal way to visit good wineries without having much knowledge about where to go. If you prefer to taste your wine on foot, you can still tour the region with a leisurely bike ride. Many hotels have bikes you can use to ride around and will often provide maps with suggested routes. We were able to squeeze in a 13-mile bike ride before a day of wine tasting this way.
Unwind at a Spa: Napa is home to spas galore. In fact, there are way too many to list. Just know that you can’t go wrong with the spas at any of the hotels listed here.
Run a Half Marathon: Another one of our visits to wine country involved the Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon. One of the most beautiful courses, but also one of the hardest half marathons I’ve ever run. The finisher’s medal and the glass of wine at the end are huge – making it well worth the 13.1 miles. The race culminates in a big wine and beer tasting festival which is as much fun as the race itself.
Hike: One thing I love most about visiting California is the opportunity to hike. There are plenty of hiking trails around Napa Valley. On our recent trip, we had a choice of three trails where we stayed at Calistoga Ranch.
How to Get Around
Having been to Napa several times, a car is a must for getting around, especially if you’re driving in from the city. Once there, if the bike tour isn’t your thing, you have a few choices. You can drive your own car (make sure you have a designated driver) as there is ample parking at most wineries. If you have a larger group, a private tour in a town car, limo or bus is a good idea. There are also walking tours to check out, but you’ll be limited in how far you can go. You can also experience Napa via the Wine Train .
How to Get the Wine Home
If you drive to Napa and live locally, you can skip this section, but for those of us boarding a plane, how to get all the wine we purchased back home isn’t as easy. The first time we went to Napa, we limited ourselves to buying one bottle at each winery. We boxed it up with the help of our bike tour guide and checked it in as luggage at the airport. It arrived safe and sound on the other side. Now, we often buy wine by the case when we go so we typically have the winery ship it back to us which is the easiest option. But, if you don’t want to spring for shipping or you live in a state that won’t allow it, a wine suitcase is a good idea. Though you’ll still be limited to how much you can pack – most hold about 12 bottles.
Ultimately, how you choose to spend your time in Napa Valley will be unique to you, but I hope this Napa Valley Travel Guide will be helpful for planning your stay. No trip to Napa for us has ever been the same and that’s one of the many reasons we keep going back. There’s so much to see and do, that each time we can chip away at our wish list, find new favorites and make new memories. By now, though it’s starting to feel familiar, each trip is always different and special.