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After a difficult pandemic year, Northern California’s wine country is welcoming the public back (opens in new tab) to its vineyards, wineries, and tasting rooms—just in time for harvest season August through October. Napa Valley is at the top of many travelers' lists, attracting oenophiles with its more than 375 winery tasting rooms and another 90 urban tasting rooms (off-site locations that aren't on winery grounds). Although the idyllic small towns of Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga that make up Napa Valley are used to accommodating surges of out-of-town guests, it’s more important than ever to secure reservations and confirm activities in advance due to capacity limitations and high demand.
Napa Valley may be known as a wine and culinary mecca, but the activities and sightseeing don’t stop there. Bike tours, river expeditions, spa treatments, and art galleries make for a needed break between winery visits. While private tours and the Napa Valley Wine Train are a solid option for transport, a rental car offers the most flexibility. Some hotels even offer guests complimentary car service and bike rentals. Napa County technically has its own small airport, but the majority of visitors opt for one of the larger nearby hubs: Oakland (63 miles), San Francisco (70 miles), or Sacramento (75 miles).
Some airlines including Alaska and Southwest let travelers bring home a case of wine for free, but otherwise a specialty wine suitcase like VinGardeValise (opens in new tab) (available in five, eight, or 12-bottle models) is highly recommended for no-spillage return flights. This means you can keep the Napa spirit alive immediately after returning home. Plan your next trip with this Instagram travel guide on the best ways to experience Napa Valley, below.
Experience World-Class Wine Tastings
It can be overwhelming when deciding which wineries to visit during your stay in Napa Valley. The good news is that you really can’t make a bad choice. Whether you’re hoping to taste bold red Napa cabernets, spend time in a historic French-style chateau, or keep things more casual and affordable, there’s a winery for that.
- Modeled after Luxembourg Gardens in Paris with a chateau built in 1887, Inglenook (opens in new tab) is one of the area’s oldest wineries and among the first to be certified organic. Owned by Francis Ford Coppola and family, Inglenook offers private tastings beneath the pergolas in its stunning courtyard area overlooking vineyards.
- Ashes & Diamonds (opens in new tab) is a throwback to the 1960s, with impeccably curated mid-century modern architecture and design. Its organic and biodynamic wine list has full-bodied reds, which taste even better when paired with the elevated snacks served here—including a not-to-miss sourdough focaccia.
- Fans of Clif Bar & Company (yes, the energy bars) should look no further than Clif Family Winery (opens in new tab)’s tasting room, where its wine is sold exclusively. An on-site bruschetteria food truck sells fancy toast and salads made with produce from the family’s local organic farm on Howell Mountain.
- Bennett Lane Winery (opens in new tab) prides itself on having the friendliest, most approachable tasting room around, but its scenic views of the Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges are another good reason to visit.
- Art lovers should head to Jessup Cellars (opens in new tab), which has a collection of original paintings and sculptures hanging in its tasting room gallery.
Eat at Michelin-Star Restaurants
Yountville is home to nationally-acclaimed chef Thomas Keller’s prestigious restaurant group, including The French Laundry (a three-star Michelin restaurant) and the original Bouchon Bakery location. It’s no surprise that he and other renowned chefs would gravitate toward a wine region so focused on pleasing palates.
Previously at Momofuku in New York City, Chef Nick Tamburo has taken over the kitchen at new standout restaurant North Block (opens in new tab). In addition to wood-fired sourdough pizzas, look for creative, beautifully-plated dishes here like the dry-aged duck, bigeye tuna crudo, and grilled, stuffed swiss chard. Press Restaurant (opens in new tab) is touted as having the largest collection of Napa Valley wines in the world, and also has some of the best food around. No visit here would be complete without an order of the crisped sweet & sour pig ears, or bacon-griddled cornbread served with flavorful black truffle butter.
Brix Napa Valley (opens in new tab) is a great choice for dining al fresco while watching the sunset overlooking Kelleher Family Vineyard. On the grounds of this farm-to-table eatery, you can take a walk through the herb and vegetable gardens and fruit orchards that supply the kitchen with daily produce. For quick counter service, House of Better (opens in new tab) at Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs offers flavors of the southwest, including New Mexican flat enchiladas and grilled fish tacos—both served on housemade blue corn tortillas. Just don’t skip their famous green chile apple pie with cheddar crust.
Grab gourmet sandwiches on the go from Oakville Grocery (opens in new tab), California’s oldest continually-operating grocery store since 1881. Now popular dishes from many top local restaurants can be recreated at home with The Essential Napa Valley Cookbook (opens in new tab), recently published to provide pandemic relief funds to area restaurant workers. Each of the nearly 40 recipes include suggested wine pairings from a Napa Valley producer.
Stay at Upscale Resorts or Boutique Hotels
Downtown Napa has a handful of chain hotels for the loyalists, but if you’re looking for a more boutique experience, The Francis House (opens in new tab) is a luxury bed and breakfast in Calistoga built in 1886. Fully restored to its original glory by a Bay Area couple who fell in love with the opulent stone building’s French Second Empire architecture, The Francis House has just seven guest rooms, which are each thoughtfully designed and stocked with premium amenities.
Even though its central location is within walking distance to many of the area’s best restaurants, high-end resort Bardessono (opens in new tab) in Yountville is so tranquil you won’t want to venture out for too long. The contemporary, LEED Platinum-certified property has a rooftop pool, fine dining at on-site restaurant Lucy, a rotating art program, bicycles and Lexus vehicles available for guests to loan, and a full-service spa where guests can create their own massage oil blend (in-room services are also available).
Less than one mile away, its sister property Hotel Yountville (opens in new tab) also feels like a great escape with its ultra-private suites containing a four-poster bed, oversized tub, and in-room fireplace. Nature is all around you here, down to the local Napa river rocks used to construct each of the buildings. One of the best breakfast spots in town is available at the hotel’s restaurant Heritage Oak, where you can eat hotcakes while overlooking its sparkling pool.
Bike to Wineries or Head to the Napa River
Get in some cardio during a group or self-guided bicycle tour with Napa Valley Bike Tours (opens in new tab). Guided tours include stops at winery tasting rooms, with an optional picnic lunch. You can choose to go at your own pace with an hourly or daylong bike rental, equipped with a route map in hand. The nearby Yount Mill Road trail is a mostly flat, seven-mile (out and back) route providing scenic views of vineyards—a solid option for beginners or casual riders.
Spanning 50 miles from Mount Saint Helena to San Pablo Bay, Napa River is a go-to destination for kayaking and paddle boarding. Rental companies are scattered along public docks on the riverfront in downtown Napa. The river’s calm water and lack of crowds make this a pleasurable pastime.
Stroll Through Charming Small Towns
Each town located in Napa Valley has its own distinct vibe that’s worth experiencing. Napa has the most urban downtown area, which includes Oxbow Public Market (opens in new tab). Resembling the San Francisco Ferry Building, Oxbow is a 40,000-square-foot market with a mix of 22 food vendors and cafes. Open daily, the market has an outdoor deck overlooking Napa River.
Further north, Yountville is a walkable, upscale resort town that serves as a hub for fine dining. A 20-minute drive from there to St. Helena promises historic buildings, boutiques, and art galleries, plus The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone campus. Meanwhile, Calistoga is known for its geothermal hot springs and has a modern cowboy town feel. With less than 40 miles between them, it’s possible to experience each town in a single day.
If you've fallen in love with Napa, book a trip here (opens in new tab).
Kai Oliver-Kurtin is a San Diego-based freelance writer covering travel, dining and lifestyle. As her Hawaiian name might suggest, she’s most happy while bobbing in the ocean.
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