The Napa Valley may be known first and foremost for its annual contribution to wine, but with its variety of cultural programs, outdoor and historical attractions, and distinguished cuisine, it has plenty to offer that won't fit in a glass. And like a good pairing, wine tasting and other leisure activities—such as vineyard picnics, art appreciation, cycling the valley, and spa treatments—bring out the best of one another. The main towns and cities of the Napa Valley are (from south to north) Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga. The city of Napa is the county seat, and while there are plenty of restaurants and B&Bs, it is in many ways the least charming of the Napa Valley cities. Yountville may be small in size, but with its variety of top restaurants and wide selection of inns and B&Bs, it's got a large presence. St. Helena is a favorite stop for valley visitors in search of boutiques, and Calistoga at the top of the Valley offers many day spas and hot springs. There are also the towns of Oakville and Rutherford, and while small, they are home to a number of wineries. Expect to pay city prices in this country destination. The celebrated wine and food and elegant outdoors come at a price that's reflected in prices for lodging, dining, and winery tastings. Though it's not a cheap destination, there are ways to spend wisely to get maximum value in the valley.
When To Go
Throughout the year, the Napa Valley is one of California's most beautiful destinations. In spring, the hills surrounding the valley are still lush from the winter rains and the mustard flowers are in full bloom; while in summer, the grape vines are green and sprawling. Around harvest-time in the fall, the leaves on the vines offer spectacular shows of color. In winter, the vines are bare, though the green grass returns and the wine tastings continue. Spring, summer, and fall draw crowds, while winter is a quieter visitor season.
high season: April to November
high season: April to November
low season: December to March
Weather InformationThe Napa Valley follows the inland Northern California pattern of dry and hot in the summer and chilly and rainy in the winter. July is the hottest month, with an average high of 83 degrees. December and January are the coolest months, with average highs of 57 degrees, and average lows of 39 degrees. November through March tend to be the rainiest months.
Crowd InformationExpect the biggest crowds from June through the October harvest time, especially on weekends when overnight visitors compete with day trippers from the Bay Area for space at the many restaurants and wineries. Music, wine, and art festivals are common at wineries and also attract visitors, especially in the warmer months.
Closure InformationHotels, shops, and attractions remain open throughout the year.
Other InformationThough the weather may not be as pleasant, there is a benefit to visiting in the winter. During this calmer off-season, crowds aren't three deep in every tasting room in the valley, and you can spend more time talking to the wine experts and less time competing for vineyard views and parking spaces.
When to SaveApril and November are slightly less busy than the summer and fall months they frame, and can be good times to find deals on accommodations. The low winter season can also mean discounted accommodations rates and easier booking. As with most leisure destinations, the easiest way to find the best rates and avoid the crowds at any time of year is to visit mid-week.
When to BookThe Napa Valley is a popular destination, so booking hotels a month or more in advance will yield the most options, especially for weekend and high season visits. Those with flexible travel plans can take advantage of low last-minute airfares. However, those with a set schedule should book flights at least three weeks in advance to find lower prices and ensure availability, especially for travel during the high season.
Information provided by the Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau
Things To Do
Eating, drinking, and tasting are the most popular Napa Valley activities, but there's plenty to do beyond the glass and plate. From the great outdoors to spa treatments, a wide variety of pursuits caters to interests across the spectrum. And though some activities are pricey, there are also just as many affordable ones that embody the spirit of the good life.
WineriesThere are almost 400 wineries in the valley, and many are open to the public. Some wine tastings are free, but more and more wineries are now charging tasting fees (often around $5 or $10 for a set of multiple samples). In addition to tastings, many wineries offer tours, barrel tastings, and other behind-the-scenes peeks into wine making. NapaValley.com's featured winery list is a good place to start researching, and Napa Valley Vintners has a useful list as well. A trip to the bookstore (online or off) should yield a number of Napa Valley guidebooks with more information and advice about individual wineries. With so many wineries, knowing where to start can be overwhelming; however, Copia, a wine, food, and arts center in Napa, offers context for food and wine appreciation, and can be a good place to begin a wine country excursion. In general, there are a number of strategies for choosing wineries: some people choose solely by wine type, while others are drawn to innovative architecture, art collections, picnic areas, or destination restaurants.
EatingNapa is home to a number of nationally acclaimed restaurants and celebrity chefs. Eating, like everything else in the Napa Valley, can get pricey, but reading up on restaurants beforehand can be the key to fine dining within a particular budget. Opentable.com blends Napa and Sonoma restaurants in its Wine Country category, and offers compilations of reviews (to find them, click through on a specific restaurant and look on the left). Zagat also has a California wine country guide that offers ratings, average prices, and selections of diners' comments. In addition to restaurants, the valley is also dotted with specialty groceries and delis that offer gourmet supplies for picnics or impromptu tailgate parties. Oakville Grocery, Dean & DeLuca, Bouchon Bakery, and V. Sattui are a few of the favorite supply stops. Parks such as Bothe-Napa Valley State Park in the valley and Robert Louis Stevenson State Park up the hill from Calistoga host picnickers, as do many of the valley's wineries. To find wineries open for picnicking, look for listings marked with an orange box on NapaValley.com.
Beyond wine and foodEating and drinking aside, there's plenty to do in the Napa Valley. In addition to art galleries in the valley's cities, art enthusiasts will find a unique indoor-outdoor presentation of art at the Di Rosa Preserve, and impressive private collections at wineries such as the Hess Collection and Clos Pegase. Hot air balloon excursions, golf, hiking in the parks, and biking in the valley offer excuses to enjoy the outdoors. During the summer months, venues such as Copia, Robert Mondavi Winery, and Sterling Vineyards host outdoor evening events, and year-round, the Lincoln Theater and Napa Valley Opera House have performances. Visitors who don't want to stray too far from the eating and drinking theme can find cooking and wine tasting classes at venues around the valley. And spa treatments and mud baths are the big draw throughout the valley, but especially in Calistoga. There are plenty of other activities as well, including farm visits and olive oil mill tours. Visit the Napa Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau for more information and Winecountry.com for Napa Valley discounts and specials. And, when in wine country, don't forget about Sonoma, Napa's laid-back neighbor to the west. It's just over the hill from Napa and offers more wineries, historical sites, and perhaps best of all, miles of Pacific coastline.
Visitors to the Napa Valley are spoiled by choices when it comes to nearby airports. San Francisco International, Oakland International, and Sacramento International are all about an hour away. San Jose International is about a one-and-a-half hour drive from Napa. All of these airports are served by both major and low-cost airlines, a winning combination that keeps fares competitive. The Napa Valley is about an hour from San Francisco. Most people drive to Napa from area airports or other nearby destinations. Driving to the region offers visitors more flexibility once they've arrived, but those who prefer to visit without a car can find an airport shuttle or limo service to the region, or can hop on a bus tour from San Francisco. From San Francisco, the most dramatic and beautiful way to get to Napa is to go over the Golden Gate Bridge and up U.S. Highway 101. Though it's less scenic, visitors coming from the East Bay and those in a hurry may want to consider U.S. Highway 80 to Highway 37. For specific directions, use an online service such as Mapquest or Google Maps, or pick up a good old-fashioned map.
Most people drive in the Napa Valley, as there are so many wineries tucked back on otherwise inaccessible roads. Driving poses a problem for wine tasters (although most wineries have spit buckets that allow designated drivers to taste but not drink), but luckily there are many shuttle and private car options. Shuttles and group tours tend to pick up passengers from area hotels and ferry them between predetermined wineries. Depending on the time of day and duration of the excursion, the circuit will often include a lunch stop. Shuttles work best for people who don't want to spend much money and who don't mind not controlling their own itineraries. On the NapaValley.com site, shuttles and group tour companies are mixed in with other tour and sightseeing options. Alternately, try a Web search using the terms "Napa wine shuttle." Private car service is often the best option for people who want to visit specific wineries and who don't mind spending a bit more for the personalized service. And, with a car service, it's the passengers, not the driver, who determine the amount of time spent at each winery. NapaValley.com has private car service listings, and a general Web search using the terms "car service" and "Napa" will yield more options. Groups will find car services most economical, as dividing the price multiple ways will bring down individual costs. Though it's safer and more convenient to hire out driving responsibility for wine-tasting trips, it can still be useful to have a car, especially to get to the region's non-alcoholic attractions. However, keep in mind that since driving is the primary way to navigate the very popular valley, heavy traffic along the main routes and limited parking in the most popular spots are common problems.
Insider adviceThe Silverado Trail on the east side of the Napa Valley parallels the heavily trafficked Highway 29 on the west, and is a less congested way of driving up or down the valley. Several roads cut across the valley, easily connecting the two routes.
Most people staying in Napa are looking for some variation on the romantic, elegant, or unique theme. Accommodations oblige, and those willing to pay will find resorts and hotels that offer beautiful surroundings, exceptional amenities, and superior service. Travelers on a budget aren't out of luck either, as there are a number of motels and chain hotels where the service and the prices are more down-to-earth. Don't expect to find a super-bargain at any level though, as hotels in this patch of upscale countryside charge city rates. Searching for accommodations online is fairly easy: NapaValley.com has lodging options divided by type, and BedandBreakfast.com has a sizable list of B&Bs in the area. Consolidator sites such as Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz, and Travelocity group the cities and towns (and sometimes other parts of wine country) into the "Napa Valley" search term, which makes searching and comparing easier. Independent travelers, groups, and those looking for a local experience may want to consider vacation rentals. Vacation rentals can be booked for weekends as well as longer periods, and can often accommodate more people than the average hotel room. Rental options range from cottages to villas, and are situated in appealing locales such as vineyards, town centers, and hills overlooking the valley. A good place to start a rental search is on the NapaValley.com vacation cottages and guest houses page. Though many people prefer to stay in the Napa Valley, it's worth noting that the drive between San Francisco and Napa is only about an hour (though returning over the Golden Gate Bridge during commute hours will add time to the drive), and a wine country jaunt can be an easy day trip.