There’s no place quite in the world like the Napa Valley. Superbly crafted wines, fantastic scenery and luxurious lodgings, spas and restaurants can, of course, be found elsewhere. But no other grape-growing region assembles the package with the same flair—dare we say savoir faire?—as the valley. Visitors find the lifestyle here so appealing that 92% declare themselves likely or very likely to return.
Cabernet is king in the Napa Valley. Be sure to check out at least a few of the wineries on Bindu’s Napa Valley Foolproof Cabernet Wine Tasting itinerary. These prestigious producers and their peers present their world-class vintages in six main towns, from Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north:
Napa is the name of a county, the famous valley (which makes up much of the county) and, the county’s largest city. Population about 80,000, Napa is the valley’s most visited town, though this is a relatively recent development. Downtown Napa’s renaissance, jump-started by the 2001 opening of the Copia food, wine, and cultural center, continued unabated even after the center’s demise in 2008. And now things are coming full circle. In late 2016 the Culinary Institute of America reopened Copia, offering daily cooking classes and demonstrations. There’s also a open-kitchen restaurant with an outdoor patio amid a small olive grove.
Near Copia is the Oxbow Public Market, a foodies’ mecca for its artisanal foods, wines and spirits that derives its name from the shape of the nearby bend in the Napa River. The town, which sprawls in all directions from downtown, includes urban- and rustic-chic lodgings, from owner-run inns to full-scale resorts. The downtown dining scene has evolved into one of the county’s finest. West and southwest of downtown Napa lies the Napa County portion of the Carneros subappellation (the other half is in Sonoma County). You’ll find the most Pinot Noir in the valley at Carneros District wineries. Get to know Napa on the Downtown Napa in a Day tour.
For a town of about 3,000 people, a third of whom live in one of the country’s most favorably situated veterans homes, Yountville has an outsize reputation for culinary excellence. Three restaurants, a bakery, and a fancy culinary shop owned by star chef Thomas Keller do business downtown, and there’s a Keller ice cream store in the works. Michael Chiarello, Richard Reddington, and other notable chefs have also established themselves here. Though it technically is located in Napa, Cindy Pawlcyn’s landmark Mustards Grill, a stop on the Best of Napa and Yountville day trip, falls within Yountville’s orbit, too. Lodgings range from fancy small inns to swank contemporary hotels and resorts, all priced accordingly. If you’re into fine dining, this is a good place to stay. You can walk from many hotels to downtown restaurants, or get a lift from the free Yountville Trolley.
With a population of a mere few hundred between them, Oakville and Rutherford are all about farming, specifically Cabernet Sauvignon that goes into the wines of Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Inglenook, Caymus, Far Niente, and other storied brands. Many local winemakers turn up at the Rutherford Grill, one of a handful of restaurants in its namesake town. The Oakville Grocery, established in 1881 and these days a purveyor of upscale ingredients and prepared food, feeds the most people, albeit largely tourists, in its town.
St. Helena, population just under 6,000, is the valley’s genteel darling. Like the city of Napa, St. Helena sprawls for miles and contains more than 100 wineries and many noteworthy restaurants. Its Main Street downtown evokes the late 19th century, when Charles Krug, which bills itself as the valley’s oldest operating winery, was in its first heyday. Run these days by the family of the late Peter Mondavi, Krug vaulted itself into the 21st century with a dazzling renovation. The firm of Howard Backen, one of the Northern California wine country’s most celebrated architects, masterminded the Krug transformation.
Beringer, HALL St. Helena and Joseph Phelps join Krug among the many high-profile wineries in St. Helena. These wineries are easily accessed from lodgings that include the roadside El Bonita Motel and the deluxe Meadowood Napa Valley Resort. The 2017 debut of Las Alcobas, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Napa Valley, a mouthful of a name for a 68-room resort, supplied the town with even more lavish comfort. Numerous small to midsize inns—Harvest Inn by Charlie Palmer among them—are also in the mix. The St. Helena Lodgings Cheat Sheet briefly describes the best options.
The Restaurant at Meadowood is the town’s marquee dining spot, but St. Helena does down-home and downscale very well, too. Try the Clif Family Bruschetteria Food Truck or the Napa Valley Oil Manufacturing Company, an old-school cheese and salumi shop. And there’s the perennially popular Gott’s Roadside for plush burgers and 21st-century comfort food. Check out the full-day St. Helena Wine Tasting itinerary for a surefire good time.
Sam Brannan, who made a fortune selling shovels and other equipment to miners during California’s gold rush, established Calistoga, population 5,500, as a spa town in the 19th century. He lost his fortune in the process, but were he to rematerialize today he’d feel right at home: the formerly sleepy town he founded has become a haven of spas and luxury resorts. Newer places like Solage and Calistoga Ranch have transformed the age-old ritual of mud bath, steam, mineral bath and massage with new and less gloopy regimens. To be sure, though, the heritage treatments still have their adherents.
There are fewer destination restaurants in Calistoga than in St. Helena, Yountville, or Napa, but Solbar, Evangeline and a few others have attracted notice. The Calistoga Restaurants Cheat Sheet describes the best options in a nutshell. Calistoga rivals Napa for budget accommodations, and there are numerous owner-run inns. The Calistoga Lodgings Cheat Sheet will help you narrow your search.
Summer days are hotter in Calistoga than almost everywhere else in the valley. The temperature is perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon, which dominates production here, along with Petite Sirah and other heat-seeking varietals. The Calistoga 48 Perfect Hours Wine Tasting itinerary provides a good overview of this appellation.
Update: Wildfires that began on October 8th caused loss of life and major damage to Napa County businesses and residences. Although the recovery process will in some cases take years, much of the county was unaffected. Tourism officials encourage those wishing to help the county recover to come visit and support its wineries and other businesses. Some wineries are donating a portion of the proceeds from tasting room sales to various relief funds.
The Napa Valley is a year-round destination. Northern California residents and people visiting the San Francisco Bay Area frequently make day trips and weekend excursions for wine-tasting and other activities, but to really get to know the valley, plan on spending at least three or four days. In that space of time you can check out some wineries, get pampered at a spa, visit a few top restaurants, and perhaps take a balloon ride above the vineyards or a bicycle ride past them.
The Napa Valley is at its busiest between May and late October, with flurries of activity at other times during Christmas holidays and the many festivals that take place. Even during high season, though, all but the most popular places are uncrowded during the week.
The Napa Valley has a generally mild climate, though the weather varies from place to place. It’s generally warmer in the northern part of the valley and on the valley floor, and cooler in southern section and on the hillsides. During the day, temperatures are usually between 60°F and 70°F in spring and late fall and 80°F and 90°F during the summer and early fall, with some days as high as 100°F or more. During the day in winter temperatures are usually between 58°F and 65°F. In summer, some parts of the valley can be foggy as the day begins, but the fog generally burns off well before noon.
In nondrought years, the rainy season starts in November, with the heaviest precipitation often from December through February. From May to October it rains infrequently if at all.
Flavor! Napa Valley
The valley’s marquee chefs and winemakers participate in this five-day extravaganza of dinners, cooking demos, and winemaker workshops, all to benefit the Culinary Institute of America’s educational programs. Mid-March.
The valley’s hippest and hottest music event—billed as three days of music, wine, food, and beer—always sells out well in advance. The headliners among a lineup of 85 bands in 2017 included Maroon 5, the Foo Fighters, and Tom Petty. Last weekend of May.
The premier event on the valley’s social calendar includes vintner-hosted dinner parties, a well-attended brunch, and auctions of current and library wines and other one-of-a-kind items. The proceeds benefit local charities focused on community health and children’s education. First full weekend in June.
Festival Napa Valley
Formerly known as Festival del Sole, this valley-wide cultural celebration focuses on classical and jazz music, opera, theater, and dance, and includes culinary, wine, and fitness-related activities. Top wineries, restaurants, and other venues host the events. Mid-July.
Napa Valley Film Festival
Four towns—Napa, St. Helena, Yountville, and Calistoga—host this five-day event that gets bigger and more star-studded every year. The emphasis is on independent films. Major wineries and chefs add the right touch of Napa glamour and panache. Early November.
January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Day
February (third Monday): Presidents’ Day
March (31st): Cesar Chavez Day
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July (4th): Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day (aka Native American Day)
November (11th): Veteran’s Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December (25th): Christmas
Napa County is located in the Pacific time zone.
To check the local time in Napa County click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (in early March, on a Sunday morning at 2 am). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (in early November on a Sunday morning at 2 am), clocks shift back one hour to standard time.
The Napa Valley is generally casual, though you won’t feel out of place anywhere if you dress up a little, and at fancier wineries, restaurants, and lodgings you’ll fit in better. Even in the summer it’s wise to pack a sweater or light jacket, which can come in handy when the evening marine breezes, so good for the grapes, often cool the valley considerably. Women may find themselves more comfortable in flats or low heels, especially when going on winery or vineyard tours or standing at tasting bars.
From spring through harvest can be very sunny: pack a sunhat or visor, sunglasses, and sunblock. From November through April you may need an umbrella.
Prices for sights and activities, restaurants, and especially lodgings can fluctuate depending on capacity, seasonality, and deals. Rather than list exact costs that might date, below we have provided some general ranges (quoted in $US), followed by tipping advice.
See & Do, Tours
N/A => Not applicable
$ => $10 or less
$$ => $11–$25
$$$ => $26
For average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served):
$ => Up to $15
$$ => $16–$22
$$$ => $23
For a double room:
$ => Less than $150
$$ => $151–$299
$$$ => $300
$1–$2 per drink
$1 per bag, $2 in fancier places
$5–$10 for brief advice or service; $10–$20 per person, per day, for help with planning activities, making
reservations or acquiring tickets, or transportation.
$3–$4 at most lodgings, $5 per day at higher-end properties
Hotel Room-Service Waiter
$3–$5 in addition to service charge
$3–$5 when picking up car
Porter (Train Station)
$1–$2 per bag
$2–$3 per bag
18%–20% (if bill includes service charge, nothing extra required)
With few wineries charging less than $20 to sample wines and some charging well more for tastings, tours, and other experiences, fees in the Napa Valley can add up quickly. At most wineries you can share a tasting with a friend, and you can often pick up coupons (usually allowing two guests to taste for the price of one) at visitor centers and many lodgings. Check the websites of the wineries you plan to visit; some offer coupons you can print out or download to your smartphone or tablet. Some wineries offer discounts if you check in on Yelp or other social media.
The Deals for Napa Valley page of the NapaValley.com website has winery, restaurant, lodging, and activities promotions and discounts, especially during the off-season.
The San Francisco and Oakland airports are the main gateways to Napa County, but depending where you’re coming from, which airlines you prefer flying, and where you’re staying, the airports in Sacramento and Santa Rosa can be convenient options, too.
For many visitors, a trip to the Napa Valley is part of longer stay in San Francisco or elsewhere in the Bay Area—the part for which they rent a car—and of course it’s a favorite day trip by car for many locals. You can also get to Napa County from San Francisco and the East Bay (Oakland, Berkeley, and other towns across the San Francisco Bay from San Francisco) by a combination of a ferry or commuter train and a bus.
San Francisco International Airport (SFO), served by many major airlines, is between 61 and 66 miles south of the city of Napa depending on the route you take, and about 88 miles south of Calistoga. To get to either town from SFO, take U.S. 101 north into San Francisco and follow the directions in By Car, below, for getting to the Napa Valley. In normal traffic it takes about 90 minutes to drive from the airport to Napa and about two hours to get to Calistoga.
Oakland InternationalAirport (OAK), also served by many major airlines, is about 54 miles southeast of Napa, and about 80 miles south of Calistoga (see By Car, below, for directions). You can usually get to Napa in less than 90 minutes, and Calistoga in a little less than two hours.
Sacramento International Airport (SMF), served by several major airlines, is about 90 miles east of Calistoga. It’s arguably as convenient as SFO or OAK for visitors staying in St. Helena or Calistoga, and not bad for those staying in the southern Napa Valley, too.
Charles M. Schulz – Sonoma County Airport (STS), in the city of Santa Rosa and served by Alaska, American, Sun Country and United airlines, lies 19 miles west of Calistoga. (The route winds quite a bit, so it takes about half an hour to drive it.) Among the reasons to consider flying to this smaller facility: arrivals and car rentals are a breeze, as is going through security on the way home. And on Alaska you can check up to one case of wine for free when departing from STS. Except for a few western U.S. cities, ticket prices tend to be higher here than to SFO or OAK, though.
Shuttle: Evans Airport Service runs shuttles from SFO and OAK to inns and hotels in the cities of Napa and Yountville. The cost for one person is considerably less than what you’d pay for car and ride sharing or a private limo.
Public transit: Though few travelers take this option, and it’s really only feasible if you’re traveling light, it is possible to get from SFO or OAK to the Napa Valley on public transit, and you could save the cost of a high-quality bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (each way) compared to some of the other options. If you make all the connections without a hitch, it will take from 2.5 to 3 hours, but consider 2.5 hours the best-case scenario.
Directions: From SFO or OAK, take a BART commuter train to El Cerrito Del Norte station in the East Bay. From there you can board (on weekdays only) a VINE Express Bus 29 that makes stops between Napa and Calistoga or (daily) a VINE Bus 11 to the Soscol Gateway Transit Center in downtown Napa. At the transit center you can switch to a VINE local bus or call a cab or a ride sharing service.
Tip: the trip-planning app at 511 SF Bay plots this route more sensibly than Google Maps.
Napa County can be reached by car via several routes.
From San Francisco or Oakland: Travel east on Interstate 80 over the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, continuing north on the interstate to Highway 37, on which you’ll head west to Highway 29 north to the city of Napa.
From San Francisco: Alternatively, you can head north from San Francisco on U.S. 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge, heading east on Highway 37 and Highway 121 to Highway 29 north.
From Santa Rosa: Exit U.S. 101 at Mark Springs West Road and head east, continuing east when the road’s name changes to Porter Creek Road and turning east (left) onto Petrified Forest Road. The road dead-ends at Foothill Rd.; head south from here to Highway 29, heading east to get to Calistoga’s main drag (Lincoln Avenue) and south to get to St. Helena and other Napa Valley towns.
From Sonoma (city): Head south on Highway 12 and west on Highway 121 to Highway 29 north to the city of Napa.
From Sacramento: From the airport, take Interstate 5 north to Interstate 505 south to Highway 128 west. At the Silverado Trail, head north for St. Helena and Calistoga, and south for Yountville and Napa.
From San Francisco or Oakland: Take a BART train to El Cerrito Del Norte station. Transfer to VINE Express Bus 29 to the Soscol Gateway Transit Center in downtown Napa, where connections can be made with local VINE buses that serve it and other Napa Valley towns. You can get to Napa from the town of Sonoma via VINE Bus 25.
Taking the San Francisco Bay Ferry from San Francisco to the town of Vallejo and then picking up VINE Bus 11 to Napa is a pleasant option. The ferry departs from the Ferry Building and Pier 41 in San Francisco. In Vallejo, take VINE Bus 11 from the dock to the Soscol Gateway Transit Center in Napa. The number of ferry departures varies depending on the time of year (there are more ferries from late spring to early fall), and buses occasionally substitute for ferries.
511 SF Bay provides comprehensive information about traffic and public transit throughout the Bay Area. On the organization’s website you can get real-time traffic reports and plan trips on public transit.
What’s Where: The Napa Valley angles northwest from Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north. To keep your bearings straight, it’s good to memorize names and locations the six major towns. In order from south to north they are: Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga. All but Napa are subappellations of the Napa Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), so in addition to highway signs, you’ll also see signs indicating this.
Driving a car is by far the most efficient way to explore the Napa Valley—according to a recent study, 94% of all visitors experience the valley this way. No more than 5 miles wide at any point, the valley, about 35 miles long, is served by two main north–south roads, Highway 29 and, to the east, the Silverado Trail. Several east–west roads, including Oak Knoll Avenue, the Oakville Cross Road, and Deer Park Road, connect Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail.
Tips: The Silverado Trail is generally quicker than Highway 29 when you’re traveling the length of the valley (i.e., between Napa and St. Helena or Calistoga). Even in the Wine Country there are traffic jams, as workers head home from the wineries and visitors head back to San Francisco. If you’ve not left the valley by 3 pm, expect to sit in traffic on Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail (though longer on 29), and on Highway 121 heading west toward Sonoma on the way to San Francisco.
Though it’s not always practical time wise and isn’t convenient for visiting wineries along the Silverado Trail, you can get around the Napa Valley on VINE Bus 10, which travels from downtown Napa up Highway 29 to downtown Calistoga. Bus 10 and other VINE buses serve the city of Napa; the Yountville Trolley (707-944-1234; after 7 pm 707-312-1509) provides door-to-door service within Yountville; and the St. Helena (707-963-3007) and Calistoga (707-963-4229) shuttles (weekdays only) provide on-demand transit service, generally within 15 to 30 minutes of patrons’ calls.
The main transportation hub in the Napa Valley is the Soscol Gateway Transit Center (625 Burnell St., at 4th St.), in downtown Napa. Many VINE bus routes depart from here, including Bus 10, which serves Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga.