On a recent trip to Napa Valley, I felt like I was in a scene from Cinderella: The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, wildflowers were blooming. There is an energy to the region that feels fresh and invigorating—heartening to see, given the toll years of wildfires and the pandemic have taken. Amid rebuilding, Napa moved to California’s red zone in March 2021—which means indoor activities, including dining, are slowly returning—and the valley feels fully alive. There are more and more people traveling Highway 29, the main road that leads from Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north, with towns such as Yountville, Oakville, and St. Helena sprinkled in between. Here’s how to make the most of a weekend in Napa Valley, from downtown Napa to Calistoga.
Where to stay in Napa
There’s been a spate of new hotels and renovations throughout the valley, with a Four Seasons due in Calistoga later in 2021. Here are a few of our favorites.
Bann at Oak Knoll, Napa
Book now: from $575/night, booking.com
A night at Bann at Oak Knoll is like the world’s shortest trip to Thailand. Conceived and run by Lalita Souksamlane, a celebrated chef with five Thai restaurants in San Francisco, the five-room inn sits on the edge of a vineyard. Most of the Thai art on-site, including a wooden elephant carving and intricately painted vases, comes from Soksamlane’s extensive collection. Each room is decorated like one of three regions of Thailand—the Wiang Ping room, for example, reflects northern Thailand, with a pink wallpaper based on the fabrics of the region—and every morning, travelers can savor a three-course breakfast while looking out over the saltwater pool and vineyard. (Don’t miss the congee, a rice-based breakfast porridge topped with shrimp.)
North Block Hotel, Yountville
Book now: from $550/night, expedia.com
If you want to be in the heart of the action, book a few nights at the North Block hotel, a 20-room lodging on Yountville’s main street. The rooms are all grouped around a stone courtyard with a European feel; many have balconies that overlook the space. Complimentary bikes are available for exploring, the spa (when open) offers treatments involving grape seeds and even wine corks, and the new on-site restaurant from Momofuku alum Nick Tamburo is reason enough to book a night.
The George, Napa
Book now: from $250/night, thegeorgenapa.com
History buffs, take note: The George, a new nine-room inn, occupies a 19th-century home located on the National Register of Historic Places. Commissioned in 1891, the home is packed with historical details, such as original crown molding and antique furniture. But the renovation and restoration, which took four years and wrapped in early 2021, has added a layer of modernity and comfort. Each room is unique—the top-floor suite, for example, has skylights and exposed rafters, but all rooms have heated bathroom floors and plush towels from Massachusetts-based Matouk. Best yet: You’re just blocks from First Street, Napa’s main drag, but hidden away in a quiet residential neighborhood. In the morning, travelers wake to fresh English muffins (the ones Oprah proclaimed her favorite) from Napa’s Model Bakery.
Things to do in Napa
There is, naturally, plenty of wine to taste in this 30-mile valley. If you want a taste of some of AFAR’s favorite wineries, you’ll find them at the end of this section. But we’ll start with a few alternative takes on the tasting experience.
Climb a hill: If you’re an outdoorsy type—or even if you’re not—a fine way to prep your body for tasting wine is via a hike tailored to your level. On a half-day tour with the new Active Wine Adventures, led by owner Sorel Klein, you’ll trek through parks and up mountains you’d likely never stumble upon as a visitor. Post-hike, you’ll head to a carefully selected, small production winery such as Maxville (Klein places great emphasis on both the wine and the outdoor experience) for a picnic lunch and a guided, personalized winetasting. Klein also organizes art, beer, or history-focused wine tours for folks who aren’t interested in a trek (or visit during the rainy season). Hiking tours from $149, transportation included, picnic and tasting fee excluded.
Ride a hill: Some of my favorite bike rides have taken place in the rolling hills of Napa. If you’re new to the region, however, it helps to have a guide. Enter Napa Valley Bike Tours. The Napa-based company offers small private tours, including the four-hour tasting tour, which covers about 14 miles and two different wineries. Its newest tour? An electric bike tasting tour with a picnic lunch from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery. The company also offers self-guided bike tours and bike rentals, for those who prefer to explore solo. Guided tours from $124, tasting fees not included.
Play with farm animals: Lounge outside with a cheese plate—vegan cheeses are an option!—and a variety of rescue animals. At Oasis by Hoopes, a new tasting experience just south of Yountville, the focus is on the outdoors. There’s a silver Airstream, myriad umbrella-shaded seating options, a substantial garden, and a long pen filled with pygmy goats and pigs, chickens and turkeys. Run by Lindsay Hoopes, whose father was an early Napa pioneer, Hoopes is known for its estate-grown cabernets and emphasis on sustainable agriculture.
Taste things other than wine
Taste brandy: Try the grape’s more spirited cousin at the California Brandy House. At the elegant tasting room on First Street in downtown Napa, you’ll learn the history of California-made brandy, the distillation process, and taste your way through a flight from Argonaut and Germain-Robin. Even better: Pick your favorite bottle (we’re fans of Argonaut’s spicy Saloon Strength brandy) and the team will engrave it with the message of your choice on site.
Taste olive oil: In addition to its wine tastings and many food experiences (including a sitdown restaurant), Long Meadow Ranch offers olive oil tastings at its Farmstead in St. Helena, as well as guided tours of its winery in the mountains above Napa.
Taste beer: Visit St. Clair Brown for, yes, wine but also the microbrewery on site. Winemaker and brewer Elaine St. Clair crafts some of the best beer in the valley. At the brewery, visitors will find 3 of her series of 15 unfiltered beers on tap at any one time, which may include a farmhouse saison and an oatmeal stout. For the truly devoted, St. Clair also offers a biannual day-long beer boot camp.
Shop (for things other than wine)
First Street in downtown Napa offers a bounty for shoppers, including Copperfield’s Books, which has healthy cooking and travel sections; the clothing store Tay & Grace, and Anette’s Chocolates, a valley mainstay. Also in downtown Napa is the expanding Rail Arts District (RAD), which launched in 2016 with a series of outdoor murals with a goal to ultimately cover a two-mile stretch of downtown along the Napa Valley Wine Trail. Artist Trevor Linder’s hummingbird-filled mural is among the most recent.
In Yountville, the new, 900-square-foot Conservatory—an outpost of the one in New York City’s Hudson Yards—is a gallery-like space with clothing, jewelry, and homewares from more than 175 designers and brands, including skincare products from Sweden’s LA Bruket and jewelry from L.A.-based Lisa Eisner.
And yes, taste wine
There are more than 375 wineries in Napa, each with its own distinct flavor and wines. For oenophiles, in our guide to Napa Valley, AFAR recommends Caymus Vineyards and Silver Oak; those in search of excellent food pairings can book a tasting at Piazza Del Dotto Winery & Caves and B Cellars, among others.
For an organized tour, try the new Women in Wine Country tasting. From the comfort of a restored VW bus, travelers will visit three wineries headed up by powerhouse women winemakers: Fantesca Estate & Winery, run by Heidi Barrett, the “first lady of wine”; St. Clair Brown Winery & Brewery, helmed by Elaine St. Clair, the only woman in the country to hold the title of both winemaker and brewer; and Crocker & Starr, where winemaker Pam Starr translates the flavors of St. Helena into complex cabernets.
Where to eat and drink in Napa
You’ll find no end of tasty things to eat in Napa Valley, from classic Yountville haunts like Thomas Keller’s trifecta of Ad Hoc, Bouchon, and the French Laundry to the Oxbow Public Market, a lively food hall. Here are a few of the new kids on the block, as well as some tried-and-true favorites.
Carneros Resort & Spa: There are several options for excellent eating in this Napa resort: The seasonal menu at Farm, cocktails and small bites at the Farm pavilion (the pâté de tête is a standout, if you enjoy offal), and not-to-be-missed doughnuts and fried chicken at the Boon Fly Café.
North Block: There’s nary a miss on this excellent menu from Momofuku alum, chef Nick Tamburo. The restaurant, part of the North Block hotel in Yountville, revolves around a wood-fired oven, so anything that comes out of that (including the sourdough pizzas and the housemade loaves served with cultured butter) is kissed with smoky excellence. The fish and seafood dishes, such as the cured trout with almond milk and trout roe, are also exceptional.
Empress M: Opened in December 2020, Empress M is the vision of entrepreneur Margaret Wong, who built the restaurant around the life of empress Wu Zetian, China’s only female monarch. Ponder the empress, who ruled during the Tang dynasty in the 7th century and lives on in the restaurant’s lively mural, as you dine on shrimp dumplings, Sichuan calamari, roast duck, and other gourmet Chinese dishes.
Lucy Restaurant at Bardessono: For a quiet break from winetasting, book lunch or dinner at Lucy, the tranquil restaurant in Napa’s most ecofriendly resort. Chef Jim Leiken channels that sustainable mindset into a fantastic seasonal menu crafted from ingredients sourced locally or grown on-site—in spring, expect asparagus en cocotte and risotto with fava-hazelnut pesto. Bardessono recently unveiled three new villas, should you want to extend your stay.
House of Better: This new restaurant, part of Dr. Wilkinson’s, puts a comfort food spin on healthyish food. The menu, thanks to chef Trevor Logan, has a Southwestern tinge—expect organic enchiladas with blue corn tortillas and green chile stew made with an “immunity” broth. The dessert pies though—such as green chile apple pie with a cheddar crust—are nothing but indulgence.
The Model Bakery: This 90-year-old bakery is not new by any means, but we’d argue that no trip to Napa is complete without some version of its famous English muffins—the breakfast sandwiches are especially tasty. Decadent cinnamon rolls, healthyish muffins, and a rainbow of cookies are available as well.
How do you get to Napa from San Francisco?
By car: It takes from 50 to 80 minutes to drive from San Francisco to Napa. There are two possible routes: You can follow I-80 east over the Bay Bridge, then take exit 33 to follow CA-37 toward Napa (this takes about 50 minutes, without traffic). Or you can follow 101 north out of the city and take exit 460A for CA-37 toward Napa (this takes about an hour, without traffic).
By ferry and train: You can also take the San Francisco Bay Ferry from the Ferry Building to Vallejo (check the ferry’s website for COVID-related schedule changes and precautions). From Vallejo, you can take the Napa Valley Wine Train, which when it reopens in May, will offer lunch and full overnight packages. (San Francisco connection, including ferry ticket and shuttle, costs $90, in addition to train ticket.)
By ferry and bus: You can also take the San Francisco Bay Ferry from the Ferry Building to Vallejo and, from there, take the Route 10 Napa Valley VINE bus to Calistoga.