As California’s most famous wine-growing region, Napa Valley is heaven for oenophiles. But despite its many tasting rooms, it’s essentially a farming community. The diverse experiences it offers range from the luxurious to the rustic. Travelers can expect a lot more than winetasting—from taking in the sunrise on a hot air balloon to big-ticket entertainers in the Valley’s venues. Or make winetasting the entire point to a trip; no one will judge.
When’s the best time to go to Napa Valley?
There is no bad time to visit Napa Valley. From late winter/early spring, when the vines are pruned and the tidy rows are full of bright-yellow mustard plants, to the harvest in the fall, when wineries crush grapes and the air is filled with the sweet smell of fermentation, its charms evolve throughout the year. The peak tourist season is from August through October.
Many wineries host harvest events, but during these months you will also pay the most for hotel rooms and spend the most time waiting in traffic or in lines in tasting rooms. If you picture yourself frolicking through the sun-drenched vineyard vistas that Napa Valley is famous for, go anytime between May and October, when it rarely rains in this Mediterranean climate. But if you don’t mind a little fog and drizzly mornings, try winter, when wineries throw open their doors, reservations are readily available, and hotels are less expensive. Note that some restaurants might have reduced hours in January and February.
How to get around Napa Valley
Napa Valley is about 1.5 hours north of San Francisco and easy to reach from the San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento airports. If driving from San Francisco, the route over the Golden Gate Bridge, then east through the Carneros Valley is a more scenic drive and a better introduction to wine country than the congested shopping mall corridor of American Canyon (Route 29). Several tour companies offer reasonable rates (starting from $100) on day excursions from San Francisco. Public transportation is limited in the Valley. Napa Valley Transportation Authority’s Vine bus system runs up and down Highway 29 between Calistoga and Napa throughout the day for $1.60 per ride or $6.50 for an all-day pass.
With winetasting a main attraction to the area, local tour companies are popular and can be surprisingly affordable. Many tour drivers have relationships with wineries that are off the beaten path, reservations only, or otherwise little known or exclusive. Be sure to tell your driver in advance what kind of experience you are looking for, and he or she will make recommendations. Take note that the Napa Valley Wine Train is not really intended for transportation: It’s a half-day trip up and down the valley that includes lunch and a winetasting.
Can’t miss things to do in Napa Valley
Floating over the valley in a hot-air balloon as the sun is coming up is a magical experience. It’s a perspective few visitors get to have: The bright colors of fellow ballooners bobbing above the fog and rolling vineyards below make a truly memorable experience. Tour operator Aloft leaves from Yountville in the center of the valley (Pro tip: You can get a similar perspective by hiking to the top of Mount St. Helena.)
While wineries are often the focus of visitors, don’t overlook the area’s markets and general stores for insight into the local cultures. Peruse the storefronts of downtown Napa (and in complexes like First Street Napa) displaying aprons, scarves, cigars, wine books, and canvas bags for sale. Along the Napa River, Oxbow Public Market serves an assortment of ready-to-eat foods and take home goods, a nice way to support the valley economy.
Food and drink to try in Napa Valley
The two primary reasons to visit Napa Valley are food and wine. With hundreds of wineries and world-class restaurants to choose from, you will likely spend much of your visit eating and/or drinking. Dining options range from restaurants specializing in sustainable caviar to roadside digs selling burritos for around $10. And between (or with) every meal there is wine of every kind to be had, from the cultiest cabernet to the easiest-drinking albariño.
Culture in Napa Valley
In a valley that has been dominated by agriculture for the last 100 years, culture thrives, too. In downtown Napa, the JaM Cellars Ballroom sits in the more than 140-year-old Napa Valley Opera House and hosts live music. The Uptown Theater attracts some surprisingly big acts, including best-selling author David Sedaris and singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco. Shows tend to sell out quickly, as it is one of the more happening places for live entertainment north of San Francisco. For more art on your trip, the Rail Arts District in downtown Napa is a two-mile long corridor with more than a dozen colorful murals.
Collective Napa Valley is for wine-loving consumers with money to burn. One of the philanthropy program’s biggest weekends is in June, when its summer “Together Again Weekend’’ event packs in dinners and tastings for members, including an auction that raises millions of dollars for Napa Valley charities. Even those who don’t fork over thousands of dollars can still appreciate the general buzz in the air. Festival Napa Valley celebrates the summer solstice with dance, opera, and, of course, plenty of food and wine. The Napa Valley Film Festival each November screens films and documentaries (not just about wine!) throughout the Valley. Parties and dinners held at wineries and restaurants attract a diverse crowd, who can buy individual showcase tickets or an all-access pass.
Many wineries offer much more than the standard experience (for example, you can pair a tasting with horseback riding or even learning about prison reform), so it’s no surprise cultural excursions can come with visits to the wineries themselves. The Hess Art Collection, a private contemporary art collection housed in the Hess Persson Estates winery on Mount Veeder, is a must-see for art lovers. It’s free to browse the gallery (private tours are available too)⎯and don’t worry, you are not likely to find a single vineyard landscape painting. Design lovers can drive 15 minutes north of downtown Napa to experience RH Yountville, a wine compound featuring two boutique design galleries and a two-story wine vault. Or peruse the Athenaeum at Rutherford-based Inglenook and let your curiosity lead you through the property’s book, film, and art collection.
Local travel tips for Napa Valley
Bring a sweater. One of the things that makes Napa Valley such a great place to grow grapes for wine is its extreme shifts in temperature, meaning a 90-degree day can sink to a cool 50 degrees Fahrenheit when the sun goes down. Also, take Silverado Trail instead of Highway 29. It’s usually less crowded and more scenic. Another tip: when you go out to eat, sit at the bar. Most restaurants offer a separate bar menu, which has more affordable, casual offerings like steak frites or burgers—and you’ll probably get some good insider tips while you’re at it. Finally, don’t drink and drive. This is wise practice anywhere at any time, but especially in Napa Valley, where drinking is common and cops are vigilant.