Planning a trip to Napa? From when to go, where to stay, what wineries to visit, and the best restaurants, I’ll help you plan the perfect trip!
How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Napa
My first trip to Napa Valley was in 2015, all these years later and it is still one of my favorite places to visit for a long weekend. I have been several times, and I leave a piece of my heart behind each time. Eventually, I see myself calling Napa home. At least, that’s my dream.
Planning a trip to Napa can initially be overwhelming. The first trip I took, while fun, was full of learning opportunities. Don’t be intimidated by all there is to know. Whether you are planning a long weekend in wine country or a romantic honeymoon, this post will help you plan the perfect trip to Napa Valley.
This post contains affiliate links which means if you click and buy I may receive a small commission, at no cost to you. Please see my disclosure policy for details.
1. When to Visit Napa
Is there a bad time to visit Napa? I don’t think so. Quite frankly, I would go any time of year. It just depends on your travel style and the experiences you’d like to have. Each season offers something unique and is great for different reasons.
Napa in the Spring
Napa in the spring is magical. It is one of the most spectacular seasons to visit. You’ll get to see the bright yellow mustard flowers filling the vineyards, the fruit trees begin to bloom, and the weather is mostly sunny with a sprinkling of showers.
The spring season is typically a slower-paced time with fewer visitors. This means those hard-to-get reservations might be more available and you might see better prices at hotels. If you love festivals, you might want to consider visiting in May during Bottlerock. It’s the West Coast’s most popular wine, food, and music event.
Napa in the Summer
If your idea of the perfect vacation includes some R&R poolside, then you will want to visit Napa in the summer. Soaking up the sun while lounging at a pool that overlooks the vineyards is a perfect way to detox after a few wine tastings. Napa has plenty of hotels/resorts with stunning pools where you can take a dip.
The longer days allow you to take full advantage of all the outdoor activities and fun to be had in Napa. Of course, wine tasting on an outdoor patio is at the top of my list. Other fun outdoor adventures include hot air balloon rides, Napa Valley Bike Tours, and hiking to name a few.
Napa in the Fall
Napa during fall is special. In early fall, the Valley is buzzing with the excitement and energy of the harvest season. This is when the magic happens- grapes are picked, parties are thrown, harvest dinners are hosted, and wines are enjoyed with new friends.
The vineyards become even more beautiful, as the leaves change to brilliant hues of yellow, orange, and red. There is a slight chill in the morning air, but the afternoons are comfortably warm, making it the perfect weather for afternoon tastings outdoors.
Napa in the Winter
If crowds are not your thing, then winter is the best time for you to visit Napa. Typically, the winter months are less crowded than the summer months, giving you a more personalized experience at your tastings. Winter is also the time of year when it is easiest to obtain reservations for those hard-to-get experiences.
The weather is pretty mild this time of year, so don’t let that deter you from exploring wine country. You can expect temperatures to reach the high 50s with lows in the 40s. This is perfect weather for sipping a luscious Cabernet by a roaring fireplace.
2. How to Get to Napa
Getting to Napa is fairly simple. There are 3 main airports that you can fly into, Sacramento, Oakland, and San Francisco. If you did fly to any of those airports, from there you can either rent a car and drive into Napa or have a car service pick you up at the airport.
Sacramento’s airport is 75 miles from Napa Valley. The drive will take you 90 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the time of day. It is a big hub for Southwest, and with many flight options, it’s a great alternative if you want to avoid the hubbub of flying into San Francisco.
Oakland is a great airport for fliers using discount airlines, like Spirit, Frontier, JetBlue, etc. While it is a smaller airport, it’s still quite busy. Being 63 miles away from Napa, expect the drive to take around 90 minutes.
San Francisco (SFO)
Since SFO is a major airport, serving Europe and Asia, expect it to be busier than the other airports mentioned. You might incur longer wait times and more traffic, but there will also be more flight options available. San Francisco is 70 miles south of Napa. It could take anywhere between one to two hours to arrive in Napa, and the drive time will depend on the time and day of the week.
Being from Kansas City, the flight options aren’t great, so I have only ever flown into San Francisco. Knock on wood, but I have not had any problems with traffic and the drive goes by quickly.
3. Areas of Napa
When planning a Napa Valley getaway, one of the most important things to know is Napa Valley is not a city. Napa Valley refers to the AVA region that contains smaller towns. It is 30 miles in length and 5 miles across, and one of the most important wine-growing regions in the United States.
Napa Valley is comprised of several different towns. Napa (aka Downtown Napa), St. Helena, Calistoga, Yountville, Rutherford, and Oakville are the major towns I will be covering. Each is unique and charming in its own way. It might surprise you that you could end up spending your entire trip in just one or two areas. Keep reading to see which city (or cities) would make it to your next Napa travel itinerary.
Napa (Downtown Napa)
On my most recent trip to Napa, I stayed downtown at the Archer Hotel. I loved the ease and convenience of staying downtown. Oh, and it’s absolutely charming! In the mornings, I’d get up and take a nice run along the riverfront and then grab a coffee at Napastack, a cute little coffee shop next to the hotel.
People often skip over downtown Napa, instead opting for tasting rooms and vineyards further up the Valley. I used to do the same thing, but after this last trip, I’ve learned not to make that mistake again. Downtown Napa is full of all kinds of fun things to do. It would be easy to make an entire day of exploring just this area.
Everything is close, so you could easily park your car and explore the area on foot. Besides amazing restaurants, like Angele, you will find tasting rooms, the cutest boutiques, and the Napa Valley River Walk. If you feel up for it, you can even walk across the Napa River to Oxbow Public Market.
In the heart of Napa Valley, is St. Helena. A picturesque town is known for thoughtfully curated boutiques, iconic wineries, and award-winning restaurants. You will likely be spending time in St. Helena on your Napa trip, as many of the well-known wineries are located on St. Helena Highway.
You could start your day on Main Street, in downtown St. Helena, at Model Bakery. They are known for their English muffins and are so good that Oprah has them flown to her. If you’re wondering “Are they THAT good?” I can attest, yes, yes, they are THAT good. I fell in love with the Original Breakfast Sandwich- a fluffy English muffin filled with a perfectly cooked egg, Canadian bacon, and melted cheddar cheese. It was ooey-gooey and everything I had hoped it would be! Pro-tip: Avoid the long lines and order ahead online of time. Arrive a few minutes early and let them know you’re there. They will bring it to you when it’s ready.
Your day can be spent wine-tasting at a couple of the many wineries in St. Helena. Don’t book too many wineries in one day, and you will want to pace yourself. I recommend 2-3 tastings a day, this way you can really enjoy the wine and perhaps even enjoy a glass of wine or cocktail with dinner.
In between tastings, stop into the local boutiques on Main Street. You’ll find everything from luxury clothing to locally made, artisanal goods. If you’re looking for some variety to your vacation, and want to try something other than wine tasting, make sure to bring your hiking boots and go for a hike on the Stevenson Memorial Trail. The trail takes a summit of Mt. Saint Helena.
Located in the northernmost part of Napa Valley, is Calistoga. Calistoga is known for its world-class wineries and its incredible views of the rolling vineyards. It is quite a drive from other parts of Napa Valley, so be mindful of this when planning your trip- don’t schedule a 10:00 a.m. tasting in Rutherford and expect to make a tasting at noon in Calistoga.
With that said, visiting Calistoga is something you should do! If you prefer, a more restful and relaxing experience, consider booking your hotel in Calistoga, there are many fantastic options, especially if you’re looking for a hotel with a spa. Calistoga is famous for its spas. With everything from massage therapy and body treatments to mud baths and hot springs, you’ll be in spa heaven.
If you plan to spend the day in Calistoga, schedule your tastings and leave time to explore the area. Of course, there are many fabulous wineries to visit, but you might carve out time to see Old Faithful Geyser, which is just a few minutes outside of town. The park also has bocce courts and plenty of picnic tables, so feel free to bring your lunch and a bottle of wine to enjoy.
If you are looking for the ultimate luxurious experience for your Napa Valley vacation, then you will want to include Yountville on your itinerary. Yountville is known for its Michelin-starred restaurants and award-winning wine. It’s an effortless combination of a charming small town and chic sophistication.
The streets are lined with world-famous restaurants and boutique tasting rooms. It is home to many restaurants by Thomas Keller (including the world-famous, three-Michelin-starred The French Laundry). The French Laundry Garden is open to the public, so if you’re not lucky enough to get reservations at the acclaimed restaurant, take a stroll through the garden (don’t touch or eat anything though, as that is where the restaurant gets some of the ingredients).
Art lovers will appreciate Yountville just as much as foodies. The Napa Valley Museum is located close by and features three galleries of West Coast art. For an outdoor art experience, you could also stroll through the Yountville Art Walk. It runs from end to end and features sculptures created by regional national, and world-renowned artists
Rutherford and Oakville are two small towns in Napa Valley and are both situated along Highway 29. This area is known for producing some of the best wines in Napa, most notably, Cabernet Sauvignon. As a lover of Napa Cab, I always make sure to visit at least one winery in the area.
In addition to wine, the Rutherford/Oakville region is also a great place for outdoor activities. There are plenty of biking and hiking trails in the area. For a truly fabulous experience, you could even take a hot air balloon ride over the vineyards. The balloon ride experience starts around 5:00 a.m., but it’s 100% worth the early wake-up to see the sun rising over the valley as the fog rolls across the vineyards.
There are a few places that you absolutely must stop when you’re in Oakville. The first is making a stop to visit the Welcome to Napa Valley billboard on Highway 29. The sign was originally installed, in 1949, to bring awareness of Napa Valley and the few wineries that were open at that time. It has now become a popular photo op. My advice is to get there early in the morning, as it can get a little more crowded in the afternoon.
4. Where to Stay on Your Napa Valley Trip
There are so many different options to choose from when deciding where to stay during your Napa Valley vacation. When deciding what part of Napa to stay in, it’s really important to consider a few things. The first thing to consider is what is your vacation style. Do you want an intimate, relaxing, and romantic experience? Or do you want to stay in a central location that is within walking distance to shops, and restaurants? Keep reading to learn more about the best areas to stay in Napa Valley and some of the top hotels for all budgets.
Downtown Napa is a great place to stay for anyone, but especially for first time visitors and travelers who like a little nightlife. Now, I am not saying Napa has a wild party scene, but there are some cool places to hang out after you’ve finished your wine tastings for the day. The Archer Hotel has a great rooftop bar. The vibe is laid back, they serve great cocktails, and on some nights, they have live music.
There are some fantastic hotels in downtown Napa, like the Archer, The Napa River Inn, and the Napa Valley Hotel and Suites.
Luxury: Archer Hotel
Mid-Range: Napa River Inn
Budget: Napa Valley Hotel and Suites
If you’re ideal Napa vacation is centered around wine tastings and you want to be close to many of the big-name wineries, then you should consider staying in St. Helena. It is home to over 150 wineries and centrally located making it the perfect hub for your trip to wine country.
Even with the charming downtown area, St Helena offers a different vibe than downtown Napa. It seems to have a slower pace and offers a bit more of a local experience vs. a tourist experience. And most importantly, the views in St. Helena are amazing!
Some of the most popular places to stay in St. Helena include, Auberge Du Soleil, Harvest Inn, and El Bonita Motel.
Luxury: Auberge Du Soleil
Mid-Range: Harvest Inn
Budget: El Bonita Motel
Calistoga is the perfect place for you to stay if you’re looking for an experience that is centered around relaxation and offers a luxurious, yet understated atmosphere. It is a charming and quaint town that will transport you back in time, and perfect if you’re looking to avoid the “hustle and bustle” of downtown Napa.
In Calistoga, your days can easily be filled with wine tastings (naturally), bike rides through the vineyards, and soaking in the mineral hot springs. The accommodation and dining options aren’t as varied as you’d find in other parts of Napa, but don’t let this deter you, as there are still plenty of fabulous places to stay and restaurants to enjoy.
A few of the most popular hotels include Solage an Auberge Resort Collection, The Bergson, and Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa.
Mid-Range: The Bergson
Budget: Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa
Yountville is the ultimate luxury getaway. If your dream Napa Valley vacation includes, strolling through a charming and sophisticated town full of world-class tasting rooms, Michelin-starred restaurants, and art galleries, then Yountville will be the best place for you to stay. This picturesque town is in the heart of Napa Valley and allows you easy access to nearby towns.
This is also a great place to stay if a sunrise hot air balloon ride is on your itinerary, as Napa Valley Aloft is in the area. The accommodations in Yountville will be more expensive than other parts of Napa Valley, but the amenities, location, and opulence make it well worth the price. Bardessono, North Block, and Maison Fleurie, a Four Sisters Inn.
5. Wineries to Visit
No trip to Napa Valley would be complete without a wine tasting or two, and with over 400 wineries it is hard to narrow it down. The biggest piece of advice I can give when planning on what wineries to visit during your trip is to look at a map and schedule tastings that are in the same areas on the same day. You’d be pressed for time if you have a 10:00 a.m. tasting in Carneros and a noon tasting in Calistoga, and chances are you wouldn’t make it to the noon tasting.
I like to start my trip off with a tasting at a winery that is known for its sparkling wine, and my favorite is Domaine Carneros. It is a stunning winery and chateau that overlooks the rolling vineyards. They have many different tasting options available, but I especially like the Art of Sabrage experience- where you get to taste 4 different sparkling wines and learn the technique of sabrage. It’s the ultimate way to kick off your trip!
On my last trip to Napa, I visited AXR. AXR has a beautiful property, and the wines are just fabulous. We were greeted with a beautiful Sauvignon Blanc and given a tour while they educated us on their wine. From there, we were led we were led to the fairy ring (a group of redwood trees that had grown in a perfect circle) where we continued to taste more white wine and where they took photos. Once inside the winery, we were poured some of the most beautiful and complex wines I’ve tasted. The winery is beautiful, the wines are outstanding and our host, John, was a true gem. If you are a Cab lover, you must add AXR to your list.
Some of my Favorite Napa Valley Wineries Include:
6. Where to Eat in Napa
Napa Valley is known for its food scene just as much as it’s known for the wine. There is no shortage of options either. Everything from high-end, Michelin-starred restaurants offering 12-course tasting menus, to roadside cafes serving up local favorites. In my opinion, there are some can’t-miss restaurants that should be on any itinerary, keep reading to learn about some of the best dining experiences in Napa Valley.
Breakfast and Brunch
I usually fly into SFO and try to arrive as early as possible, this means I’m usually getting into Napa Valley before noon, and the first place I stop is Boon Fly Café. It is a local favorite and with good reason. Everything is super fresh and perfectly prepared. I call in my order when I’m about 25 minutes outside of Napa and pick it up as a take-out order.
The Boon Fly is usually busy, and I have found the takeout option works well for me, as I can eat quickly before heading to the first tasting of the trip. A stop at Boon Fly is not worth it unless you get the donuts. They are small, so don’t be intimated by the baker’s dozen, I promise you they won’t last long! The donuts are served warm and are super soft and pillowy rolled in cinnamon and sugar. They go great with a cup of coffee and are the perfect pick-me-up after a morning of travel. The California Bagel is another fave. I have tried to recreate it at home but have yet to be successful. On the last trip, my boyfriend ordered the Breakfast Burrito. I snuck a few bites, and WOW! Insane is the best word I can describe it.
Lunch in Napa Valley
It’s a good idea to eat between wine tastings, and my lunch recommendation is RH in Yountville. It’s a restaurant by Restoration Hardware, its impeccable design, approachable menu, and perfect location make it one of the best lunch spots in town. The lobster roll and the French dip sandwich were simply incredible. It would also be a fantastic spot to go for happy hour before dinner, or for a post-dinner nightcap.
Another perfect spot to stop at between wine tastings is Oakville Grocery. I could spend hours here and honestly have. It originally opened in 1874 and was a dry goods, groceries, and hardware store. Today, it is still a grocery store where you can purchase delicious items for a picnic, wine, and even order items for breakfast and lunch. The Margherita pizza is amazing.
In addition to the grocery store, is an adjacent building, the Oakville Wine Merchant. They have over 200 wines (70 from Napa) on tap that you can purchase by the ounce, taste, glass, or bottle. We had so much fun here, maybe a bit too much fun. I highly recommend stopping here for lunch, a little shopping, and a little wine tasting.
Best Restaurants for Dinner in Napa Valley
One of my all-time favorite dining experiences was at Auberge Du Soleil. We originally had dinner reservations, for the four-course Chef’s menu at 9:00 pm, but were advised we did not want to miss the sunset, as the restaurant at Auberge offers the most stunning sunset views.
Unfortunately, we were unable to find an earlier reservation on the restaurant side, but we were able to sit on The Bar side. Though we did not get to enjoy the Michelin-star menu, we were delighted to find that the food was phenomenal- we loved the onion and herb dip with crispy chips, and I enjoyed the Mediterranean Bass. For dessert, we shared the cookie plate, our server let us know that it would be a little while before they came out of the kitchen as they were baked to order. They are worth the 20-minute wait. Hot, fresh, gooey, and oh, so delicious.
We also got to experience a sunset at Auberge, and it was just as magical as we had hoped. One day, we will go back and sit on the restaurant side, but now we know to make reservations well in advance so we can get seats for golden hour.
Sometimes after a day of wine tasting, the last thing you want to do is go to a fancy restaurant. If you’re craving delicious food but also want a low-key vibe, check out Oxbow Public Market. There are plenty of different options for food including Gott’s Roadside. Gott’s is a staple in wine country. They have some of the best burgers in town. The lines can get long, but they move quickly. Soon you’ll be at a picnic table enjoying your cheeseburger with a side of cheese fries.
7. How to Make the Most out of Your Napa Trip
Each time I plan a trip to Napa Valley I learn something new, that helps make each trip better and better. Some of the most important tips for planning a trip to Napa are
Hire a Driver
It’s not worth the risk to drive if everyone you are traveling with will be wine-tasting. The roads are narrow, and you’ll be traveling through mountains. Also, we were told that they are going to be implementing more checkpoints, so be safe and hire someone to drive you.
Ride shares are not advisable during the day while you’re moving around tasting. They are unreliable due in part to the poor cell phone service.
Another alternative to a private driving service, where the car is provided for you, is to rent a car and hire a driver to drive the rental for you. It’s a little more affordable and just as safe.
Make Your Reservations in Advance
Gone are the days when you could walk into a winery and be greeted for a tasting sans reservation. Tastings are by appointment only. Make sure you visit the winery websites as soon as you know you are going and make your reservations. If you are unable to get into a specific winery, it is worth it to call a few days before you and up to the morning of, to see if there are any last-minute cancellations. This rule also applies to dining reservations. Make them ASAP.
If your primary activity, is wine tasting, make sure to stock up on water whether that means filling up a reusable water bottle or buying a 24-pack of water bottles at the grocery store. Do not forget to hydrate. Wine can be dehydrating. Combine the varying levels of alcohol in the wine, the decadent food, and the warm sunshine, and you could end up feeling unwell. Make sure to drink lots of water, and even consider adding a Liquid IV.
Chances are you will be drinking plenty of red wine. Avoid purple lips and teeth with these portable and disposable mini toothbrushes. I like to keep them in my purse to use between tastings. They are life savers and I spend much less time editing the wine-stained lips and teeth in my photos since they came into my life.
Napa Valley is more casual than you might expect. Nice jeans and a nice top are perfectly acceptable. I do like to wear dresses, especially in the summer, but that’s just me. I would recommend avoiding high heels. You will more than likely be touring the winery and vineyards, and flats or wedges are the way to go to keep your feet comfortable. Also, even if it’s summer and 98 degrees outside, take a light jacket or sweater with you just in case your tasting includes a tour of the cellar or wine cave (they can get pretty chilly!).
Don’t Forget to Tip
When you’re at your wine tasting, you will have a designated wine guide or host. They will be explaining the wines you’ll be trying, educating you on the history of the winery, and the wine-making process, and providing a fabulous service for you. Please make sure to tip them on average it’s $10 a person.
Take a Wine Suitcase
The first time I went to Napa, I made the mistake of thinking that I could just buy a wine suitcase anywhere. That turned out to be false, and unfortunately for me, I didn’t figure this out until the very last day of the trip. Needless to say, it led to unnecessary stress trying to figure out how to get it home. Now, I know to come prepared. I travel with a wine suitcase, that can fit up to 12 bottles and can be checked at the airport just like any other piece of luggage. Wineries will also ship to most states, so if you plan on buying multiple bottles from one winery, shipping is a great way to get your wine home safely.
Invest in a Priority Wine Pass
The tasting fees can add up quickly. To help reduce costs and get the best deal, consider purchasing a Priority Wine Pass. It’s a membership program that offers discounts to its members. Discounts can be on wine tastings, hotel stays, restaurants, and transportation companies. Some wineries will even offer 2-for-1 tastings.
Don’t Try to Do Too Much
When planning your trip to Napa, don’t try to do too many wineries in one day. 2-3 wine tastings a day, and you’ll be good to go. Also, think about the varietals you enjoy most, and schedule tastings at wineries that are known for those varietals. Napa is known for producing world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, so it’s only natural to taste some award-winning cab, but don’t forget about the varietals like Zinfandel, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.
Planning Your Trip to Napa
Napa Valley is one of my favorite vacation destinations in the United States. It’s a place I can go to every year and have a different experience from the time before. If you have not been, I can’t recommend going enough (at least once)!
I hope you found this guide helpful, and if you would like more assistance planning your Napa Valley vacation and crafting the perfect Napa itinerary, send me a message, I’d love to help!
Have you been to Napa? What are some helpful tips that you can share? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
10 responses to “Planning a Trip to Napa: 7 Tips to Help You Plan the Perfect Trip”
After reading your valuable (and I trust) first hand accounts and suggestions regarding the many aspects of Napa the only suggestion I find hard to take is that of “Don’t try to do too much”. The Colgate Wisps seem like a good idea for any time red wine is consumed, home or away…have to give them a try.
Thank you for this great guide! I’ve always wanted to visit Napa and I love that you give both budget and luxury hotels and lots of great places to eat. I’ll definitely be referencing this when I make the trip!
Napa Valley seems like an amazing place to visit! I love wine and architecture. Maybe we will take a week trip with my husband next year and enjoy Napa`s wine. Thank you for idea.
great blog! Can’t wait to go try these suggestions!
Been there long time ago. Nice pictures and great post