First Time Visitor Guide To Napa Valley

Planning your first trip to Napa Valley can be an imposing task. Booking your flight, finding a room, scheduling activities, picking out restaurants, and doing the research to make the right decisions might take up more time than the trip does. Don’t burn half your vacation days planning your vacation: just follow along here and we’ll do the leg-work for you.

FIRST TIME VISITOR GUIDE TO NAPA VALLEY.  To plan your first trip to Napa Valley, you’ll need to figure out the following:

  • When should you visit?
  • How will you get there?
  • Where will you stay?
  • What will you eat?
  • What will you do?
  • Which wine tours and tastings should you try?
  • What should you know about wine before you go?

Individually, they’re not exactly huge questions, but when you list them all out it can look like a mountain of work. Not to worry, we’re here with your Napa Valley study guide. Just keep scrolling and we’ll hook you up with everything you need to know.

Deciding When to Visit

While there is not any one right time of year to visit Napa Valley, your experience there will vary drastically depending on the season.

From late August through the end of October is the harvest season. During this period, many winery tours allow you to watch as fresh wine is pressed. At the Grgich Hills Estate, visitors even have the opportunity to stomp grapes with their bare feet. Harvest events, such as the St. Helena Harvest Festival, are another Autumn perk.

Summer is recommended for beautiful weather, which brings the year’s largest crowds, and some of the valley’s most exciting events, including the Independence Day parade and The Napa County Fair & Fireworks in Calistoga every 4th of July.

Budget conscious travelers can visit in the late winter or early spring, after the harvest, but before the weather really starts to warm up again. This is the least crowded time of year, which brings down travel prices, and you’ll also have the chance to see the valley’s famous mustard plants in bloom.

Flying into Napa

If you’re planning on flying into the area, you should know that there are 5 nearby airport options. You can compare travel itineraries for all 5 to get the best deals available.

  • Charles M. Schulz Airport (STS) in Sonoma County is the closest to Napa Valley, though you’ll need to fly out of a limited number of west coast cities to get there.
  • Oakland International Airport (OAK) is 90-minutes’ drive from Napa, and often has great rates from the budget airlines.
  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is the largest option, with the direct flights from almost any major point of origin, and extensive secondary travel options available to get you to Napa.
  • Sacramento International Airport (SMF) is only 90 minutes away by car.
  • Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) is only two-hours’ drive from the valley.

For tips on getting from the airport to Napa Valley, check out these tips on the best way to get to Napa Valley.

Finding Your Hotel

Because the valley is so large, first-time visitors often have a hard time figuring out where to stay. The solution is to narrow your search down by town: each town has its own advantages and drawbacks, and your individual priorities will determine which is best for you.

  • Yountville, CA. is usually the most expensive option, if only because it’s the most action-packed. It’s a beautiful town with a ton of dining options, and the Yountville Wine Walk has 19 wine-tasting rooms within one mile.
  • Napa, CA. is slightly further from most wineries than Yountville, but it is a little more affordable, and equally lovely. There are plenty of tasting rooms in town, and lots of great food.
  • Calistoga, CA. is just outside the valley to the north. It’s got a rustic vibe that travelers love, and it’s a good budget option, but there’s not as much to do there as in Yountville or Napa.
  • American Canyon, CA. is outside the valley to the south, and has budget hotel chains that aren’t present anywhere else nearby. Traffic into the valley can be slow, but the savings may be worth it.

Whatever town you choose will have plenty of options for hotels and bed and breakfasts, but there are also great deals to be found on home rental platforms like AirBNB and VRBO.

If you’re really looking for a discount, try staying at one of these Napa Valley Campgrounds:

What Will You Eat in Yountville?

If you’re looking for a bite in Yountville, look no further than these recommendations, courtesy of our own Foster Daly:

  • The French Laundry was named Best Restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine in 2003 and 2004.
  • Yountville Deli offers locally loved specialty sandwiches, breakfast, and boxed lunches, and is one of the cheapest options in town.
  • R+D Kitchen specialize in American classics.
  • Ciccio’s wood-fired grill serves up authentic Italian pizza made from locally-sourced ingredients.

For the full rundown, and more recommendations, check out Foster’s original post on the best restaurants in Yountville.

What Will You Eat in the City of Napa?

Ellie Gebhardt has our hookup on the best spots to eat in Napa.

For more on those, and the rest of her recommendations, check out Ellie’s original post on the best restaurants in Napa.

Where Will You Eat in Calistoga?

When you get hungry in Calistoga, take one of these tips from Julie Workman:

  • Evangeline is the French Bistro with a Creole Soul.
  • Solbar-Solange serves up California soul food in a distinctly beautiful natural setting.
  • Café Sarafornia serves classic diner fair so popular it often draws lines out the door.
  • Pacifico Restaurante Mexicano has authentic Mexican food made from fresh, natural ingredients, with a live mariachi band on Friday’s for an added kick.

Julie’s got several more recommendations for you in her post on the best places to eat in Calistoga.

What Will You Eat in St. Helena?

 There are many excellent dining options in St. Helena. Gabrielle Malone offers these recommendations:

For the rest of Gabrielle’s list, check out the best places to eat in St. Helena.

Things to Do in Napa Valley That Do Not Involve Drinking Wine

Napa Valley may be most famous for its wine, but that’s not the only thing to do there. In fact, there’s a lot more to do in Napa Valley than most trips have time to fit, even if you skip the wine (don’t worry: we have a separate section for wine-tasting further down).

  • Visit the Lincoln Theater, where the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center puts on some incredible shows, including the local Symphony Napa Valley orchestra.
  • Kayak or paddle-board the Napa River with Napa Valley Paddle.
  • Take a stroll through the Yountville Art Walk, where you’ll find 65+ unique outdoor sculptures.
  • Hike Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. If you like, you can hike a 10-mile round trip to the top of Mount St. Helena.
  • Tour the Hess Collection’s Contemporary Art Museum, where you’ll see art from the likes of Francis Bacon, Franz Gertsch, and Anselm Kiefer.
  • See the Napa Chef’s Market. Every Thursday, you can see some of the best chefs in town perform culinary demonstrations where spectators are able to taste the foods they watch them prepare.
  • Walk or Cycle the 12.5-mile Vine Trail.
  • Visit the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville to see more local art.
  • Hike the Westwood Hills Park, or Skyline Park.
  • Try a quirky scavenger hunt in downtown Napa, courtesy of Viator’s Napa Puzzling Adventure.
  • Catch a Napa Silverados baseball game at Napa Valley College’s Storm Field.
  • Take a hot air balloon tour with one of the valley’s many vendors. Balloons Above The Valley and Aloft are two, but there are a handful of other services as well.
  • Check out the Safari West Wildlife Preserve, a 400-square mile safari style zoo, where guests can even choose to sleep overnight in tents.
  • Visit the Oxbow Public Market, for great food, unique local shopping, and a colorful, vibrant environment.
  • Catch a show at Silo’s Jazz Club.
  • Walk the Napa River Promenade for a relaxing, romantic evening.
  • During the summer, enjoy a live outdoor show at Napa City Nights.

As you can see, Napa offers a plethora of fun even for those who aren’t interested in wine. Now that we’ve dealt with those lunatics, let’s turn our attention to the good stuff.

A Few Great Tour Options

If you’re looking for an educational tour, you can’t go wrong with any of the hot spots recommended by Maree Paul.

  • At Conn Creek Winery they allow guests to blend their own wine.
  • Rutherford Hill offers a similar tour.
  • The estate tour at Deloach Vineyards is focused on sustainable farming methods, and very interesting.
  • Beringer is one of the oldest wineries in Napa Valley, and their tour is a great slice of local history.

For more information on these, and a few more recommendations, hit up Maree’s original post on the best Napa Valley Educational Wine Tours.

For a few options that aren’t as focused on education, all of which cost $30 or less for a tasting, check these out:

  • The St. Clair Brown Winery, which bills itself as an “urban winery, nano-brewery, and culinary garden.
  • Black Stallion Winery, located on the grounds of a historic equestrian center.
  • Etude Wines, known for Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • Madonna Estate, a wine-crafting tradition that’s been running since 1922.

A Few Free Tour Options

The only thing better than cheap is free. You can enjoy free wine tastings at these wineries:

  • Buehler Vineyards offer free tastings by reservation. In spite of the price, this might be the best vineyard tour in all of Napa Valley thanks to the true family nature of the business, and the attention they pay to visitors.
  • Vincent Arroyo Winery in Calistoga offers freebies for groups of four or fewer. The reds come highly recommended.
  • Heitz Cellar nearby is a local favorite.
  • Hendry Wines has a free tasting and a gorgeous mountain view.
  • Artesa Winery offer free group tours that end with a 5 wine sampling from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm.
  • Sutter Home are a bit commercial, but the wine is good, the tasting is free, and guests are allowed to tour the beautiful property and classic Victorian house.
  • Homage Vineyard is a more recent brand offering an excellent free tasting.

Another great way to wine taste is to book an all-inclusive tour package via a discount site, like The best packages include transportation, a full day of guided sight-seeing and wine-tastings, and even lunch, for under $120-per-person.

More free-wheeling travelers can start their improvised tours at the Napa Valley welcome center, where a staff of 80 local volunteers helps visitors plan their trips. The welcome center always has tons of coupons to pick up—not to mention famously clean restrooms, a cute gift shop, and complimentary wine tastings on Fridays from 11:00 am – 2:00 pm.

Your Napa Wine Study Guide

You don’t need to be a wine expert to have an incredible time in Napa Valley, but it can help to have a little basic knowledge.

Napa Valley is most famous for two wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. While the valley overall is famous for those wines, each of 16 sub-regions within the valley has its own specialty, described in this post about each area’s best-known wines. If you have a favorite type of wine, you might want to schedule a tour in one of the areas that specializes in your favorite.

There is no special etiquette for a wine tasting. Guests should respect the wine, vineyard, and vintner by paying close attention to what they are tasting, giving honest, respectful feedback, and refraining from becoming overly drunk. Remember that the wine, and the vintner’s hard work, should be the focus of the room’s attention. See the link for more detailed tips for novice wine tasters.

It is generally expected that wine-tasters will seriously consider purchasing a bottle of any wines that they really love. Once you’ve tasted a few Napa wines, we don’t think you’ll need much convincing. What you will need is a plan for getting those bottles home. In the United States, you need a special license to ship alcohol, and many wineries won’t ship it for you.

The options aren’t great. You can see a full rundown on how to ship wine from Napa Valley here, but the best option is probably a product like The Wine Check (or one of a handful of competitors), which is a protective insulated container designed for carrying bottles of wine as checked luggage on your flight home.

Related Questions

Can you walk to wineries in Napa?

Unfortunately, most of the wineries in Napa Valley aren’t reasonably accessible on foot. If you’re really only looking for wine tasting, there are a couple of places you can go to find a wide variety of tasting rooms all within walking distance.

The first spot to look at is Yountville, where there are 19 wine-tasting rooms all located within 1 mile. The Yountville Wine Walk is a fantastic option for those who are concerned more with tasting than with touring the winery.

The Yountville Wine Walk is the most popular recommendation, which does sometimes mean that it’s a bit crowded. For a slightly less bustling option (that’s still got excellent tastings), you can head to Sonoma, where there has been a fairly recent boom in new, excellent tasting rooms that public perception hasn’t quite caught on to yet. They’re not all within 1 mile, but they’re certainly walkable.

Travelers who are dead-set on seeing the vineyards still aren’t necessarily stuck renting a car. Many vineyards offer hotel pickup services for tours, there are a handful of independent shuttle services operating in the valley, and several pre-arranged tour packages include van or bus transportation.

What is the priority wine pass?

Priority Wine Pass is a membership-based discount service offering discounts at over 350 wineries on the west coast, including Napa Valley. Deals vary from location to location. The most common deals are 2-for-1 tastings, but there are a plenty of complimentary tours and tastings, as well as discounts on meals, bicycle rentals, wine-tasting lessons, balloon tours, and even mud baths.

The pass also includes access a concierge service, which offers to craft customized trip itineraries for members.  

A one-year pass costs $120, although that has been marked down to about $60 at the time of this writing. The easiest way to decide whether it’s worth it for you is to head to the priority wine pass website and visit the list of discounts that are included. Count up the savings that align with your travel plans. If the total savings is greater than the cost of the pass, then you might as well take advantage.

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