The small city of Napa is no longer just a stepping stone to the many venerated vineyards that populate Northern California’s Napa Valley. Although once seen as the forgettable part of an unforgettable wine adventure, recent years have worked magic around Napa’s boutique-minded downtown, propping it up as the most ideal base for discerning wine enthusiasts looking to make the most of a weekend in this iconic part of the USA.
It’s the entry point to the Napa Valley for anyone coming from San Francisco. Not even a two hour drive from the famous Bay Area city and you’d be smack bang in the heart of Napa, where contemporary tastings rooms, modern luxury hotels, boutique shops, and world-class restaurants fill into charming Victorian houses.
Sure, those committing to a longer period of time might only want to stay here for 2-3 days before moving deeper into the Napa Valley, taking up residence in one of the many stunning countryside resorts bringing guests closer to where the wine is actually made. But for those with only a short-stay in mind, usually as a side-show to San Francisco, or part of a larger trawl around California Wine Country, rooting yourself in Napa is a very wise choice.
You’ve only got a limited amount of time, so here are five must-do’s to help you maximise your time and see as much of the surrounds as you can in 2-3 days.
Check In: Archer Hotel Napa
Napa, like most sparkling California destinations, is best experienced from the lap of luxury. Check into Archer Hotel Napa for a few nights and soak up this immaculately curated experience, worth every precious penny. From the elegant lobby of historic stone pillars and crackling fires, to the spacious rooms with massive four-poster beds and even bigger balconies (with their own gas fireplaces – yes, an outdoor fireplace), the luxury boutique feel of Archer Hotel is unparalleled. Although the crown is literal here, opening guests up to a lively rooftop bar, Sky & Vine that offers incredible valley vistas and – as expected – a show-stopping wine list.
If you’ve doused your palate during the day by hopping between the town’s plentiful tasting rooms, then make sure to settle into the hotel’s Charlie Palmer Steakhouse to spark your taste buds back to life. Here you can splurge on provenance-forward temptations like a juicy NY Strip from Snake River Farms or, better yet, A5 Wagyu sourced straight from Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture.
Drink Your Way Through the Downtown Tasting Rooms
You’re here for the wine, are you not?
Technically, you can get away with a weekend in Napa not even touching a drop, given there’s a growing presence for beer (the iconic Russian River Brewery is nearby in the great Sonoma town of Santa Rosa) and craft spirits.
Although it would really be sacrilegious if it was your first time in Napa and you didn’t indulge in the region’s godly drink of choice. That’s what all these Downtown Tasting Rooms are for, scattered about, each with an individual identity and each showcasing a different side of the Napa Valley.
The prevalence of these tasting rooms, both casual and high-end, are reason for Napa’s renaissance and regularly lure visitors away from San Francisco.
Hit up Bounty Hunter if you want to explore an 18-page wine list paired with traditional American BBQ; experience a more relaxed tasting at one of Napa’s trendiest venues, JaM Cellars; hang out on the open-air terrace and join fellow local creatives at the design-driven Feast it Forward Studio; and plan a picnic by loading up at the highly specialised Back Room Wines.
Many vineyards have their own tasting room extensions here, and all of them offer comprehensive tasting flights that won’t break the bank. The best part here is that they are all within short walking distance from one another, filling the few streets that make up Downtown Napa with the unmistakable goal of offering wine lovers everything they could possibly need.
For a full list of all tasting rooms head to donapa.com/
Steam Through Paradise On Napa Valley Wine Train
All aboard the famous Napa Valley Wine Train! For over three decades this historic locomotive has been given new life as one of the Napa’s most unique and iconic activities. It’s also the best way to sample the region’s greatest hits without taking a car around, welcoming you on board to experience the Napa Valley in a variety of ways.
The most unique would have to be the Murder Mystery Tour, which is a year-round experience and takes place in select dinner trains. The entire space is transformed with a speakeasy type atmosphere and a confected murder scene, tasking guests over the following 2 hours to solve a mystery on the side while they enjoy a fine-dining three-course meal (and wine, of course).
Although if you’re just here for the straight-laced experience, expect stops at some of the Napa Valley’s most highly regarded wineries, as well as dinner and an impeccably curated vintage atmosphere. It’s no wonder they host so many weddings.
The train leaves from Downtown Napa and journeys up to the historic town of St. Helena, with plenty of stops along the way. Make sure you’re planning this one in advance though, and check out the route map HERE.
Eat Everything You Can at Oxbow Public Market
While Napa’s defining trait is an incandescent worship of world-class wine, there’s still plenty of other produce that makes this part of the USA so special. Food, spirits, beer – all just as good as the wine here, and you need only stroll through downtown’s premier food hall to find out just how deep the deliciousness is.
This place is structure very much like your typical public market, although everyone puts their best foot forward here and you can find as many quality deli sandwiches as you can wheels of cheese and – of course – drops of wine. A few of the town’s best restaurants are also located here.
Dig into the raw bar at Hog Island Oyster Co. and enjoy your fresh seafood basking on the outdoor patio; sit-down to Chef Todd Humphries’ locally inspired dishes at The Kitchen Door; enjoy technique-forward coffee at Ritual; indulge in ice cream at Three Twins; and eat as much charcuterie as you possibly can at The Fatted Calf.
It’s also the place to go for food that won’t break the bank, so you’ve got more cash to save for when you get to those vineyards.
Explore the Valley on Tuk Tuk
The Napa Valley Wine Train is of course the most iconic way (aside from self-driving) to get around the region in such a short time, but those even more adventurous should look into the newly introduced Laces and Limos Tuk Tuk Tour. Yes, a Tuk Tuk tour.
Some geniuses had the idea to introduce a fleet of tri-wheeled electric vehicles, which they use to give guests a more intimate and unique way to explore nearby vineyards. What’s more is that the company offers several tours, as well as private options and are flexible enough to customise based on individual desires.
The $75pp “Classic”, for example, forgoes the big-ticket wineries and opts to highlight the underrated Coombsville appellation. This up-and-coming area is best distinguished by volcanic soil and a neighbourhood vibe that unites the many small, family-owned boutique wineries like Farella which sit hidden nearby bigger, more lavish ones like the increasingly popular Italics.
Those shorter on time who still want someone to street them towards the right choices should just opt for their “Basic” tour, which is a 2.5 hour ride priced at $55pp, which takes guests through downtown Napa and stops at two tastings rooms plus a distillery.
For more information about what to do around the Napa Valley (be warned: there’s a lot) head to visitnapavalley.com/
The writer travelled to the Napa Valley as a guest of Visit California. This is not a sponsored post and all opinions are that of the writer’s
Feature image supplied by Visit California and credited to Bob McClenahan.