We visited Napa Valley in February 2018, and it was first time visiting for both myself and Fiona. Napa is located just north of San Francisco, and is one of America’s most renowned regions for wine. We’ve heard great things from friends who have visited, so we couldn’t wait to explore the area and share our top things to do in Napa.
Most of the wineries in Napa are family owned, so it was great knowing that we were supporting local businesses during our visit. Since we were visiting during the off-season, it was quieter, which meant we were able to take our time visiting the wineries without feeling rushed.
As with all our destination reviews, we always try to share with you highlights from our own experience and also some top tips to help you maximize your trip.
No surprises here. The top thing to do when visiting Napa is to check out the wineries. There are so many to choose from, and most of them are just off the SR-29, which is the main highway that runs through the region.
Two of our favorite wineries from the trip were Domaine Carneros and Sequoia Grove Winery. Domaine Carneros is a larger winery that was founded by the family behind Taittinger Champagne and specializes in delicious sparkling wines. We tried four of their different varieties of sparkling wines for $30, and really enjoyed sitting on their patio which overlooked some beautiful views of the countryside and vineyards. In fact, we flew our drone nearby after our wine tasting, so check out our video to see the aerial footage.
The Sequoia Grove Winery is a smaller winery with a 110-year-old barn and tasting room located beneath gigantic Sequoia trees. This winery stood out to us because of the great experience we had at Sequoia National Park last year, so we were excited to check it out.
We tried four of their wines for $25, which included their specialty Cabernet Sauvignon. We loved the ambiance of this winery, and really enjoyed the personal attention that they give during the tasting.
These are just two of the many options available in the area. Please comment below if you have any suggestions or recommendations on wineries!
We always enjoy the outdoors when traveling, and definitely needed to walk off all the wine tasting. We hiked in the Skyline Wilderness Park, which is a short distance from Downtown Napa. Entry to the park is only $5, and that covers parking, a map of the trails, and use of restroom facilities at the trailhead. It was a quiet place to hike, and offers 25 miles of different trails that are really easy to navigate. It also gave us an opportunity to try out some of the new features on our Mavic Air drone!
3. Great restaurants:
On our first night in Napa, we found La Taberna, which is a cozy tapas place in Downtown Napa. This place was perfect for what we were looking for. It offered an awesome selection of small dishes, and of course lots of wine! We loved the patatas bravas and the Spanish omelet, and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere.
The next morning, we decided to try the Farmers Table at the Andaz, which is known for its fresh and locally sourced ingredients. We enjoyed a nice breakfast which we needed before starting a day of wine tasting.
The Farmstead in St Helena was a great place for a midday stop and quick meal. The property has a few dining options; including a cafe, an upscale restaurant, and an outside terrace bar. We chose the outside bar. The staff was super friendly and restaurant offered great lunch options. We decided to go with a couple of appetizers, which were delicious and a great way to break-up the wine tasting.
Though the highlight of our trip (and really, our top food experience for the year so far) was Ad Hoc in Yountville. Ad Hoc is owned by Thomas Keller who you may have heard of from his upscale, renowned Napa restaurant, The French Laundry. This is definitely a more casual and low-key restaurant than The French Laundry, but the food and ambiance was outstanding. The restaurant has a fixed four-course menu for $55 and is served family style. The quality was the best we’ve tasted in a while, and the casual dining experience made you feel right at home. If you are interested in going, make sure to make a reservation, since the placed gets booked quickly during the weekends.
4. The Andaz Napa:
We stayed in the Andaz Napa, which is located in Downtown Napa. I have to admit, we love the Andaz brand, and picked the hotel without paying too much attention to the different areas that you can stay in Napa.
Downtown Napa has a lively vibe and is full of restaurants, bars, shops, and lots of art galleries. We did notice a few Bachelor and Bachelorette parties, so it’s definitely well suited for a younger crowd.
Though if we were to visit again, I think we’d pick a more laid-back area like Yountville or St Helena. Maybe we’re just getting old, but I think these seemed more our style, being relaxed but also offering some excellent food and drink options within walking distance, with less of a college party vibe. The three towns are within 15-20 minutes of each other and close to all the wineries. You really can’t go wrong staying in any of these places!
Tips for Visiting
As always, we want to make sure you have the best experience in Napa, so here are our top tips:
1. Use ride-sharing services to hop between the wineries:
There were plenty of rideshare options available in the area. Both Lyft and Uber are active in the Napa region. Unless you have a designated driver, we highly recommend making the most of the reasonably priced services to get around the wineries. Most wineries are within 15 to 20 minutes of Downtown Napa, which makes ride sharing an inexpensive option. And you’ll get to relax and enjoy all the great wine that Napa has to offer without having to worry about driving.
2. Fly into Oakland airport:
Oakland Airport is the closest large airport to Napa, and is a less busy than San Francisco airport. This made it easy to pick up our rental car and get straight on the road. Door to door, you can expect to reach Napa in an hour and 30 minutes, depending on the traffic.
3. Use the toll roads:
When we landed in Oakland, Waze was showing a 40-mile trip, but estimated the drive to be 2 hours and 30 minutes. This seemed crazy and we were confused as to why we were being given such a strange route. We realized that we had the “avoid toll roads” option in Waze selected. When we unchecked this option, our drive time reduced by an hour. While we did have to pay a small fee for the toll, it was well worth it to arrive at our destination an hour earlier!
On the way back to Oakland, it didn’t seem to make a difference as there aren’t any toll roads on the return trip.
4. Research wineries and make reservations:
We highly recommend doing your homework before heading to Napa. While we don’t consider ourselves wine experts by any means, we do enjoy sampling good wine, and honestly, we weren’t really sure where to start. We searched some of the top wineries listed on Trip Advisor and noted a few that sounded interesting to us. We also got some great recommendations just by talking to the wine specialists throughout the day.
It’s definitely a good idea to make reservations for the “newer” wineries, as they have a cap on the number of people they can accommodate every day. Domaine Carneros was an example of a newer winery that we made sure to book in advance. The older wineries generally don’t have restrictions and will take people on a drop-in basis, but it never hurts to check in advance.
Also, if you plan to transport any wine home, check out our tips on packing wine and recommendations on useful gear.
5. Go off the beaten path for some great photo opportunities:
As you might have noticed, we love taking photos and capturing video of our trips. Everywhere we looked there were great photo opportunities. However, some of the more popular stops along the main Napa road were pretty crowded, especially the poppy fields. So we decided to get off the beaten path and head down some of the smaller country roads. We managed to get some great photos and drone footage while avoiding many of the crowds.
Have you been to Napa? What are your favorite wineries and restaurants? Please share in the comments section below.