Napa Valley came to the world's attention as a serious wine-producing region after the famous 1976 blind wine-tasting event, the Judgment at Paris portrayed in the film "Bottle Shock," but long before that Californians knew it as a lovely place good for growing things.
The flat valley about 30 miles long and little more than a mile wide lies between two modest mountain ranges that define its boundaries and frame its views.
You can plan your Napa Valley day trip or weekend getaway using the resources below. If you've only got a day, try this day trip guide.
Why Should You Go? Will You Like Napa Valley?
Napa Valley is popular with anyone who likes food, and wine and people around the world have heard so much about it that they want to see it even if they're not connoisseurs.
Where Is Napa Valley?
Napa Valley is located north of San Francisco, anchored by the town of Napa on the south and Calistoga on the north. It's about 30 miles between the two, which are connected by both CA Hwy 20 and the Silverado Trail.
The town of Napa is 46 miles from San Francisco, 82 miles from San Jose, 59 miles from Sacramento, 190 miles from Reno, NV and 399 miles from downtown Los Angeles. From San Francisco, take U.S. Hwy 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge. Exit at CA Hwy 37 East (exit 460A), then follow Hwy 121 north and east, and finally, go north on CA Hwy 29.
The nearest airports are in San Francisco (SFO) and Oakland (OAK). Use this guide to find out all the ways you can get to Napa Valley from San Francisco.
Best Time to Go to Napa Valley
Every season in Napa has its pros and cons and the best one for your trip depends on your preferences and style. You can use the guide to Napa in spring, Napa in summer, Napa in fall, and Napa in winter to help make your decision.
Best Things to Do in Napa, California
- Taste the Wine: You could be in Napa Valley for months and not make it to every winery there. One of our favorite Napa wineries, Del Dotto Vineyards, offers unique wine-tasting straight from the barrel. If you want to sample the wares of many area wineries without having to run around, try downtown's Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin' BBQ. The food and atmosphere here are just as good as the wines they pour.
- Take the Kids: There's more for them to do than you might think and we've rounded up a handful of Napa's best family activities for you.
- Enjoy Contemporary Art: The di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art holds one of the world's most significant collections of late-twentieth-century San Francisco Bay Area art, dating from the 1960s to the present.
- Get Muddy: At the northern end of Napa Valley, Calistoga is home to some very relaxing spas with soothing mud baths warmed by the local hot springs. Find one that suits you best.
- Napa Mill and River Walk: The last remainder of Napa's former industrial center is now a hotel/dining/shopping complex, home to several nice restaurants and food shops.
Where to Sample the Local Food
Good wine isn't Napa's only specialty. Napa Valley has far too many excellent eateries and places to shop local goodies for us to list here, so we'll just mention a few.
- Gott's Roadside: Just south of St. Helena, Gott's was known as Taylor's Refresher for many years—but the name change hasn't changed its super-yummy burgers, wine list or decadent, individually-made, specialty milkshakes.
- Oxbow Public Market: Located in the town of Napa, Oxbow Public Market is a good place to experience a lot of local goodies all in one place. You could spend hours grazing your way through all the delectables on sale, including Napa favorites Hog Island Oysters and the Model Bakery.
- Vintage Sweet Shoppe: The Dever Family's Vintage Sweet Shoppe is in the historic Hatt Mill complex. Their wine-filled chocolate truffles have been featured on the Food Network.
- Round Pond Estate: They produce their own olive oil, vinegars, and citrus syrups. It is especially fun to visit during the olive harvest.
- The Culinary Institute of America: Not only do they train some of the country's best chefs, the CIA also offers cooking classes, ranging from "Italian Cooking at Home" to "Global Street Foods." If you want your lunch or dinner made for you, head to the on-site Gatehouse Restaurant.
Where to Stay
You can stay in any of the Napa Valley towns and travel easily to all of them. If you like to stay in bed and breakfast inns, downtown Napa has plenty of them, some in beautiful old buildings. Here, you will also find some newer hotels that are within an easy walking distance of eateries, shopping, and wine-tasting bars.
The most important thing is to plan ahead for this popular place, especially if your budget is limited. For the busier times of year (summer and during fall harvest), try to reserve your hotel two to three months in advance.
To find your perfect place to stay:
Annual Events You Should Know About
- March: The Napa Valley Marathon closes Silverado Trail until early afternoon.
- May: BottleRock Napa Valley is a three-day festival featuring music, food, wine, and brews.
- July thru August: Music in the Vineyards is a chamber music festival.
- July: Festival Napa Valley is a food and music festival.
- November: Napa Valley Film Festival features independent films and top film industry guests. This festival also includes some of the culinary world's best chefs and of course an abundance of wine.
- December: Holiday Candlelight Tour showcases some of the town's most beautiful private homes.
Tips for Visiting Napa Valley
- There are two Napas: Napa Valley and the town of Napa. The town is in the Valley and has about 80,000 residents. Downtown boasts more pre-1906 structures than any other city in the San Francisco area.
- Get your bearings before you go. Use this map to get an idea of where everything is.
- Stay sober enough to drive safely and enjoy what you try more using our wine-tasting strategies
- Let someone else do the driving and hire a limo or tour company to take you on a private tour. We highly recommend A Friend in Town and Blue Heron tour companies.
- For a glimpse of Napa's natural beauty and its many wineries, take a drive north on Silverado Trail from the town of Napa to Calistoga, then go back south on CA Hwy 29.
- The busiest wineries may not offer the best experience. Often, they're overrun with busloads of visitors who all arrive at once, overwhelming the tasting room staff and leaving them exhausted.
- We know it's popular, but we don't recommend the Napa Wine Train for most visitors. Find out why.
- NASCAR races at raceway in Sonoma draw big crowds who create correspondingly big traffic jams around the intersection of CA Hwy 37 and CA Hwy 121. Check their schedule and if there's a big race on, get to Napa via I-80 north, Red Top Road and Jameson Canyon Road west through the town of American Canyon and north on CA Hwy 121/29.