Napa and Sonoma are known as some of the most popular wine-growing regions in the world, but California’s most famous regions have so much more to offer than just wine tasting. The areas are also known for their breweries and distilleries, hiking trails, arts, music, and shopping.
One of the best ways to experience the northern California regions of Napa and Sonoma is by getting outside of the tasting rooms. While it is true that a majority of tourists come to the area primarily to enjoy the wine, many are pleasantly surprised to discover just how beautiful the environment is outside of the tasting rooms once the merlot has stopped flowing.
Enjoy the Outdoors
For bikers in the know, Napa and Sonoma are both prime destinations for amateur and professional bike riding. Book a leisurely bike tour through downtown Napa or rent a premium road bicycle at Napa Valley Bike Tours or Sonoma Valley Bike Tours—you can even rent a two-person electric tandem bicycle to make some truly unique memories.
Take a paddle board down the Napa River, enjoy some water sports at Lake Berryessa, hit the hiking trails, or go camping (it’s a great way to save some money on a wine country vacation). Sugarloaf Ridge State Park offers 25 miles of hiking trails and 50 camping sites within its borders. If all else fails, hit the beach at the Sonoma Coast or Bodega Bay.
There is a natural volcanic hot spring near the foot of Mount St. Helena in Calistoga (about 45 minutes from Napa) that’s world-renowned for its health benefits. Take a soak in the hot springs or enjoy one of the mineral mud baths in the Napa Valley. Or head to one of Sonoma’s many luxury spas such as Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary, Spa Dolce, or The Garden Spa at MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa.
Experience the Culture
Napa and Sonoma are full of museums and art galleries that can add a little bit of culture to your vacation. Hall and Mondavi are historic wineries known for more than just wine; both contain world-class art galleries with an impressive collection of paintings and sculptures. The SOFA district in Santa Rosa covers a couple of blocks between Santa Rosa Avenue and South A Street with art studios, galleries, a theater, and local businesses. Also, check out the di Rosa Nature Preserve, a non-profit contemporary art center in the city of Napa housing collections by local artists.
Explore the History
Napa and Sonoma have rich histories thanks in part to the agriculture and wine industries. Visit the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park and the site of a water-powered mill built in 1846, one of the two water mills still around west of the Mississippi River. Castello di Amorosa is a 13th-century Tuscan castle right in the heart of the Napa Valley with a 12,000-square-foot barrel room, a medieval courtyard, and a terrace with views over the landscaped property.
The Luther Burbank Gardens National Historic Landmark in Santa Rosa is where the famous horticulturist, who developed about 800 new plants over his lifetime, lived from 1884 to 1906. Pay homage to the author Jack London State Historic Park or visit Mission San Francisco Solano, the last of California’s 21 missions built in 1823.
Enjoy the Food
Napa and Sonoma’s agricultural background makes it a hotspot for some of the best farmer’s markets in the state. The Napa Farmers Market runs year-round and has become an epicenter for the community with a huge amount of local produce to choose from. Aside from the usual suspects such as fruits and veggies, this market also features chef demos and sustainable incentives. Take a cooking class or cheese-making course at the legendary Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena or the SHED in Healdsburg.
Listen to Live Music
Blue Note is housed in a historic building in downtown Napa specializing in live jazz music. The venue also features local musicians, dinner, and drinks. The Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma is a non-profit theater that produces opera, musical theatre, drama, and chamber music. Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville has been hosting a summer concert series for over 50 years and Jack London State Historic Park in Sonoma puts on an annual concert series that is free to the public.
Attend the Festivals
In November, the Napa Valley Film Festival features food and film (along with wine, of course) and showcases an eclectic repertoire of independent filmmaking with a range of star-studded guests. Bottlerock Napa Valley has certainly gained momentum since it first came to Napa about seven years ago, with an impressive lineup featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Nicks, Miley Cyrus, Dave Matthews Band, and more in 2020.
Get a Taste of Something Different
The tasting doesn’t have to end with wine. Go olive oil tasting at Round Pond with one of the two olive mills in the region on their property, Long Meadow Ranch, or Olivier in downtown St. Helena. In Sonoma County, curb your sweet tooth with artisanal chocolate tasting at Wine Country Chocolates in Glen Ellen or the Chocolate Cow in Sonoma.
The Sonoma Plaza and first street Napa offer different options for shopping for a range of budgets where you can take your pick of small artsy boutiques or outlet stores. The Oxbow Public Market in Napa is an extremely popular community indoor plaza with all of Napa’s local cheeses, meats, gifts, and luxury souvenirs.
Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride
There’s no better way to experience wine country than by taking an early morning balloon ride high above the vineyards (and we mean early; hot air ballooning is best done in the colder, calm morning winds). While most companies will offer private, romantic balloons for two, most will fit 8 to 20 passengers. The award-winning Napa Valley Balloons, Inc. is a great place to start!