How to Plan a Napa Valley Day Trip

Sampling Napa Valley in One Day

Napa Valley Vineyard in the Fall
••• Napa Valley Vineyard in the Fall. ©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

A visit to Napa Valley is a sensory experience: the smell of the wines, views of golden hills dotted with California live oaks rising above trellised grapevines, the taste of the food and wine. This fertile and productive area is packed with hundreds of wineries, enough to bewilder even the heartiest of travelers. We'll show you how to sample the best of it in a day.

What You Need to Know About Napa Valley Layout

The Napa Valley runs from the town of Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north, less than thirty miles.

If you're going to do it in a day, it will help if you know the layout. Use the Napa/Sonoma Map to figure out where everything is.

Rule #1: Pace Yourself

I have been on scores of winery tours and visited enough tasting rooms to tell you with authority that most of them are more or less the same. Everyone makes wine the same way. Unless you're a wine connoisseur, most of it tastes good.

The most interesting tours and prettiest tasting rooms are off the beaten path, and you're not likely to find them by just driving into Napa Valley and picking a place at random.

Furthermore, a visit to Napa is about savoring what it has to offer, not about speed-drinking. Don't try to pack in a bunch of winery visits in one day. Instead, pick one winery tour and one wine tasting experience from our top Napa Valley wineries list. Go to one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The best ones require reservations, and it's essential to plan ahead.

Depending on the wineries you've chosen, drive through Napa Valley on Highway 29 in one direction and on Silverado Trail in the other. Not only is Silverado Trail less busy than the main highway, but it's more scenic, too.

The patio at Domaine Carneros south of the town of Napa on CA Hwy 121 is a perfect place to end your day in wine country.

They stay open a little later than other wineries and the views from their patio are extraordinary.

Where to Eat

Allow enough time for a lunch break in one of the Napa Valley's many fine restaurants. Centrally located St. Helena may be the most convenient place, and you'll find a nice selection of excellent eateries there. My husband and I especially like Farmstead in St. Helena, where you can usually get in without waiting - and the food and service are both top-notch.

Alternatively, you could combine wine tasting, olive oil sampling, and a great meal by choosing the Il Pranzo experience at Round Pond Estate - or their Garden to Table Brunch.

For a wine country picnic, buy some goodies from Oakville Grocery (CA Hwy 29 at Oakville Cross Road) or the Sunshine Market on the south side of St. Helena. Our Napa Valley winery guide lists some of the best places to picnic.

How to Get to Napa Valley

It will take about an hour to get to the south end of Napa Valley from San Francisco. Use this guide to find out all the ways to get from San Francisco to Napa Valley.

If you only have a day, getting stuck in traffic is not the way to spend it. Check the car racing schedule at Sonoma Raceway. If there's a big race going on, it will be faster to take I-80 north and CA Hwy 12 west to get to Napa Valley.

If you're taking our advice to skip the rental car while staying in San Francisco, you can rent one for the day from Avis or Hertz's city offices near Fisherman's Wharf or Union Square.

How to Get Back to San Francisco

If you decide to return to San Francisco by way of the Golden Gate Bridge, you need to know that toll-taking on the bridge is all electronic. To avoid a fine and extra costs, you'll need to get prepared. Use the Golden Gate Bridge Tolls Guide (written just for visitors) to find out what your options are.