Wine Country Travel Guide: First Time in Napa Valley

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by Courtney Cochran


For history buffs, Rome is a must-see. Art fans flock to Paris’ Louvre Museum to glimpse the Mona Lisa. For those who enjoy wine – seasoned and newbie alike – a visit to the wine-soaked and legendary Napa Valley is a rite of passage. Here, in a swath of gorgeous vine-cloaked land just an hour north of San Francisco, wine fans can immerse themselves in a collection of locales and activities so sublime as to beg the question: need we really go home at all?

Herein, tips on must-see sights on your first visit, along with advice on key considerations including trip planning, timing, budgeting, and more. Because, we wouldn’t have you miss any key attractions on your first trip to this famous wine region.


Timing Is Everything: It’s possible to get a good feel for the breadth and character of Napa in two to three days’ time. We recommend visiting two to four wineries a day, a schedule that enables you to gain a sense of the valley’s vinous offerings while allowing time for extra-tasting-room activities such as cave and vineyard tours, sit-down or reserve tastings, long lunches, shopping and perhaps even a golf or spa excursion. Click here for seasonal considerations when visiting Napa.

Lay of the Land: The legendary Napa Valley stretches 30 miles from north to south, with the towns of Calistoga and Napa anchoring its northern and southern reaches, respectively. Both spots offer excellent lodging, as do mid-valley hamlets St. Helena and Yountville. Depending on where you choose to stay, you can easily head out for activities from any of these towns. You might choose to visit wineries that are “up valley” on your first day, for example, staying near your hotel in Calistoga in order to fit in a spa treatment and an early dinner reservation. On your second day, you might venture down valley to visit wineries further afield, allowing more time for driving. If you’re starting in the middle of the valley, consider a similar strategy, allowing that both days will require a moderate amount of driving.

Highway 29 is the valley’s main drag and runs north to south along its western side; the picturesque and lesser-trafficked Silverado Trail runs more or less parallel along the eastern side of Napa Valley and makes an excellent alternative mode of getting around, especially at rush hour on weekdays and much of Saturday.

Tasting Room 2.0: Variety rules in wine country, even in Napa, legendary for its rich Cabernets and silky Chardonnays. While here, work in some variety and try to visit at least one sparkling producer, a winery with a cave or barrel room you can tour, and at least one architecturally unique winery (your options include a Tuscan castle, Persian palace, and much, much more!). Expect to taste about five wines at each winery, and look for the spittoon – a bucket-like container for spitting out wine you don’t want to swallow – on the bar, and plan to use it if you’re driving. Tips are not expected at tasting rooms, but wine purchases and thank yous are always appreciated.

Money Matters: Expect to pay some of the steepest tasting room fees anywhere in Napa, from $5 to $50/person, with the average clocking in around $20. Though many Napa Valley wineries will waive tasting fees with wine purchase, some do not. Whether you’re looking to save money or moderate your intake, it is completely acceptable to share a tasting with a travel companion! As far as Napa hotel and Napa restaurant prices go, you can dial it up – all the way up to five stars and the best Michelin has to recommend – in Napa or make more moderate selections. On average, hotels run about $200 a night and up, and a meal about $50/person for appetizer, entrée, dessert and gratuity (excludes wine).

Napa’s new food truck craze means that values can be had for casually-inclined diners, and picnics boast the dual benefit of saving time and money. Ask your concierge or tasting room staff for more on where to pick up picnic provisions.

There’s plenty more to do in Napa than enjoy the fruits of the vine; the challenge for first-time visitors is prioritizing a few key extracurriculars that won’t take too much time away from must-see sites and tasting rooms. From outdoorsy activities such as hot air ballooning, hiking, bike riding and farmers market – going to riding the Napa Valley Wine Train, checking out galleries, art exhibits and even live music, Napa offers no shortage of inspiration for activity.

Tip: Some wineries offer wine-oriented extracurriculars – including blending and cooking lessons, wine tasting classes and the like – on site, a good bet if you’re looking to work in one of these extras between tastings.

New to Wine: Consider taking a class on wine tasting to kick off your visit (you will get a lot more out of your stay if you do!). The Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena offers half-day courses in wine, including one called “getting started.” Beyond, inquire with your concierge about wineries that offer education alongside tastes, and be sure to take at least one winery tour, where you will gain an overview of the winemaking and aging process – often with a glass in hand.


WineCountry Admin

WineCountry Media is made up of a dedicated and passionate team of wine and travel aficionados. We diligently explore regions, both near and far, to curate the best ideas and resources. Whether you're musing over your next escapade, planning a wine-fueled weekend away, or embracing the Wine Country lifestyle every day, trust us to be your comprehensive guide.