Napa Valley is one of the most-visited destinations for wine-loving travellers, and it’s no surprise why. Home to 16 AVAs, 18,000+ hectares of vineyards, and over 450 wineries within a 30-mile radius, the region is both a bountiful and beautiful choice for curious wine lovers worldwide.
However, those familiar with wine region travel are no strangers to the downsides of this style of visit. Extensive time in the car, pre-scheduled appointments, and the need for a designated driver can create massive headaches while trying to enjoy the best that wine travel has to offer. Thankfully, there is a solution.
Situated at the base of the region’s prestigious valley, Downtown Napa is a safe haven for wine lovers looking for a food-and-booze soaked weekend, no car or pre-scheduled appointments required. Home to a slew of tasting rooms, world-class restaurants and delightful places to drink, this small-yet-fierce urban centre is ideal for wine-loving travellers looking for an easy, laid-back getaway. Check out our perfect three-day itinerary for taking in all that this delightful city centre has to offer, no car required.
Thanks to the region’s spectacular year-round weather, planning a visit to Napa promises a great time during any month of the year. Peak seasons take place from March to May, as well as August to October (harvest time) – the latter of which is arguably the most beautiful time of year.
Although Napa is best known for its full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s so much more to discover. In addition to flavour-packed Chardonnay, Merlot-based blends, and powerful Syrah, a slew of other wine grapes are cultivated in this diverse growing area. With regards to food, the region doesn’t necessarily boast a signature dish – however, the taco trucks on Soscol Avenue offer some of the area’s most authentic cuisine.
Stacking the days with tasting room appointments can quickly run up a high tab, as wine tasting flights are generally always the pricier option. Instead, opt for a simple glass or bottle option at places where you may only be interested in one or two wines. Save the wine flights for tasting rooms that truly pique your curiosity – that’s to say, have a larger number of wines that spark your interest.
My perfect weekend in Downtown Napa
Arrive in Downtown Napa and check in at the River Terrace Inn. Located within walking distance of all of the area’s best tasting rooms and restaurants, this tranquil accommodation offers 114 rooms of a variety of types and with various amenities. Spring for one of the hotel’s breathtaking suites, equipped with private balcony and in-room fireplace (operated by remote control, no management required). The hotel also features a restaurant, meeting area and gym, kitted out with a Peloton bike and two Peloton treadmills.
Stroll over to the nearby Oxbow Public Market, home to a variety of places to eat, drink, and enjoy the local scenery. Enjoy fresh oysters from Hog Island Oyster Co or authentic Mexican street food at C Casa Taqueria. Post-market stroll, take a beer break across the street at Trade Brewing (we recommend the Kolsch) or pop over to Walt Wines, regarded for their tasty Pinot Noir and Chardonnay offerings, for your first tasting room experience.
For outdoor games, live music and al fresco fun, head to the newly-opened Napa Yard. Boasting an on-site distillery, numerous bars and tasty pub grub, this distillery-beer garden hybrid offers a variety of ways to enjoy the weather. Be sure to check the space’s website for a list of upcoming events.
For dinner, head back to the River Terrace Inn and enjoy a meal al fresco at the hotel’s on-site restaurant, ALBA. Start with the Daily Harvest Tartine and Cornbread, followed by the Grilled Asparagus Salad. Entrée highlights include Ricotta Gnocchi, Half-Roasted Chicken, and the signature Alba Burger & Fries. Choose from handmade cocktails or a variety of wines by the bottle, curated from both local and international producers.
Enjoy a slow morning at the hotel with in-room coffee on the balcony (or better yet, indoors by the fire). Motivated travellers, sweat out some of yesterday’s booze at the on-site gym, then savour a long breakfast at ALBA. For those looking to enjoy the great outdoors, check out the various nearby river excursions, including gondola boat tours via Napa Valley Gondola or kayak jaunts with Napa Valley Paddle, or simply take a stroll on the quaint trail situated behind the hotel.
Kick off your wine tasting afternoon with a visit to Brendel Wines, located on First Street. Known for their organically-farmed lineup of approachable wines, Brendel’s easy-drinking selection offers a unique alternative to the often bolder flavour profiles of wine found in Napa. Next, pop over to Rebel Vintners for an unforgettable tasting with one of the collective’s three winemakers. Occupied by Uncharted Wine, Leaf & Vine, and Cadle Family Wines, these three unique projects highlight ‘off-the-beaten-path’ grapes and wine styles for Napa – think skin-contact bottlings, late-released Alicante Bouschet, Sangiovese, Grenache Blanc and more. After two (or more) tastings, enjoy sustainably-farmed food for lunch from The Dutch Door, known for their fried chicken sandwiches and hot dogs, as well as their vegan/vegetarian bowls and burgers.
Make your mid-afternoon all about wine and cheese with a number of easily accessible, off-the-beaten-track visits. First up, venture up Coombs Street (about a 20-minute walk) to Neiman Cellars for a beautiful, riverside tasting. Spearheaded by Drew Neiman, who cut his winemaking teeth under the legendary John Konsgaard, these artisanal, small-batch wines are paired with curated pairings by cheese expert Lassa Skinner. By appointment only.
For an equally delightful venture, grab a 7-minute Uber to The Cheese Shed, a rustic tasting room overseen by the Vin Fraîche wine group. Enjoy a curated wine and cheese pairing experience led by hospitality manager Dan Bell, surrounded by breathtaking, 360-degree vineyard views. Reservation required.
For dinner and drinks at one of downtown’s buzziest new establishments, look no further than The ArBaretum. This newly-opened undertaking offers craft cocktails, premium spirits and a variety of elevated snacks and dishes, served up in a vibe-y space clad with cosy couches, bright plant-inspired murals, and energetic playlists to boot. The bar’s craft cocktail list emphasises gin-based libations; for small bites, don’t skip on the deviled eggs.
Post-dinner, head to the Whiskey Bar at Sky & Vine, tucked away atop the roof at the Archer Hotel Napa. Explore the bar’s extensive whiskey offerings or simply opt for one of the meticulously crafted cocktails from the joint’s well-curated list, enjoyed al fresco around the outdoor firepit. Should hunger strike again, dive into one of the bar’s tasty homemade pizzas, prepared in their on-site stone hearth ovens. (Note: Open until 10 PM, reservations required.)
For those really looking to keep the party going, head over to the John Anthony Vineyards’ tasting lounge, which is open until midnight on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. While flights and by-the-glass pours are available, the late-night move is definitely to post up on the corner couches and indulge in a bottle of La Dame Michele, the company’s traditional method sparkling crafted from a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
For fearless travellers looking for the most beautiful view of the valley, start the day with a hot air balloon tour via Napa Valley Aloft. Although you’ll need to rise before dawn, the trip provides one of the most gorgeous views – and unforgettable memories – of Napa. While the balloon ride itself only takes about 45 minutes, you’ll need to budget about three hours for the whole experience.
Post balloon ride, head to Monday Bakery for a delicious late breakfast. Whether savoury ham and cheese croissants or sweet monkey bread are what you’re after, the café has some of the best baked goods in all of downtown. Grab a coffee to go and peruse Second Street’s eclectic shops, including Jeffries General and Antiques on Second.
While on Second Street, start your tasting adventure with a visit to Gamling & McDuck’s tasting room, located just a few doors down from Monday Bakery. Founded in 2008 by Adam McClary and Gabrielle Shaffer, this ‘Loire Valley House’ focuses exclusively on Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc, rather than the usual heavy hitters of Napa Valley. Expect a refreshing experience – both literally and figuratively – at this relaxed, alternative style tasting room (and if you’re lucky, Adam’s rescue cat may even come out to say hello).
For a boozy lunch that promises to please, head across the street to Be Bubbly, a sparkling wine-focused bar with ample selections and tasty local bites. Founded by Erin Riley, the bar’s self-proclaimed Chief Bubblehead, this two-tier wine bar is beloved by locals and tourists alike – so don’t be surprised if you happen to bump shoulders with one of the area’s local tasting room employees.
Prior to heading out, end your trip on a luxurious note with a visit to Chateau Buena Vista’s tasting room. Located just a few steps away on First Street, this decked out tasting room focuses on ‘Four Cs’ : Champagne, Caviar, Cabernet, and Chocolate. Simply pick your poison – or hey, why not spring for all four – and dive in (and don’t forget to grab some delicious, hand-painted Earth & Sky chocolates to take home with you).
Where to drink, eat and shop
Cadet – Cosy wine bar with ample outdoor seating; extensive wine offerings and cheese plates – an industry staple
Napa Palisades Saloon – Solid bar for beer and pub grub, a diamond in the rough amongst a slew of nearby tourist traps
Napastäk – Excellent place for a solid cup of coffee, as well as to stock up on locally-produced oils, vinegars and jams to take home; same owners as Napa Valley Distillery
Tarla – Creative (and delicious) Mediterranean food with a Greek and Turkish focus
Charlie Palmer Steak – Spacious, contemporary steakhouse with good food and fun vibes
El Porteño Empanadas – Flaky, Argentinian empanadas in an industrial, waterfront setting
Annette’s Chocolates – Local purveyor of chocolate, truffles and ice cream with a 30+ year history
Coppersfield’s Books – Classic bookstore with a solid selection of magazine, books and small gifts
Makers Market – Brick and mortar shop featuring handmade items from local purveyors, including clothing, home goods and more
State & First – Quaint boutique offering a curated selection of clothing, jewellery and accessories
How to get there
Main airports: SFO (San Francisco International Airport), SMF (Sacramento International Airport), Napa County Airport
SFO to Downtown Napa: 59 minutes (58 miles)
SMF to Downtown Napa: 1 hour 4 minutes (65 miles)
Napa County Airport to Downtown Napa: 12 minutes (7 miles)