When we hear about Napa, most of us will immediately and unequivocally think about vineyards and wineries but there are many more things to do in Napa Valley than sipping (amazing) wines.
In this article I want to explore what to do in Napa, both wine related and otherwise, but especially in the summer months when the weather is warm and the sun is shining.
Best things to do in Napa Valley
Located less than 2h drive from San Francisco, Napa Valley makes for the perfect weekend escape that feels miles away from the Silicon Valley buzz of the windy city while being easily reached after Friday work.
What makes it even more interesting is the wide range of activities in Napa Valley that are great for anyone, from a girls’ getaway to a couple’s vacation or a friends and family get together.
It is even a popular corporate retreat destination owing to its proximity to airports and headquarters of many a company.
Eat at all the awarded restaurants
One of the things to do in Napa Valley which I enjoyed the most was exploring all the fine dining options available.
This includes restaurants such as famously difficult to get a table at 3 Michelin-starred The French Laundry as well as Keller’s elevated Parisian bistro concept Bouchon with one star or casual bakery of the same name, in Yountville (which has franchises in places as far flung as Dubai).
Keller is not the only awarded restaurant in the Napa Valley, there 9 Michelin-Starred restaurants in total, giving you plenty to choose from.
I loved the romanticism of Auberge du Soleil with its pretty outdoor terrace overlooking the vineyards and the luxury hotel rooms but could be persuaded (without much effort) to try SingleThread or The Restaurant at Meadowood both of which have three stars.
Shop at a farmer’s market
Make sure to check out St. Helena’s Friday market where all the local farmers bring their produce to sell and you can snatch some of the freshest farm to table foods. Buy what is in season to enjoy the best of the best.
The market runs every Friday morning from May to October.
Take a mud bath
Calistoga is known as the spa destination in the valley.
But aside from the more “traditional” spa treatments and wellness retreats (of which there are many), one of the most unique things to do in Napa Valley is to immerse (literally) yourself into a mud bath.
I say literally because you will indeed be placed naked inside a large square bathtub that is filled with viscous, brown and thick mud that is meant to be really good for you.The experience is so unique that you have to see for yourself because no word can do it justice. I booked myself at Dr. Wilkinson’s Spa but there are many options available.
See a water explosion
I have seen geysers in a few places, from Chile’s Atacama Desert to New Zealand’s Ratoroa and Iceland where I also stayed in a Bubble Hotel, but who knew that Napa Valley also has a geyser in the town of Calistoga, where all the thermal waters and spas are.
The Old Faithful Geyser is easy to visit and you can get tickets to see it explode high with hot water. The explosions are almost guaranteed and if you have never seen it before it is quite a spectacle.
The site also has an animal farm and picnic area so you can make it a half day tour. Book your tickets through Expedia in advance here and avoid the queues.
Visit a petrified forest
Also in Calistoga you can see an ancient preserved petrified forest in what is one of the most majestic attractions in Napa Valley.
The Petrified Forest was covered in lava from a volcanic eruption over 3 million years ago and has been kept as is ever since. The volcano, now extinct, can also be seen.
You can visit the site on your own by following the two trails or take a guided tour which run three times a day and last 1.5 hours.
Attend a music festival
Food isn’t the only art that is celebrated in the Napa Valley, music takes center stage in the summer months with Napa City Lights filling the warm summer Friday evenings with concerts from June to August.
Go on a hot air balloon trip
One of my favorite things to do in Napa is a hot air balloon excursion.
Call me crazy but I did this before going to work, in Silicon Valley, on a Friday morning. It helped that I was heavily jet lagged so waking up at 4am was no issue, and that I have flexibility at work so I could turn up at lunch time and work late without issues.
The flight usually starts at around 5am, depending on the time of year, and takes off as the sun is rising. Following a quiet and relaxing flight over the vineyards and the beautiful landscapes of Napa Valley you then land and are driven back for a champagne breakfast.
You can book your hot air balloon experience here.
Take a helicopter tour
Balloon flights are great but helicopters tours are amazing, or better yet, you can do them both and then compare and tell me what you think.
Helicopter tours are usually shorter but obviously go faster so you get to cover a similar area yet in a much more exhilarating way.
Take the train
One of the most interesting and unique ways to see the region is by combining a meal onboard the Napa Valley train with a couple of winery visits.
The Napa Valley Wine Train starts and ends at downtown Napa and goes all the way to St. Helena, making for a great day excursion and, well, I do love great train journeys especially if they are on elegant trains and they come with fabulous views.
You can book your Napa train tickets via Expedia, they have all the range of trips available. Book the regular ticket with gourmet lunch here or go for the Legacy tour with stops at the most famous wineries and several meals in between the winery visits which you can book here.
Visit an exclusive winery
There are over 400 wineries in Napa Valley and the surrounding areas. You can show up at pretty much any of their cellar doors and taste their wines, enjoy snacks at many, even have lunch at their restaurants.
However, some of the more exclusive wineries can only be visited by appointment. Visit Chateau Montelena, the first winery in Napa to compete against white Burgundy wines in France and win. Or Tedeschi, a small family-run winery which produces less than 10,000 bottles a year.
For a soap-opera filled visit, make it to Spring Mountain Winery, whose famous French-inspired mansion was the set of the 80s TV series Falcon Crest. Its wines are also exceptional and the setting for the winery even more divine. Look out for the single line vineyards set on a hill, a la Priorat style.
Read more about the three of them here.
Feel like a prince or princess
There are many wineries in Napa Valley that have a French and European theme going on. Some look like a castle in the Loire, others like a Medieval fortress and one of the most interesting ones is Castello di Amorosa, technically a 13th century-inspired Tuscan castle.
Here you can feel like a prince or princess walking up the stone steps, if only there was a mote you would expect feel as if a monster was to come kidnap the princess.
The castle is authentic in that it was built following traditional methods and by hand. There are more than 100 rooms and 4 underground levels. To make it extra genuine and reflective of 13th century, Dario V. Sattui, the founder, also added an armoury and a torture chamber.
If you also want to taste the wines, there are of course wine tastings, self-guided or guided tours and visits. For something extra special book the Royal Food & Wine Pairing Tour which will truly make you feel like you belong to aristocracy. Time to wear your gown for a photo shoot.
Take a picture
You can’t visit Napa Valley and not take a photo in front of the famous Welcome to Napa Valley sign. Mind you, there are two of them but one can be found here. There is space to park your car and stop for a photo op.
Learn to cook
Napa is privileged enough to have a lot of cooking schools but perhaps the best regarded is the Culinary Institute of America with a branch in downtown Napa.
Here you can get full time certifications in case you are looking for a career change, or simply sign up for one of the cooking classes, workshops, demonstrations or 2 to 4 day boot camps which can teach you anything from plant-based cooking to charcuterie or seasonal recipes.
Go back home and surprise your loved ones with amazing culinary skills!
Visit a market and cook your lunch
One of the most efficient ways to combine some of the best things to do in Napa Valley is by taking a cooking class that starts with a market visit.
Julie’s fun hands-on cooking classes start with a market visit to either Napa’s Farmers Market or Oxbow’s Public Market (depending on the day of the week). You will hear more about the various local ingredients in season and then make your own meal which will, hopefully, be fantastically tasty.
Take a vacation
As mentioned above, Napa Valley’s proximity to one of the busiest cities in the US makes it a favorite weekend escapade so why not come to simply take a vacation.
You may think it is a bit of a pity to miss out on all the fun but one of the most fabulous things to do in Napa Valley is precisely nothing, aka taking a real vacation and relaxing by the pool, eating well, going on long relaxing walks among the vineyards and reading a book.
There are a lot of fancy and amazing hotels in the valley all of which are available on Expedia. Some of my most favorite are Auberge du soleil, set on a hill with glorious views and a fine dining restaurant to die for (Valentine’s Day idea anyone?).
Other luxurious properties in the valley include Meadowood Napa Valley (where one of the three three-Michelin starred restaurants in the valley is) and wellness-focused Carneros Resort & Spa.
Go wine tasting
Of course, I could not finish an article with the best things to do in Napa Valley without talking about wine extensively.
While it is impossible to pick the best wineries and wine is largely a matter of personal choice, there are a few notable wineries well worth a visit.
Robert Mondavi is perhaps the largest and best known of all Napa Valley wineries founded by a pioneer of the wine industry in the region. He is also credited with bringing the French wine methods and tradition to the Margaret River region of Australia.
Another well-known winery is V. Sattui of the same founder of the Castello di Amorosa castle I talked about before. The winery is easy to reach and located on a main road and it is accessible and totally oriented towards visitors. However, that also means it can really busy. Make the most of it by dropping by on Sunday for the lunch BBQ.
For a dose of bubbles, visit the Domain Chandon house where you can learn about sparkling wine from one of the best known brands. Remember that Moet Chandon can only be called that if produced in the Champagne region so all the sparkling wines the brand produces outside, from Australia to California, are called Chandon only.
For an absolutely stunning castle (there are a few castles in Napa Valley as you can see), visit Domaine Carneros which has the most elegant of them all inspired by a French Champagne 18th century castle. Anyone up for an Instagram shoot?
And to make sure that you can actually drink the wines, book a 6 hour wine tasting tour with Expedia so you get driven instead of driving. You pick the wineries, the driver takes you there.
Learn about wine
But let me not do it with a list of the best wineries but with a suggestion to take an official course.
A couple of years ago I took the WSET certification levels 1 and 2 and very much enjoyed it, but what would have made it extra interesting would have been to have taken the class among vineyards, instead of a classroom in Singapore.
The Napa Valley Wine Academy provides a range of wine courses, not just from WSET but from several other certification bodies.
For a good introduction to wines and spirits, the WSET Level 1 is a full day course where you can get to know the basics of wine appreciation and tasting.
There is little about the wine production per se as the course is more focused on the appreciation part, and makes for a great way to start your Napa Valley exploration. You can then set off to visit all the wine cellars in the region with a bit more knowledge about wine tasting.
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