Top Things To Do In California: Top Things To Do In Napa Valley

February 4, 2024  |  Napa Valley, California

Nestled in the heart of California's Wine Country, Napa Valley stands as a premier destination renowned for its picturesque landscapes, world-class vineyards, and exceptional culinary experiences. This idyllic Northern California region, situated just north of San Francisco, boasts a rich tapestry of rolling vineyards, charming wineries, and luxurious resorts. With a climate conducive to grape cultivation, Napa Valley has become synonymous with fine wine production, drawing oenophiles and enthusiasts from around the globe. Beyond its vineyard-dotted hills, visitors can indulge in gourmet dining, spa retreats, and hot air balloon rides, creating an unforgettable blend of leisure and sophistication. Whether exploring historic wineries, savoring exquisite vintages, attending the annual BottleRock music festival or simply reveling in the breathtaking scenery, Napa Valley promises a sensory journey that captures the essence of luxury and relaxation.

Discovering Napa Valley: Wine Tasting and Beyond

I first visited Napa Valley in the early 2000's as I had wanted to explore Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park located just outside of St. Helena. At the time, my only familiarity with California Wine Country was a panoramic vineyard landscape photo of mustard flowers that I had seen at the former Peter Lik Gallery at San Francisco's Pier 39. As I was driving through the heart of Napa Valley on Highway 29, I honestly was not super-impressed while driving past at 50 mph. I was in my early 20's and had been a photographer for just a few years at this point and my idyllic comparisons at the time were world-class scenic destinations that I had visited in my youth such as Yosemite Valley, Big Sur and the Canadian Rockies. Napa Valley is not that sort of destination!

My 2nd visit to Napa Valley took place on the day after I proposed to my now-wife, Samantha, in the winter of 2012. I planned out an itinerary for us that started off with browsing the vendor stalls and lunch at Napa's Oxbow Public Market. After lunch, we drove to St. Helena for a wine tasting at the Rhine House at Beringer Vineyards. Back in those days, wine-tasting reservations weren't really needed at a lot of places as you could just walk up to a counter and be served. I was not a wine drinker but it was a very romantic and transformative experience at least for me. After the tasting, we explored the bookstore at the nearby Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (CIA) which had a wealth of cookbooks that covered every type of cuisine imaginable. For dinner, we had Himalayan cuisine in downtown St. Helena. It was during this visit to Napa Valley that things started to click for me.

Tree-Lined Driveway During Fall Season, Calistoga, California, photo

Calistoga Trees

It was during the fall of 2013 when I truly fell in love with Napa Valley and Sonoma County Wine Country. I went to photograph a Backroads California Wine Country Bike Tour where I went a week camping with 20 others and exploring the hidden gems along the way. From the vineyards with fall foliage to the bonds forged over picnics and wine tastings, I realized that the way to truly get to know Wine Country was to get out of the car and take it slow. I've been visiting and photographing this region a lot over the past 10 years so I will share my personal views here on the top things to do in Napa Valley.

Top Wine Tasting Experiences in Napa Valley

As mentioned earlier, I had an amazing experience at Beringer Vineyards and would highly recommend the experience. The Rhine House is a beautiful Victorian home that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Castello di Amorosa is arguably one of the top tourist destinations in Napa Valley as the structure is modeled after a 14th-century Tuscan castle. My wife and I went on the Diamond Estate Tour & Wine Tasting which was a lot of fun. We had a tour guide take us through the castle which included an armory and wine caves. The experience concluded with a tasting. Clos Pegase was a memorable experience as well as I first encountered the vineyard on the Backroads trip. The hedgerows turn the most vibrant colors of red during fall season. There are also large contemporary art sculptures scattered about the property. I had a good tasting at Chateau Montelena as well. A highlight is the Chinese gardens located on the grounds.

Sterling is perhaps best known for the aerial gondola ride from the valley floor up to the winery. I have not personally taken this but it is definitely high on my list. The tram needed to be replaced after the devastating 2020 wildfires and re-opened in late-2023. Another experience that is on my list of things to do is the Napa Valley Wine Train. My mom has been on the train and had a great time. It would be a fun experience to wine and dine over lunch while passing through beautiful vineyard scenery.

Winter Mustard Flower Bloom at a Vineyard in Stag's Leap District AVA, Napa Valley, California, photo

Winter Mustard Bloom

Other legendary wineries to consider visiting are Robert Mondavi, who was arguably the most famous winemaker in the history of Napa Valley. Mondavi's name is essentially synonymous with California's Wine Country. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is another legendary winery; that won the 1976 Judgment of Paris with the highest red wine score ever over the more famous French wines. That competition is what laid the foundation for Napa Valley becoming the world-class wine region that it is known for today.

What to Eat in Napa Valley

Napa Valley's world-class dining scene achieves distinction through a perfect fusion of culinary innovation, locally sourced, top-tier ingredients, and an unwavering commitment to the art of winemaking. Renowned chefs, drawn by the region's fertile terroir, craft exquisite menus that showcase the best of California's seasonal produce, delivering a gastronomic journey that is both sophisticated and authentic. The farm-to-table ethos prevails, ensuring that each dish reflects the freshness and quality of locally harvested ingredients. Paired with an extensive selection of exceptional wines, often from the valley's own renowned vineyards, the dining experience becomes a symphony of flavors that celebrates the region's unique terroir. Beyond the palate, the ambiance of Napa's eateries, often set against the backdrop of rolling vineyards and picturesque landscapes, contributes to the overall allure, creating a world-class dining scene that captivates the senses and solidifies Napa Valley's status as a global epicenter for culinary excellence.

Fine Dining Experiences

About a decade ago, Yountville was said to have the most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world. Whether that's true or not is up for debate but Napa Valley is certainly a mecca within the fine dining scene. I have personally dined at several of Napa Valley's Michelin-starred restaurants including The French Laundry. Purchased in 1994 by Chef Thomas Keller, The French Laundry has earned three Michelin stars every year for the past two decades. The restaurant was also named best restaurant in the world in 2003 and 2004. Needless to say, The French Laundry is at the top of the list when it comes to Napa Valley fine dining experiences. I celebrated my wife's birthday there in 2015. This was certainly the most memorable dining experience of our lives. Reservations are not easy to acquire however as it took substantial effort on my part to secure one.

Oysters and Pearls - The French Laundry

Oysters and Pearls - The French Laundry

Another Michelin star restaurant that I've dined at is Bouchon Bistro, which is also owned by Chef Keller and located just down the street from The French Laundry. While Bouchon no longer has a Michelin star at the time of this writing, it's also worthy of a visit as it features French-style bistro fare. Next on my to-list is PRESS Restaurant in St. Helena, which currently holds a one Michelin star rating.

While Michelin stars are one way to identify elevated cooking, that is just one way of looking at food. Two other worthy restaurants that I enjoyed very much are The Charter Oak and the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch, both located in St. Helena. The Charter Oak in particular has an incredible raw vegetable platter that comes with a fermented soy dip. Admittedly I'm not a huge vegetable fan but this one is a winner. The Charter Oak's Chef Christopher Kostow previously ran the three Michelin star Restaurant at Meadowood which unfortunately burned to the ground during the 2020 Glass Fire.

For Italian cuisine, I would recommend Bottega which is located in Yountville. Chef Michael Chiarello, who was perhaps best-known for his appearances on The Food Network, passed away unexpectedly in 2023.

Current List of Napa Valley Michelin Star Restaurants (as of February 4th, 2024)

Casual Dining Experiences in Napa Valley

Three go-to options that I always consider for casual dining in Napa Valley are:

  1. Oxbow Public Market, Napa
  2. Gott's Roadside, Napa (next to Oxbow Public Market) - the original Gott's Roadside is in St. Helena but the line always looks extremely long. I personally opt for the one in Napa as it's not quite as busy and more convenient to access from my San Francisco Bay Area home. Gott's is the place go if you want to eat casual burgers.
  3. Picnic at V. Sattui Winery, St. Helena - The artisan deli and marketplace is the ultimate place to go if you want to have a picnic in Napa Valley. I personally am a huge fan of their sandwiches and lasagna (when it's available). If it's too busy at V. Sattui then the Oakville Grocery is another great option though you'll have to find another location to picnic.

If you're a fan of avocado toast, then I'd recommend having brunch at Sam's Social Club in Calistoga. The avocado toast is massive and incredibly tasty.

For incredible fried chicken, get a reservation at Chef Keller's Ad Hoc or order takeout and picnic at the seasonal Addendum.

Kollar Chocolates located within V Marketplace in Yountville is a must. I don't have much of a sweet tooth but these chocolates are divine. Prior to the pandemic, V Marketplace was a much livelier place with multiple art galleries and boutiques on both floors but it's mostly empty these days aside from Kollar Chocolates and V Wine Cellar. I'm not sure what the deal is but I always go there for the chocolates and wine.

Shopping and Souvenirs: The Finest Local Products

There is the Napa Premium Outlets if you have a need for traditional shopping but I want to focus on local businesses that make Napa Valley unique. Downtown Napa in particular has been revitalized in recent years. It's a very lively scene there between downtown and the Oxbow District just across the bridge. I've been eyeing this area for a potential fine art photography gallery. Oxbow Public Market has an excellent spice market if you're looking for artisan spices and seasonings. Further north in Yountville, Finesse - The Store is owned by Chef Thomas Keller and the place to go for his memorabilia and kitchen items. Main Street in St. Helena has numerous shops housed within historic buildings. Copperfield's Books is a Wine Country staple. Independent bookstores are pretty rare these days in the age of Amazon and online shopping but Copperfield's is a gem. There is a Copperfield's in downtown Calistoga. I almost never exit without purchasing some books for my kids. There is a good selection of local books as well.

Another spot worth visiting is the Calistoga Depot. The site of a former train station, Calistoga Depot is a unique shopping experience with character. I'm not sure of the current status of the business however as I haven't been there in a few years.

Napa Valley Fine Art Photography Prints by Richard Wong

I've spent the past decade photographing Napa Valley and have sold numerous fine art prints to art buyers around the country. My priority is on providing excellent customer service to you and knowing the region well. I share many of the same interests and tastes as my clients so I'm able to relate to your needs. If you have any questions in regards to my artwork, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I offer personal consultations with my customers to determine which style of print is best for you and produce custom print files tailored to your needs. Printing and shipping of my photos are handled by world-class professional print labs.

An Unforgettable Escape: Napa Valley Awaits

From the sun-kissed vineyards to the serene peaks gazing upon the Wine Country, Napa Valley offers an array of exclusive experiences that cater to those seeking luxury and indulgence. Wine tastings that let you savor the nuanced terroir of world-famous wineries, gourmet food adventures that tantalize with every bite, and bespoke tours tailored to your every desire—each moment spent in Napa is designed to surpass expectations.

After days spent traveling amidst the lush vineyard vistas, you can unwind in opulent accommodations, treating yourself to a spa retreat that redefines relaxation. If seeking a more elevated perspective, allow the breathtaking hot air balloon rides to whisk you above the picturesque landscapes, all whilst you contemplate the pure essence of Napa pleasure.

The curated events, high-end shopping opportunities, and exclusive leisure activities further ensure that your time in Napa Valley remains unmatched. Whether it's a special occasion you’re celebrating or the simple joy of traveling, Napa's bespoke offerings cater to the most discerning of tastes.

From exploring the vineyards for that perfect glass of wine to indulging in food and spa luxury to creating memories through tailored experiences and special events, Napa Valley stands out as an unmatched luxury destination. When considering your next upscale getaway, let Napa Valley be at the top of your list—an epitome of elegance and fine living. Now is the time to start planning your escape to this exquisite corner of the world.

Read Article on Finding The Best Time To Visit Napa Valley

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