Navigating Napa Valley: A First Timer's Guide to Wine Country

Travel advisor posing at a vineyard
Curated By

Jenna Picton

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  • Napa Valley

  • Couples Travel

  • Food & Wine

  • Luxury Travel

  • California

  • Sightseeing

  • Romantic

  • Vineyard

A woman posing in a vineyard during day time.
Curator’s statement

Nestled in California's wine country, Napa Valley is truly magical for a multitude of reasons. Picturesque rolling vine-covered hills and quaint towns with walkable downtowns create an enchanting and romantic atmosphere. Napa Valley offers luxe accommodations, world-class wineries and a diverse culinary scene boasting Michelin-starred restaurants and farm-to-table cuisine. Napa Valley is an ultimate year-round destination.

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Insider knowledge

Expert advice from people who’ve actually been there

Where to stay in Napa Valley

Alila Napa Valley

Contemporary hotel by vineyards and the Spring Mountains with trendy rooms and suites.

Fora Perks
  • $100 hotel / resort credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out, whenever possible.

Meadowood Napa Valley

Expect a country club atmosphere at this beloved wine hotel on 250 acres, with a full roster of activities from fine dining and tennis to golf and hiking.

Fora Perks
  • $100 resort credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.

Carneros Resort and Spa

The quintessential Wine Country escape, set on 28 vineyard-flanked acres, with three restaurants, a guests-only spa and included wellness classes.

Fora Perks
  • $100 resort / hotel credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.

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Things to do in Napa Valley

Vineyard with mountains at the back.

Wine tasting

Our favorite wineries were Frog’s Leap (Rutherford – reservations strongly recommended), Far Niente (Oakville – reservations required), and HALL (St. Helena – reservations recommended). See the section on 'Where to Wine Taste' for more details on this.

Tip: I would recommend no more than 2-3 wineries per day as you don't want to feel rushed but also many tours and tastings require reservations (which are similar between wineries) that are only offered so many times per day.

Hot air balloon ride

Such an incredible experience with Napa Valley Aloft. It requires an early wake-up, but it is SO worth it. I thought I’d be nervous, but it was such a smooth, easy rise and I felt at ease the entire time! The entire experience takes a few hours, but I wanted it to last all day! You meet in Yountville and take the balloon up and over vineyards until landing somewhere around Napa city and then a shuttle takes you back to the meeting spot in Yountville.

Spa day

There are many incredible options for spas, but we chose to capitalize on Calistoga’s reputation for natural hot springs and healing waters and try the (relatively) newer Solage Spa. We chose the “Signature Mudslide” which included a mineral-rich mudbath, a luxurious soak (add the champagne) and resting in a gravity-sounding chair. We also spent time in the geothermic pools, which was just what we needed after a long day of travel!

Eat

Napa Valley is known for some of the most incredible restaurants. If we had to choose favorites, we’d say Auberge Du Soleil, Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch and Press, but everything we ate was top-notch!

Other activities: Hike, golf and shop.

Day Trips

How to get there

There are three options for airports – San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento. All are a similar-ish distance (~1.5 h) to Napa Valley, so compare flight & rental car prices (or let me do that for you!) You can pre-arrange a driver to pick you up, rent a car or get an Uber/Lyft (this will run you upwards of $200). Depending on where you stay and what you plan to do, most everything is pretty spread out, so I’d recommend renting a car but if you planned to stay in, say St. Helena and only visit wineries around there, you could do it without a car.

Places to eat & drink in Napa Valley

Tip: Reservations for The French Laundry become available on the 1st of the month for the following month at 10am PST or 1pm EST (i.e. reservations for October become available September 1, 10am PST).

The Model Bakery (St. Helena): The most delicious breakfast sandwiches & pastries. Get a breakfast sandwich on their highly sought-after English muffin! The coffee is great, too! Walkable from Alila, Napa Valley.

Goose & Gander (St. Helena): Housed in a historic bungalow with a dining room, basement bar, and gorgeous garden. The ambiance in the dim-lit pub-like dining room was romantic. Get the G&G Burger with a duck egg! Walkable from Alila, Napa Valley.

Acacia House (St. Helena): Alila’s on-site restaurant where we enjoyed breakfast, dessert, and several drinks. For breakfast, expect fresh juices, mimosas, pastries and out-of-this-world chilaquiles. The London Fog dessert was mouthwatering – Earl Grey mousse, honey custard, honeycomb toffee, brown butter crumb and bergamot pate de fruit. Based on how much we loved our breakfast and dessert, I’d bet the dinner was just as impressive.

Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch (St. Helena): Highly recommend for brunch and sit in the greenhouse. The oysters and cheese/charcuterie board were favorites. We ended up ordering a second round of oysters! There is also a cute market inside. We love it here and wish we visited before our last day so we could've come back multiple times!

Auberge Du Soleil (Rutherford): This iconic luxury Napa Valley resort is known for its breathtaking vineyard and distant mountain views and is well worth a visit for a drink or meal on the terrace. If you can time it for sunset, even better! A Michelin-rated restaurant where you will find the freshest seasonal ingredients from Napa Valley purveyors. We stopped in for lunch and were seated at a table along the edge of the terrace with a dreamy view. We ordered refreshing cocktails (L’espirit Du Soleil & Fleur De Lis), wine (Auberge Du Soleil chardonnay), oysters, salad, and a margarita pizza. This was a top dining experience for sure!

Press (St. Helena): St. Helena’s Michelin-rated restaurant serving seasonally inspired, eclectic and elevated cuisine and the most extensive Napa wine collection in the world. They have an option for a tasting menu as well as a-la-carte ordering. Since we had been eating all day, we opted for a la carte, but next time we’ll try the tasting menu for sure! We sat at the bar and enjoyed the yellowtail belly, oysters with wasabi foam, black cod and the signature pretzel – everything was SOOOO tasty except for the wasabi foam on the oysters – not our taste.

The Charter Oak (St. Helena): Known for incredible seasonal food and a stellar wine list. We did the Yurt experience, which was a chef-prepared tasting menu. The yurts were heated, well-lit, and blankets were provided (a gesture I much appreciated). The evening began with a glass of champagne, followed by several sharables, including raw vegetables from TCO’s farm. Next up came pork ravioli in brodo which were to die for and lastly, dry-aged ribeye with potatoes and greens. The evening ended with mochi cake and a specialty cocktail. Highly recommend this experience if you are there during Yurt season (Nov – Apr). While you couldn’t order food from the main menu, wines and cocktails were readily available.

French Laundry (Yountville): If you can secure a reservation to this world-renowned gem, please GO! And report back!

Need to Know

Looking for other travel inspo? Check out my guide, A Dog-Friendly Getaway to Wilmington, NC.

Travel advisor posing at a vineyard

Travel Advisor

Jenna Picton

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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Napa Valley.