I don’t know about you, but after booking my first Napa Valley trip, I felt like a kid in a candy store. So many wineries to choose from, but so little time! With that in mind, I did some serious research on an ideal Napa Valley route, hotel reservations, winery reservations, and so on and so forth. Lucky for you, I put together all of the things you should know for Napa Valley first time visitors.
1 | Plan Ahead on Hotels
Napa Valley in the summer is getting close to Best Buy on Black Friday levels, so unless you love lines at the tasting bar, traffic, and pricey hotels, consider going another time. October is lovely (still warm, but much less crowded than those summer months.) Another plus to September and October—it’s harvest season! If you’re planning to stay in Napa Valley, make sure to book far in advance (read: MONTHS in advance), otherwise you’ll be staying in a very expensive room, or even no room at all. This is probably the most critical for Napa Valley first time visitors.
2 | Make Winery Reservations
For those of us that just like to see where the day takes us, this is for sure an annoying one. I initially thought they were doing it to be snooty, but nope…it’s usually just a condition of their winery permit. The other reason is if there are a ton of visitors, reservations help to preserve the experience. As a general rule, major wineries don’t require reservations, but I’d recommend planning out your route in advance and checking each one individually.
3 | Best “Big Name” Wineries for Napa Valley First Time Visitors
Ok, so everyone that is a Napa expert will probably turn up their noses at this list, because yes, these wineries are well-known and not so secret at all. However, skipping them on a first time visit would be like visiting San Francisco and skipping the Golden Gate Bridge because it’s too touristy. In any case, here are a few suggestions for first-time visitors to Napa:
- Domaine Chandon –This is the perfect intro to Napa with sparkling wine…I don’t know about you, but (usually) I’m not ready for a big glass of red in the morning.
- Castello di Amorosa – This winery may have been my favorite…it’s an enormous Italian medieval castle in the middle on Napa Valley. It’s the real thing too; I did a tour and can vouch for the moat, drawbridge, and even the existence of a torture chamber!
- Sattui Winery – Pencil this one in for lunch/ snack time. Not only did I enjoy the wine, but definitely took advantage of the deli and picnic tables!
- Beringer Vineyards – Beringer is the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley, which makes it a must-visit.
- Robert Mondavi Winery – Another place with great outdoor seating, and plenty of wines to sample!
4| Visit Napa Mid-Week
I know this won’t be possible for those of us on a tight schedule, but Napa is a lot quieter during the week. You can make your way to the tasting counters pretty easily and even get some time to chat with the hosts.
5 | Hit up some Michelin Starred Restaurants (or not)
Napa has a number of Michelin starred eateries to choose from; try checking out French Laundry or The Restaurant at Meadowood (both three stars). Again, that’s something you’re going to want to book ahead.
6 | Have a Picnic
Unfortunately for me, Michelin starred eateries are quite expensive. If you have a cheap date, suggest a picnic, and swing by Oakville Groceries for cheese and meats. (I’m assuming you’ve already bought copious bottles of wine, and if you haven’t, what have you been doing in Napa?!) There are plenty of lovely wineries with outdoor seating.
7 | Spend some time in Napa
By Napa, I mean the town of Napa itself. There are plenty of little shops and gourmet eateries to check out like Oxbow Public Market, Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin’ BBQ, and JAX White Mule Diner (they have beignets so obviously won me over.) Another cool attraction in downtown Napa is the Napa ArtWalk, where you can discover a bunch of cool art sculptures. Napa Valley first time visitors often miss the town itself, so make sure to pencil in some time!
8 | Try the Napa Valley Wine Train
If you’re not up for driving yourself around Napa, think about taking the Napa Valley Wine Train. Hop on the fancy wine train, enjoy a multiple course meal, and take in the Napa scenery from the comfort of a vintage railroad car. Fun fact: the winery stops change each day, so feel free to ride all week and get very drunk on new wine! Another great option to avoid driving is to take a wine tour from San Francisco, and learn about wine from the experts.
9 | Be Prepared with your Outfit
I one million percent understand the need to look cute for all of the fabulous photos you’ll be taking throughout Napa Valley. But a few things to consider: if your trip includes a trip into the vineyard, wear reasonable footwear that will hold up against soft dirt. In other words, don’t wear heels! I’d stick with sandals, boots (if it’s chilly), or my forever favorite Keds. Another important thing to note is to bring an extra layer, especially if your winery tour brings you down into the caves, which are quite chilly.
10 | Invest in Wine Travel Bags
It’s a fact of life that when you visit Napa, you’re going to buy bottles of wine there. You might as well plan ahead and buy some wine travel bags if you’re planning on transporting them home as I was. There’s nothing sadder than buying many bottles of wine and then realizing you have no safe way to get them home.
Cheap Flights to San Francisco: I’d recommend checking out Momondo. They scan tons of different travel discount sites and let you filter by cheapest, best, and shortest.
California Car Rentals: As far as rental cars go, you can’t go wrong with CarRentals.com . They pull from a number of different car companies, and definitely provide good deals. If you’re looking for a luxury rental (imagine cruising through California in a plush convertible, wind whipping through your hair), try Sixt –they provide some legit deals on premium and luxury rentals!
Where to Stay in Napa: The Napa River Inn is a charming boutique hotel that will definitely win you over. For a slightly cheaper (though definitely not cheap!) option, check out Embassy Suites, which has the reputation for comfort, cleanliness, and reliability. If you’re traveling with family or friends, definitely look into an Airbnb. (Use my link for savings on your first stay!)
For further reading on California, make sure to check out the following guides!
- Big Sur: Discover the top 8 foolproof tips for driving Big Sur!
- Venice Beach: For your weekend guide to Venice Beach, look no further!
- San Francisco: Do you know the top things to do in San Francisco in 3 days?
- Solvang, California: For a unique mash-up for Dutch culture and California, make sure to check out Solvang!
And there you have it, my guide for Napa Valley first time visitors. Have you been to Napa? What are some of your favorite wineries and/ or tips & tricks for Napa newbies?
P.S. This post contains affiliate links. If you click on one and make a purchase, I might make a little extra spending money, at no extra cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own.