Guide to Napa Valley: Best Things to Do + More [2024]

· Everything you need to know for planning your Napa Valley wine tasting trip in 2021 ·

Jul, 23, 2021
couple clinking wine glasses in front of mountain

Napa Valley is one of the world’s top wine-producing areas, and it belongs on every wine lover’s bucket list. Known particularly for its red wines, this is the perfect place to fall in love with Cabernet Sauvignon. While Napa Valley is known for its wine, there are plenty of things that can appeal to non-wine drinkers, too.

We love wine, and we especially love visiting wine country. While Valle de Guadalupe in Mexico used to be our favorite winemaking region to visit, one visit to Napa Valley very quickly changed that.

Over the past 50 years, Napa Valley has become one of the most esteemed wine-producing regions in the entire world. The unique Northern California climate and the rich volcanic ash soil have put Napa Valley wines among some of the best in production. If you’re a wine enthusiast in the United States – or at least enjoy a nice glass of wine – planning a Napa Valley wine-tasting trip needs to make your bucket list.

This guide will look at how to get to Napa Valley, how to get around, what to wear, the best things to do in Napa Valley other than wine tastings, and more.

You can see clips from our time in Napa Valley and our entire California Coast roadtrip in this short 3 minute video

Best Things to Do in Napa Valley

Since Napa Valley is known for its esteemed wine country, I’m sure you can guess what the top thing on this list is. But while Napa Valley is best known for its wines, there are many other things you can do to fill the gaps between wine tasting! This list will break down a few of the best things to do in Napa Valley.

1. Experience Wine Tastings at the Region’s Famous Vineyards

I know that this is obvious, but I wanted to take the chance to give a little background to this. Drinking wine is one thing, but appreciating wine is another. The things they’ve managed to do in Napa Valley are nothing short of incredible – just Google the Judgement of Paris in 1976 and you’ll see what I mean. It’s one of the top 100 most influential events in American history, and every vineyard along the Silverado Trail serves up renowned wines!

No two vineyards are the same.

Each vineyard is unique and has its own unique perspective, story, style, vibe, and specialty. We visited vineyards with visual flair, like the Persian palace at Darioush and the Italian castle and torture chamber at Castello di Amorosa. We visited vineyards with rich histories, like the long-standing Chateau Montelena.

In addition, we visited vineyards that produce such good wine like Promontory that they don’t even need to care what their facilities look like, yet they’re still breathtaking. We visited Melka Estates which showed us farming techniques and Caymus, which just sat us in chairs and let us drink nice wine on the porch.

While this might be unnecessary detail, what I mean to express is that no two vineyards are the same, and visiting as many as you can will broaden your perspective and understanding while really giving you a fun trip. From Robert Mondavi to Stag’s Leap, everywhere is different and will impress in its own way.

You could opt for an organized group tour, a curated self-guided tour, or you could opt to hand-pick wineries on your own like we did. 

2. Admire the Scenery from Above in a Hot-Air Balloon

yellow and blue Hot air baloon in a meadow

The rolling hills and mountains of Napa Valley are stunning from every angle. One angle that many people really love to view them from is above! 

Napa Valley is famous for its hot air balloon rides as they provide some of the best views of any hot air balloon ride in the world. In fact, most sources say Napa Valley is one of the top 5 places in the world to go for a hot air balloon ride! Napa Valley’s beautiful scenery and moderate weather make it a great place to try out a hot-air balloon.

We didn’t have the opportunity to go on one, as Angel was pregnant. If it weren’t for that, though, we absolutely would have done it.

The hot air balloons in Napa Valley tend to leave bright and early so that you can see the sunrise from way up high. Some of them even offer a champagne-fueled breakfast at their facilities after you land. If you have the time, this is a must-do!

3. Swim at Boutique Hotel Pools

Many of the people going to Napa Valley are looking for a very luxurious retreat, and the Napa Valley hotels in the area have certainly stepped up to meet that demand. Throughout the entire valley, you can find very high-end boutique hotels that are a treat just to see. As one of the premier destinations on the West Coast, Napa Valley has learned how to be luxe.

While staying at these upper-echelon accommodations is outside of most peoples’ budgets, grabbing a drink and spending a day by the pool is much more affordable. If you’re looking for the best of the best – like the place the Kardashians stay – head to Auberge du Soleil in St. Helena. After your swim in their beautiful outdoor pool, maybe you can book a spa treatment, too!

4. Walk the Streets of St. Helena and Napa

While most of the little “towns” in Napa Valley don’t actually have a main drag with sidewalks and shops, St Helena and Napa are two of the exceptions. St. Helena is pretty much the very center of Napa Valley, while Napa is situated right at the bottom.

In both towns, you can find adorable local boutiques including chocolatiers, designers, artisans, coffee roasters, and more. We recommend grabbing some chocolate at Woodhouse Chocolate in St. Helena and pairing it with some coffee from Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company! These towns are also frequently graced by live music, which can be the perfect pairing for the area’s exceptional wines!

If you enjoy art, you could also head to the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, which is a highly-regarded art museum a couple of miles from downtown Napa. This museum houses over a thousand works of art created by regional artists.

5. Experience the Napa Valley Wine Train

The Napa Valley Wine Train is an absolute must if you have the time. This is a vintage train that has been fully restored. It aims to provide travelers with an exceptional wine-and-dine experience.

When you hop on board, you can expect truly delicious food, exceptional wines, and great views of the beautiful scenery as you chug along in the train. The train leaves from the town of Napa, and tickets should be bought online in advance.

a train traveling through a lush green countryside

6. Explore Oxbow Public Market

Oxbow Public Market is an indoor marketplace filled with local vendors and restaurants. From fresh produce and bottles of wine to Mexican food and cupcakes, this market has a little bit of everything. You could try something new here every day without getting bored.

Even better, it is located right in the heart of everything on First Street Napa. It is within walking distance of many of the best restaurants and shops in all of Napa Valley, and it is right across from the Culinary Institute of America! While not everyone chooses to stay right in Napa, this is a can’t-miss spot if you do. 

7. Get Some Fresh Air in the Great Outdoors

As a whole, California is known for its beautiful scenery and gorgeous landscapes. The petrified forest is one of the first things that comes to mind when most people think of Northern California! While that is a bit of a drive from the Napa Valley, there are plenty of outdoor activities within a short drive.

Kayaking on the Napa River is a very popular one, for example! The Napa River cuts through Napa Valley, and it is the perfect spot for kayaking and paddleboarding. If you prefer mountain biking, there are several well-regarded bike tours through the area. Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is also a very popular place to visit, due to its many easy hiking trails and picnic areas.

8. Visit an Olive Oil Farm

Around the world, it is common for grapes and olives to be grown near one another. That is because they both thrive in similar climates. If you have your fill of wine tasting rooms, consider heading to an olive oil farm! 

While California may not be Spain or Italy, California has a pretty robust olive-growing industry. Visiting an olive farm is a unique experience that can’t be had in most parts of the country, and it is worth checking out while in Napa Valley!

beautiful mansion covered in green vines

How to Get to Napa Valley

Getting to Napa Valley is relatively straightforward but there will be a few steps involved. While many destinations that I write about are very conveniently located near an airport, some just aren’t. Some of the best places we’ve been – like the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, for example – require a bit of a drive but are fully worth the time and effort.

If you’re not already located in Northern California, you’ll need to get there. The two best places to look for flights are either Sacramento (SMF) or anywhere in the bay area, including San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK), and San Jose (SJC). Depending which one you choose, you’ll wind up anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 hours away from the heart of Napa Valley.

From the airport, I highly recommend that you rent a car for the duration of your trip. It’s the easiest way to get to the valley and the easiest way to get around once you’re there.

If you choose to rent a car, simply put the directions into your favorite navigation app and hit the road! The landscapes are beautiful and it is a very easy, leisurely drive.

If you are unable or unwilling to rent a car, your next best option would be to take a shuttle to the valley from the airport. There are buses and shuttles to Napa Valley from San Francisco and Sacramento, and to find the most recent schedules and options your best bet is to give it a quick Google search.

Your final option would be to sign up for an organized Napa Valley wine-tasting tour group, which would pick you up at the airport and handle your transportation the rest of the way. More on that next.

a vineyard with rows of vines and a mountain in the background

How to Get Around Napa Valley


Getting around the valley is definitely something that should factor into your decision of how to get to Napa Valley in the first place. Public transportation isn’t really a thing as the valley is sparsely populated and very spread out.

Also, if you begin to head north in the valley and stray any more than 15 minutes from the town of Napa, Uber won’t really be available either. We made this mistake and were forced to pay $50 for a 5-minute taxi ride!

Uber is not accessible in Napa Valley and, hence, is extremely expensive.

Hands down, in my opinion, the best and most budget-friendly way to get around Napa Valley is with your own car. Renting a car at the airport is the easiest way to get to Napa Valley as well as the easiest way to get around Napa Valley.

From top to bottom, or Calistoga to Napa, Napa Valley is only about 50 minutes long and very car-friendly. The only downside to driving your own car is that you will need to make sure someone is the designated driver!

If you don’t want to rent a car and have a bit more money to burn, booking a chauffeur or organized tour for your trip are also great options. This gets rid of the need to pick who is the designated driver, and often this can alleviate a lot of headaches if you’re not looking to tailor-make your Napa Valley itinerary.

Many people just want to go taste wine and don’t really care where, and that’s fine! Others, like us, had a list of places we really wanted to visit. In either case, organizing a driver of some sort is your next best option but will cost significantly more than a rental car.

Windy road in hilly wine country

What to Wear in Napa Valley

I mentioned earlier that every vineyard is different. As a result, the recommended attire varies a bit with each vineyard, too. As a general rule of thumb, wear what you’d wear to a country club or a nice dinner out.

For men, this means dress pants and shoes, a collared shirt, and an optional jacket. For women, this could be a sundress, a skirt and top, dress pants, etc. There is no need for a suit or ballgown, but also I’d avoid being too casual.

Even if they won’t kick you off the premises or refuse your entry, I guarantee they’ll treat you better if you dress up a little bit. Even the finest vineyards don’t expect a suit and tie, but bringing a blazer along is probably a good idea.

Final Tips for Planning a Napa Valley Wine-Tasting Trip

1. Wine Tastings Move Slowly – Don’t Overbook Your Days

The biggest thing I think you should know when planning your Napa Valley wine-tasting trip is that things tend to move very slowly and it is very easy to get behind schedule. I left 30 minutes between each tasting to make sure we had plenty of time to get from place to place, and I realized very quickly that wouldn’t be enough in some cases.

We ran late to about half of the vineyards that we visited. Each vineyard’s website will tell you how long the tasting should last, and I’d advise leaving 45 minutes to an hour between each tasting just to be safe.

2. Book Your Wine Tastings Based Off of Geography

Secondly, check out the geography of the vineyards before you book your tastings. Coordinating visits in the same town on the same day can save you a lot of unnecessary driving. For example, we visited both of our desired Calistoga vineyards on the same morning so that we wouldn’t need to make that drive again later in the week.

The Napa Valley area is very spread out, and you can spend hours in the car if you don’t plan properly. For reference, we’ve created a map showing the locations of the best things to do in Napa Valley that we mentioned above.

Map courtesy of Wanderlog, an itinerary planner on iOS and Android

3. Make Your Wine Tasting Reservations Early

Finally, make your reservations early – both for vineyards and restaurants. We visited in the peak of the busy season, and if it weren’t for the reservations that we made two months in advance, I don’t think we would’ve been able to eat at the places we wanted to and visit the vineyards on our bucket list.

In Napa Valley, most reservations are made with either OpenTable, CellarPass, Tock, or Resy. These tools are all extremely similar and it’s actually a bit inconvenient that you’ll probably have to make an account with several of them, but in the end, they do make reservations very easy.

You can search directly on the websites that I linked above, or you can make a reservation on the vineyard’s website and it will process it with one of the above software.

couple clinking wine glasses in front of mountain

That’s all we have for you about planning your Napa Valley wine-tasting trip! Hopefully, this Napa Valley Travel Guide helps you to plan the perfect wine-tasting trip in Northern California.

If you’re planning a trip to Napa Valley, Comment below! We’d love to chat ahead of time and answer any questions you have.


Hi, I'm Greg. I'm an avid traveler who has traveled to over 50 countries all around the world with my wife and kids. I've lived in Italy, Mexico, China, and the United States, and I dream of moving abroad again in the future. With this blog, I provide my audience with detailed destination guides to my favorite places and pro-tips to make travel as stress-free as possible.

Leave a comment

Meet The Author - Greg

Hi, I'm Greg. I'm an avid traveler who has traveled to over 50 countries all around the world with my wife and kids. I've lived in Italy, Mexico, China, and the United States, and I dream of moving abroad again in the future. With this blog, I provide my audience with detailed destination guides to my favorite places and pro-tips to make travel as stress-free as possible.