Napa Valley is a romantic destination for wine lovers and gourmands, as well as a popular place for girlfriend getaways and sophisticated bachelor parties. There are hundreds of wineries to visit in Napa, stretching from Calistoga in the north to Carneros in the south, with plenty of charming small towns like St. Helena and Yountville to discover along the way. While it might be tempting to jam-pack your schedule full of wine tastings, a leisurely pace will allow time to appreciate the beauty of the valley and everything else it has to offer. 

I’ve been writing about wine for a decade now, since I was teenager! I fell in love with Napa Valley and its rich history after attending the Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood and have visited America’s most famous wine region more than two dozen times. These are my favorite activities for first-time visitors and seasoned veterans alike.

Three bottles of red wine standing on a dark wood table
For something a little more exclusive, ask for allocation-only Cabernet Sauvignon © Memento Mori

Taste allocation-only Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most prized (and most expensive) grape in Napa Valley, accounting for more than half of all vineyard acreage. While it can be fun to search out your favorite wines from home and see where they are made, it’s even more exciting to try something rare and exclusive that you can’t find at your local liquor store. 

For example, Memento Mori and BRION are two wineries specializing in 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines from some of Napa Valley’s most iconic vineyards. Each will only schedule a couple of one-on-one tastings a day, but you can simply request an appointment through their websites. Be prepared to spend more than $200 a bottle – but for true Cabernet connoisseurs, it’s worth it.

BRION is the newest winery in Napa Valley, with a lovely tasting room overlooking Sleeping Lady Vineyard, while Memento Mori hosts tastings at a discreet salon in an industrial district in Napa. Its flagship Cabernet is strong, supple and sublime.

You’ll also find the largest collection of Napa Valley wines in the world at PRESS, where you can peruse pages and pages of Cabernet Sauvignon dating back to the 1960s to pair with your 60-day dry-aged tomahawk chop steak.

Two leather armchairs in front of a fireplace. There is food and wine on the table.
Inglenook was Napa's first estate winery © Kathryn Shaughnessy / Inglenook

Inglenook

The Inglenook chateau has a stately gravitas that seems positively European and this winery was a pioneer in putting Napa Valley on the map internationally among wine connoisseurs. Founded in 1879 by Gustave Niebaum, Inglenook was Napa's first estate winery, and it still makes some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the country. Proprietor Francis Ford Coppola has completely redesigned the grand salon, which now feels like a private 1920s club. Play piano in the corner, or challenge a friend to a game of chess or backgammon by the fireplace. There's even a craps table that belonged to American socialite Countess di Frasso.

A shot of an outdoor swimming pool in the evening. There are colorful murals on the walls surrounding the pool
Sample the mineral waters of Calistoga at one of the local spas © Katie Newborn / Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs

Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs

Calistoga's mineral-rich muds are famous for their detoxifying and healing properties. The special mud is a product of natural hot springs water mixed with volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount St. Helena millions of years ago. The Wappo tribe that originally settled Calistoga believed the mineral waters had healing powers, and contemporary guests can still enjoy a therapeutic Calistoga mud bath at several local spas.

Among the best is Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs, which originally opened in 1952 and underwent a massive renovation through 2020. The revamped resort maintains its retro charm with a renewed focus on wellness. Every room has an aromatherapy diffuser and you can select an essential oil blend at check-in while sipping botanical-infused spring water. 

Rear view of woman cycling on road amidst vineyards as the sun sets
Appreciate the beauty of Napa Valley on a gentle cycle through vineyards or on bike trails © Cavan Images / Getty Images

Bike the trails

Exploring the beautiful trails meandering between vineyards is a great way to whet your appetite. Napa native and winemaker Josh Phelps of Grounded Wine Co is an avid athlete and hits the trails several times a week. A few of his favorites for hiking and mountain biking include Moore Creek Trail in St. Helena, Skyline Park in the City of Napa and Oat Hill Mine Trail in Calistoga.

A huge covered decking area filled with diners on the edge of a lawn in a beautiful manicured garden
Brix is an independent family-owned winery © Kathryn Shaughnessy / Brix

Dine al fresco at Brix

Take a stroll through Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards with a glass of wine in hand before sitting down for a garden-to-table feast with views of the Mayacamas Mountains at Brix Napa Valley. The Kelleher Family Vineyard in Oakville hearkens back to the Napa Valley of decades past, before large conglomerates gobbled up many of the region’s small family-owned vineyards. 

It’s rare to find such high quality estate-grown wines paired with a full-service restaurant in Napa. I love enjoying a glass of Kelleher Sauvignon Blanc with dungeness crab fondue followed by housemade pasta or hearty wood-grilled ribeye with Cabernet Sauvignon grown right next door.  Linger around the fire pit for a nightcap before heading home.

A close-up shot of dark purple grapes on the vine
Napa Valley locals share some of their favorite places to eat © Juancat / Shutterstock

Eat like a local

Mustards Grill in Napa is an oldie but goodie. There’s a great mix of local power lunches and vacationing tourists, and the kitchen is so consistent – slinging out hundreds of ahi tuna crackers, towers of onion rings and heaping mounds of meatloaf without missing a beat. I love the curried coleslaw that adds a bright splash of flavor to crispy calamari.

Winemaker Tony Biagi of Patria Wines, Amici Cellars and Hourglass Winery has lived in Napa Valley for more than three decades now, and says that Mustards Grill for lunch and Bouchon for dinner are his two favorites, along with The Station in St. Helena for lunch on the go.

“I run into so many of my friends getting hot dogs at The Station,” Biagi says. “They serve it on a brioche bun and it pairs perfectly with Sauvignon Blanc.”

Robin, Erin and Shannon Lail of Lail Vineyards also love The Station for a quick lunch between tastings, along with Tacos Garcias food truck and Osprey Seafood for poke bowls. Pizzeria Tra Vigne is a favorite when they have kids in tow.

Wine glasses partially filled with red and white wine
Create your own blend of wine at Conn Creek © Christophe La / Shutterstock

Blend your own wine at Conn Creek

Play winemaker at Conn Creek, where you can create your own Cabernet Sauvignon blend with barrel samples from nearly all of Napa Valley’s sub-appellations. It’s a fun and interactive alternative to the standard wine tasting, especially if you don’t have time to visit too many wineries during your stay. You get to taste Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap to Rutherford, and fine tune your favorite blend with other Bordeaux varietals, like Petit Verdot for more tannins, or Merlot to soften the wine. 

Once you’re happy with your formula, bottle it and create your own label, and you have a one-of-a-kind memento to take home and save for a special occasion. When I made my own blend in 2018, I saved it for Christmas with my family three years later. Don’t worry – all of the base wines are excellent, so you really can’t go wrong. It’s simply a matter of personal preference.

A small dark bowl with a tiny portion of food in it, and two wine glasses
Get the most out of flavors with a food and wine pairing © The Prisoner Wine Company

Try a food and wine pairing

Rather than your standard wine tasting, which might include a flight of four or five wines to sample, consider booking a food and wine pairing. Many wineries, such as The Prisoner Wine Company, have culinary teams who create thoughtful small bites to complement each wine, like a compressed watermelon dish that brings out the peppery cherry notes in a Saldo Zinfandel. Another of my favorites is the “Taste of the Estate” experience at St. Supéry, where you try four estate wines paired with composed small bites using produce from the winery's culinary garden. Priest Ranch even has a fun bacon and wine tasting. 

Pastel-coloured buildings lining a river in an urban area
Grab some local produce from central Napa before picnicking in the park © DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

Have a picnic

Fuller Park in downtown Napa is a popular spot for locals to picnic, surrounded by historic homes, with a public bocce court, rose garden, picnic tables, ample lawns and a playground for kids. Plus, it’s close to First Street so you can load up on sandwiches from First & Franklin or sushi from Eiko’s. The Model Bakery and Oakville Grocery are a couple of my favorite places to stock up on picnic staples like bread, cheese and pastries.

Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros offers a BYO picnic experience with socially distanced picnic tables scattered throughout the flower-filled garden. Visitors receive a wine bag with a wine key, water, two logo crystal wine tumblers and a bottle each of Bouchaine’s Estate Pinot Noir and Estate Chardonnay, for $150 for groups of six or less. 

Introducing Northern California

You might also like:

How to spend a perfect weekend in Napa Valley  
Tips for planning a perfect trip to California wine country  
Road-tripping Sonoma County's Bohemian Highway  

Buy USA travel guides

Make the most of your time in the USA with Lonely Planet’s range of travel guides. Be the architect of your own trip as you discover the best things to do in the USA through insider tips, suggested itineraries and handy maps.

Buy USA travel guides

Explore related stories