How to plan your first trip to Napa Valley

A trip to Napa Valley is a must-do for any wine enthusiast, but navigating through all the options can be a daunting task for a first-time visitor. Fortunately, we've collected a list of tips and suggestions that can make trip planning easy and enjoyable. Here is our guide to making the most of your first visit to Napa Valley. 

Where to stay
We prefer to stay in the town of Napa, which is located at the Southern end of Napa Valley. Napa offers plenty of local flavor without being too touristy. There are also a number of terrific restaurants within walking distance of downtown Napa, an important consideration if you plan to enjoy a bottle of wine at dinner after a day of wine tasting.

Our pick is the Napa River Inn. The rooms are very well appointed and many have a balcony, a fireplace, or both. Your stay includes coupons for free wine tasting at Silos Jazz Club, which is a great place to try some local wine and unwind with live music. Your room also includes breakfast at Sweetie Pies, a small bakery that is popular with local residents in the morning. Locals are a great source of insider information!

Don't miss: a trip to the Napa Valley Welcome Center, located across the street from the Napa River Inn. You can pick up coupons for free tastings and get  a copy of the Preiser Key to Napa Valley. The Preiser Key is an essential guide to keep in your car because it has touring maps and information on most wineries.

Where to eat
You can spend a small fortune at the famous French Laundry, but we prefer to go a bit more casual.

A great move for lunch is to enjoy a picnic with scenic views of Napa Valley. We always go to the Oakville Grocery because they offer amazing sandwiches and have picnic tables in a garden area behind their store. You can also go back in to stock up on snacks for your hotel room such as bread and cheese.

Mustards Grill in Napa is one of our favorite places for dinner. Celebrity chef Cindy Pawlcyn has created a relaxing, casual restaurant that offers amazing food. Be sure to make reservations - they are popular!

Mustards Grill is a short drive from the Napa River Inn, but here are a few great picks that are walking distance from the hotel:

Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin BBQ. Simply delicious barbecue. This place can get crowded and you may end up sharing a table with another party, so don't be shy!

Ristorante Allegria. Terrific Italian food and great atmosphere in an old bank building.

Coles Chop House. This is the best steak house in Napa Valley and a perfect place to drink some of your newly acquired wine.

Where to taste
The shear number of wineries in Napa Valley can be overwhelming, so here are a few simple suggestions. You may also want to read our Top Ten Wine Tasting Tips before selecting your wineries.

  1. Pick a few wineries based on wines you know and like.
  2. Ask friends and family for some suggestions.
  3. Leave room in your itinerary for a few extra wineries. You may get a hot tip from a local or drive by a winery that looks too good to pass up.

Tours offer a more relaxing, personalized experience so be sure to schedule at least one tour while you are there. Our pick for a first time visitor is Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga. They have several tour options available, but all of them include a unique aerial tram ride to their hill top tasting room. The tasting room offers sweeping views of Napa Valley where you can relax and enjoy the wine. The tour also gives you a nice overview of the winemaking process. 

Be sure to avoid: any winery with a tour bus parked in front since the tasting room will likely be swarming with people. You should also stay off of Highway 29 on weekends - stick to the much quieter Silverado Trail instead.  

For other insights to Napa Valley, check out these prior posts: 

Posted on August 14, 2011 and filed under Adventures.