You don’t come to Napa Valley to be the first. The storied region has been on travelers’ radars for about as long as wine has been commercially produced in California. What you come here for is just about everything else—farm-to-table cuisine, internationally-recognized wines, historic hot springs, and design-driven hotels (and that’s not even mentioning its rolling mountain ranges and flowing river that can be admired via hot air balloon). Despite lacking any sort of under-the-radar qualities, it’s still a destination with an enduring, ineffable appeal.
First and foremost, the Napa Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) is home to some of the most prestigious wineries in the country. It runs about 30 miles north to south but only five miles at its widest point, which lends itself well to providing a diverse range of climates that allow for a breadth of wine varieties to be made here. The towns where you’ll spend most of your time exploring are Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga (with 16 appellations such as Coombsville and Stags Leap District comprising the broader AVA). Getting around is best conquered by car, but if you’re wine tasting you’ll need to look into transportation via taxi, rideshare, or a private driver.
Though a visit to Napa Valley requires nothing more than a desire to slow down and savor, there are a number of new, buzzy openings across food, wine, and accommodations that justify prioritizing a trip to Northern California right now. Below, a guide to Napa Valley.
Where to Stay
There’s a sensation when stepping foot on Stanly Ranch that the outside world no longer exists. The sun shines a little brighter, soft insect sounds buzz a little more merrily, and the afternoons linger on a little longer. Opened in April 2022, it’s the third Auberge Resorts Collection property in Napa Valley and an instant favorite. Their cottages and suites scatter across 712 acres of vineyards and ranch land and speak to modern farmhouse sensibilities with details like private terraces outfitted with fire pits and tall ceilings that invite natural light to flood in. Bear is Stanly Ranch’s signature restaurant, with chef Garrison Price (previously of Il Florista in New York City) at the helm—be sure to order the crispy rice and farm vegetables. And when you’re not eating or tasting wine, spend your days lounging by the pool, at the Halehouse on-property spa, or partaking in an activity like lunchtime at the chicken coop or fishing on the Napa River.
There are some iconic, historic hotels that fail to live up to the hype—Meadowood is not one of those hotels. Opened in 1961 and tucked within a private valley surrounded by wooded canyons, it’s a quintessential Napa Valley stay. The lodging has evolved since its early days and is now made up of 36 suites and rooms that feel perfectly perched among the estate’s trees. If you can pry yourself away from your room (did we mention there are wood-burning fireplaces and private outdoor decks?) you’ll want to book a wine tasting class at The Wine Center or a guided winery tour with one of the center’s experts. A treatment at the award-winning spa is also a must, as is a hike on Meadowood’s network of trails that lead to panoramic views of St. Helena (tip: make it a morning hike and spot the hot air balloons in the distance).
For those who seek out a pied-à-terre vibe when traveling, Poetry Inn more than fits the bill. The five-suite hideaway is owned by Cliff Lede Vineyards and is the kind of place where, when you arrive at the top of its steep, gated driveway, the staff is already out front ready and waving. Each suite is uniquely decorated and ascribed its own literary theme (Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, e.e. Cummings, and Robert Louis Stevenson are among the writers referenced), all with outdoor showers, original artwork, fresh flowers, and wood-burning fireplaces. And the service here is outstanding—there is a personalized concierge, private dining by arrangement, and a thorough menu of spa treatments. When you’re not savoring a food pairing or a sound bath session, simply meander out onto your private terrace to take in the sweeping valley views.
Despite California wine country being among the most sought-after landscapes in the world, Auberge du Soleil takes it up a notch and also sprinkles in design elements that channel the south of France. (Napa with a side of Provence—why not?) The property is located in peaceful Rutherford and is nestled on a hillside with 33 surrounding acres of olive and oak trees. There are only 50 guest rooms and suites, and its Michelin-starred restaurant just debuted a sweeping redesign conceptualized by Suzanne Tucker. If you’re not familiar with the backstory, French restaurateur Claude Rouas founded his fine-dining establishment with the same Napa-meets-Provence concept, and five years later it expanded into the mainstay hotel that it is today. Take a walk in the sculpture garden or nibble on charcuterie and fruit with a French-inspired picnic at Parc du Soleil—there’s no activity too leisurely here.
If you prefer your bed and breakfasts to be on the National Register of Historic Places, The Francis House in Calistoga beckons. The three-story stone building was constructed in 1886 as a family home but went uninhabited for 52 years until a San Francisco couple (one an interior designer, the other a real estate developer) discovered it in 2015 and restored the French Second Empire architecture to its original glory. And this is no ordinary B&B: guests can enjoy an infrared sauna and salt room, outdoor fire pit, tennis court, heated pool, and a Tesla charger. As for breakfast? Expect artisanal. The team sources local produce, fresh eggs, and even has its own herb garden to make dishes like lemon ricotta parsley pancakes and labneh with roasted tomatoes.
Where to Eat
This may be wine country, but Napa Valley takes its dining seriously—it has more Michelin stars per capita than any other wine region in the world. With over 150 restaurants and a bevy of acclaimed chefs, the landscape’s bounty is put to good use through unrivaled farm-to-table cuisine. If you’re skewing toward the greatest hits, Chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry is simply unmissable. Compline is beloved for its comprehensive wine list paired with a local, often-changing menu. Mustards Grill is also a perennial favorite among locals and tourists alike and has gone more or less unchanged since it opened in 1983. At the time of publication, three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood is temporarily closed due to the 2020 Glass Fire, but to experience chef Christopher Kostow’s cuisine, book a table at The Charter Oak.
If you’re looking for something on the casual side, a burger at Gott’s Roadside can’t be beat. For a Mexico-style taqueria, head to Mothers and feast on their handmade corn tortillas, made-from-scratch salsas, seasonal grilled Elote, and meats marinated piece by piece (vegan and vegetarian options are also in the mix). If you want a taste of Chef Keller’s fare without The French Laundry price tag, head to his casual eatery Ad Hoc + Addendum. It’s a daily-changing, four-course menu and features American favorites like fried chicken and barbecue that are served family style. Of course, there’s always Oxbow Public Market with its many food vendors including an oyster bar and live fire pizzeria.
For those who haven’t made it back to Napa in a few years, there are a few new spots you’ll want to add to your list. Recently-opened Scala Osteria (sister restaurant to the ever-popular Bistro Don Giovanni) brings seafood-driven southern Italian cuisine to Napa with its bright, spacious setting and covetable oyster bar. Napa Valley hot spot Ciccio just reopened under Chef Christopher Kostow and is worth it for the meatball stuffed peppers alone. Chef Morad Lahlou is set to open his first fast-casual concept, Moro in Oxbow Public Market in fall 2023 with the menu taking cues from the food stalls at Marrakesh’s famous night market, Jeema el-Fnaa. And Auro—the restaurant at the newish Four Seasons Resort Napa Valley—was just awarded a Michelin star for its weekly-changing, five-course tasting menu with highlights like California white duck, butter-poached Norwegian crab, and hazelnut chocolate tart.
Where to Taste
Napa Valley is home to hundreds and hundreds of wineries, so creating any sort of list is innately a daunting task—but rest assured pretty much any tasting you choose will add to the mosaic of what this historic region is all about. Speaking of history, let’s start with the old-timers. Inglenook is one of the oldest wineries in the valley, dating back to 1879 and with current ownership by Francis Ford Coppola who acquired it in the mid-’70s. The estate is graced with a picturesque chateau and the property has nearly 235 planted acres. Schramsberg is another big shot and for over 50 years has been committed to world-renowned sparkling wines in the méthode champenoise style. Chateau Montelena and Stags’ Leap Winery are both beloved wineries and well-known for their success in the 1976 wine tasting known as the Judgment of Paris. Heitz, Mayacamas, Far Niente, Robert Mondavi, Picayune Cellars, Domaine Caerneros, Pine Ridge Vineyards, and Beringer are also all historic wineries worth adding to a newcomer’s guide to understanding the Napa wine scene.
If you’re looking for a unique atmosphere to taste world-class wines in, head to Faust in Coombsville. Their tasting room is in a renovated 1878-era Victorian Gothic home featuring a winding staircase, stone basement wine cellar, and inky exterior paint color. Ashes & Diamonds stands out with its zig-zag roof and mid-century modern design by Barbara Nestor Architecture. Also a nod to the mid-century era, The Residence at Stony Hill just opened and offers guests various well-designed nooks to enjoy the winery’s current releases. The Donum Estate has one of the largest accessible private sculpture collections in the world, with sensory wine tastings (try the Transcend Experience for a memorable visit). A tour at Promontory Wine will take you along the western hills of Oakville and overlooking the valley, tasting wines by the legendary Harlan family.
Realm Cellars is opening its doors to guests for the first time in five years with a new concept called Realm X, which is a series of events around the world, seasonal estate visits, creative collaborations, and more. Materra in Oak Knoll made a unique line of wines designed to pair with Japanese cuisine that’s worth a visit and taste. Over in Carneros-Napa (an AVA that runs between both Napa and Sonoma), Bouchaine Vineyards offers unique wine tastings like Sensory Olympics and Vine to Vessel learning experiences. For some of the best merlots in the valley, head to Sullivan Rutherford Estate to enjoy a privately guided tour around the scenic estate followed by a customized tasting. Nearby at Matthew Bruno Rutherford Estate, the family-owned wine brand just opened its first-ever tasting room in a 19th-century historic house. And at the base of beautiful Howell Mountain, Amulet Estate offers private tours and tastings of their portfolio of singular chardonnays and vineyard-designate bottlings of 100% cabernet sauvignon.
What to Do
Between the long list of wineries and Michelin-star restaurants to visit, it might be easy to forget there are other things to do in Napa Valley—but make sure you don’t. Take full advantage of California’s scenic beauty and rise before dawn to hop aboard a hot air balloon ride to watch the sunrise over the valley. If you’re more comfortable on solid ground, head for one of the many hiking trails in the area such as the River to Ridge trail, Napa-Solano Ridge, or Skyline Wilderness Park. Or, you can set off for a day of tasting via bike tour. (Fun fact: most of Napa’s roads are flat and when there are hills, they’re pretty manageable.)
There’s also the Napa Valley Wine Train, which is as fun as it sounds. Your journey begins on an antique Pullman-style train and experiences can range from an hours-long trek through the valley with a multi-course paired menu and vineyard tasting all the way to a murder mystery dinner with sparkling wine and a meal.
And if you’re in search of self-care, the area of Calistoga has long been known for its hot springs and natural mud baths. In the late 1800s, tourism boomed as visitors learned of Calistoga’s geothermal properties and now there are several spas with treatments centered around these rich minerals. Side note: the mud baths at Indian Springs Calistoga are iconic.
For those who enjoy a leisurely hour or two of shopping, take note of NO|MA House Café & Collective, which opens in downtown St. Helena in September 2023. The all-female team offers home furnishings, found objects, and other artisanal goods in a 1920s-era remodeled space with an open outdoor courtyard, 19th-century French museum display cases, and an indoor-outdoor bar. (Visitors can also order from a menu of fresh diner-inspired dishes sourced from local ingredients.)