Editor’s Note: Georgia lived in Northern California 10 years ago and has such fond memories of picking lemons from the neighborhood trees and the smell of the eucalyptus air. We were so excited to revisit this place with our Travel Editor, Suruchi Avasthi, to give us the freshest insider tips on one of the most magical places in the United States. We had one goal: To give you the insider scoop on hidden gems that often get overlooked in an area that can become very touristy. Take it away Suruchi!
After moving to California a few months ago, I made it my personal mission to explore every corner of the state that I possibly can – which, when considering how big California is, is quite the noble task. It’s only now that I’ve started to tick off a few spots here and there that I realize why so many people fly across the country to visit even small corners of this state. There are so many beautiful cities and regions here with their own adventures to be had, so I obviously had to start with one of the most widely known – Napa Valley. When friends had started telling me about things to do and sights to see in Napa I got all of the typical responses: wine tours across some of the large vineyards like Robert Mondavi and V. Sattui, dinner at some very classy restaurants along the way, and hanging out in downtown Napa for some shopping. These aren’t bad suggestions by any means, but I was looking for an itinerary of less-crowded scenes and places where I didn’t feel the need to wear a flowery white dress to fit in. I wanted to find the still well-established spots that offered the best of local eats that also come with good conversation. Dare I say it, I wanted to visit places other than wineries and shop where the locals shop. So in the hunt for the lesser-known, these are the spots I came across – from the heart of downtown Napa all the way through Calistoga, St. Helena, and Healdsburg, these are the spots I’ve come to love in wine country, all of which can help you fill your weekend getaway!
Take yourself on a treasure hunt in this place. Here are our Eat, Drink, Stay, See, Acquire suggestions to help you along.
|Guide to Napa + Sonoma Valley|
Best time of Year
While summer is the most popular time of year – this is also the busiest and can be the most expensive time to come as wineries will adjust the price of tastings because of crowds. Fall is the harvest time and the weather has cooled down slightly, coupled with the smaller crowds, autumn makes for a wonderful time of year to visit.
Recommended Number of Days
3 to 4 days is plenty of time to visit wineries at a leisurely pace while also fitting in shopping and sight seeing.
Recommended Number of People
2 to 3 people makes for an easy enough group to coordinate while also allowing you to shift drivers as needed if you will be renting a car to visit wineries for tastings.
Apps to Download
Winery Guide gives you a comprehensive list of the more than 4,000 wineries in the area, so you can read up on all the spots in one place and filter down to spots that match your preferences.
The Winery Finder App helps you find discounted tastings and also offers up certain coupons!
And of course Google Maps is an obvious choice to help you drive from spot to spot.
Eat, Drink, Stay, See, Acquire
Between all the neighboring regions of the valley, Napa is a great first place to start any adventures in the area. There’s something about being surrounded by some of the most exclusive resorts and hotels, award winning restaurants, and of course some of the best wine in the country and world – you just feel like you’re in a very special place. Of course everybody else that’s there with you is thinking the same things, which is why all of these places are filled to the brim with people during peak seasons. If you’re looking to find some spots a little more under the radar, these are my suggestions.
For breakfast, stop by at Bouchon Bakery. You might recognize the name from Chef Thomas Keller who started the Michelin starred restaurant, The French Laundry, which is just down the road from the bakery. You can grab a delicious pastry (might I suggest the flakey croissants??) and a cup of coffee for a quick on the go breakfast. For something a little heartier, swing by Boon Fly Café which is actually most known for their sweet donuts. If donuts aren’t your thing, their scrambles and hash are also excellent choices. For later in the day, give Oxbow Market a visit. While still slightly bustling with tourists, Oxbow reminds me of some of the street markets I had visited while in Europe a few years ago, and is similar to the Public Market of the Pacific Northwest. If you don’t want to sit down at one of the tables and eat at one of the spots like Live Fire Pizza with some amazing fire roasted pizzas or C Casa with a combination of amazingly fresh tacos, my suggestion would be to stop by the Oxbow Cheese and Wine Merchant to grab a selection of fine cheeses and charcuterie to pack for a picnic at a winery stop. Their cheesemongers are amazingly helpful and make for a fun conversation while shopping your choice of cheese.
Every corner of downtown has some shop or another, if you’re looking for something a little more unique, check out Hide House – a large warehouse style store filled with any leather good you could imagine. My favorite stop along my visit was a store called Hunter Gatherer. While I myself am a sucker for any well curated space, this shop really takes the cake. Definitely treat yourself to their local assortment of goods, from leather accessories, home goods – it makes a great pit stop if you’re in the search of a gift for friends back home.
Drink (Unique Wineries)
Asking someone which winery to visit in Napa is like asking someone to find a needle in a haystack – the cliché comparison makes so much sense in this scenario. The Valley is the most winery saturated place around, you could just drive down the road and pick a place to stop on a whim. So when I was directed to check out Tulocay Winery for a wine tasting I was skeptical. Tulocay is not your typical winery – if you’re looking for the big name wine stop with lots of people, you’ve come to the wrong place. Bill Cadman is the proprietor of Tulocay, and stopping by for a tasting is essentially coming by to have drinks in his home – the actual winery is down the road. Bill does tastings out on a large patio, offering a generous sampling of incredible Pinot’s and Chardonnay’s, but more importantly, with a side of candid conversation and history of the area. Cadman as been in Napa since the 70s, and has seen the rise of the wine industry and prominence of the Valley firsthand. Sharing a glass of wine and chatting about everything from why he got into the wine business to just talking about the weather was more interesting with Bill. I would highly recommend stopping by Tulocay on your wine tour through Napa.
When asking people about their thoughts between Napa and Sonoma, many have told me they prefer wineries in this area. They’re slightly less touristy and the area is dotted with more trendy, and might I say “hipster” style wineries. It’s more spread out and filled with rustic small town stops, which is why many say it’s less touristy. But, that’s also why many people say it’s well worth the trip to Sonoma as when you do stumble upon a place, it’s like finding a hidden gem. The thing I loved the most about Sonoma though, was that I felt less like I needed to aspire to fit in to the stops I made there than I did in Napa. The area was more laid-back and scenic, and these are the spots I came to love in the area.
The Fremont Diner is a fun little stop along the road from Napa into Sonoma. It’s a casual eatery with all of your down-home favorite foods like incredible biscuits and fried chicken, and any place with all-day breakfast is a winner in my book. If you’re looking for a cute spot for a quick lunch, stop by El Molino Central for seasonal tacos and a stop in a quiet neighborhood. A little less under the radar than it used to be, The Spinster Sisters has an amazing menu of seasonal dishes that also blends international flavors.
Sonoma had fewer little shops that were fun to stop in to than I had hoped for, but if you’re looking for somewhere to sit down at, check out Acre Coffee for some good brew and a quiet corner. You can also stop by the Dry Creek General Store for fun foodie finds and gift ideas. The staff here are so incredibly kind and so knowledgeable about the area – it gets pretty busy around lunch time so just keep that in mind if you’re hurrying off to another wine stop.
Drink (Unique Wineries)
Some of my favorite wineries in the valley are here in Sonoma. Ceja Winery was founded in the late 90s by an immigrant family from Mexico and is rich in both its culture and history. The winery is still operated by the founding family and the owner, Amelia Ceja, is the first Mexican-American woman to own a winery in the valley. Everyone at this stop was incredibly kind and so willing to share the history and knowledge they have of the area. But – the best secret of this spot? On certain Saturday’s they have salsa dancing and it’s like one big party. If you want to feel like you’re at real family-run vineyard – this winery should be on your list. The other winery I stumbled upon out in Sonoma was Scribe. Scribe Winery is closer to the typical wineries in Napa, but it feels incredibly cool and casual to be hanging out in the yard with a blanket and bottle of their Chardonnay as a part of their “bottles and blankets” reservation, aka grabbing one of their blankets, buying a bottle, and hanging out as long as you like.
Healdsburg – St. Helena – Calistoga
Heading about 25 minutes north of Napa, you start getting to St. Helena and Calistoga – both small towns on the way to Healdsburg. Don’t brush these smaller stops to the side, they actually ended up being incredibly charismatic places to visit and well worth the addition to your itinerary. Being that they aren’t right in the heart of Napa, they are again less touristy and offer a more laid-back vibe. There are also a lot more little shops and market streets to explore if you’re looking to do a little more retail therapy while in the area.
Shed in Healdsburg is a must stop for any foodie in the area. Not only do they have a beautifully curated collection of kitchen goods and pantry treats, they also host workshops and talks if you’re looking for a little more cultural stimulation. And while the shopping here is great, the food is even better. Shed is farm to table mecca, with a coffee shop for quick and small bites, a deli counter with ready to go salads and freshly imported meats and charcuterie, and a full restaurant. The staff is incredibly knowledgable about the ingredients they have on hand, and I had a wonderful conversation with the man behind the meat counter about prosciutto and pâté, and he even let me sample their mushroom pâte after telling him that I don’t actually eat meat. The other must-stop at place in the area is Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. What’s great about this stop is that they have a café for quick and casual breakfast/lunch stops, a full restaurant if you’re looking for a sit down meal, and a chef’s table experience if you’re looking for a more elevated dining experience. They grow most of everything they use in their dishes, and the staff is incredibly knowledgeable about the ingredients and dishes.
The streets of all three of these small towns are all crawling with boutiques, craft good stores, and vintage and antique shops. The Erickson Art Gallery is down the street from Shed while you’re in Healdsburg and has an amazingly well curated collection of contemporary art. While in St. Helena, stroll down Main Street and stop in at any and all stores – specifically New West Knife Works and the Pennyweight gift shop, and while in Calistoga, check out Lincoln Street Market for beautiful flowers and Roam Antiques for some hidden gems.
Drink (Unique Wineries)
My wine stop up in this area was at Tank Garage Winery. This is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a winery built inside of a 1930s gas station and is retro in all the best ways. While definitely newer and trendier in its vibe and atmosphere, it offers up a completely different experience than that of the larger wineries around it. Call ahead and make an appointment to do a tasting in their Prohibition Room. It’s a great stop for just sitting back and enjoying the company of those around you.
So what y’all might notice that I left off here is a place to stay. Wine country is notorious for very expensive stays if you’re looking right in downtown Napa. My suggestion: Stay outside of Napa. Napa, Sonoma, and the cities up north are all within 30 minutes of each other, and it is so convenient to drive between all of them. The Wydown Hotel in St. Helena offers up more of your boutique hotel vibe, while the Napa Farmhouse Inn offers up more of your B&B atmosphere. If you’re looking to treat yourself to more of a luxurious experience, White House Napa is the place to be. Otherwise, many of the locals suggest perusing the listings on HomeAway!
There are so many amazing views of the valley, with one of the best lookouts being that from a hot air balloon. There are several well known companies in the area so do some research on pick up points near you and budget and get the most “instagrammable” view of the valley from air. If you prefer to stay on the ground – drive up the Silverado Trail. You pass so many wineries along the way that you can easily plan your winery stops around the drive going from Napa all the way up through Calistoga.