The first time I arrived in Napa Valley, I followed the signs to downtown Napa, looked around at the turn of the century Victorians and found zilch appealing about the town. There were no people out and about, no wineries, not even a restaurant I wanted to try.
Fast forward a decade or two and Napa is not a city to be reckoned with. No longer are travelers going to Napa and not stepping foot in actual Napa. Instead with the arrival of some seriously innovative visionaries, the walkable downtown Napa has become a destination in its own right.
Where to stay: Staying in Napa offers travelers the chance to walk between wineries and restaurants without having to rock, paper, scissors decide who has to stay sober. While there are a host of fine inns (including my favorite the White House Inn), I like staying at Napa River Inn, both for convenience and comfort. This historic property, located on the banks of the Napa River, has recently been renovated and now, coupled with the benefits of the reinvigorated Napa scene, draws plenty of foot traffic. More like a resort than hotel, this property offers luxurious rooms that combine shades of mustard and merlot with views of the river. Cozy, yet well-appointed, these rooms cater to folks wanting fine bedding, breakfast in bed and a friendly community setting. For food, the complex houses Celadon, which serves global comfort food; and Angele, a French country restaurant on the waterfront; plus there are a couple casual eats like Sweetie Pie’s and the Napa General Store. Here you’ll also get to enjoy wine tasting and live jazz at Silo’s.
Insider Tip: Make sure to sign up for George Weber’s historic walking tour of the Napa Mill on Saturday mornings to learn about the rich history of one of Napa’s oldest buildings.
What to do: In the morning, walk to the Oxbow Public Market for a Ritual Coffee Roasters latte and a Pica Pica Maize arepa. These can both be enjoyed on the deck overlooking the river. You might spare some time to stroll the market, paying special attention to the Olive Press (which makes remarkable olive oil out of local fruit). Other fun eats in the complex include Gott’s Roadside, Kitchen Door, and Model Bakery.
Then head over to the Napa Valley Welcome Center to purchase tasting tickets to the majority of downtown’s tasting rooms (all of which are walkable from your hotel). The helpful folks in the welcome center can assist with maps, itinerary planning and even help you score dinner reservations!
By that point, you may want to get started sipping and swirling. My choice in downtown Napa is the Bounty Hunter. This funky old west storefront pairs fine wines with BBQ and shows off Napa’s casual vibe. Spend a couple hours walking between boutiques and tasting rooms to sample Cabernet, Chardonnay, and yummy chocolate.
Insider Tip: Put on your walking shoes and stroll through downtown, experiencing a self-guided audio tour of the NapaArtWalk (grab a map at the Napa Vallet Welcome Center). View public art sculptures as well as a variety of galleries populated with an array of mixed media art. Don’t miss a chance to marvel at the new Gordon Huether Gallery, which might just be the most dynamic new house of art to grace Napa Valley.
Score a massage treatment at the seriously decadent Meritage Resort’s Spa Terra. The subterranean spa might be 40 feet underground, but you won’t feel like a mole. Instead, sign up for a massage and facial package and then chill out surrounded by Florentine architecture. Oh lala.
Dinner in Napa used to be a snore. Today you can sample delicacies from around the globe, crafted with care, style and plenty of locally sourced ingredients. For some spicy contemporary Indian cuisine, Neela’s highlights the delicacies of all regions, including the breads, veggie dishes and a wealthy selection of curries and tandoor specialties. Japanophiles appreciate the delicate cuisine at Morimoto Napa, where you can get a selection of shared plates like fig tempura and bone marrow, or select entrees to the tune of whole roasted lobster epice or ishi yaki buri bop (a fanciful selection of seafood prepared in a clay bowl at your table). Or reserve early to sample some of Wine Country’s best wood fired pizza and creative pastas at Oenotri, an Italian eatery that cures its own salumi and prides itself on serving cuisine often overlooked by Californians (for example, the last time I was here, lamb testicles graced the menu). For more dinner ideas download a kindle version of my book here.
Cap off the evening at Napa River Inn’s jazz club Silo’s a down to earth venue to hear innovative sounds. Or, if you still have energy, check to see if Ceja Winery is hosting salsa dancing at their downtown tasting room. This is the Napa event, lauded for the vibrant scene and welcoming attitudes towards non-hip shakers.
Finally, Napa has arrived like the diva who came late to the party, but made the soiree all the better for her flair and sass.