Napa Valley is a top getaway for both locals and international travelers. And Napa has been synonymous with wine tasting ever since the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 gave notice to the world that the California wine industry was worthy of recognition. But there are hundreds of other reasons to visit the Napa Valley. And if you’ve had a full weekend of swishing and spitting or you’re visiting with kids or friends who don’t drink, here are some things to do in Napa without being tipsy.
Many people don’t realize that within Napa Valley, there is an actual city called Napa with nearly 80,000 residents, a newly tamed river running through leafy neighborhoods and a revitalized downtown with lots of things to do. Napa struggled for many years to attract tourists who bypassed the city to head north seeking wineries. But now with chic hotels, a posh riverfront, designer hotels and creative cuisine, the city’s reputation is growing (more than just grapes).
STAY IN DOWNTOWN NAPA
If you want to be centrally located the new Archer Hotel has enlivened Napa’s downtown with a rooftop bar offering 360-degree views of the valley. From here you can walk to all of the great shopping and restaurants that have populated First Street Napa and find a few historic treasures such as the longest-operating library in California – the Goodman Library built in 1902. The Romanesque style stone building is home to Napa County Historical Society which offers walking tours and special exhibits. Go to ExploreNapa.org for maps of other historic sites nearby.
Another strategic place to stay in is the Napa River Inn which overlooks the serene Napa River and is tucked inside the historic Napa Mill. Dating back to the late 1800s, the mill was at the hub of steamboat and railroad traffic from San Francisco. Now it’s a charming complex of brick buildings with a flowerful back patio shaded by the unmistakable grain silo towering above.
BIKE AROUND NAPA
Just step out of your room to watch kayakers on the water, grab breakfast at the Napa General Store or reserve dinner at Angele’s which locals deem the most romantic meal in town. Right next door is Napa’s Riverfront where you can find more shops and open spaces for kids to run around. Napa River Velo is a great place to rent bikes for the day (starting at $40) so that you can cruise the Napa Valley Vine Trail which runs 12.5 miles towards the nearby town of Yountville.
The Vine Trail is loaded with freshly installed art thanks to the Rail Arts District (RAD) which has commissioned murals and utility box covers by Bay Area artists (these make great Instagram backdrops). One intriguing mural by Fintan Magee is a rolling portrait (in 12 segments) that shows a lily growing out of a helmet held by firefighter Cody Zetlmaier who was one of the many heroes that helped save homes in the 2017 California wildfires.
FEAST FOR ALL
If all that bike-riding made you hungry, cruise up Main Street to Gran Eléctrica. This hip Mexican street food concept arrived from Brooklyn in March 2018. Chef Ignacio Beltran whips up fresh ingredients in his platos such as Mole Amarillo con Pollo (yellow mole with chicken) or Ensalada Betabel (beet salad) with hazelnuts and goat cheese. Plus they serve the best huitlacoche I have yet to find outside of Mexico City!
If you want to learn more about local cuisines or even how to become your own private chef, tune in live to Feast it Forward Network, which is based in a studio near the Napa River. The brainchild of Katie Hamilton Shaffer, Feast it Forward is a TV station, tasting room, event space, and showroom all rolled into one. Upstairs is a full-on demonstration kitchen where they record cooking shows with famous chefs like Jacques Pépin. You can attend live tapings and then sample the food from the show! Every Tuesday, Katie shares easy recipes and hospitality tips on her own show “Family Style”.
DOWNTOWN NAPA SHOPPING
After you fuel up, circle back to First Street to explore shops like Boho Lifestyle which has been in Napa since 2013. Founder Indra Fortney has built a faithful following for her brand’s free-spirited and affordable looks. Her clothes cater perfectly to the chic but laid-back vibe of wine country, and the boutique often sponsors fashion events to raise funds for local nonprofits.
More shops along the way include Overland, where you can find gorgeous leather jackets and sheepskin rugs. (Did you know Napa was once famous for its leather made at the Sawyer Tannery?) And don’t miss the authentic local goodness at Makers Market which has jewelry, pottery, terrariums, fragrances, clothing and art that is handmade, sustainable and regionally unique.
Downtown you’ll also find Napa’s entertainment district for music, theater and film. The historic Napa Valley Opera House, dating back to 1880, was brought back to life in 2002. Saved from the wrecking ball and placed on the National Register of Historic Places it now hosts local and touring musicians. It’s also the hippest place for after parties during Napa’s annual musical festival Bottlerock (late May).
More live acts can be found at Napa’s Uptown Theatre. The art deco Uptown served as Napa’s indie movie house until it was restored for performing arts in 2010. It’s the perfect spot to catch a comedy show from the likes of Dana Carvey or hear brass band covers by Postmodern Jukebox. And if you’re downtown in November, you might bump into some movie stars during the Napa Valley Film Festival which hosts international filmmakers plus glamorous food and wine events.
REVIVE & THRIVE
After a good night’s rest, you can gather your qi (or life force) at Napa Valley Yoga Center’s “Flow & Go” morning Vinyasa class. Owners Amy and Peter Hall have recently revitalized the space which has a spacious “lotus room”, a wi-fi lounge and boutique. Occasionally they offer special treats like a sound bath for chakra balancing – just what you need to get back out and explore more of the city.
For another alternative boost, adventure over to True Rest Float Spa which has zero-gravity float pods that allow the mind and body to completely let go, relax and reset. The pods feature meditative light and sound and Epsom salts which are great for joint pain. Give your body and mind a spring cleaning and feel the euphoria you seek from a great night’s sleep.
ART IT UP
Harvest Season (Aug-Oct) is a popular period for wine tourism and you may find it harder to book rooms and restaurants. But if you’re more interested in getting to know Napa itself, I’d recommend the springtime for bright blue skies, fields of flowers and cultural happenings. In April the arts are highlighted at venues up and down the valley including outdoor concerts, theater productions, art exhibitions and poetry readings. Check out the list of events at ArtsinApril.com.
A rare and extraordinary art experience can be found at di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art. This site is more than a museum, it is 217 acres of preserved land with a sculpture park, 35-acre lake and multiple galleries. Founded by a voracious collector of California art from the 1960s and forward, the organization curates the work to connect with new generations.
In 2019 they launched a massive retrospective of ceramist Viola Frey (on view through December) with future plans to highlight more women artists and invite intergenerational artists to explore relevant themes. All ages are welcome on good museum behavior.
FAMILY FUN IN NAPA
And if your kids are feeling more rambunctious, you might want to venture a little out of downtown to Connolly Ranch which offers fun farm-based activities and more great photo opps. On the Second Saturday of the month (9 am to noon, $5-$10) visitors can roam around the ranch, relax in the grove and see the animals. Reservations are also available for farm tours and “Walk-in Wednesdays”.
Another popular place for families is the Oxbow Market which is located in a beautiful bend of the Napa River. It’s based on the concept of a public market, where you can pick up fresh produce, grab a bite, browse a bookshop, nosh a cupcake and meet with friends.
When it opened in 2007, there was a dearth of casual dining in East Napa. Now it is the go-to place for burgers from Gott’s Roadside, strong brew from Ritual Coffee Roasters, morning buns from Model Bakery, patio dining at Kitchen Door and amazing flavors at Three Twins Ice Cream. Local’s Night is every Tuesday (I’m sure they won’t mind interlopers).
A few other favorite activities that most tourists miss: Hiking trails in Westwood Hills or Skyline Park; playing bocce at Carneros Inn; picnicking at Fuller Park; or listening to bands on porches during the annual Napa Porchfest (July). Started in 2010, the organizers of this festival had the awesome idea to host local musical talent on the quaint Victorian porches in downtown Napa. Now thousands fill the streets on bikes, wagons, skateboards and scooters to catch their favorite bands in a neighborly jam.
Hopefully, this gives you some ideas about enjoying Napa’s evolving downtown. Sure, you can choose from over 500 wineries to discover amazing California wines, but now you have the inside scoop on things to do during a wine-free trip to Napa, California – hangovers not included.
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to take a trip to Napa, California. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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Our Top Places To Stay In Napa, California
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- Napa River Inn
- Candlelight Inn Napa Valley
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