Fall is hands down our favorite time to escape to Wine Country. But with harvest season in full swing, Napa Valley winery reservations can be hard to come by. (Not to mention that the average winery tasting fee has skyrocketed to about $80 a person in recent years.) So, for your next trip, forgo the expensive vineyard experience and have a wine-filled weekend in walkable downtown Napa instead, where the tastings are more affordable and…dare we say…more fun. You might even swear off the Valley for good.
Skip the Vineyards and Head to This Napa Hotspot Instead for Your Next Wine Weekend Getaway
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What to Know About Downtown Napa
You may not be as familiar with Downtown Napa as Wine Country hotspots like Yountville, St. Helena and Healdsburg, but now’s a great time to see what it’s all about. Once a sleepy area without much going on, Downtown Napa has exploded into a buzzing destination for food, culture, and of course, really good wine.
Situated along the Napa River, it spans east-west from Jefferson Street to the Silverado Trail and north-south from about Vallejo Street to Fifth Street. Most of the activity is centered on First Street and Main Street. Locals refer to the different downtown areas as NoFi (north of 1st St.), SoFi (south of 1st St.), the Oxbow District (across Soscol Ave.) and North Napa. The quickly expanding Oxbow District has a particularly cool vibe, and the Oxbow Public Market serves as downtown’s main hub.
There’s really no wrong time to visit, but know that summer can be very hot and crowded. We’re partial to visiting during the autumn months but whenever you decide to go, plan enough time to soak it all in…because there’s a lot to eat, drink and do here.
Where to Drink Wine in Downtown Napa
The self-proclaimed “wine-tasting capital of the world” is now home to more than 50 tasting rooms, all concentrated in a 1.5-square-mile radius (read: leave your car at the hotel and get those steps in). Many of the tasting rooms are family-owned, and they’re all so down-to-earth compared to the high-brow vineyard experiences Napa Valley has become known for. Plus, most tastings are a fraction of the price of a vineyard experience and many spots offer both flights and wines by the glass for an even more budget-friendly option. Here’s what’s swirling at some of our favorite spots.
When in Cab country…you must sample the work of famed Cabernet Sauvignon winemaker Mark Herold. Herold got his start at Joseph Phelps in the ‘90s and was one of the first to open a downtown tasting room to showcase his own wines more than a decade ago. Today, staff at the modern, gallery-like tasting room are eager to share the legend’s wines with you, speaking passionately about everything they pour. For a well-rounded intro, try the Herold Highlights (a broad range of portfolio wines, including whites and reds). Die-hard Cab lovers are in for a treat with the Appellation Series, which gives guests a chance to compare and contrast the distinct terroirs of Coombsville, Oakville and Atlas Peak.
Just next door you’ll find Krupp Brothers, where you’ll have the chance to taste a sampling of reds and whites (all paired with chocolate truffles) from the brothers who are also behind Stagecoach Vineyard—one of Napa’s most iconic vineyards that’s now owned by Gallo. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay fans will be thrilled by the new Walt Wines tasting room across from Oxbow Public Market. Sample current releases or splurge on the Root 101 Experience, where you’ll taste single-vineyard Pinots alongside bites from Michelin-rated restaurant La Toque. At tasting-room collective Feast It Forward, you’ll have the chance to sample California wines from a rotating list of guest vintners that don’t have their own tasting rooms. This happening spot doubles as an event space, concert venue and production studio that hosts classes, cooking demos, open-mic nights and live recordings of Feast Network shows.
Do not miss a stop at Brown Downtown, the urban-chic tasting room of Napa’s first Black-owned estate winery. Known mostly for Napa Valley Zinfandels, their portfolio also includes Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc, rosé, etc., and the flight tasting is a choose-your-own-adventure kind of experience. Just be sure to reserve your spot in advance—on weekends, there’s often a waitlist to get in. We’re always feeling the casual and communal vibe at Brendel Wines, where organic farming and minimal interference equal wines that are pure and true to their roots. At New Frontier Wine Co., you’ll sample a variety of interesting wines from around the world in a casual tasting area with cozy living room vibes. From the latest collaboration with Napa-based winemaking sensation, Philippe Melka, to international labels only available here, you’ll have access to a truly unique assortment. Just watch the price tags…because many of these wines are bougie.
Restaurants You Can’t Miss in Downtown Napa
When it comes time to soak up all the wine from this town’s 50-plus tasting rooms, there’s no shortage of great restaurants to choose from. Sure, there are the award-winning and much-hyped restaurants like Celadon, La Toque, Morimoto and Oenotri if that’s what you’re going for, but we’re loving the lower-profile gems that downtown has to offer. For French country fare and rustic village vibes, book a table at the 20-plus-year-old Angèle Restaurant & Bar. From escargot and pâté to duck leg confit, it’s got all the classics. And with the friendliest staff around, you’ll feel like part of the family. This one’s a local favorite for good reason. A quick stroll through Oxbow Public Market and you might miss C Casa, but this is a restaurant that deserves to be sought out. The gorgeously designed indoor-outdoor cantina with a cool yet unpretentious feel is perfect for a night out with friends. Order the nachorizos, a few large C Style tacos (our favorite is the duck confit), and the bison chile relleno for the table, and don’t forget a round of house margaritas.
For a casual and satisfying meal, head to Compline for what the SF Chronicle calls a “celebration-worthy” burger made with a Five Dot Ranch beef patty, Model Bakery bun, cheese and tart pickled veggies. Nearby, Tarla Mediterranean serves up classics like spanikopita and kebabs, along with specialties like saganaki (a shareable halloumi cheese starter), housemade dolmas and an Oliver Putnam-pleasing Greek dip trio. For a fun scene that’s all about people watching, pintxos and low-ABV cocktails, check out La Taberna. From the folks behind sister restaurant Zuzu, this Spanish-style tavern is about small plates and big flavors in a convivial atmosphere. For a taste of Southern Italy, try Scala Osteria & Bar. This seafood-centric spot (from the serial restaurateur behind Bistro Don Giovanni, Piatti and Scala’s Bistro in SF) is everything we’re craving right now: oysters, Neapolitan pizzas and simply prepared pastas. Bonus: They’re open for late-night dining (from 10 to 11 p.m.), with an edited menu of favorites geared towards the industry crowd.
Where to Stay in Downtown Napa
Located on the other side of Soscol Avenue in the hip Oxbow District, River Terrace Inn is a hidden oasis overlooking the Napa River and surrounded by Oxbow Preserve. The boutique hotel is an easy walking distance to the main drag downtown but is just far enough removed to feel like an escape from the crowds. The popular Oxbow Public Market is right around the corner, and the hotel is a stone’s throw away from a handful of tasting rooms. Borrow a bike to explore the area and make time for a sunset drink on the riverfront patio. Pro tip: Comp tickets to select Blue Note shows are available at the front desk. If you want the feel of a luxe Wine Country retreat with a primo location in the heart of downtown, check in to the Archer Hotel. Billed as Napa’s favorite “haute” spot, the Archer’s rooftop boasts panoramic valley views…plus a bar, full-service spa, IG-worthy water deck and fitness studio with Peloton bikes. Located at the historic Napa mill, the Napa River Inn has been anchoring Main Street since 1884. Expect antique B&B vibes, a killer riverfront location and every room uniquely styled in its own character. We love this spot for its simple perks—like pet-friendly rooms and fresh pastries delivered daily (plus breakfast vouchers for Sweetie Pie’s bakery just a few doors down).
Non-Wine Things to Do in Downtown Napa
Step aside, BottleRock. The Oxbow RiverStage summer concert series has welcomed the likes of Brandi Carlile, Death Cab for Cutie and Leon Bridges. Check the calendar to see what’s on next and plan your weekend getaway accordingly.
See firsthand how all the culinary magic happens by taking a class at CIA at Copia. The downtown branch of the Culinary Insitute of America offers everything from multi-day boot camps to single-day cooking classes, beverage explorations and chef demos. Plus, there’s a brand-new cocktail bar called the Haven that’s serving up late-night drinks on the balcony overlooking the lush campus garden.
Over at the Biergarten-style Napa Yard, you’ll find garden-to-table dining (hello, fried zucchini blossoms), a distillery with spirit tastings and a calendar full of fun events. Up next: the eight-day Oktoberfest (September 30 to October 8), with authentic German food, beer and a stein-holding contest to test your strength.