Located roughly between San Francisco and Sacramento, Napa Valley is famous for its vineyards. But the valley and the towns nestled within it—Napa, St. Helena, Yountville, and Calistoga—provide more than just viniculture. From the quaint towns to the picturesque hillsides and foothills of the Vaca mountain range, Napa makes for a spectacular place to explore.
One of the most romantic ways to experience the vast vineyards and rolling terraced hills of the Napa Valley is by hot air balloon. There are a number of providers around Napa town and Yountville, and many of them will combine an hour-long flight with a champagne lunch or brunch. The weather must be calm to launch, but once aloft in an 8-person basket, the majesty of the landscape can be breathtaking.
The golden era of train travel comes alive on the Napa Valley Wine Train, a restored Victorian-era train that travels over 36 miles of the valley on a loop from St. Helena and back. On board, enjoy gourmet dining and champagne toasts, or hop off and on at select wineries without worrying about a designated driver. The train also hosts periodic murder mystery night events and candlelit dinners.
The Napa Valley was settled in the late 1800s as part of the California Gold Rush. In Napa town proper, many of the original buildings from that era have been preserved and restored. One of the finest is the Napa Valley Opera House, still presenting cultural events after more than a hundred years. Catch a musical or concert in the Ballroom, or dine while listening to jazz upstairs in the Blue Note Napa Jazz club.
Take a break from wine at di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, a 200-acre unique art gallery that includes an outdoor sculpture garden on the Sonoma Highway. The grounds and gallery feature more than 2000 works, including from local artists. Visitors experience rotating exhibitions from new and upcoming artists while strolling the sculpture meadow trails, and can take part in educational programs at three on-site gallery spaces.
One man's obsession with medieval Tuscan architecture led to the establishment of a unique vineyard and event space near Calistoga. Dario Sattui built Castello di Amorosa in 1994 as an authentic recreation of a Tuscan villa, complete with towers and turrets, a moat and drawbridge. A vaulted brick wine cellar stores the fruits of the land, including award-winning Cabernet Sauvignons. Visitors can enjoy tours and tastings, as well as regular special events such as the luxe annual New Year's Eve Masquerade Ball.
A 12-mile biking and hiking trail running from South Napa to Yountville, the Vine Trail is a great way to experience the gorgeous California climate, glorious landscape and delicious fruits of wine country. The trail is an initiative of local growers and community leaders who plan to expand the trail an additional 30 miles over the next few years.
Sampling the best food and wine of the region can be easily done in one place. The Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa is a flourishing foodie destination where visitors can stock up on local organic produce and snack on the finest prepared foods and regional wines. Special events with music and entertainment are a regular occurrence at this lively community hub, as are locally produced wine, beer and olive oil tastings.
Not all of Napa Valley is family-friendly, as many wineries have age requirements. But Cannolly Ranch, a 12-acre educational farm, welcomes school groups as well as anyone wanting to know more about sustainable farming in the Napa Valley. From weekly tours to an annual community dinner under the stars, the farm has been hosting kids, campers, and daytrippers since 1917.
In keeping with the outdoor culture that defines Napa Valley, Skyline Wilderness Park provides an 850-acre escape to nature trails, horseback riding, and overnight camping. The park is busy with activities and gatherings all year round, yet can also accommodate peaceful solo meanderings through forest and foothill landscapes. Near the community hub of Skyline Park Social Hall is the Martha Walker Natural Habitat Garden, a rustic oasis displaying all manner of flora native to the area.
The frontier town of Calistoga was built around several natural mineral hot springs. Visitors can visit and soak in the mineral pools at several retro resorts and more upscale boutique venues. There is even a Roman Bath style spa for mud baths and a hot soak. The town has been a wellness destination for millenia; the Wappo tribe settled around the area 8000 years ago, soaking in hot springs they called "the oven place". Don't miss Old Faithful while you're in town, America's favorite regularly erupting hot water geyser.