A weekend guide to Napa Valley

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Even though I’d been to San Francisco twice and Napa Valley is only an hour drive north from the city, I felt it deserved a separate trip instead of a rushed few-hour visit. Napa Valley is known for its wine, which is a main product of the region – specifically dry wines, with Cabernet Sauvignon at the top of the list. Previously known for raising cattle, Napa Valley is now one of the top international destinations for wine lovers. I want to provide you with a weekend guide to top activities in the Napa Valley, along with some practical advice to help you plan your visit.

vineyard in Napa Valley

A weekend guide to things to do in Napa Valley

Start with wine tasting

Napa Valley has over 500 wineries that offer wine tastings served with an assortment of cheeses, meats, nuts, and fruits. Napa Valley laws only allow wineries to offer scheduled wine tastings paired with finger foods. Except for a handful of wineries that were grandfathered in, there are no weddings, concerts, or any other events available at Napa Valley wineries. The goal of this law is to make sure that the focus is on wine and that Napa Valley does not become a commercial destination. Tipping is not required but welcomed.

Stop by the Napa Valley Sign

If you’re driving through Napa Valley, consider stopping by the “Welcome to Napa Valley” sign to document your adventures. The sign is located by the St. Helena Highway, 3 miles north of Yountville. If you booked a wine train, you will get a chance to see the sign, as the railroad tracks lead right past it.

Napa valley sign

See a sunrise from a hot air balloon

If you’re an early bird, consider watching a sunrise from a hot air balloon. Depending on a month, it can be as early as 5:30 am or as late as 7 am. You might want to wear light layers, but once you get into a basket, the burners will keep you warm. Make reservations ahead of time and be prepared to share a basket with several people, as the baskets are decent sized. Hotel pickup is available for both Sonoma and Napa County. The whole experience from hotel pickup to time in the air and drop off takes about three hours. Beware that hot air balloon rides are weather dependent. Most of them do take place, but occasionally there are cancellations due to rain or fog. I happened to get unlucky with a foggy morning.

Explore Napa Valley by bike

Start exploring Napa Valley on two wheels. There are various bike tours and bike rentals available in the region with different offerings. You can do guided tours, self-guided tours, electric bike tours, or just rent a bike and explore on your own. You can also combine a bike tour with a picnic or a hot air balloon.

I chose a guided tour with wine tasting. The tour covered two wineries (each visit was one hour) and the cost included bike rental and a tour with a local guide. Wine tastings were paid separately. Winery selection changes all the time and depends on availability, so no tour is exactly the same. It is customary to tip the guide. My tour traveled up to 14 miles at a casual pace, partially on the Napa Valley Vine Trail and partially on the road. The Napa Valley Vine Trail is a bike trail with parts still under construction. When finished, it will span from Vallejo’s Ferry to Calistoga.

Take a ride on a vintage wine train

Transport yourself back in time to the 1900s by taking a day-long luxurious vintage train ride. The wine train is partially a museum composed of 20th century Pullman cars. It takes you from Napa to St. Helena on a 36-mile round trip. Full day tours include a three-hour train ride, tastings at three wineries (one hour each), and a four-course meal. There are several packages available with a choice of up to three wineries or one at Castello di Amorosa, a castle built to resemble a thirteenth-century Tuscan castle and winery. Alternatively, you can select a 2-hour gourmet lunch or a 3-hour gourmet dinner. You might also combine your dinner with a murder mystery. There are plenty of options to enjoy the wine train.

Go horseback riding through the vineyards

If you’re looking for more outdoor activities in Napa Valley, go horseback riding in one of the vineyards. You can book horseback riding for a 30-minute or a 50-minute and it comes in a package with a wine tasting. The whole experience takes two hours. It is fun to explore the valley from a rancher’s perspective, riding through the vineyards. It is mandatory to wear helmets while horseback riding. Boots with heels are recommended. Fortunately, you will be able to get a pair of boots if you came unprepared.

Logistics guide to Napa Valley

How to get to Napa Valley

Your best bet is to fly to San Francisco, rent a car at the airport and drive to Napa Valley, or take a Uber/Lyft ride from the airport to Napa Valley. You can fly into the San Francisco International Airport or the Oakland International Airport. There is one closer airport: the Sonoma County Airport. Even though it is small, it operates some of the major airlines. The closest airport to Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Airport, only allows charter flights and private aircrafts.

Best time to visit Napa Valley

There is really no bad time to drink wine. The best time for you depends on the experience you want to have. The busiest and priciest time to visit is during harvest months, August to October, but you might also want to see autumn foliage, Christmas lights, nature in bloom or avoid crowds altogether and come during the low season of the winter months. I visited Napa Valley in early November. The valley and vineyards covered in autumn colors looked stunning, and it was very peaceful and enjoyable even though a bit chilly.

Napa Valley view from the road

Where to stay in Napa Valley

If you have an interest in particular wineries, of course, choose the most convenient location in Napa Valley. Otherwise, I would suggest staying in Napa, as most activities are available in the city or close by. I stayed in south Napa at a resort, and the location was perfect to access the wineries and activities I was interested in. I loved that I had a balcony to enjoy sitting outside, a restaurant across the street to get fueled for the day before embarking on my adventures, and a swimming pool to relax at the end of the day. Most wineries close during the late afternoon hours, so it was perfect to have extra time to enjoy the resort. There are plenty of resorts, hotels, bed-and-breakfast type accommodations, vacation rentals, and even campgrounds and RV parks. Choose what suits your needs.

What to wear to Napa Valley

The wineries do not have a dress code, so wear what makes you comfortable. Napa Valley has warm sunny days and cool evenings, the ideal condition for growing grapes. If you intend to participate in outdoor activities, wear comfortable shoes and layers to adjust to temperatures throughout the day. If you’re taking a vintage train ride, you might enjoy dressing up for the occasion, but it is not mandatory.


I really enjoyed my visit to Napa Valley, drinking dry reds and taking in the natural beauty of the place. Even though I missed the harvest, the autumn foliage made the views even better. I only explored a small part of Napa and will definitely return to visit more wineries and partake in the activities I missed out on the first time. If you have any questions that aren’t covered in this weekend guide to Napa Valley, spill in the comments. Cheers!

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