Before the current global fame and allure of the Napa the Valley, there was Napa the City. And this city has bloomed again to greet visitors, so I grabbed a friend and we did just that. When we began planning to visit Downtown Napa, we realized we could experience the entire Napa Valley from the walkable streets of this sweet little burg.
Downtown Napa is full of history with buildings dating back to the boom of the late 1800s, when San Franciscans were flush and building summer houses here was all the rage. The streets of the downtown area developed quickly, and many of these historic edifices remain today. They’re restored and house amazing shops and galleries, delicious restaurants, boutique hotels and more than 40 wine tasting rooms.
That’s right! When you visit Downtown Napa, you’ll have the chance to sample the famous wines of Napa Valley by strolling into 40 some-odd tasting rooms ready to pour you a sip of something amazing and Napa-licious.
Visit Downtown Napa
As soon as my friend Erica and I had parked the car at the Napa River Inn, we realized there was so much to do within walking distance that we wouldn’t have to drive anywhere. And we were right! Everything is walkable when your visit Downtown Napa, and the car sat in the parking lot until it was time to drive back to the Oakland airport.
And yes, there is a Napa River. Honestly, I grew up a little more than an hour from here and have visited the Napa Valley many, many times. In all these years and countless visits, I never noticed the Napa River that runs down through the Valley and cuts right through Downtown Napa. More on this later, but it’s really beautiful.
I had a chance to chat with the executive director of Visit Downtown Napa, Craig Smith. He confirmed what I already knew from my personal experience. People flock to Napa Valley from around the world, and seldom realize there is a City of Napa worth visiting. Just like I had done so many times over the years, people often drive right through Napa on the way to some other destination. Well, they don’t know what they’re missing.
It’s a wine and food mecca all unto itself. Judging from the comeback we witnessed here after the world’s recent travel hiatus, it’s the new hot spot for discovery.
Places to Stay When You Visit Downtown Napa
First things first. There are several awesome hotels in Downtown Napa worth considering, and we made the Napa River Inn our home-away-from-home for this visit.
Napa River Inn
Located right on the Napa River, the hotel is housed in what used to the city’s mill, built in 1884 from bricks and steel. The entire façade of the building is well preserved, and the hotel is an impressive example of reusing historic space to create something new and wonderful.
Checking into our room at the Napa River Inn, we took in the history of the place as we got settled. Our room was spacious, including a great outdoor patio wound with creeping wisteria vines just finishing their Spring bloom. What had not finished blooming, however, was just about everything else in the Napa River Inn’s lush gardens. Winding through the buildings and courtyards of the hotel, we enjoyed the strong fragrance of sweet peas in bloom, hydrangeas, and even deep lavender artichoke blossoms.
The hotel owner evidently had a sharp eye for design detail and art. The grounds are dotted with interesting art installations, including kinetic fountains and mosaic tile creations. Even if you don’t stay at this gorgeous hotel, it’s worth a visit for coffee and a croissant in the courtyard among the blooms.
Located in the heart of urban Napa on First Street, The Archer Hotel is in the thick of the cool downtown vibe. A sleek modern design, luxe suites, a soaring lobby and an open air rooftop make this destination a truly special experience.
White House Inn
This historic old home has been converted into a 17-room boutique hotel with contemporary decor and stylish details. Check out The White House Inn for a relaxing, resort-style feel with lovely grounds, pool, and hot tub. ,
Check out many other Downtown Napa accommodations at DoNapa.com.
Food for Days
Remember how I mentioned earlier there are about 40 wine tasting rooms when you visit Downtown Napa? There are double that number of restaurants in the same city blocks. 80 restaurants is a lot! Even better, many of these restaurants are signatures of world-renowned chefs who have chosen to open downtown because it’s the new hotspot place to be.
If Iron Chef fame and a dynasty of restaurants around the world was not enough, Masaharu Morimoto opened Morimoto Napa as his first restaurant in the US. It still enjoys his love and attention, and both the space and the food are beauty to behold. We enjoyed a selection of sushi with the freshest of ingredients and a colorful presentation. A standout for us were the spicy tuna tacos and rock shrimp tempura, both dishes playing with our taste buds. Dessert here is also not to be missed. The crowd was colorful and lively, and we enjoyed this riverfront experience immensely.
Traditionally French, the menu at Angele is superb. Chef Phillipe Moratin knows what he is doing in the kitchen so much that we wondered if he was classically trained in France. As it turns out his pedigree is equally impressive, most recently with the Thomas Keller organization as Executive Sous Chef. Of particular note was the velvety-smooth potato and leek soup almost too pretty to eat. The flavors and texture were out of this world, and paired nicely with a crisp and nutty beet salad and a classically delicious duck confit.
This place was so good we went back the next day for lunch again. Perfectly roasted and luscious meats are served in tacos, quesadillas, salads and more, along with vegetarian and vegan fare. We could not get enough of their piquant salsas (particularly the avocado lime salsa). Wish there was a C Casa in our town, because we’d be eating there every day. Judging from the line of people waiting to order, we are not the only fans of this establishment. Don’t worry, the line moves fast and the food comes out quick. Don’t forget to order one of their tangy and sweet margaritas too. The pineapple one was our favorite. Located in Oxbow Public Market (see below).
Oxbow Public Market
I love a good food hall, and Oxbow Public Market is an awesome one. Lined with a selection of restaurants, drinks, specialty foods and gift items, this market is true to the Napa reputation. Locally made and sourced items like olive oils, bourbons, ice creams, farm-fresh produce – and yes wines – are all available for tasting and sampling. The chocolates at Annette’s and cold brew at Ritual Coffee Roasters were standouts, and of course the Mexican food at C Casa (see above). Oxbow is located right next door to the Culinary Institute of America – CIA at Copia. It was not open during our visit, but normally visitors can partake of their wonderful restaurant and even take cooking classes led my master chefs.
Visit Downtown Napa for Wine Too
There are some 375 wineries located within the entire Napa Valley, and 40 of them have tasting rooms in Downtown Napa. This means visitors like us can literally walk from tasting to tasting, avoiding hot car rides along winding roads to wineries located afar. We loved experience a variety of wines on foot with short distance of our hotel. When you visit Downtown Napa, these wineries are lined up and waiting for you. We visited several, and here are some favorites:
Shadowbox Cellars has a unique tasting experience we just had to try. The winemaker has paired his wines with a sampling of gourmet potato chips! I know this may sound odd, but it was a perfect match of salty flavors with delicious varietals. The Salt & Acid Pairings were a highlight of our trip, and we loved sampling some of the Shadowbox and Outline labeled wines. Pairings including potato chips flavored with salt, one flavored like gouda cheese and one flavored like grilled steak. All were delicious, and we even purchased several bottles to bring home.
As we walked in Downtown Napa, we stumbled upon Be Bubbly because of their rainbow balloons proudly displayed outside. A dedicated sparking wine experience, Be Bubbly offers single glasses and flights of several delicious bubbly options. We opted for the Champagne Flight, which included Boizel Brut Reserve, Laurent Perrier Rose, Waris Hubert Zero Dosage and Gosset Grande Millesime 2012. All were large servings, and quite delicious served with Be Bubbly’s flavored popcorns.
Just across the street from Oxbow Market sits a sweet little converted house where WALT Wines serves tastings of its Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. The tasting we experienced included 1,000 miles of Pinots, stretching from the Oregon Coast all the way down through California to the Santa Barbara area. It was a fun way to learn about the different terroir and how each influences the flavors. The staff here was particularly friendly and truly helpful as we learned more about what makes wines taste the way they do. Highly recommend.
Other Cool Stuff When You Visit Downtown Napa
There are a bunch of other cool things to do in Downtown Napa that don’t have to do with eating and drinking. Although for us, these things are all mashed together!
Whether you are an accomplished cyclist or just out for an easy ride around town (like us), renting bicycles is a great way to see the town. At Napa Valley Bike Shop, you can rent bikes to take you all the way up the valley to Yountville and beyond. We opted for an easier ride along the river and then into the historic neighborhoods of downtown. The sun was shining, the air warm and comfortable and the breeze blew through our hair. (In my case, what little hair I have left!) It was great fun and an nice diversion from driving around in a car. The path along the river was especially beautiful and then we rode over to Oxbow Market for a little lunch.
Kayaks on the River
The Napa River is clean and beautiful – an excellent place for a sweet paddle on rented kayaks and SUPs. Napa Valley Paddle is easily located right downtown on the docks below the Third Street Bridge. Although we did not rent kayaks on this trip, we watched many other families, couples and friend groups having a blast on the River. Follow this link for more information.
Other Fun Stuff
For lovers of heights, check out Napa Valley Drifters for a picturesque hot air balloon experience high over the Napa Valley.
The Napa Valley Wine Train takes passengers embarking in Downtown Napa up the Valley to visit various wineries. Guests can get off the train and back on with a running schedule throughout the day and several stop locations.
Local fresh produce and other deliciousness can be found at the Napa Farmers Market, open Tuesdays and Saturdays. It’s located right in downtown Napa, and is an easy walk from most of the hotels and accommodations.
Like Wine Tours?
For another cool story on our visit to wineries and tastings, check out our experiences in Paso Robles tour recently.