Thinking about what to do (besides drink wine) in Napa Valley? You’re not alone. Granted, the vineyards and wineries are Napa Valley’s biggest draw, and they are what put the county on the map as the United States’ premier wine destination. But honestly, even the biggest oenophile can’t spend every moment of a Napa Valley vacation hopping from vineyard wine tasting to vineyard wine tasting — I hope — so planning other things to do in Napa Valley is a smart move. In particular, Downtown Napa has been having a renaissance and a resurgence in popularity with weekend travelers. Here are The Vacation Gals’ recommendations of what to do in Downtown Napa.
Where to eat in Downtown Napa: Napa Valley and Sonoma has some world class famous restaurant (French Laundry, anyone?) but the hip, more casual and friendly appeal of Downtown Napa extends to its restaurants as well.
The Bounty Hunter Wine Bar and Smoking’ BBQ is tops on our list of recommended lunch joints in Downtown Napa. It’s expanding even as I write, and it is so much fun. The smoker is right outside the restaurant; nothing gets the appetite going like seeing brisket and ribs getting the first class treatment right before landing on your plates. Especially recommended? The Bounty Hunter Smoking’ BBQ Platter, and the Bounty Hunter Beer Can Chicken (the latter of which has had some local acclaim).
Ca’Momi, a newer restaurant on First Street, benefits from being right in Downtown Napa’s Oxbow Market. It is a fantastic Italian restaurant with huge pizza ovens. Naples style pizza is just one of the classic southern Italian offerings here, though; we can elevate our meal to fine dining or keep it at the pizza level, all is welcome at the friendly, boisterous Ca’Momi. The wine list is beyond impressive, but of course, this is Downtown Napa we’re talking about here.
Celadon is in the Napa River Inn section of Downtown Napa, making it a ridiculously easy choice for anyone staying at that hotel. Napa Valley wine travelers staying elsewhere should consider coming to Celadon anyway, though; its cozy, comfortable ambiance and delicious comfort food is reminiscent of Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena and and Mustard Grill in Napa Valley. In warm weather, the courtyard is especially amenable to that friendly ambiance notable in all the recommended restaurants Downtown Napa.
Where to Stay in Downtown Napa: Sure, Napa Valley and Sonoma have some of the best 5-star resort hotels in California Wine Country, and travelers planning days of luxury and escape during a long weekend getaway will love being treated like a king or queen there. Downtown Napa has its own twist of weekend wine getaway lodging; one that syncs well with the laid-back and casually luxurious ethos of the town.
Napa River Inn, at the historic Napa Mill, is right along the river in Napa’s Riverfront District; after years of neglect, this district and the Oxbow Market are truly becoming bustling with culture, little shops and restaurants. The Napa River Inn is a recommended place to stay and soak in Downtown Napa’s renaissance. Spread across three distinct buildings, the property has different room and suite options from standard to “Historic Deluxe,” and the hotel welcomes pets with open arms.
Westin Verasa Napa is, as of this date, the most typically high-end resort in Downtown Napa. (In a few years, the planned Archer Hotel will be a sure contender.) Like all Westins, this one has Heavenly bedding — the best hotel pillows I’ve come across in a chain — and New Balance exercise clothes to borrow. The Westin Verasa Napa is also very close to the Oxbow Market and pet-friendly, like the Napa River Inn. It’s larger, though not a large hotel, and like all Starwood properties takes Starpoints to lessen the out-of-pocket expenses.
Andaz Napa is a boutique hotel in Downtown Napa, one that’s hip as compared to luxurious. It’s modern and sleek, and while rooms are on the small side the suites are comparatively spacious. Notably, the parking in the back is complementary. It’s so refreshing to not pay a daily fee to park. The hotel bar, the Mercantile Social, is fun in its own right, and as with the other recommended Downtown Napa hotels, everything in the town is an easy walk from the Andaz Napa.
What to Do in Downtown Napa: Now, when it comes to the larger area, what to do in Napa Valley (besides drink at winery visits) and Sonoma involves disparate activities like the Healdsburg Art Walk and spa days at destination spas. Downtown Napa, with its current renaissance of opening independently owned shops, new hotels, and curated artisanal chocolate stores, offers plenty of fun options as well.
The Uptown Theatre Napa is a wonderful indoor musical theater, and one of better small venues that we’ve been to (and we’ve been to a lot). It was restored and reopened five years ago, and designed with both acoustics and guest comfort in mind; all seats are “the good seats” here. Recent shows and performers include Jersey Boys, Peter Frampton, and the Indigo Girls.
Kayak in Napa River for a fun outdoor activity that’s an alternate to the ever-present bike tours on Silverado Trail. There are a couple of different kayak rental companies that paddle along Napa River: The Vacation Gals participated in a morning paddle with Kayak Napa Valley, which typically offers 2 1/2 hour excursions. This was a really relaxing way to see Downtown Napa from a new perspective. Kayak Napa Valley has rentals, guided tours and, importantly, cleanup events as well. This eco-adventure kayaking trip is not particularly strenuous in the morning (the tidal pull is stronger in the afternoon) and really helps visitors justify their big delicious wine and culinary vacation in Napa Valley.
Walking tours of historic Downtown Napa are easy to integrate into a stay in the area, since Downtown Napa is imminently walkable anyway. The historic Hatt and Napa Mill buildings (which is where the Napa River Inn and Celadon are, remember?) were first established in the 1880’s. The Hatt Building, which now is home to Sweetie Pies (a bakery), also has Hatt Hall which used to be a “society hall” for local luminaries. Today it’s a pretty glamorous meeting room. Other walking tour stops can include the Silo Building the Plaza Building and Riverbed Plaza, Oxbow Commons, strolling along the Napa River’s embarcadero, and more.
These three recommended hotels, three great restaurants, and three fun things to do in Downtown Napa should really help expand any California Wine Country travel plans beyond hopping from winery to winery…and take it from me, that “hopping” turns into “trudging” after just a few vineyards in a day. When it’s time to dry out and enjoy the area for more than its wineries, what to do in Napa Valley besides drink should really include more than just a cursory pit stop in Downtown Napa. Its getting more and more fun with each visit these years; The Vacation Gals can’t wait to return to Downtown Napa.
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Disclosure: I was treated to some of these recommendations during a trip to Downtown Napa; all opinions are my own. This article includes affiliate links, which means The Vacation Gals may earn a (small) commission if you click the links and/or make a purchase.