Close to San Francisco, a day trip to Napa Valley is a great way for wine enthusiasts to experience California wine country.
If you’re a wine enthusiast, the Napa Valley has probably been on your radar for some time.
It’s not only one of the most famous wine regions in the world, but exploring this beautiful region is also one of the best things you can do in California.
Napa Valley has over 400 wineries and is a picture-perfect region full of rolling vineyards, farm-to-fork foodie spots, and hot air balloons. Its celebrity status as one of the best wine regions in the world (especially for Cabernet Sauvignon) draws people from all over the world.
Besides the quality wine produced in the area, one of Napa’s most attractive features is its proximity to San Francisco. At only 53 miles north of San Francisco, Napa makes for a perfect day trip from the city.
In fact, of the 3.85 million annual visitors to the Napa Valley, about two-thirds of those visit on a day trip.
Since it’s such a convenient attraction to get to, it can also be a busy and touristy place to visit in Northern California.
Because of this, I always recommend doing a Napa Valley day trip during the week if possible for fewer crowds and cheaper prices. It also pays to plan out your trip to make your visit to this popular region as enjoyable as possible.
These are my tips and recommendations for planning the perfect Napa Valley day trip from San Francisco.
Tips for Planning a Napa Valley Day Trip from San Francisco
- Pace yourself – The Napa Valley is huge and the wineries themselves can be sprawling as well. Don’t try to fit in as many wineries as possible. Instead, pick a few to focus on, book a tour or two, and savor what Napa has to offer. The worst thing you can do is pack in too much into your Napa Valley day trip, which will only leave you stressed and unable to enjoy the best parts of Napa.
- Book winery tours in advance – If you plan to visit a popular winery, always book your tour well in advance. Even if you plan to visit smaller wineries, it’s worth it to call the winery or check online if you need to book a tour ahead of time.
- Avoid the crowds – Think about visiting Napa in the off-season (Oct-May) when there are fewer crowds. At the very least, try and visit during the week when wineries have fewer bookings and staff have more time to walk you through each wine. It’s also ideal to get to Napa early in the day, most wineries open around 10 am.
- Use the Napa Valley Winery Map – Download the Napa winery map or pick one up at the Napa Valley Welcome Center on arrival to help plan out your day.
- Bring water and plan food stops – If you plan to drink all day, make sure to bring plenty of water to stay hydrated. And plan out where you want to get lunch and snacks throughout the day so you’re not drinking on an empty stomach.
How to Get to Napa from San Francisco
With how close Napa is to the city, the easiest way to get to Napa from San Francisco is to drive. It only takes about an hour and a half to drive to downtown Napa from the city, assuming there’s not too much traffic.
If you’re planning on just doing a Napa Valley day trip from San San Francisco, you could easily rent a car for the day to get to and from wine country. If you go mid-week, you can sometimes find rental cars for as low as $30 per day.
If you’re driving, leave as early as possible to avoid traffic. Most wineries open around 10 am.
The major downside to driving yourself is that you’ll probably want to test out a few wineries in California’s most popular wine region.
This means that you, or someone you’re traveling with, will have to stay sober for the day and not partake in too much wine tasting.
If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, it might be a better option to take public transit or book a Napa wine tour from San Francisco.
In terms of public transit, the best option is to use the Amtrak service. Amtrak offers a combination train and bus ticket from Emeryville that drops you off in downtown Napa.
You can take the Amtrak train from Emeryville and transfer to an Amtrak bus in Martinez. To get to Emeryville from San Francisco, use BART or a shared-ride service. The cost is $35 for a roundtrip ticket from Emeryville to Napa and back.
If you decide to get to Napa with public transit, you’ll probably have to plan your trip out in more detail.
Most importantly, you’ll want to think about how to get around Napa and the wineries once you arrive and if you’ll want to take a tour once you’re there to efficiently get around.
One of the best ways to get around Napa is on the Napa Wine Train, which takes you from downtown Napa to St. Helena and stops at multiple wineries along the way.
And lastly, you can go the easiest route of hopping on a Napa wine tour from the city to let other people plan your itinerary and do the driving for you.
This is the most expensive option to get to Napa, but it can be worth it to book a tour if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of planning and driving.
Napa Valley Wine Tour from San Francisco
A Napa Valley Wine Tour might focus on visiting boutique wineries around Napa and gives you the chance to learn more about the winemaking process at each one.
Tastings would be included in the price and the tour should pick you up from various locations around San Francisco.
Napa and Sonoma Combo Tour from San Francisco
A full day Napa and Sonoma Combo Tour is one of the best ways to explore California’s wine country in a day. The tour should pick you up from various locations in San Francisco and take you around to both large and family-run wineries in Sonoma and Napa.
Tastings should be included in the tour price, and as well, might offer a gourmet lunch. On the tour, you’ll learn about the history of winemaking in California and visit three wineries in Sonoma and Napa.
See options for tours of wine country from San Francisco here.
Best Napa Wineries to Visit
With over 400 Napa wineries, it can be daunting to plan a trip to the Napa Valley and figure out which wineries to visit.
I’d recommend sticking to three wineries for the day to not overwhelm yourself too much and to have enough time to wine taste and explore each property.
Just make sure to wear a pair of quality walking shoes, because some of these Napa wineries are sprawling. The good news is that you’ll have a chance to work off all that wine as you explore each place.
These are the three wineries I’d recommend visiting if you just have one day in Napa:
One of the most famous wineries in Napa, Robert Mondavi is a beautiful winery estate established in 1966 and a great place to start your day in Napa.
Because this winery gets packed year-round, it’s recommended to start the day here and to visit right when they open.
Robert Mondavi requires reservations for wine tasting and a tour of the estate. Their signature tour and tasting combo starts at $50 per person.
Next up, visit a small and more intimate winery to get a good overview of the different types of wineries around Napa.
Jessup Cellars is small and known to be one of the friendliest wineries in Napa. They specialize in small-batch wines and they feature rotating art exhibits of regional and national artists at the winery.
Tastings start at $15 for three wines and go up to $40 for their Educational Gallery Flight that includes an artisan cheese pairing. Reservations are required.
And finally, I’d recommend ending at Sterling Vineyards to top off your day with some of the best panoramic views of the Napa Valley.
Located 300 feet above the charming town of Calistoga, Sterling is the only winery in Napa where you can take a tram up to the tasting room. Finish off your day in Napa by sipping on delicious wine while looking out at a picturesque wine country view.
Their Signature Experience starts at $35 and includes the aerial tram ride, a tour of the winery, and a tasting of current release wines.
Where to Eat in the Napa Valley
One of the most popular places in Napa to grab lunch, Oakville Grocery is a must-visit for picking up some picnic fare for a full day in Napa.
The grocery has been in operation since 1881 and is the oldest continuously operating grocery store in California.
They specialize in deli sandwiches, salads, and, of course, wine. You can eat there, but it’s sometimes better to just grab what you need for a picnic because it’s almost always busy.
Another Napa establishment, Gott’s Roadside serves traditional diner food and offers a welcoming and local atmosphere that’s laid back and unpretentious.
On the menu, you’ll find the usual American diner fare, such as hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, onion rings, and more.
They’ve expanded to seven locations now throughout Northern California, but one of their most popular locations is in St. Helena in the Napa Valley.
Oxbow Public Market
Oxbow is a popular place to grab a bite to eat on your way out of Napa. It’s especially popular with tour groups because there are so many different types of food options.
Expect the market to be crowded, but this is also one of the best places to eat in Napa for the variety of foodie finds throughout the complex. Seriously, you can find just about every cuisine imaginable at the Oxbow Public Market.
Other Things to do in Napa Besides Drink
Explore Downtown Napa
Other than wine tasting, downtown Napa has a lot to offer for visitors from all over the world.
Spend some time shopping the boutiques on First Street, catch a film at the art deco Uptown Theatre, walk along the waterfront, or experience the Napa Art Walk.
If you’re looking to get in some exercise, you can rent bikes and tackle the 12.5-mile Napa Valley Vine Trail or rent a kayak or stand up paddleboard to explore the Napa River.
Downtown Napa is also a good place to explore the foodie scene and some of the fancier and world-renowned restaurants that the region has to offer.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
With Napa’s scenic nature, it’s no surprise that it’s one of the best places in California to experience a hot air balloon ride.
These rides don’t come cheap, usually starting at around $200 per person, but if you’re looking to splurge on a one-of-a-kind experience, this isn’t a bad way to see the Napa Valley.
Rides leave in the morning and you can sometimes add on a champagne toast once you land for an additional cost. The hot air balloon rides themselves usually last from around 40 minutes to an hour.
Calistoga Mud Baths
If you’re looking for a relaxing experience that doesn’t involve drinking, enjoying a mud bath in Calistoga is a unique way to pamper yourself in the Napa Valley.
Calistoga is full of natural mineral hot springs and mud baths so there are numerous options for places to spend a leisurely afternoon.
A few popular places to experience a mud bath include Solage, Baths at Roman Spa, Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, and Golden Haven.
As I mentioned above, the Napa Valley is huge and sprawling. There’s no way you can experience everything the Valley has to offer in one day trip, but the goal of this guide was to give you a good introductory overview of the best features and experiences to have in Napa.
Happy wine tasting and enjoy the Napa Valley!
Mimi McFadden is a travel blogger, avid yogi, and paneer enthusiast. Originally from California, she has been slow traveling the world since 2013.
After living abroad for five years in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Greece, and Portugal she has finally found a home in San Francisco, California. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog, The Atlas Heart.