Napa 101: First Timers Itinerary | Local Wally's Napa Tourist Guide
Visit the BEST of Napa in a day, from big name wineries to local's favorite restaurants, all planned out for you stop by stop, perfect for first timers! Local Wally's Napa Tourist Guide is the #1 trusted source for unbiased info on Napa.
First Timer's Winery Guide: Napa 101
First Timer's Napa Trip Agenda
First time visitors to Napa Valley often feel overwhelmed planning a trip to wine country. With hundreds of wineries and dozens of world class restaurants, which ones do you choose to squeeze into a weekend trip? Trust that guy at work to help guide you? You don't even trust him with your stapler!
Instead, let me show you the best Napa wineries to visit, the best places to eat, and the best winery tours. Forget about doing tons of research, instead use my Napa 101 cheat sheet, a stop by stop agenda that takes you to all of the highlights, perfect for first timers who want to see the big name and iconic wineries that helped make Napa famous.
Day One sticks mainly to Highway 29, the main road, and Day Two (Napa 102) explores the Silverado Trail.
Start With The Basics - You Need a Wine Pass!
Napa wine tasting fees have exploded over the past year. Many of the big name (and big crowd) wineries are charging $35 or more to taste at the bar - per person! That’s why I highly recommend you use the Priority Wine Pass when tasting. It gets you two for one’s at hundreds of wineries, from big names like Beringer and Sterling (and their tram ride) to tons of hidden gems. You only need one per couple and at $39.99 it typically pays for itself before you leave the first winery. And guess what? I’ll even help you pick your wineries and build you a stop by stop agenda, for free!
Napa Valley's Frequently Asked Questions for First Time Visitors
Where is the Best Place to Stay in Napa Valley?
For me the two best areas to stay in Napa Valley are Downtown Napa and Yountille. Downtown has a vibrant restaurant scene and the most active nightlife. Gone are the days when downtown Napa was second best, start your search here. Yountville is definitely more upscale and can get downright pricey but there is no denying being able to walk across the street to top end restaurants in a charming town is a big draw. You can find my Yountville hotel reviews here.
You’ll have no problem finding gorgeous resorts with all the trimmings, including spas, pools, and 5 star dining. You can now search all of them here on my site and even book through me. I’m an affiliate with Advanced Reservations Travel who does the actual booking and if you book through me I get paid, which is nice :-).
There are also AirBnB's around Napa. Check out my friend Jamie's place in Downtown Napa. With a private entrance, private bath, 3 full rooms to yourself and priced lower than a hotel it's a good pick for those who are looking for a great place to crash without breaking the bank.
And finally, if your budget doesn’t allow you to stay in Napa then move further out to American Canyon or Fairfield. Nothing wrong with saving some money on your hotel and splurging on a great dinner or bottle of wine.
+ Click For Additional Discount Hotel Deals - Limited Time Offers
Your Priority Wine Pass includes the following hotel discounts:
River Terrace Inn (Napa): Receive 15% off the best available room rate per night.*
Silverado Resort & Spa (Napa): Receive 25% off the best available room rate per night. *
Meritage Resort & Spa (Napa): Receive 20% off the best available room rate per night and a $20 dining credit. *
Vista Collina Resort (Napa): Receive 20% off the best available room rate per night and a $20 dining credit. *
Harvest Inn (St.Helena): Receive 15-20% off the best available room rate per night.*
*NOTICE FOR ALL HOTEL DEALS: Buy a Priority Wine Pass and you will receive instructions in your post purchase email on how to access these rates.
When is the Best Time to Visit Napa Valley?
Every season is different and has its own pro's and con's. Spring is when all the fields turn to gold with mustard plants, tourists are usually sparse, it's my favorite time of the year. The negatives? No grapes on the vines, no smell of fermenting fruit in the air. Once June hits the Summer crowds stampede Napa. It's hot, it's lively, but come in Summer and you'll want to avoid the big touristy wineries and hit the smaller boutiques to get away from the crowds. In Fall is crush, the time of year when grapes are harvested and, well, crushed. There's no telling when the grapes will be picked but you can count on monster crowds from September through October. If you come at this time make sure you do a production tour to see how wine is made and don't forget to do a grape stomp like they did in I Love Lucy. From November through February it's often raining and the crowds are thin.
Basically every season has something to offer but when you come will depend on what you want to do. Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
You want to do a romantic picnic at a winery: Spring to Fall is best. If you want fewer crowds, come before summer.
You want to see a winery in production and stomp grapes: Fall is the time to come.
You hate crowded wineries and want more personal time with the server: Winter and Spring
It’s your first time and you want to see and experience it all: Spring to Fall, but reach out to me as I can show you my strategy for avoiding the crowds during peak season.
Where Can I get Free Wine Tasting in Napa Valley?
Napa wine tasting is expensive. The days of cruising up and down the main drag and stopping in at any winery and getting free wine for the asking are long gone. There are websites claiming to have free tastings at Chandon or Castillo di Amorosa (and many other popular wineries) but most if not all of these are fakes, click bait to get google to rank them high. If you have to pay to see a deal, just walk away Renee.
In fact there is only one winery left in Napa that I know for sure offers free tastings with no strings attached and that’s Sutter Home. They might not make the best wine in Napa but free is free and the winery is very pretty so check it out if you want to stretch your budget.
For two for one’s and other discounts the Priority Wine Pass is the way to go. It’s basically a two for one pass you show on your phone (or print out). Go to one of the hundreds of wineries on the pass such and get two for one. Instead of paying $50 per couple at Beringer, for example, you pay $25 - that’s $12.50 per person! Wine tasting in Napa hasn’t been this cheap since 1995!
It’s also recommended by liquor store giant BevMo as the best deal in Napa. And guess what? I have had it here on my site for years. I know the owner and can personally recommend the Priority Wine Pass as the discount pass to get. In the past I’ve promoted phone apps, coupon sites, passports, but now I tell all of my readers and friends to just get the Priority Wine Pass.
I want to ride the sterling tram but it’s too dang expensive! are there discounts???
Everyone wants to ride the Sterling Tram and taste wine at the top of the mountain and I just made it a whole lot easier to afford. Just email me and I’ll send you a FREE $10 off promo code, valid until the end of 2019. There’s no gimmicks, no catches, just a sweet ten dollar discount per person for the asking.
Well, I guess there is ONE thing I ask - just tell your friends all about me. I really am still one guy doing who writes the content, takes the photos, and writes the code for the website. And in my spare time I personally answer all of my emails and give out free advice to anyone who needs help. So a post on your social media or even telling people at work really goes a long ways to helping me build the audience and readership.
Now how about that free promo code? Email Me!
WHAT Is the napa valley wine train AND IS IT worth it?
The Napa Valley Wine Train is a trip back in time when traveling on a train was luxurious and relaxing. They have various excursions, from lunch and dinner trips to events such as Murder Mysteries. They even have an experience that stops at a few wineries and one that combines a train ride and private tour of Castello di Amorosa, the famous Napa Castle.
So is it worth it? Well, first off it can be expensive. Click here for their official site to see their current rates. Also, it takes up the entire day unless you do the dinner excursion so I suggest you only do the Wine Train only if you are here multiple days so you have time to visit actual wineries.
If you do decide to go there’s a discount for Priority Wine Pass holders - $25 to $35 off per person for up to 4 people.
+ Click for Details on the Current Napa Valley Wine Train Discount
Napa Wine Train (Downtown Napa):
Receive $50 off per couple on the Gourmet Dinner, Lunch Express, or Train + Castello di Amorosa (Napa Castle) Tour.
Receive $35 off for wine pass member and up to 3 guests for the Collective, Legacy, Estate, Famiglia Tour.
Call Reservations and mention you are a Priority Wine Pass member 707-253-2111
You will need to show your wine pass at check in to validate the offer.
+ Napa Valley Hot Air Balloon Ride Discount
Napa Valley Aloft Hot Air Balloon Rides (Yountville):
Receive $20 off per person up to 4 people M-F. Call (707) 944-4400 or email email@example.com for reservations and metion you are a Priority Wine Pass member. You will need to show your wine pass at check in to validate the offer.
+ Calistoga Mud Bath Discount
Golden Haven Mud Baths
$60 off Mud Bath for two ($68 per person, regularly $99 per person). Valid M-F, excluding holidays. $40 off Mud Bath for Two on weekdays, excludes holidays. Tell them you have the Priority Wine Pass when making reservations and show the pass at check in.
How Do I Get Around Napa Valley? Do I need to Hire someone To Drive Me or Take a Tour?
It’s easy to drink a tad too much when sipping wine in Napa so you’ll want to plan ahead. Here are your options for getting around Napa.
Book a Tour: I really like Platypus Tours if you want a company to shuttle you around in small groups and plan out your entire day. But you don’t get to pick your wineries and you’re on a set schedule - and forget about asking for discounts at the wineries as their prices are already negotiated before you arrive. Check them out and if you book tell them Local Wally and Napa Tourist Guide sent you!
Uber and Lyft: Yes, it works - but if know that you can sometimes wait a long, long time for a ride and oftentimes you have to meet them at the entrance of the wineries. If you go this route add an extra 30 minutes to every winery stop as a buffer and avoid wineries that require reservations as you need to remain flexible in case the wait is long. But yes, it does work and is a viable option.
Hire a Driver: Some drivers will drive your rental, some will drive you in their car. For groups you can go shuttles or limos or even buses. But you need to be smart as you want drivers who have a good reputation and are responsible and, well, fun! I mean, you’re hanging with them all day so they need to have some personality, right? Anyway, just email me if you need a driver and I can refer you to the ones who have done a good job with my readers.
And now the fun part - picking wineries! Here is where I ask you to put aside everything you think you know and all of the good advice friends have told you and to just trust me. Yes, I know, that’s a lot to ask but while Napa has hundreds of wineries the average visitor gets to visit only 4 or 5 to visit each day. That means every stop needs to be a good one and I know all of the good ones!
For Napa 101 we’ll travel up Highway 29, the main road that leads you from Yountville to Calistoga. I’ll show you your options below and you can pick and choose depending on what sort of winery experience you want. In Napa 102 we’ll hit up The Silverado Trail, the other main road that parallels Highway 29 and is a bit less traveled. But today let’s hit the Highway!
Look for Wineries with Priority Wine Pass Offers for Maximum Savings!
Build Your Own Stop by Stop Agenda on Highway 29
Stop 1: 9:00, Rise and Shine. Good Morning, Napa Valley!
You have options! Start your day either in Downtown Napa area or Yountville, both excellent choices. See the entire route on this google map.
Downtown Napa in the Oxbow Public Market (google map)
Their English Muffins are not only life changing, they’re Oprah Approved! Breakfast sandwiches, pastries, and great coffee with a picnic table casual setting. There’s also a “Mini Model” in Yountville with a more limited menu (but still has the muffins).
WALLY’S PICK: Oh man, I love these both but if you force me to pick I would go with Model Bakery because I love, and I mean love like “I DO” love, Model’s breakfast sammies made on English Muffins. My wife would pick Bouchon as she can do her pretend French accent while eating macarons and she would not be wrong.
HOW TO IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS WITH A VISIT TO THE FRENCH LAUNDRY
Oh no, I’m not suggesting you shell out the thousand bucks for dinner at The French Laundry - not today! I’m saying you stop your car as you drive by to get a photo of yourself standing in front of the iconic sign. Imagine how impressed your friends will be when they think you went to The French Laundry! And you did, sort of. google map
Stop 2: It’s 10:00, Let’s Drink Wine!!
Option 2: Robert Mondavi Winery
You’ve seen the arched buildings on their bottles, now visit the winery to take a selfie. They have a 10:00 tour if you want to dive deep into wine production but it’s 75 minutes. You can opt for a basic tasting and save the time for more wineries later.
WALLY’S PICK: Easy for me - I go with Domaine Chandon as there is nothing better than a glass of champagne at 10 AM. You can run into Mondavi to take a photo and then head over to the next stop.
Stop 3: 11:00, One More Winery Before Lunch, Let’s Make it a Good One!
Option 1: Swanson Vineyard
Cute as a button, Swanson Vineyard pours wine in their Sip Shoppe, a whimsical tasting room co-designed with Kate Spade. Their patio is like you stumbled into the French Countryside. Private tasting experience, make Reservations.
Wine Pass Deal: 2 for 1 Tasting, save $40
WALLY’S PICK: This is a very tough choice but I would go with Swanson’s Vineyard if you have already done a tour. Swanson’s is away from the crowds and offers a very personal wine tasting experience. The outside patio is just lovely, you might want to sit there all afternoon. And yes, it’s on the Priority Wine Pass so you get two for one which makes this half the cost of the basic Cakebread tour. But I do love Cakebread as well so you can’t go wrong either way. Peju Province is super fun but it can get a bit rushed for me - if you go make sure you get Alan as he is incredible. Nickel & Nickel is great for high end tastings.
GRRRRR - MY STOMACH’S GROWLING! LET’S EAT!
WALLY’S PICK: I lean towards Long Meadow Ranch as the setting can be a bit less hectic during lunch hours. Oakville Grocery makes a killer sandwich but that can make for long lines. Another alternative - Bring a baguette and some cheese in your car and dine on the drive to the next winery. It not only saves on cost but let’s you squeeze one more winery in.
Stop 4: 1:30 - Decisions, Decisions, and It’s Not Going to be Easy!
WALLY’S PICK: If you force me to choose just one I would probably do Grgich Hills if I wanted to focus on wine tasting, or Inglenook if I wanted to see a beautiful winery. Grgich Hills has the Wine Pass deal so that’s a big plus as you can get two tastings for $25 whereas a tasting for two at Alpha Omega will set you back a cool $100 and two tastings at Inglenook costs $110. BV is a good pick if you want to try some really nice reds, it’s also two for one on the Wine Pass. so tastings come out to $15 per person, a good deal.
Stop 5: 2:30 - Visit Napa’s Oldest Wineries
WALLY’S PICK: I would go with Beringer Vineyards on this one as it has to be one of Napa’s most iconic and beautiful wineries. However, if you are more interested in the wine than the winery then go to Krug as their reserve wines are outstanding and the two for one on the Wine Pass makes it too good to pass up.
Stop 6: 3:30 - Last Chance for Wine! Choose Wisely!
Option 2: AXR Napa Valley
You won’t believe you are still in Napa when you walk through the redwoods on your private tour and tasting experience. Make reservations, VIP experience.
WINE PASS DEAL: Buy $100 of wine per couple and get the normal $75 per person tasting fees waived.
Option 3: Sterling Vineyards
Ride the famous tram to the top of the mountain where you’ll be greeted with wine, a self guided tour, and a patio with stunning views of the valley.
WINE PASS DEAL: 2 for 1 tasting, Save $35.
WALLY DEAL: Email me for free $10 Off Promo Code
WALLY’S PICK: I have to go with AXR Napa Valley. I love that you end your day with a private and calm experience. AXR will shower you with friendly hospitality and a tour and tasting experience that you just don’t find at the big name wineries. Plus if you were planning on buying wine you can get the tasting fees totally waived, a $150 savings. Sterling and the Castle are also good picks but can be very busy - like Disneyland busy - so decide on what type of experience you want.
Please Wally, Can We Go to One More???
The strategy for the last wine stop is to find a tasting room that’s walking distance to dinner. Here are my two top picks, both open later than wineries and both next to great Napa restaurants. Make sure you call them to verify their closing time and arrive at least 30 minutes prior to closing.
Option 1: Elizabeth Spencer Winery
Don’t let the tiny brick facade fool you. Pass through the small tasting room and in the back is a secret large patio. Across the street is Rutherford Grill. Perfect combination!
WINE PASS DEAL: Free Upgrade to Premium Tasting, Save $25.
do the math - really, i'm pretty lazy so you do it!
Not every winery on this agenda takes the Priority Wine Pass but enough do to make it worth your while. The Priority Wine Pass is $39.99 and you only need one per couple. Do the math but for most people it’s well worth it even if you only use it at a couple of the winery picks.
Want to See All of the Deals on the Priority Wine Pass? Go here for the most up to date deal listings.