By Amy Lively Jensen
As acclaim has grown exponentially for Napa Valley wines, downtown Napa’s reputation is flourishing as a “must see” destination. With its urban energy, there is a lot to love about this charming town on the banks of the Napa River. You can explore specialized tasting rooms, culinary hangouts, relaxing natural beauty, unique shopping and spirited nightlife.
If you want some guidance in planning your itinerary, visit the Napa Valley Welcome Center. They have a VIP concierge with insider information on must-see highlights. Consider purchasing a Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Card. It covers tastings at a dozen select tasting rooms for half the regular price; some are as little as 10 cents. You can also get details on the online Downtown Napa Walking Tour (donapa.com) designed for both smartphones and tablets. For art lovers, pick up a free map of the Napa ARTwalk to see an array of sculptures and download the AutoCast smart phone app for background on the artists and their inspiration.
Forty-five hotels and Bed and Breakfasts are available downtown to suit every budget. If five-star bedding is your priority, find heavenly sleeping accommodations at The Archer Hotel. It is a luxury, boutique destination where rooms come equipped with a wine refrigerator for storing your treasured bottles. To relax after winery visits, schedule a signature massage or facial, or chill out on loungers in the water of the sunning pool. Another pleasure is watching the resplendent sunset of the valley at the Sky & Vine Rooftop Bar. You need not leave the hotel for dinner; Charlie Palmer Steak House is just off the lobby where you can savor artisanal meats complimented with local ingredients.
If Bed and Breakfasts are more to your liking, try the impossibly romantic Churchill Manor. In the 1889 mansion, you will feel like you are staying at Downton Abbey. They feature a three-course breakfast and an evening wine and cheese reception. The rooms are adorned with antiques, claw foot tubs and wood-burning fireplaces. When you are ready to explore downtown, just help yourself to their complimentary tandem bicycles.
Enter the Old West at the Bounty Hunter Wine Bar and Smokin’ BBQ. As you sit next to the brick walls and beneath wild animal heads, you can’t resist the smell of barbeque wafting in from the smokers out back. Their top seller is beer can chicken; this is a whole Cajun-spiced bird perched atop a Tecate beer can. It is not surprising that for five years running, Bounty Hunter has been voted “Best Wine Bar in Napa Valley” since they feature 40 wines by the glass, an 18-page wine list and what seems to be an endless selection of bottles on the shelves. Their motto is “if it isn’t great, we don’t sell it.” They did not forget beer and whiskey lovers either with a collection of distinctive craft brews and 40 American whiskeys by the glass.
For cooking aficionados, a class at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia is an experience of a lifetime. Don your apron for hands-on cooking and baking education from epicurean experts. Finish with a generous gourmet meal with wine from your efforts and then walk off a few calories at the Oxbow Public Market next door. CIA chefs also offer interactive demonstration-style classes at the Napa Valley Vitner’s Theatre. If you would rather eat than cook, make reservations at the vibrant CIA restaurant. You will wish you could get the recipe for the Oxtail Ragu with Creamy Polenta.
You won’t have to find a designated driver to enjoy the wine tasting rooms, which are in easy walking distance. Although it varies, some are open from 10 AM to 10 PM which is convenient since tasting rooms at the wineries often close by 4 PM.
The first tasting room to open in the city was Vintner’s Collective. They specialize in wines from small production wineries. They feature those with a maximum production of 1000 cases and don’t have a tasting rooms. Vintner’s changes their flights daily, so you can taste a variety of local wines and find new favorites.
John Anthony’s designer-chic tasting lounge is in the heart of downtown. Winemaker John Anthony Trouchard is well known for his exotic Sauvignon Blanc’s and sleekly styled Cabernet Sauvignon’s. Other nearby impressive tasting rooms include Acumen, Alpha Omega and Mayacamas.
The restaurant scene is very diverse, active and another reason to be enamored with downtown. The variety and quality of over 30 eateries will satisfy any craving. If you would like to sample a taste of them, try the Rooted Fork Foodie Tours. For three hours, you can savor bites and drink pairings from eight of the finest restaurants. Start this journey with an empty stomach, as you most likely will be full afterwards.
Celadon is an award-winning restaurant on the waterfront in the historic Napa Mill. The experience begins as you enter a relaxed courtyard setting or the intimate dining room, where you will relish the global comfort food prepared Napa-style. Celadon’s signature dish is Moroccan-inspired braised lamb shank. Even though there are generous portions, you might not want to share meat that’s “falling off the bone” tender.
Gott’s Roadside looks like a drive-through burger place, but they insist you should not confuse them with fast food. Gott’s is famous for insanely fantastic burgers and even offer healthy choices. Try the Kimchi, Green Chili or a plant-based impossible cheeseburger. If you are not in the mood for a burger, choose the Vietnamese chicken salad, or wild shrimp tacos. Top off your meal with a beer, wine or a luscious organic milkshake.
Next to Gott’s is the infamous Oxbow Public Market. In this 40,000 square foot gourmet mall, a spectacle of food, wine, specialty oils, spices, fresh fruits and vegetables from local vendors and remarkable restaurants. These will all add up to a difficult (but delightful) decision. Oxbow offers a market tour and cooking class for an insider’s experience of the Napa culinary scene. On a hot Napa afternoon, Three Twins Ice Cream is a cool option. Since it is organic, you can feel healthy splurging on lemon cookie, snickerdoodle and mint confetti ice cream. Slurping a variety of fresh oysters at Hog Island Oyster Bar or savoring homemade salami from the Fatted Calf, duck and fish tacos from C Casa and chocolaty vanilla chocolate chip cupcakes at Kara’s Cupcakes are just a few memorable samplings. To relax, you can pack up favorites for a picnic on the riverfront, or on the back patio.
Downtown Napa has the busiest nightlife scene in wine country. In August, Oxbow River Stage, a new outdoor music venue opened with a Steve Miller Band concert. Set in Oxbow Gardens, a park with scenic views of rolling hills and the Napa River, they feature national touring acts and more, paired with food, wine and spirits. At their Sundays on the Green concerts, they offer a free show.
There is great live music at the Blue Note Napa in the historic Opera House. This year they featured popular acts including the B-52’s, Blood, Sweat and Tears and Kenny G. In addition to fine jazz artists, they host theatre and dance performances in this intimate setting. Downstairs you will find a noteworthy restaurant where top picks are the thyme-basted sea bass and warm roman apple cake with bourbon caramel sauce.
Had enough wine? Try the Napa Palisades Saloon with more than 30 house, local and craft beers on tap. This sports bar has gourmet pub grub and house-made beef jerky.
Your favorite indulgence in downtown Napa may be a wine and chocolate pairing at The Vintage Sweet Shoppe. Housed in historic Napa Mill since 2005, you’ll be delighted with the nostalgic candy display cases overflowing with delectable confections. Irresistible recommendations are the salted toffee bar and dark chocolate with tart cherries. Vivacious Debbie Dever, owner and chocolate creator extraordinaire serves wonderful wines paired with exquisite chocolates. One pairing was the 2018 Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc with lemon white chocolate, which works so well as your palate craves the citric acid to balance the wine’s fruitiness. She pairs Devereaux, the Cabernet Sauvignon that she and her husband produce at their certified-organic winery, with wine truffles. Both are excellent. A unique gift at The Vintage Wine Shoppe is the chocolate-dipped wine bottles she created. To give you an idea of the exceptional quality, celebrities including Lee Ann Rimes have sent them as gifts.
Are you convinced? Downtown Napa has it all.