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A First-Time Visitor’s Guide to Wine Country
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A First-Time Visitor’s Guide to Wine Country

Finally experiencing the infamous Wine Country? You'll find our guide to first-time Wine Country visitors very helpful!

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5 min read

February 18, 2022

So it’s your first time visiting Wine Country, California. First and foremost, you’re in for a trip of a lifetime. But really, it’s also very easy to get overwhelmed without a proper guide to Wine Country. While a destination filled with dozens of charming towns, a never-ending stream of picturesque landscapes, farm-to-table restaurants, and incomparably beautiful hotels sounds like a dream, navigating it effectively requires careful preplanning. That’s where we step in! Before you hit the pretty road from San Francisco to Napa Valley, here’s everything you need to know about being a first-time tourist in Wine Country.

When it comes down to Napa or Sonoma, the truth is one is not better than the other, but they are both very different.

Napa Vs. Sonoma

First things first, unless you’ll be spending a long, long time in Wine Country, then you should probably narrow down where you’d like to visit. Many people underestimate just how big the Napa and Sonoma Valley regions are. So, to avoid rushing from one place to the next, explore Wine Country one valley at a time. 

Need help picking between Sonoma and Napa? While there shouldn’t be any competition between the two, any guide to Wine Country would tell you that they are very different. Napa is where you go to live like a high roller and dine in Michelin-starred restaurants, while Sonoma is where you drive slowly down a dirt road and grab casual eats on an outdoor patio.

Of course, it goes without saying that a trip to either Napa or Sonoma is what you make of it. You can also stay in a five-star hotel and eat multi-course meals in Sonoma, and, on that very same note, bike to small family wineries and picnic in the vineyard in Napa. But based on reputations and popular itineraries, that’s what each valley offers best.

The world-famous Napa consists of several sub-regions that are worth exploring when you visit the area.

Visiting Napa Valley

Napa is the name of a town, but it’s also the name of the wider region, the Napa Valley. As the second most visited attraction in California behind Disneyland, the Vegas of Wine Country is a great place to explore. For the best experience, drive to the scenic Napa in May to avoid the summer crowds or in September through October for delightful weather.

Napa Valley Hotels 

Want to treat yourself to the best of the best Napa Valley hotels? Whether your preference is modern or historic, close to restaurants and shops or in a remote vineyard setting, Napa Valley hotels cater to your wants and needs.

If you’re looking to escape to rolling hills, charming neighborhoods, and storied wine-growing appellations, check out the bed and breakfast inns in Napa. R INN NAPA is a great luxury option in the downtown area, while Bel Abri Napa Valley Inn is a more budget-friendly choice.

Are you a bon vivant looking for endless creature comforts and chic amenities? The resorts in Napa Valley will definitely impress. Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford is a world-renowned Napa Valley hotel and spa you can’t go wrong with, while Bardessono in Yountville is another incredible choice. Both Napa Valley hotels have outstanding restaurants on their premises.

The French Laundry is perhaps the most renowned dining destination in Napa. The food is here mouthwatering, to say the least!

Napa Valley Food 

Forget Napa Valley wineries, you can easily add a hundred different restaurants to your list of things to do. From Michelin star fare to farm-to-table perfection, Napa’s dining scene is incomparable.

La Toque, the Restaurant at Auberge, The French Laundry, Kenzo Napa, and Bouchon Bistro are Michelin-starred dining hotspots in Napa Valley. Want to dine al fresco? The Grove at Copia, Lucy Restaurant and Bar, and Sam’s Social Club deliver both the scenic views and delicious cuisine. And, of course, for dessert, we recommend heading to Anette’s Chocolates or Bouchon Bakery.

Napa Valley Attractions

Put your tourist hat on—it’s time to explore one of the most beautiful and eco-luxurious places in California. Golfing, hiking, shopping, spas, arts and culture, and more fun Napa attractions await.

If you’re short on time and want a list of things to do in Napa Valley that’ll satisfy anyone, we recommend riding the Napa Valley Wine Train, flying above the valley in a hot air balloon, enjoying a Downtown Napa walking tour, stopping by Oxbow Public Market, and popping into a couple of essential museums like the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art.

Sonoma is the more affordable version of Napa, but just as exciting to explore. It's spread out, laid-back, and beautifully picturesque.

Visiting Sonoma Valley

Sonoma delivers more of the country aspect of Wine Country. Similar to Napa, Sonoma is the name of a town, as well as the name of the wider region. While Napa wins on being more expensive, Sonoma is certainly more expansive, being almost double the size of Napa. Just like the rest of Wine Country, California, the best time to visit Sonoma is in May and late fall.

Sonoma Valley Hotels 

Any guide to Wine Country would mention Kenwood Inn and Spa, Vintners Resorts, Farmhouse Inn, and Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn as the creme de la creme of luxurious accommodations. But if you’re looking for a more laid-back stay, the Inn at Sonoma and Raford Inn are great options as well.

If you’re spending a few days in Wine Country, California, you should definitely venture out from your accommodation and drive to the small towns nearby. Healdsburg, Sebastopol, Guerneville, Petaluma, and Russian River Valley are great half-day road trip destinations to keep on your radar.

Discovering your culinary talents might just be the most thrilling and delicious experience you have in Sonoma County.

Sonoma Valley Food 

No guide to Wine Country would be complete without a number of Sonoma Valley restaurants to look forward to. Whether your dream dinner is in an elegant hotel, a vineyard, or at a riverfront patio, Sonoma has a seat for you at its table.

For a fine dining experience, John Ash and Co. and the Restaurant at Farmhouse Inn will exceed your expectations. But for a more adventurous culinary experience in Wine Country, California, we suggest indulging in dairy delights and meeting local cheesemakers along the California Cheese Trail, learning to cook a new dish from a Sonoma County chef, and experiencing local farms and ranches along the Sonoma County Farm Trail.

Sonoma Valley Attractions

Last but not least, as your guide to Wine Country’s Sonoma Valley, we can’t let you miss out on the best things to do here! Sonoma can fill much more than just your wine glass. 

Fill your days with fun adventures, nourish your body with healthy food, and pamper yourself with meditation and massage—a weekend adventure in Sonoma can be anything you like. As for the must-dos, make sure you visit Sonoma Plaza, hike among the redwoods, kayak on the Russian River, and roam the beaches of Sonoma Coast State Park.

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