By Lee Foster
A subtle change, positive for the traveler, now pervades one of the great travel experiences in California, the wine-centric Napa Valley. The change is the re-emergence of downtown Napa City as a satisfying destination in itself.
Napa City was the 19th and early 20th century focus of the Napa Valley. Then, in the second half of the 20th century, the travel action shifted to up-valley. Visitors drove past Napa City and toured the vineyards and wineries north on Highway 29, from Yountville through St. Helena to Calistoga.
However, now a traveler can enjoy a complete experience at the south end of the valley, in Napa City. This trend emerged around 2010 and becomes more complete every year. Napa City is also the only urban entity that bears the famous name of the noted wine valley.
Why Go Farther than Napa City?
There will always be multiple reasons for exploring the entire valley, probably in several trips over a lifetime. But on an initial immersion, the question for many visitors now is: Why go farther than Napa City?
What does a typical visitor want?
Tasting local wine, of course. Driving around the valley in your car can present some drinking/driving and congestion challenges. Napa City itself now has about 35 wine tasting venues, all within walking distance or a five-minute drive in your own car or Uber. Many wineries now locate either an adjunct tasting room or their only tasting room in Napa City.
Lodgings. Napa City has a cluster of new hotels along the river, which started with Avia, now renamed Andaz. There are also upscale branded lodgings, such as Embassy Suites. About 15 legacy Victorians now function as cozy B&Bs, with Beasley House a typical choice.
Restaurants. The food scene booms, with inventive, new restaurants added every year.
The art/entertainment vitality, historic architecture, and Wine Train complete the possible menu for a satisfying visit to Napa City, a compact urban area with about 82,000 residents.
Flood Control Inaugurated the New Era in Napa City
The transformation of Napa City began when the locals finally decided to resolve the perennial flooding threat from the Napa River. City leaders took an innovative approach. They built a strong and aesthetically-pleasing sea wall at the “oxbow” twisted juncture where the river bunched up to flood in high-water times. The sea wall top is now a pleasant promenade along the downtown.
To complement this barrier, the city also built a direct overland bypass that allows the river, when in flood stage, to move the bulk of the water due south rather than in the meandering oxbow that nature decreed. This overland bypass area is now a lovely public park to be used for summer outdoor celebrations.
Napa City decided to maintain its “living river” rather than channel all the water into cement ditches, as happened, for example, with Army Corp of Engineers direction in Los Angeles. Subsequently, the Napa City example has become a national model for cities facing similar flood issues, but hoping to resolve them in an environmentally sensitive manner.
Once the city was secure against flooding, investors and entrepreneurs emerged who wanted to build hotels and start restaurants. The cultural scene flourished with new annual events and art installations. A patron restored the classic Uptown Theatre as a performance venue. Napa City assessed its heritage and concluded that it had a lot to offer the modern traveler.
Tasting Wine (And Beer) On a Day or Overnight Trip to Napa City
John Anthony Vineyards, 1440 1st St, is an example of the modern tasting room with an informative sit-down tasting and explanation program. A flight of wines from their nine properties can occur for a $35/person charge. This is the upscale world of elite wine making and tasting.
More casual wines-by-the glass tasting from multiple local Napa Valley providers occurs in Napa City at several locations, such as Rebel Vintners, 1201 1st St. Dining options in Napa City will allow you to buy with your meal a glass or two of the local “liquid sunshine,” as early observer of the Napa Valley, Robert Louis Stevenson, characterized the proud viticulture product. A Taste Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Card promotes half-price tasting at eight tasting rooms with hundreds of hard-to-find boutique wines.
If any destination in Napa City seems too far to walk, bikes can be rented, both at the seawall promenade and across the river at the Oxbow Market. Bicycle tours can also be arranged. One provider is Justin Perkins of Enjoy Napa Valley.
A five-minute drive from downtown to Vista Collina Resort, 850 Bordeaux Way, presents eight winery tasting rooms and one brewery tasting room in a resort-lodging complex, called The Village. You could start with Trinitas Cellars. Taste, buy a bottle from one of the tasting rooms for a picnic, get picnic supplies at two stores in the complex, and enjoy a sunny day under the provided awnings in a central landscaped plaza. You don’t have to be staying at the resort to use the setting.
Wine is not the only festive beverage with its local artisanal craft fans in Napa City. Beer brewers also flourish here. Stone Brewing Company, 930 3rd St, offers “flights” of four-beer samples. Choose the Napa Flight, featuring on-premises creations, to emphasize hyper-local taste.
Lodging Choices from Upscale Hotels to Victorian B&Bs in Napa City
Among lodging choices in Napa City, if you seek a well-known national brand, the Embassy Suites, 1075 California Blvd, near the Highway 29 turnoff, is a good option. They offer a sumptuous cooked-to-order breakfast. This local iteration of the brand has a pleasing mill-themed interior courtyard with the meditative sound of flowing water, plus swans and ducks, which adults and kids can appreciate.
Several new downtown hotels, some with views of the river, welcome guests. A hotel first called Avia, and later re-named Andaz, sparked the resurgence of Napa City. Though the hotel is tall for the town, at five stories, the “articulated” exterior presents multiple eye-engagement details that diminish a potentially sterile high-rise look. Andaz is an intriguing example of evolving urban design.
One good example of a Victorian B&B is the Beazley House, 1910 1st St. Though the practice is now in hiatus, the B&Bs have in some past years opened themselves up in December for a festive Christmas/Holiday walk-around. Watch the local tourism website www.donapa.com and check at the California Welcome Center, 600 Main St, for guidance on how to see Napa City’s Victorian and early 20th Century historic architecture.
Inventive Dining in Napa City
You could spend a week sampling some of the 30 or so fine-dining restaurants that flourish here. Wine by the glass can help you explore the many excellent Napa Valley wine options.
Allegria, an Italian cuisine specialist at 1026 1st St, whose name means “happiness,” is a place to start. Try the Nappa or Napa Cabbage Salad (the name of this vegetable is coincidental, having nothing to do with Napa) and then perhaps proceed with the Penne Con Pollo, penne pasta with chicken.
Another sparky dining option is Gran Electrica, 1313 Main St, an affordable Mexican eatery with unparalleled eclectic strengths. Try the Carrot Margarita, perhaps followed by the Carnitas Pork Taco.
Eight Noodle Shop, 1408 Clay St, presents an array of noodle soup options, perhaps preceded by pot sticker starters.
Bounty Hunter, 975 1st St, is a carnivore favorite, with taxidermy big game animal heads on the brick walls. The signature dish is Beer Can Chicken. To create this tour de force, the chicken roasts on a hydrating pedestal, an opened can of Tecate beer. The chicken appears at your table giving you an upright gustatory salute.
Dining Across the Napa River
A short walk across the river bridge, but still in the city, the Oxbow Public Market, 610 1st St, presents food shops and several engaging restaurants. For a hearty breakfast, try the Huevos Rancheros at C Casa.
Immediately beyond the Oxbow Public Market, the Copia food-celebration center offers indoor and outdoor restaurants. In good weather, try the outdoor Grove, in a cluster of olive trees. The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) now runs Copia, 500 1st St. Copia entices visitors with its restaurants, museum to cookware, drop-in classes on food preparation in lavish display kitchens, and exhibits. One exhibit shows an endearing and nostalgic collection of 1950s photos that photographer Paul Childs completed in Paris with his wife, Julia Childs.
And Chocolate Dessert Tasting
As counterpoint to these lunch or dinner options, you could choose a chocolate tasting immersion at Anette’s Chocolates, 1321 1st St. Few purveyors are as informed on all matters chocolate as are proprietors Anette Madsen-Yazidi and her brother Brent. Here you can buy numerous chocolate treats. Both quick and more immersive chocolate tastings for a fee are possible.
Art Walk in Napa City
Every two years a fresh cluster of 10 downtown public art pieces gets installed. Procure a walking map at the helpful Napa Valley Welcome Center, 600 Main St. Then stroll around. There are also about 15 art galleries in the Napa City downtown.
Among permanent public art displays is a sobering 9/11 Memorial Garden, on Main St between Pearl St and 1st St, developed by noted local artist Gordon Huether.
Huether was able to arrange delivery of six piece of steel, about 60-tons, from the Twin Towers to the site. The story of that fateful day is retold on outdoor slabs with the names of all 2,997 victims etched in glass.
Artist Huether is a major local force in the art scene. At Copia, you can see his lyrical Fork, made out of thousands of forks. On top of the tower at Copia, whimsical sculptures of patrons Robert and Margrit Mondavi raise a glass of wine to the Napa Valley. A catalog of Huether’s works is available at the Copia gift shop.
Artist Gordon Huether’s Studio
A visitor can venture 10-minutes from downtown or Copia to Gordon Huether’s Studio, 1821 Monticello Road. Travelers can see some of his monumental works in progress. He has about 30 public art projects worldwide occurring at any one time. A studio staff person is always present to give a short, informative introduction to this highly-successful art entrepreneur. Sometimes Huether himself steps in to comment.
Huether operates on a national and international scale. For example, his studio shows a mockup of his multi-million-dollar commission to transform the décor of the Salt Lake City Airport. This project is a decade-long undertaking. His public art works can be seen in Berlin, Germany, but also nearby in California at Morgan Hill and Menlo Park.
Cultural Happenings in Napa City
Annual events in Napa City can draw in a large crowd. A visitor may want to plan in advance for ticketed events and arrange assured lodging. The local tourism entity (www.donapa.com) provides event details on its website.
Bottlerock in May is the most robust annual celebration, combining music with wine and food.
For many years, the cozy Christmas/holidays scene has emphasized a ticketed pilgrimage walk amidst the B&Bs.
The November Napa Film Festival is another mainstay.
But the newer Lighted Arts Festival in January has been an unexpected hit. This event involves nightly projection of light art on the sides of building, such as the historic and classic Presbyterian Church, 1333 3rd St.
All year around, the Uptown Theatre, an Art Deco movie palace of the past, presents music and other performances. The Uptown, at 1350 3rd St, has been lovingly restored to state-of-the-art modern venue standards. Peruse the tourism website for what’s on during your visit.
Wine Train Excursions Travel Up-Valley from Napa City
Another aspect of Napa City’s growing prominence in the tourism scene is the highly successful Wine Train, which originates in Napa City on the east side of the river at 1275 McKinstry St.
The Wine Train offers a visitor an opportunity to explore up-valley without a car. The number of options for Wine Train excursions proliferate. For reliable information, consult their website at www.winetrain.com.
You can ride up-valley to see the vineyards and enjoy a gourmet lunch or dinner. Many variations are available. Some half-day trips depart the train for a wine tasting at wineries Grgich Hills or Raymond.
Specialty trains might be spirited-beverage-agnostic and emphasize a Tequila Train or a Hop Train. A Murder Mystery might be thrown in. Musical happenings on the train can have you singing praises to more than the grape.
A full day outing can be 36 miles on the train, 18 up and 18 back. As the light changes and the day proceeds, a visitor enjoys many lovely, bucolic vineyard views outside the train window.
Napa Valley Without a Car
One aspect of the Wine Train is its contribution to a concept–potentially car-free adventures in the Napa Valley. Public transportation systems to get you to Napa City become more assured. There is a ferry from San Francisco to Vallejo, combined with a shuttle to Napa City. Uber also transforms the scene, with some visitors opting simply for an Uber ride from San Francisco or anywhere to Napa City, no worry about the commute.
Once in Napa City, there is Uber or rental bikes as well as a compactness that encourages latent peripatetic tendencies. The Napa Wine Train can take you up-valley in many iterations, without a car.
Possibly the biggest hassle in modern California travel is the stuck-on-the-freeway syndrome, which kills the desire to travel and explore.
Kayaks and Gondolas on the Napa River
Even on the Napa River at Napa City there are intriguing public transportation options at the public docks, between 3rd and 5th Sts. Kayak trips from the downtown waterfront originate with Justin Perkins of Enjoy Napa Valley. For a Venice-like gondola ride on the river, complete with an impassioned Italian love song, consider Sean O’Malley’s Gondola Servizio.
If You Go: Napa City in California’s Napa Valley
The local tourism agency is Downtown Napa, www.donapa.com.
When in Napa City, stop by the downtown Napa Valley Welcome Center, 600 Main St, for additional info, maps, and a free Napa Valley travel guide book.