Where to Stay in California Wine Country

SD › Best Places to Stay in Wine Country
Updated: January 3, 2022

Our Favorite Hotels

• 5-Star Hotel: Auberge du Soleil
• Midrange Hotel: River Belle Inn
• Cheap Hotel: Bel Abri Napa Valley Inn
• Boutique Hotel: Gaige House
• B&B: Beltane Ranch
• Best in Napa: Candlelight Inn Napa Valley
• Best in Sonoma: Bungalows 313

Hot air balloons above the vineyards of Napa Valley, California

Hot air balloons soar above a vineyard in Napa Valley, the heart of California’s Wine Country. Several tour operators offer hot air balloon rides, especially in Napa and the Russian River Valley.

The Best Areas to Stay in Wine Country

Anchored by the sunny hills of the parallel Napa and Sonoma Valleys an hour north of San Francisco, Northern California produces America’s finest wines – most notably Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Merlot, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. California’s Wine Country is also known for its gourmet restaurants, boutique hotels, and charming small towns.

Napa Valley lies some 50 miles northeast of San Francisco and boasts more than 375 wineries open for tastings. The city of Napa itself has been transformed in recent years, with a heavy concentration of urban tasting rooms and a burgeoning culinary scene. From here there are two roads that run north along the valley floor: Hwy-29 is the main drag, while the less traveled Silverado Trail runs along the east side. The first major town is Yountville, home to famous restaurants like The French Laundry, wineries like Domaine Chandon, and high-end boutique hotels. Next up is St Helena, with a charming Main Street and its own batch of vineyards. At the north end of the valley lies Calistoga, offering hot springs and plenty of cultural attractions in addition to wineries.

On the west side of the Mayacamas Mountains (and slightly closer to San Francisco), the 17-mile-long Sonoma Valley boasts over 100 wineries and a rich history: this is where viticulture in California began, and in the 1820s was where California’s last Spanish mission was constructed. From the historic city of Sonoma, Hwy-17 runs north through rolling vineyards and the smaller communities of Boyes Hot Springs, Glen Ellen, and Kenwood, and eventually into Santa Rosa, the region’s biggest city.

Healdsburg and the Russian River Valley, famed for Pinot Noir, lie just north and west of Santa Rosa. Healdsburg is one of America’s most attractive small towns, crammed with shops, galleries, and tasting rooms, while the Russian River communities to the west sport a more rustic, outdoorsy culture.

Wine Country is best explored by car (wine samplers will need a dedicated driver). San Francisco International Airport and Oakland International Airport are just short drives away. Sonoma County Airport lies just to the north of Santa Rosa, 9 miles south of downtown Healdsburg. Plan on 2 or 3 winery visits per day. You’ll need to spend around 1 to 2 hours at each spot to really appreciate the experience, and you need to account for travel time. There are some clusters – especially the urban tastings rooms in Napa and Sonoma – where you can walk between wineries and fit in a few more spots. Wine Country experiences Mediterranean weather year-round, but thanks to microclimates, daily conditions can differ dramatically between the valleys and even the communities within them. It’s also true that the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures can be as much as 17°C (30°F). Winter is the wettest season, but the region generally experiences brilliant blue, sunny skies throughout the year. In summer temperatures range from a balmy 55°F to 82°F. The grape-growing season runs from May to August, with harvesting through to October.

The Best Places to Stay in California Wine Country

Best Areas in Wine Country for…

Vineyard in autumn in Sonoma Valley

Autumn leaves in a vineyard near Jack London State Historic Park in Sonoma Valley.

  • Best Place to Stay in Wine Country for First Timers: Calistoga
    Calistoga lies towards the north end of Napa Valley but it’s still only 18 miles (30min) drive from Yountville and just 8 miles from St Helena. It has a charming, laid-back center, with numerous wineries and tasting rooms of its own, plus there are plenty of non-wine-related activities and attractions. The Old Faithful Geyser of California is a real crowd-pleaser, and several hotels have hot spring water pools on-site; there’s also family-friendly local history at the Sharpsteen Museum and numerous hill trails around town. Finally, Calistoga has a much greater variety of accommodation than wealthy communities such as Yountville but also comes with a lot more character than Napa (city).
  • Most Romantic Places in Wine Country: Yountville and the Russian River Valley
    It’s hard to beat Yountville’s boutique hotels for a weekend of luxury pampering in the Napa Valley – think Bardessono and Maison Fleurie – enhanced by candle-lit dinners and samples of champagne at Domaine Chandon. Many hotels offer packages that include in-room couple’s massages, hot-air balloon rides for two, roses, candles and bottles of bubbly. Outdoorsy couples might appreciate the Russian River Valley more, which provides a rustic idyll for a romantic weekend getaway. Here scenic country roads lead to lesser-visited, more intimate wineries, ancient redwood forests, and shady riverside beaches.
  • Best Place in Wine Country for Nightlife: Napa (city)
    The best place to be after dark in the Wine Country is the city of Napa. Concerts take place in the ballroom at the historic Napa Valley Opera House, while the Blue Note Napa Jazz Club holds nightly performances downstairs. There’s more live music at the Art Deco Uptown Theater and local brewpub Downtown Joe’s. Napa also boasts a major urban winery scene, with producers like Blackbird Vineyards, Brown Downtown, and Acumen operating central tasting rooms within stumbling distance of each other.
  • Best Places in Wine Country for Food and Restaurants: Yountville and St Helena
    Foodies are well catered for in Wine Country: Napa Valley alone is home to more over 150 restaurants and a host of Michelin stars. The city of Napa itself is an up-and-coming culinary destination, but the two most consistent neighborhoods when it comes to gourmet restaurants are St Helena and Yountville. St Helena especially boasts an astounding number of top restaurants within walking distance on Main Street: Italian at Cook St. Helena, nearby gastropub Goose & Gander, New American at Farmstead, famous burgers at Gott’s Roadside, hip café Station , and some of the best English muffins ever made at Model Bakery. Yountville is home to the most famous restaurant in the region, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, but Keller also operates Bouchon Bakery, knocks out legendary buttermilk fried chicken from Ad Hoc + Addendum, and Mexican food at La Calenda. There’s also French food at Bistro Jeanty and highly-rated Mustard’s Grill just outside town.
  • Best Place for Shopping: Napa and St Helena
    The city of Napa is by far the best place to shop in the region, beginning with the First Street Napa Mall in the heart of downtown. At the other end of First Street is Oxbow Public Market, with an array of small-batch food, snack and gift stalls (Napa Valley Distillery and Napa Bookmine are here). Just to the south along the river, the Riverfront development and Historic Napa Mill feature a small selection of indie stores. Napa Farmers’ Market is open Saturdays year-round (and Tuesdays from April through October) at Napa Valley Expo, just across the river. Finally, Napa Premium Outlets lies just of Hwy-19 on the western side of town. For a more genteel experience, peruse the stores of “Napa Valley’s Main Street” in downtown St. Helena, which features an eclectic line-up of local boutiques, galleries, shops, and wine tasting rooms. Don’t miss Woodhouse Chocolates and Napa Soap Company.
  • Best Place for Local Vibe: Russian River Valley & Healdsburg
    The small communities and wineries of the Russian River Valley are far less busy than the internationally famous Napa and Sonoma. We especially love Healdsburg, a delightful small town on the Russian River itself, with a 19th-century plaza lined with shops, restaurants, tasting rooms, galleries, and bars. Some favorite hangouts are local produce champion Barndiva, Costeaux French Bakery, an institution since 1923, Japanese restaurant the Taste of Tea, Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar, Mr Moon’s gift shop, and Yasuko.
  • Best Place to Visit Wineries on Foot: Kenwood (Sonoma Valley), Napa, and Sonoma Plaza
    The small community of Kenwood, towards the northern end of the Sonoma Valley, is the perfect place to dump the car and tour wineries on foot, especially along Hwy-12. B Wise Vineyards “Tasting Lounge” is a good place to start, as it shares a building with En Garde Winery, founded by Hungarian-born winemaker Csaba Szakál. Next door is VJB Vineyard & Cellars, while two blocks north, the Kenwood Village mall contains several more tastings rooms, including highly-rated Ty Caton and Spann.

    An alternative strategy is to hit the urban wineries in the major centers such as Napa and Sonoma (city). Downtown Napa’s tasting rooms offer similar wine-sampling experiences, but without the wine-making facilities or vineyards onsite. You’ll find a cluster of them along First Street. The streets around Sonoma Plaza at the heart of Sonoma city are similarly crammed with tasting rooms like Rancho Maria Wines and Westwood Estate Wines.

The 8 Best Town and Regions in Wine Country for Tourists

1. Napa

Buildings along the Riverfont Promenade in Downtown Napa in California Wine Country

Tourists once bypassed the city of Napa, eager to reach the vineyards beyond, but in recent years the Napa County seat has experienced something of a renaissance, with the redevelopment of the Napa River waterfront, First Street, Oxbow Public Market and historic Napa Mill. Today the largest city in Napa Valley boasts a thriving nightlife and culinary scene, stylish boutiques, and numerous “urban tasting rooms”, allowing for a sampling of wines from numerous vineyards in one compact, walkable, district. Though there are no major showstoppers, the city is the terminus of the Napa Valley Wine Train, which runs to St Helena and back, and is the base for Balloons Above the Valley, which runs early morning hot air balloon rides. The city has a huge range of accommodation, with all the major motel chains represented, as well as luxury brands and posh B&Bs.

2. Yountville

Garden of The French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, Napa Valley

Picturesque Yountville, 9 miles north of Napa city, has traditionally been the gateway to the Napa Valley vineyards and today has morphed into an affluent, high-end destination. Some of the best boutique hotels in the region are here, along with some of the most celebrated restaurants, many of them helmed by The French Laundry’s award-winning Thomas Keller. Many wineries have tasting rooms in town; highlights include Silver Trident Winery, the Hill Family Estate, and Priest Ranch. The champagnes of Domaine Chandon are just over the other side of Hwy-29. There’s also the Napa Valley Museum, live shows at Napa Valley Performing Arts Center, and around 35 outdoor sculptures currently installed throughout the town.

3. St Helena and Rutherford

A vineyard on rolling hills in St. Helena in Napa Valley, California

St Helena is right in the heart of the Napa Valley, home to some of its most celebrated wineries: Beringer Vineyards, with its gothic “Rhine House”, is here, as is Charles Krug, and the wildly popular V. Sattui Winery. It also boasts a burgeoning culinary scene (fast food chains are banned by ordinance) and a thriving boutique shopping scene, dubbed “Napa Valley’s Main Street”. The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone lies just beyond the center (offering cooking demonstrations and tours), and there’s also the small Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, dedicated to the famous writer who briefly lived here in the 1880s. The tiny village of Rutherford, just to the south, is best known for its famous “Rutherford Dust” Cabernet wineries and the Rutherford Grill, as well as historic wineries such as Inglenook and Robert Mondavi Winery.

4. Calistoga

Old Faithfil Geyser erupting in Calistoga, California

Some 8 miles further north along the valley from St Helena, Calistoga is a visitor-friendly town that offers plenty of accommodation, mud baths and hot spring pools as well as wineries. Just out of town, the Old Faithful Geyser, shoots water 60ft into the air at roughly forty-minute intervals. Lincoln Avenue, the main drag, is crammed with stores, tasting rooms, and restaurants, while the Sharpsteen Museum chronicles local history. Five miles to the west lies the Petrified Forest of huge redwoods turned to stone after a volcanic eruption over three million years ago.

5. Sonoma

Downtown Sonoma seen from the Sonoma Overlook Trail in California Wine Country

The Sonoma Valley is anchored by the fascinating city of Sonoma, known almost as much for its historic attractions as its wines. It was here in 1823 that the last Spanish-Mexican mission was established in California – the settlement grew up around it, and in 1845 it was the scene of the brief “Bear Flag Revolt” for an independent California. Today Sonoma Plaza features the original Mission San Francisco Solano, the former Mexican army barracks (the Presidio of 1836), and the old home of General Vallejo, built in 1850, all part of Sonoma State Historic Park. Just out of town is the Buena Vista Winery, established in 1857 and credited with being the birthplace of California wine. Its founder, Colonel Agoston Haraszthy, built an elegant mansion nearby in the 1850s (rebuilt in the 1980s). There’s also Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery, which has roots in a Mission vineyard planted in the 1820s, and Gundlach-Bundschu, the state’s oldest family-owned winery since 1858. Today Sonoma city center is crammed with urban tasting rooms, restaurants, shops, and art galleries, making it the best base for exploring the valley. The Sonoma Cheese Factory is a standout shop, producers of the famous Sonoma Jack cheese since 1931.

6. Sonoma Valley

Sunset in the vineyards of Sonoma Valley in California Wine Country

The crescent-shaped Sonoma Valley is a little more rustic, a little less touristy, and much prettier than Napa, curving between oak-covered mountain ranges and crammed with low-key, family-run vineyards. From the city of Sonoma, Hwy-12 runs northwest for 20 miles to Santa Rosa, cruising by numerous wineries and tasting rooms. Just two miles north lies the resort town of Boyes Hot Springs, its natural geothermal waters still accessible in luxury hotels such as Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, built in 1927 (home also to celebrated French restaurant Santé). It’s another six miles to the small community of Glen Ellen, home of old-vine Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards. Glen Ellen is also known for being the last home of author Jack London, now preserved as Jack London State Historic Park. It’s another five miles north to tiny Kenwood, crammed with tasting rooms along a walkable strip of Hwy-12. Wine aficionados will appreciate Kenwood most, though nearby Sugarloaf Ridge State Park is laced with hiking trails and waterfalls. There’s not so much choice in terms of accommodation in the Sonoma Valley compared to Napa, and it tends to be pricier – it’s also a much quieter, less touristy experience.

7. Healdsburg

A farmhouse surrounded by the vineyards of Dry Creek Valley in Healdsburg near the Russian River Valley

At the head of the most beautiful – and vineyard rich – section of the Russian River Valley lies Healdsburg, one of most appealing small towns in all California. Founded in 1857 and anchored by the Spanish-style Healdsburg Plaza, it’s a fun place to explore on foot, its leafy streets crammed with indie stores, cafés and restaurants (wine and food walking tours, like those offered by Wine Country Walking Tours, are a good way to get an introduction). It even has its own beach on the Russian River, the Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach. The wineries just northwest of town are extremely high quality, with Jordan, Mauritson Wines, and Michel-Schlumberger among them.

8. Russian River Valley

Forest and river in the Russian River Valley of California's Wine Country

The Russian River Valley (and its tributaries) actually covers a vast area, but the most interesting section lies between Healdsburg and Guerneville, surrounded by forests halfway towards the Pacific Coast. It’s a region studded with small vineyards (around 60) but also apple orchards, redwood groves, and family farms, the river itself accessible via several enticing sandy beaches. Highlights include Riverfront Regional Park, which stretches a mile along the river and contains two kayaking lakes. Further along in tiny Forestville, Burke’s Canoe Trips is a good place to get paddling, while Steelhead Beach Regional Park offers another enticing strip of sand. You can rent tubes here and float along the river down to the Forestville River Access, better known as “Mom’s Beach”, great for kids, or on to Sunset Beach River Park, which offers seasonal fishing and bird-watching. Near here is the Korbel Winery, with its famed champagne cellars, and the charming village of Rio Nido, home to Rio Nido Roadhouse, a favorite diner. Guerneville itself is a popular LGBTQ summer holiday destination with its main street, River Road, featuring an eclectic and whimsical blend of shops, restaurants, and bars. Johnson’s Beach is at the heart of the action all summer long.

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