This post was originally written in September 2017 and updated in September 2021.
Any discerning enotourist or wine expert will likely be familiar with the high quality and abundance of wineries and vineyards in Napa, California. The name Napa Valley rings famous like other wine regions of the world! They may, however, be far less familiar with anything else to do in Napa.
I’m not much of a drinker, so you might be wondering “Why would she go to Napa, California? That’s wine country and you go there to drink”. I was pleasantly surprised to learn all about all sorts of other interesting Napa happenings besides wine while traveling recently with DoNapa as part of a sponsored press trip.
Thankfully, the City of Napa has many wonderful experiences to offer a visitor outside of wine, wineries and vineyards! Unlike larger cities in California like San Diego or Palm Springs, Napa has a friendly an approachable flair to it. Maybe it is because of the resilient local community, that has dealt with major challenges like wild fires or flooding. Regardless of what it is, Napa is a place that feels nice to be in. From cool local artists to charming shopping boutiques, there is so much more to Napa than just wine.
These are 7 Cool Things to Do in Napa Besides Drinking Wine
Bike Ride Along the Napa River
With such lovely weather throughout the year, why not spend a day in Napa enjoying the great outdoors? One of my favorite ways to explore a new destination is on a bicycle, and Napa is no exception! As a bike commuter this is probably not a surprise, but my ride in Napa was far less stressful than my daily ride in Chicago.
Napa offers an excellent bike path that follows several miles of the Napa River which is easily accessible from downtown.I would recommend starting in the morning when temperatures are cooler. You can start as far south as Kennedy Park and ride all the way up to the Silverado resort. The stretch from the downtown visitors center to Trancas street is beautiful, meandering through the city and along tree lined trails.
If you need bike rentals, I used comfortable, easy-to-ride bikes from Justin Perkins’ company Enjoy Napa Valley. I would totally recommend a tour with him because he has a history background and knows all sorts of interesting facts about Napa!
Take an Art Walk
In a city like Napa, it’s no surprise there is an abundance of art galleries. But I was totally surprised by the amount of public art in the city. Little did I know about this awesome art initiative that Downtown Napa has. For all new large construction projects in the city of Napa, there needs to be a 1% donation to a public art fund. Because of course there should be support for public art. DUH!
As a result, the city is full of amazing public art installations. The Arts Council of Napa Valley does a juried show of 10 sculptures every 2 years. The winners have their pieces placed around the city and Napa Art Walk took me on a walking tour of all the installations. The recycled bicycle part fish was my favorite piece from the 2017 Art Walk! If you prefer to view the pieces on your own, Napa Art Walk has a downloadable guide so you can go at your own pace while learning about the sculptures.
Explore Oxbow Market
I am always a sucker for markets, no matter what kind — food, handcrafts, farmers — there’s a good chance I’m going to love it! So naturally I took some time to visit Napa’s Oxbow Market just east of downtown on 1st street. Named after the unique bend in the Napa River, the 40,000 sq/ft space houses a variety of Napa’s best food vendors as well as a brewery, coffee shop, and gift stores. It even has a scenic outdoor deck with a view overlooking the Napa River which makes for a lovely place to enjoy an afternoon meal.
If you’re strapped for time and want to conveniently try some of Napa’s best food, Oxbow is the spot to go. The most important places you’ll want to try are:
- C Casa for one of the best breakfasts in town
- Model Bakery for amazing bread and baked goodies
- Hog Island Oysters for, you guessed it, oysters
- Ritual Coffee for an amazing nitro coldbrew coffee
- Fieldwork Brewing for an assortment of local beers
Eat at the Copia's Culinary Institute of America
It’s not often that you get the opportunity to enjoy seasonal meals cooked by some of the country’s most talented up-and-coming new chefs. The Culinary Institute of America has a satellite facility at Copia in the heart of Napa. Outside the restaurant, you’ll even get to see two of Gordon Huether’s (mentioned above) pieces in action including a giant fork made of small forks!
The dishes are simple but innovative and they are served up in an open-concept dining room with white glove service. I tried a variety of small plate dishes including eggplant involtini, charred romaine salad and a crudo with pomegranate. If you’re a super foodie and want to learn some new cooking techniques at CIA, they offer short 5-10 day courses at the Copia location!
Shop at Adorable Boutiques
Downtown Napa is full of shops, boutiques, and galleries to explore. I would recommend grabbing a cup of coffee at Napa Valley Coffee Roasting to fuel your shopping adventure. Then make your way down either 1st street or Main Street where there is a great collection of shops.
A few favorites spots for women’s clothing were Boho Lifestyle, Miyamo and Cake Plate Boutique. If you’re shopping for men, definitely stop in at the fancy Scott Lyall. If you’re looking for a unique gift for friends or family, I would recommend checking out Ivy, Twig & Twine or surprisingly, the Napa Valley Visitor’s Center.
Regardless of whether you like shopping or not, don’t miss a stop at the Napa General Store. Housed in a refurbished mill, this place is part store, part bar, part restaurant and all parts awesome. They curate handmade items from Napa based artists and makers, and have a healthy stock of Napa’s best wines. I would recommend making Napa General Store the destination of your walking tour of downtown, because their lunch is delicious and their sun soaked patio is unbeatable.
Visit Gordon Huether’s Studio
An off-the-beaten path is a stop in Napa is Gordon Huether’s gallery and studio on the north side of town. It was actually the destination of my bike ride, but you can also drive there if you prefer. Regardless, this is a must-see location! Gordon is an accomplished large-scale public artist with nearly 30 years of experience. His installations can be seen around the country in public places such as airports, hospitals and universities. His $10M Salt Lake City airport project was inspired by Antelope Canyon.
I was lucky enough to get a tour of the gallery and studio from Gordon himself. He is a down-to-earth straight shooter with a truly diverse range of artistic talents. I couldn’t believe how unique and different each of his pieces were. He explained that he prefers to tell a story through his work, which is why they are all so distinct — each story is told in a different way!
My favorite part of the tour was looking at all the small scale models he had created over the years for his various projects. They are on shelves all around the studio and there were some especially interesting ones that never got commissioned. If you take a tour with him, definitely ask to hear the story of the yellow hand piece you see below!