Just about an hour north of San Francisco is one of the greatest wine regions in the world – California’s Napa Valley. Before we had kids, my husband and I enjoyed many a weekend getaway in the region.
While our trips may look a little different now, we still travel to the Napa Valley even with our kids! Surprisingly to many, Napa has a number of very family-friendly things to do and places to stay. There are wineries that welcome children, but there are also many activities that aren’t necessarily focused on wine that families can enjoy together.
As the state of California began to open up again this spring 2021, we decided to take a weekend getaway to Napa County with our kids. The region has had an especially rough time the past year, with both state-imposed closures as well as yet another devastating wildfire last fall. We wanted to show our support for the area’s businesses and workers while safely exploring the wide open spaces and enjoying Napa’s world famous cuisine in the many outdoor restaurants in the area.
The trip was just the impetus I needed to finally gather all my Napa knowledge and travel experience together for other traveling families. If you are considering a trip to the Napa Valley with kids, here’s everything you need to get started on vacation planning.
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Napa Valley & Napa County Basics
If you and your traveling family are Napa newbies, let’s start with the basics. The Napa Valley is a wine-growing region of California just north of the San Francisco Bay Area. There is a city in the south part of this region called Napa, but a lot of travelers refer to the entirety of Napa County when they talk about “Napa.” And then there is Napa Valley which has a technical meaning to oenophiles – it’s an American Viticultural Area (AVA) that has a defined geographic location in part of Napa County. Yes, it can all be a bit confusing.
The main road through the valley is the St. Helena Highway, which is California State Route 29 (which later merges with 128). There is a parallel north-south route to the east in parts of the region, the Silverado Trail. On weekends, traffic can definitely back up along these thoroughfares, especially as you pass through towns along the way.
Napa is close enough to the San Francisco Bay Area that it’s doable as a day trip. (Related: Best Day Trips Near San Francisco for Families). But there’s enough to do that you probably want to spend a full weekend or more.
Towns in Napa Valley
A number of small towns dot the main drag through the valley. Generally speaking, the farther north you go, the more family-friendly the vibe and the more there will be attractions kids can enjoy too.
From south to north coming from San Francisco, towns to note include:
American Canyon: American Canyon is not far from the exit off of Interstate 80 right after leaving Solano County. It feels a lot more like busy greater Bay Area than the rest of the county.
Napa: Next on the drive headed north is the city of Napa which is by far the biggest in the region. Here’s where you can find a bigger mix of hotels at various price points, as well as an enormous number of restaurants.
Yountville: Yountville is a much smaller town with an historic and walkable downtown. Higher end restaurants and shops make this a pricier place to stay, and one that usually caters to couples more than families. Thomas Keller’s famed French Laundry is located here.
Oakville & Rutherford: Between the bigger towns is a quieter stretch of road where a number of the heavy hitters of California wine are located, including Cakebread Cellars, Opus One, and Grgich Hills. Oakville Grocery is a famous stop for local gourmet foods.
St. Helena: The next city up the road is small but still one of the bigger for the county. St. Helena has a walkable downtown with plenty of shopping as well as several must-do restaurants. Its central location makes it a great jumping off point for travels all around the valley.
Calistoga: The city of Calistoga sits atop volcanic activity that creates hot springs in the area. It was established as a spa town in the 1800s and continues to be known for its many resorts with geothermally heated pools and mud baths.
Best Airports for Travel to Napa Valley
While so many visitors to the Napa Valley arrive by car from Northern California drive markets, Napa Valley draws tourists from all over the country and even the world who may need to fly instead.
If you are flying in for a Napa Valley vacation, there are a number of airport choices to consider. Before booking flights, consider what else you might want to do in the region.
The closest commercial airports to the Napa Valley are:
Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport (STS): Sonoma County’s airport is the closest to the region. Travel time to Calistoga from STS is about 30 minutes, but it’s about an hour all the way to the city of Napa. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and United all offer commercial service to several cities along the West Coast and in western states.
Oakland International Airport (OAK): My home airport of Oakland is the closest major airport to most of Napa County. The drive from OAK to the city of Napa is about an hour (traffic permitting); it’s about 1.5 hours all the way to Calistoga. The major carrier at OAK is Southwest, with service from 10 other airlines.
Sacramento (SMF): Also about a 1.5 hour drive to the heart of Napa Valley, Sacramento has a little less local traffic so may be preferable on certain dates and times over OAK. Southwest is also a big player in Sacramento, with plenty of service from the other majors like Delta, American, and United as well as some smaller airlines.
San Francisco (SFO) and several other airports in the region are all also reasonable choices too, depending on your overall travel plans. See my complete guide to San Francisco Bay Area airports for even more options and greater detail.
Napa vs. Sonoma: What’s the Difference?
The next county over to the west is also well known for wine, Sonoma County. While it’s possible to do some of both Napa and Sonoma in a single weekend, I actually don’t recommend it for most travelers. Roads are winding and traffic can be significant. It’s better to stick to one area and dive deeply into its offerings.
Sonoma was historically the sleepier more rural region, with Napa making its mark on the international wine scene and getting noticed first. The differences aren’t quite as stark now, but they are differences nonetheless. You’ll find more of the big name commercial sites in Napa and more luxe hotels and dining on average there. Both areas still have a mix of smaller local winemakers too so you can still seek out whatever scene you want in each place.
Geographically, Napa County is smaller so it’s easier to explore in a single day or weekend. For families, I’d say both have pretty equally good offerings, so I highly recommend both with kids!
Things to Do in Napa Valley with Kids
So now that you have the lay of the land, let’s talk activities! Here are the top things to do in Napa Valley for families:
While it’s technically in Sonoma County (and yes I just said not to do both in one weekend), Safari West is just barely over the county border. It’s a very short drive from Calistoga and simply a must-do for families on a vacation to either Napa or Sonoma. Dubbed the Sonoma Serengeti, Safari West offers private jeep tours through a large 400 acre preserve filled with enclosures with zebras, giraffes, antelope, and more. With a focus on education and conservation, the professionally-managed and accredited preserve has grown into one of the most impressive collections of animals in the state.
Safari West has very limited capacity on its tours, so booking early is essential. If you want to visit on a weekend, you might need to plan as early as 3-4 months in advance. For weekday visits, 1-2 months is more reasonable. Tours are pricey but well worth it for the professional and entertaining guides. Note that kids must be at least 4 to ride.
You can also stay overnight in one of Safari West’s glamping tents. My friend Kim of Stuffed Suitcase recently stayed the night there and has a complete Safari West review with more detail.
If you are a history buff or a Disney fan (my husband and I are both!), this little museum in the heart of downtown Calistoga packs a serious punch. The museum’s namesake, Ben Sharpsteen, was one of the early animators and producers for Walt Disney. The museum has unique memorabilia from his work that rivals some of the exhibits found at San Francisco’s Walt Disney Family Museum.
It also has detailed exhibits about the history and settling of Calistoga. Adjacent to the museum is one of the original cottages from the city’s founding by Samuel Brannan who established the Hot Springs Resort in the area back in the 1860s.
The Sharpsteen Museum is an inexpensive activity ($3 suggested donation) and works well for adults and kids.
Old Faithful Geyser
All the volcanic activity around Calistoga created Napa Valley’s very own geyser. While it’s not as huge as the one it shares a name with in Yellowstone National Park, it is reliable, erupting about every 40-45 minutes.
We visited after a heavy rain, which suppresses the water a bit, but were still marveling at the sight of it. The geyser is now a full fledged roadside attraction, with prices to match, but it’s better than your average tourist trap. It has a petting zoo and picnic areas, so I recommend timing a visit with lunch to enjoy the outdoor space there (keep reading for my recommendation of where to pick up a picnic lunch in the area).
Another roadside attraction worthy of an hour or two visit in the area is the Petrified Forest. This area was buried by a volcanic eruption of the now-extinct Mount St. Helena 3.4 million years ago. Now many of the buried ancient redwoods have been uncovered in their petrified but otherwise preserved form.
The main loop hike is a mile – easy and mostly flat except for one steeper descent at the very end. I recommend the optional extra hike to see the ash fall where you can also get a peek at the peak of Mount St. Helena.
Thanks to a tip from a local who works with Visit Napa Valley, I learned about this semi-secret waterfall hike that turned out to be the highlight of our most recent trip. Linda Falls is located in Angwin, up in the hills above St. Helena, about 15-20 minutes off the highway. There is some unofficial parking along the road at the trailhead or you can park by the tennis courts just up the road if those are full.
The hike is 1.3 miles roundtrip, with some elevation changes and a few switchbacks to get to the bottom of the falls. My kids, ages 7 and 12 had no problem doing it but I would say it would have been a little too much for grandma and grandpa if they had been with us. Even though the hike isn’t long, I’d recommend wearing good hiking boots so you can scramble on the rocks of the falls more securely. We had on tennis shoes and wished for more traction.
The falls at the end are just gorgeous and not frequented by too many people. Plan on 1-1.5 hours for this stop to have time to enjoy it at a leisurely pace (not including drive time).
In northeast Napa County away from the winery scene of the valley is a popular getaway for outdoor recreation, Lake Berryessa. Given the distance, this is probably more of a day trip from the rest of Napa. And there are certainly a day’s worth of activities here for families, from swimming to fishing to paddle sports to camping.
Lake Berryessa has two marinas and three recreation areas. Boat rental is popular, so reserve ahead if you want to get out on the water.
Kid-Friendly Napa Wineries
Just because you are taking the whole family to Napa Valley doesn’t mean you necessarily have to skip the wine. There are a number of wineries that welcome kids and that have offerings to keep their interest for an hour or two while parents get to try some wine. (For even more wineries, including some that are better for adults-only groups, see my guide to wine-tasting in Calistoga).
Castello di Amorosa (Calistoga)
This winery was designed to look like a Tuscan castle, so it’s visually engaging for all visitors to explore – even the ones too young to enjoy wine. The winery charges a fee for kids, but gives them grape juice and coloring pages to pass the time while their parents taste. Castello di Amorosa usually offers tastings and tours by reservation only.
Sterling Vineyards (Calistoga)
Perched high atop a hill in the middle of the valley is Sterling Vineyards. The centerpiece of the property is an aerial tram/gondola that whisks guests from the valley floor to the winery with a view. The property suffered damage in a wildfire in 2020 and is still rebuilding. Look for a fuller reopening targeted for spring/summer 2023.
Beringer Vineyards (St. Helena)
Beringer is one of the most well known wineries in the area and has been continuously operating for 144 years. Its main building is visually arresting and interesting to explore on tours.
Beringer traditionally offers a couple of family-friendly shorter tours or tastings with a reduced fee for kids (who often are given a glass of grape juice). Check the website for their current offerings and reserve ahead to ensure space.
Francis Ford Coppola Winery (Geyserville)
Just north of Napa County crossing into Sonoma County (yes I left the county again – sorry!) is Francis Ford Coppola’s winery. Built with families in mind, the property has a huge pool and a gallery with movie memorabilia. Reserve ahead (way ahead) for one of the coveted poolside cabines. There is plenty to eat and drink on property as well.
Where to Eat in Napa Valley with Kids
On every corner in the Napa Valley is a fantastic restaurant. But a few of the restaurants are probably better saved for date night or a couples getaway. If you have kids in tow with more limited palates but still want to enjoy the best of Napa cuisine, a few restaurants really do it right. My family certainly hasn’t even begun to try them all, but we can definitely recommend the following:
Pizzeria Tra Vigne (St. Helena)
My kids are still talking about our lunch at Pizzeria Tra Vigne over a month later and have asked that we consider a day trip another weekend just to eat a meal here again. This restaurant has truly delicious high quality Italian food. In fact, it’s a place my husband and I would return again without the kids. But Pizzeria Tra Vigne also strikes that rare restaurant balance in being ideal for kids too, offering many things kids enjoy without relegating them to a typical kids menu.
The toughest food critic in our family is our 7 year old son who might just be the pickiest eater on the planet. He devoured two whole slices of pizza during our lunch at Pizzeria Tra Vigne, interrupted only by the low sounds of mmm, mmm, mmm.
Gott’s Roadside (St. Helena)
Just across the street from Pizzeria Tra Vigne is Gott’s Roadside. Gott’s is an old school diner using high quality California ingredients that was originally known Taylor’s Refresher. As you might imagine, the menu is full of kid-friendly greasy spoon favorites, from burgers to milkshakes.
The challenge of eating at Gott’s is its popularity. Lines to order can be extremely long on weekends and holidays. So pack your patience, and try to eat on the earlier or later side to avoid lengthy waits. There is plenty of spaced outdoor seating at large picnic tables so it’s perfect on a warm Napa day.
Sam’s General Store (Calistoga)
Sam’s General Store is a cute little cafe that shares space with the Brannan Cottage Inn. The store is an ideal breakfast spot where parents can grab a morning coffee and sit outside while the kids enjoy a pastry or breakfast sandwich. The store and inn are located in a historic cottage original to the town of Calistoga (another one still standing is over by the Sharpsteen Museum), presenting a great chance to learn a little local history over breakfast.
The store offers a picnic basket service that is ideal for families who want to explore wine country during the day and eat wherever they find the perfect picnic spot. Simply select lunch items like sandwiches, salads, chips, and cookies for two or more people. Sam’s packs a custom basket that is ready to throw in a bike basket or in your trunk.
Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery (Calistoga)
Located in the heart of downtown Calistoga, the Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery has a large outdoor patio and beer garden perfect for people watching. The menu is varied and extensive, with steaks, seafood, pasta and more. Bonus points to the restaurant for publishing a kids menu prominently on their website as well. And of course, there’s a wide variety of beers on tap from the Napa Valley Brewing Company, ideal if you have a parent in your traveling party whose preferred beverage of choice is made with hops instead of grapes.
Sam’s Social Club (Calistoga)
Sam’s Social Club is a large restaurant on the property at Indian Springs Resort. Since we were staying at Indian Springs on our most recent trip, it was an easy stroll from our cottage to dinner one night. The restaurant has an enormous outdoor tent strung with twinkling lights to maximize outdoor space and still provide fine dining ambiance. The menu features farm to table regional favorites, and there’s plenty kids will like as well.
Bottega is probably the most expensive restaurant on this list, so it’s a great fit for families with older kids or who have kids who are a bit more adventurous with food. Founded by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello, the restaurant features high end Italian cuisine. We ate here with our kids and my parents on a recent day trip, and found lunch outdoors on a Sunday to work well for a multigenerational group. The food was a bit too bold for the super picky first grader, but a huge hit with my sixth grader.
Where to Stay in Napa Valley with Kids
Hotels, vacation rentals, resorts, and motels abound in the Napa Valley. Choosing between all the options can be pretty overwhelming, especially when you look at prices on weekends during peak season!
Our family approaches lodging in the region from two different angles. Sometimes, we want to stay in an moderately priced utilitarian accommodation that puts us close to all the things that we want to do. Sometimes, we want to make the property itself a core part of what we want to do. In that case, we seek out lodging with history and unique amenities and prepare ourselves for a splurge!
While there are far too many properties to highlight in this post, I did want to recommend two family-friendly Napa properties that fit this latter approach that are especially unique for family travelers:
Indian Springs Resort (Calistoga)
Located on the site of Samuel Brannan’s original Hot Springs Resort, Indian Springs Resort is old world luxury at its best. My husband and I stayed here years ago for our 10th anniversary, but brought the kids this time because of how well the property works for families too. The property was transformed by a huge renovation and expansion in that time.
The highlight of the resort is an enormous geothermal pool heated by the adjacent hot springs. It looks like something out of a Wes Anderson film. The spa is unique, offering weird but wonderful mud baths in the volcanic mud. Families can also enjoy bocce and giant outdoor chess together. The resort has free bikes to borrow (including one that was the perfect fit for my 7 year old) to get around between the cottages on the property or visit downtown Calistoga.
There are a variety of rooms and cottages to choose from at different prices and layouts. We found the Palm Row bunk cottage to fit our family perfectly with two separate bedrooms – one with a bunk bed for the kids to share.
Silverado Resort & Spa (Napa)
The Silverado Resort has been a favorite getaway for Bay Area locals for decades. With two golf courses, tennis courts, pools, and a spa on property, there is a lot for everyone to do to stay busy. We last stayed there as part of a corporate retreat where families were invited and have been meaning to get back ever since!
A lot of the rooms by the mansion in the center of the property sleep only two, but there are larger family suites at the Oak Creek area that work well for families.
Additional Tips for Visiting Napa with Kids
Ready to head to Napa for a wine country family getaway? Let me leave you with a few parting tips to make your vacation successful.
- Skip the stroller: Visiting with a baby or toddler? Flat paved sidewalks and pathways are few and far between, except on the main business districts of a few towns. Bring a baby carrier instead of a stroller to be more nimble in touring, especially if you plan to visit wineries.
- Reserve early: There is much more demand that there is supply for just about everything in Napa Valley – hotel space, restaurant tables, etc. The earlier you can book to secure space at all, the better. While there are rarely big deals or discounts to be had, you have a better chance of locking in reasonable rates if you book early.
- Plan for fire season: Fires in many places in California are a regular part of life in the summer and fall fire season. Tourism to the region can be shut down entirely if an especially bad fire hits. Always check local conditions and be flexible if fires force you to change your plans. (Related: Tips for Travel During Wildfire Season)
Disclosure: While all of our travels in Napa Valley have been at our own expense, my coverage of this region calls for a special disclosure for a unique reason! My husband (who is an attorney) is proud to count a number of Napa businesses as clients, including several highlighted in this post. My decision to include these businesses in this post is unrelated to his representation of them and is solely based on what we found we liked and worked well for us as family travelers.