Should you visit Napa or Sonoma when heading to California wine country?
Napa and Sonoma Valleys might be two of the most well-known wine regions in the USA. After all, Napa Valley is home to some of the world’s most renowned vineyards. Visitors flock from across the country, and even the world, to taste the delicious wine being produced in these regions.
While both wine regions live side by side, there are key differences that set them apart. That said, Napa vs Sonoma, which should you visit?
While Napa is best for those looking for an upscale destination to visit famous wineries all within easy reach of each other, Sonoma has a more laid-back feel and is much bigger in area than Napa Valley.
However, there is much more to these two famous wine regions.
The good news is the two valleys run parallel to each other. If you have a few days to spend in the area, you can easily visit both. However, it’s a general rule of thumb that to make the most of your Napa or Sonoma visit, you should consider choosing one area of either valley to focus your attention.
This will allow you to visit more wineries without spending a large portion of your day driving. Ready to plan your trip to California’s wine country? Keep reading for everything you need to know about choosing between Sonoma and Napa.
Napa Valley is located just north of San Francisco in Northern California and is one of the premier wine destinations in the world. You’ve likely seen photos of lush green rolling hills when researching the state’s wine country – this is the Napa Valley. These vibrant hills and valleys lend to the region’s iconic pinot noirs and chardonnay.
Within Napa County there are 16 regions, also referred to as AVAs, that create unique growing conditions for vines and grapes to produce delicious wine. The most popular of these regions is Carneros, along with Rutherford, Yountville, Stag’s Leap, and several others.
Access to a car while exploring Napa Valley is necessary as there is no public transportation to take you from winery to winery. Uber and Lyft are in Napa, but this method of transportation will rapidly get very expensive.
If you’re visiting from far away, you can fly into San Francisco (SFO) and rent a car from the airport. If you live within driving distance, you will be grateful to have a car at your disposal. If you need to hire a car while visiting Napa or Sonoma, we like booking through RentalCars.com which allows you to find great rates across all major car rental companies.
Keeping in mind that you will be drinking wine all day while tasting in Napa, most hotels and inns offer a driving service to help you stay safe.
You can hire a driver through your accommodation to drive your car to wineries throughout Napa. This removes the risk of driving while intoxicated and the hassle of having to navigate. Most Napa drivers know their way around the area.
Alternatively, it’s also possible to organise a guided tour in Napa that takes you to a number of wineries such as this guided wine tour with picnic lunch or this small-group wine-tasting tour. Another option is the Napa Valley Wine Train, which is a historic train that offers scenic tours of the area.
How much you spend in Napa Valley varies based on your winery selections. Some have tasting fees as low as $25 while others come in at a steep $125 per person. The average nightly cost of a nice hotel or inn in downtown Napa ranges from $200 to $350 per night.
However, this number can still vary widely. You can also opt to stay outside Napa for more affordable accommodations. The least expensive time to visit Napa is October to May as many hotels drop their rates and offer deals exclusive to their guests.
Dining in Napa is also a varied experience. Pubs, casual restaurants, and bars are all accessible and reasonably priced. There are also options for fine dining. Italian, sushi, and countless other cuisines come highly recommended.
If it’s within your budget, it’s worth it to have at least one evening meal at a nice restaurant. Make sure you reserve a table in advance as most of these popular restaurants fill their evening slots quickly.
Things to do in Napa
Downtown Napa, including Oxbow Market
The city of Napa is filled with shopping, dining, and plenty of wine-tasting experiences. Staying here ensures you’re centrally located to easily set out to explore the valley’s wineries and do enjoy the world-famous Napa Valley wine.
One of the main differences between Napa and Sonoma is the number of people you’re likely to find in their central downtowns. Napa tends to see heavy traffic especially during the peak summer months.
Oxbow Market is known for its artisan foods available for purchase inside and food stalls on the outskirts. Stop here on your day of wine tasting for lunch or to take home treats from Napa.
Pizza, sandwiches, oysters, and more are all available at Oxbow Market. Take your lunch to the riverfront to sit in a park or benches along Napa River for a nice view while you enjoy your lunch.
Domaine Carneros might be one of the most popular wineries in Napa Valley. It’s located south of downtown Napa and showcases its visitors incredible views of the surrounding hills from its tasting patio.
As the name informs, Domaine Carneros is located within the Carneros region of Napa Valley. Sitting on the patio grants visitors beautiful views and the estate itself stands out against the landscape.
Domaine Carneros is known for its sparkling and pinot noir wines. Visitors can choose to taste flights of popular wines, sparkling, or red. Make sure to book your reservation as far in advance as possible to ensure that you can taste a world-class Cabernet Sauvignon.
Domaine Carneros usually has several tasting openings, but they are reserved quickly. Tastings here usually last one hour.
V. Sattui & Castello di Amorosa
Napa Valley is well known for its impressive castle wineries. One of the most famous is Castello di Amorosa, otherwise known as “the castle of love”, located near Calistoga. This iconic Napa castle is fitted with towering walls, a moat, a drawbridge, a chapel, ornate dining halls, and more.
Its owner, Dario Sattui, designed the castle to resemble medieval Italian castles and their grounds. Guests can opt for a guided tour or explore the grounds on their own after the tasting. Make sure to wrap around the backside to meet the most photographed goat in the world, Giacomo.
V. Sattui is another popular Napa winery established by Dario Sattui. This winery is more centrally located, positioned directly alongside St. Helena Highway about halfway between downtown Napa and Calistoga. Here, guests can sit in an outside covered tasting space and grab a bite to eat at the tasty nearby deli.
Calistoga Mud Baths
If you’ve heard of Calistoga it most likely has been hand in hand with mud baths. Calistoga is geothermal, lending to the plethora of hot spring pools and mud baths that visitors flock to see. A favorite attraction nearby is a geyser known as the “Old Faithful of California”.
The town of Calistoga is filled with tourist shopping, dining, and several spas. It’s a perfect stop if you’re planning on visiting Castello di Amorosa. Spend half a day soaking in a geothermal mud bath or getting a massage at one of Calistoga’s renowned spas.
Where to Stay in Napa
If you have decided that Napa is the place for you, then you’re going to need to find a great place to stay while in this famous wine region. Luckily, there are tons of fantastic options available ranging from all kinds of budgets. If you’re looking for a great accommodation option in Napa, have a look at these suggestions:
Archer Hotel – If you’re looking for a bit of luxury while in Napa, then this hotel is an excellent option. Located in Downtown Napa, they have a range of plush rooms available and countless amenities to ensure that your stay is a great one. Click here to see their availability
Blackbird Inn – This quaint bed and breakfast is a fantastic choice if you’re looking for something a bit more quiet and homey in Napa Valley. They have a handful of wonderful rooms available, off freshly baked biscuits daily and have a number of other options to make your time in Napa truly memorable. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental – If you’d rather have your own place than stay in a hotel, then a private vacation rental is a good choice for you. There are tons of options available in Napa — this cottage on a private vineyard is a great one — that can suit all kinds of travel styles and needs. Click here to browse more Napa private rentals
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Napa hotels!
Sonoma Valley sits just west of Napa Valley and stretches for 17 miles. As the birthplace of wine in California it might shock some people to learn that Sonoma tends to be quieter than Napa.
That said, Sonoma County offers six different wine AVA regions: Green Valley, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Chalk Hill and Dry Creek Valley. Delicious wine, farm-fresh meals, and cozy inns await visitors in Sonoma – perfect for wine lovers all over the world.
Just like Napa, you’ll most likely want a car in Sonoma. Some of the most popular wineries are deep in the valley. It could take up to an hour to reach these estates.
Keep in mind that some wineries require driving up twisty roads, so it’s wise to research the route to your selected wineries beforehand depending on where they are in Sonoma. That said, it’s easy to get around the town of Sonoma itself and some other popular towns like Healdsburg.
It’s also wise to consider a driver for your day of wine tasting in Sonoma. They will masterfully tackle the curvy backroads of Sonoma. Alternatively, you can take advantage of the Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley!
Generally, Sonoma tends to be less expensive than Napa. There are a variety of inns and hotels in Sonoma for you to choose from, ranging from budget to 5-star. There are fewer options for fine dining in downtown Sonoma, but countless places for delicious and affordable food.
Many people opt to visit Sonoma compared to Napa if they want a quieter and slightly more affordable wine-tasting experience.
However, depending on your budget, there are still several opportunities for tasting in private cellars and staying in 5-star hotels that will make a stay in Sonoma equally as expensive as Napa. So, in general, it can be less expensive in Sonoma.
Things to do in Sonoma
Buena Vista Winery
Buena Vista was founded in 1857 as the first winery in California and is one of the best Sonoma wineries to visit. It was founded by the legendary “Count of Buena Vista”, an eccentric and intriguing individual that brought his love of wine from Hungary to California.
The tasting ground here is incredible and should be your first stop in Sonoma as it’s located on the southern end of the valley. They produce everything from sparkling wine to zinfandel, so there is certain to be something for everyone.
Today, the winery, tasting room, and visitor’s center are a California Historic Landmark. Visitors are encouraged to explore the grounds before or after their tasting. Peak into the barrel house, read the plaques detailing the Count’s life in the tasting room, and look at old artifacts from the early days of the winery.
Buena Vista also hosts regular events for their guests throughout the year. Make sure to take a look at their schedule before visiting.
St. Francis Winery
Not many wineries in Napa or Sonoma can claim to be 100% Certified Sustainable wineries, but St. Francis can. They regularly produce award-winning wines from grapes grown in both mountain and valley vineyards.
The grounds feature spectacular views of vineyards backdropped by lush green hills. St. Francis’ founder established the vineyard in 1971 and planted Sonoma’s first 60 acres of Merlot.
Visitors to these vineyards in Sonoma can opt for a peddle tour tasting that takes through parts of the winery while they sample different wines and learn about their production.
Wine and food pairings are another popular reservation for guests. You can also opt for a casual tasting that features a full flight of several delicious wines.
Pride Mountain Vineyards
Pride Mountain Vineyards is the champion of twisty, curvy uphill roads to reach the estate that is seated at the top of the Mayacamas Mountains. They even sell shirts reading “I survived the drive to Pride”.
However, if your stomach can handle some twists and turns, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Sonoma and Napa valleys. Pride offers their visitors a tour of their cellars, which includes tastings from a barrel. They produce everything from zinfandels to reserve cabernet sauvignons.
Pride is also unique because of its location – half of the estate is in Napa and half is in Sonoma. Grapes have grown on the property since 1869 and was founded in 1990 by the Pride family.
A fun fact: Pride wines have been served at the White House more than 30 times in the last two decades.
If you’re looking for an activity in Sonoma that doesn’t include tasting wine, check out Cornerstone Sonoma. This wine country marketplace is home to gardens, live music, and artisanal foods. The gardens are a combination of art installations and a wide variety of plants.
There is a pond with ducks, spaces for picnics, and a garden with vegetables and herbs. It’s a perfect stop for a quick picnic.
Where to Stay in Sonoma
If laid-back Sonoma has won your heart in the great Sonoma vs Napa debate, then you’re going to need to find an accommodation option in the California wine region. Fortunately, there are countless choices available for all kinds of travelers. If you’re wondering where to stay in Sonoma, have a look at these suggestions:
Inn at Sonoma – If you’re looking for a quiet but luxe stay in Sonoma, then look no further than this hotel. Centrally located, they have a number of wonderful rooms available, fantastic amenities and a full breakfast and afternoon wine and hors d’oeuvres are served daily. You can also help yourself to freshly baked cookies each day! Click here to see their availability
Cinnamon Bear Creekside Inn – This cosy, family-run bed and breakfast is a great choice for those looking for a more homey stay in Sonoma. They have a handful of clean and comfortable rooms on offer, a full English breakfast available each morning and a great location for exploring Sonoma. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental – A private vacation rental is also an excellent option while visiting Sonoma. Options like this beautiful, modern cottage is only one of countless places to choose from in the area. Click here to browse more Sonoma private rentals
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Sonoma hotels!
Napa vs Sonoma: Which is Better to Visit
Both Napa Valley and Sonoma offer their visitors unique and unforgettable experiences. While there isn’t a huge difference between Sonoma and Napa, they can both offer different things and appeal to different kinds of wine lovers.
Sonoma boasts smaller, quieter, and more family-owned wineries than Napa. If you want a more laid back wine tasting experience, consider Sonoma as your main destination.
On the other hand, Napa has some of the world’s most renowned wineries. Visitors to Napa may, however, find it a bit more expensive than Sonoma.
Sonoma is far larger than Napa, lending to potentially further drives between wineries and stunning scenery. Napa offers more wineries closer together, however, this also means more traffic as you’re traveling between them.
The greater area of Sonoma also allows for production of more kinds of grapes. Wines found in Sonoma include Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and several others.
The benefit of Sonoma and Napa being neighbors means you’re not limited to tasting in just one valley. You can choose to stay in one, but visit wineries in the other and create your own Napa & Sonoma itinerary!
Keep in mind that the more you have to drive between wineries means the less time you’ll have at each destination and the fewer you’ll be able to visit. That said, visiting either Sonoma or Napa Valley sets the stage for a luxurious time in wine country.
Are you wondering whether you should visit Napa or Sonoma? Have any questions about these wine regions? Let us know in the comments!