Visiting the Napa Valley is glorious. But admit it: It can be kind of a hassle, driving in heavy traffic along narrow country roads and jockeying for a space in crowded winery parking lots. Downtown Napa (the city, not the valley) offers all that’s great about Napa wine country in one convenient place. Park your car and set out on foot for a day of fun. It’s one-stop shopping for the food and wine connoisseur.
Oxbow Public Market: Start your day at this 40,000-square-foot covered market, modeled after the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco. About two dozen vendors sell organic and artisanal goodies such as wine, cheese, bread, olive oil, grass-fed beef, seafood and chocolates. Be sure to try the citrusy Limonato olive oil at The Olive Press tasting bar, and stop in at Oxbow Wine Merchant, which carries more than 1,000 wines and about 125 cheeses from around the world. In the summer, there’s a daily outdoor farmers market. Bring a cooler; you may want to stock up. (610 First St.)
Copia, The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts: From the Oxbow market, it’s a short stroll across the parking lot to Copia, founded six years ago with a big grant from vintner Robert Mondavi. It’s like a museum, only better: Here, you get to drink wine. Admission is free, and there’s plenty to do that won’t cost you a cent. The Wine Spectator Tasting Table offers complimentary tastes from a different winery every week, and there are 3½ acres of edible gardens to tour. (If you’ve never seen an artichoke in situ, you’ll be astounded.) Copia also offers ways to spend your money: In addition to a fabulous gift shop, there are cooking classes, demos and food-and-wine-pairing seminars for a fee. And check out the nifty WineStation tasting machines, which allow you to sample up to 40 wines by the taste, half or full glass. Simply buy a magnetic-strip card, pick up a glass from the front desk and make your selection. The machines do the rest. It’s educational, too: For $1, you can see how a wine tastes if it’s corked, suffering from volatile acidity or infected by Brettanomyces (a yeast that imparts an unpleasant barnyard aroma). (500 First St.)
Tasting Rooms: Head over the First Street bridge to the tasting rooms of historic downtown Napa, just a five-minute walk from Copia. (If you’re feeling lazy, take the car—there’s plenty of free parking.) The city makes it easy to sample wines, offering close to 20 tasting rooms and tasting bars. Most charge from $2 to $15 per taste. To save some serious dough, buy a $20 Taste Napa Downtown card, good for one year, that allows you to sample the wares at 13 participating tasting rooms for as little as 10 cents a taste. Buy your card at Copia, the Napa Chamber of Commerce (1556 First St.) or a participating tasting room. (For a list, go to napadowntown.com.)
Two tasting rooms to try: Taste at Oxbow (708 First St.) pours wines from Mahoney Vineyards (known for its Pinots) and Waterstone Winery (known for its Bordeaux varieties). The elegant Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Bistro (975 First St.), in the historic Semorile Building, offers 400 wines by the bottle and more than 40 wines by the glass.
Ubuntu: Next, have lunch at one of the hottest restaurants in the country. This stunning vegetarian restaurant, open less than a year, is getting serious national buzz from publications such as The New York Times and Bon Appétit, which named it one of the “best eco-friendly restaurants” in the United States. The 31-year-old Jeremy Fox (one of Food & Wine magazine’s picks for the best new chefs of 2008) serves up luscious meat-free fare, like Anson grits with fava leaves and Parmesan, in a soaring, stone-walled storefront that shares space with a yoga studio. Much of the produce on your plate comes from Ubuntu’s own organic, biodynamic gardens. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, and you will need a reservation. (1140 Main St.)
Thursday Night Chefs’ Market: If you happen to be in Napa on a Thursday, stick around for the Chefs’ Market, a rollicking, food-oriented street fair that takes place May 22 through July 31. From 5 to 9 p.m., the city blocks off First Street from Copia to the center of town. Shop the farmers market, watch chef demos, grab a bite or a drink at the food court featuring local restaurants and wineries, and enjoy live entertainment on three stages, including a jazz stage on the First Street bridge.
Getting around—Grab a free walking-tour map at the Napa Downtown Association (1156 First St., Suite 102) or at the Napa Convention and Visitors Bureau (1310 Napa Town Center). Tired of walking? Jump aboard the free Downtown Trolley, which runs every 30 minutes Thursdays through Sundays.
Get there in one hour: Take Interstate 80 west to Highway 12 heading toward Napa/Sonoma. Turn right on Highway 29, exiting right at Lake Berryessa/Downtown Napa. Turn right at Highway 121/Silverado Trail, then left on First Street.