Maybe Some F**king Merlot?
February 24, 2016 4:34 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I are thinking of spending a week in San Francisco and the Napa Valley in mid-July for our 10th anniversary. Neither of us have ever been to SF or wine country. Can you wonderful people provide any tips, tricks, or suggestions? Best wineries to visit, things to do in SF, places to stay, etc. Basically where should we go and what should we do? Any help greatly appreciated!
posted by joelhunt to Travel & Transportation (34 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Any particular interests or restrictions? San Francisco has a lot to offer so anything to narrow things down a bit?
posted by like_neon at 4:49 AM on February 24, 2016

If you have a car, drive down to Tomales Bay and sit by the bay and eat as many oysters as you can stomach. I like this place.

Muir Woods is really beautiful (as is the drive there) and the main path can be a pretty short/easy hike (really, more like a walk).

Don't just focus on Napa, look at Sonoma as well (less of a touristy feel, imo). Ask the people working at the winery you get to first what their favorite local places are. Oftentimes they'll give you more off-the-beaten-path type places. I've always had more fun at smaller places than the big corporate rooms. Check out Healdsburg after your wine tasting for some dinner and a walk around town.

When heading out of town to get to these destinations, make a pit stop at Philz Coffee in Sausalito for a HUGE menu of different kinds of coffee and a tasty burrito. Take a quick walk along the pier/boardwalk thing while you're drinking and look at the beautiful water and sky!

And this doesn't even begin to cover San Francisco proper! My favorite foods in the city: cinnamon toast at Trouble Coffee Company and chicken with bread salad at Zuni Cafe. If you're into walking, try starting out at Trouble Coffee in the morning (take a peek at the beach while you're enjoying your toast) and then make your way across the city to North Beach area, climbing hills as you go - it's a hard walk up and down the hills, but really fun.

One of my favorite spots is this old cemetery (no longer a cemetery, if that creeps you out) at the top of the Vallejo steps. Breathtaking views!

I'm not a San Franciscan, just a frequent tourist, but these are the things I've done more than once there because they're just so fun.
posted by sallybrown at 5:15 AM on February 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Castello di Amorosa is very tourist-oriented and kind of cheesy, but I enjoyed walking around the grounds (didn't do the tour) and I thought the wines were good. I guess Robert Mondavi is famous, and the winery is very beautiful, but the tour is expensive and I didn't like the wine much.

In Napa: there are some good places to eat in the Oxbow Public Market. I recommend the breakfasts at C Casa and chilaquiles at Five Dot Ranch. The Westin hotel is nice and right next to the Market, and it's easy to walk to downtown Napa from there.

In SF: Dottie's True Blue Cafe has excellent breakfasts. I can recommend The Pickwick Hotel; it's a bit run-down but clean, and the price is good for the location. I absolutely loved the Aquarium of the Bay.

If you like beer, I highly recommend the Russian River Brewpub in Santa Rosa and Lagunitas in Petaluma. Both serve great food, too. In SF, the Anchor Brewing tour is fun and comes with generous tasters. City Beer has a good selection and the bar is great if it's not too crowded.
posted by neushoorn at 5:21 AM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "Any particular interests or restrictions? San Francisco has a lot to offer so anything to narrow things down a bit?"


SF: interesting and regional casual dining, art museums, touristy things, parks and outdoors attractions.

posted by joelhunt at 5:25 AM on February 24, 2016

I've been to SF a handful of times, and the last time I went I did this self-guided Barbary Coast walking tour. It's such an interesting city with such an eclectic history, especially for the US. I ended up taking two afternoons to do the tour because I like to dawdle, stop for lunch, have a beer here and there, etc.
posted by Brittanie at 5:31 AM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

My parents live in Sonoma and my favorite thing to do when I'm there is to go to the coast. We usually make a stop at Spud Point Crab Co. in Bodega Bay for a crab sandwich to dip into your crab soup. They took me to Goat Rock Beach this year which is about as dramatic a cliff beach as you could want - drive allll the way out to the end and marvel.

Chanel just bought St. Supery and we tried to go but it was last minute at the holidays so it didn't happen. I'd try to do a wine and food pairing for one meal at a winery. We did a lunch at Schlumberger and it was really delicious. Book in advance for something like that esp. if you aren't wine club members. My parents are members at both of the above and we only got into one of them last minute.

Love Swan Oyster Depot in SF proper for seafood and ambiance. Can be a bit of a wait but I thought it was worth it.

Second the rec for Russian River Brewpub. Have a Pliny the Elder.
posted by rdnnyc at 5:48 AM on February 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

I recommend the Exploratorium to everyone I know is going to SF.
posted by mbarryf at 5:54 AM on February 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

Try to get a booking at State Birds Provision or The Progress. Not cheap, but tasty and interesting! I only went to The Progress with 3 people and they serve things family style.

Museum wise, I love the Academy of Science and SF MOMA.

For parks and outdoors, you should definitely stroll through Golden Gate Park. Bring a picnic! Or walk through the Japanese Tea Garden. Here's a list of more things the park has to offer.

(The Exploratorium is fun but beware, LOTS of kids. Like a lot.)
posted by like_neon at 6:02 AM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

mbarryf beat me to it. The Exlporatorium is fantastic!

The California Academy of Science has a weekly after-hours event that is really cool.

A little walking around and maybe some shopping in Sausalito is fun and is a convenient stop on your way back from Muir Woods.

In SF proper, on Market St. next to the cable-car platform at the bottom of the hill, there is a booth that will sell you a CityPass for $100 that has a bunch of useful coupons and will let you use all of SF's public transportation (except the BART I think) without any additional fees. City buses, street cars, trains, and most importantly, the cable cars. The hills are STEEP and a real PITA so being able to hop on a cable car for even a block or two was REALLY nice. With that City Pass, we only needed to rent a car to visit the woods.

We stayed at the Grant Hotel when we were there (on a recommendation from an It's old and a bit dingy but clean and perfectly serviceable. We plan to stay there again if we go back. It's a great value and the location can't be beat. One of the cable car routes goes right past the place, it's centrally location, easy to find, and safe.

The Embarcadero is a total tourist trap but a fun one. Go visit for a little bit at least.
posted by VTX at 6:18 AM on February 24, 2016

Sterling Vineyards has a great aerial tram for some stunning views. I also liked the tour at Robert Mondavi (but it was awhile ago so I don't remember which one) as well as our visit to William Hill Estate. But if nothing else, I would recommend Sterling!
posted by Shadow Boxer at 6:20 AM on February 24, 2016

monterey bay aquarium. south of SF
posted by osi at 6:46 AM on February 24, 2016

There are so many great wineries in Napa, it's kind of hard to narrow it down. It also really depends on how into wine you are, and what kinds of wine you like. For example, are you looking for the absolute best wines, or are you more interested in decent wine in a beautiful setting (either is an OK answer, but may steer you in different directions)? I believe that a lot of the best wines come from the smaller wineries whose brands you probably don't know, and whose wines you don't see on the grocery store shelves. Even in that category, there are too many to make a list that I think really does justice.

Be aware: many wineries require an appointment. Plan it out ahead. Don't try to cram too many into a day. I personally only do three a day when I visit. I know some people do more, but it can get overwhelming, and you have to take into account travel time.

Anyway, for just a handful of specific recommendations... Mondavi is huge and corporate but also very historically important, so worth seeing (no appointment needed). Schramsberg is a neat tour. Mending Wall is new, small, and great. I always like visiting Shafer and Alpha Omega. Maybe that's a start...

There's also gobs of great food in Napa Valley. No list is perfect, but this one has some good recommendations. I haven't been to all of those places, but of the ones I have been to, all are great.

For lodging I usually stay at Meadowood or Auberge du Soleil which are both fabulous, but also on the higher end, so maybe not what you're looking for. If they're in your budget, I highly recommend either one.

As for Napa vs. Sonoma, I agree that Sonoma is great. But IMHO for your first visit, you should go to Napa. It's the Grand Daddy of US wine regions.
posted by primethyme at 7:32 AM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, take a day to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium! Drive there on Hwy 1; it's beautiful, and especially between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz it's a wonderful piece of country (but avoid the traffic jam going south from Santa Cruz between 2:30 and 6:00 pm).
posted by anadem at 7:34 AM on February 24, 2016

Seconding Alpha Omega, my favorite Napa winery.

Legion of Honor for an art museum with amazing art and gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

If money is no object, eat at Benu -- just earned its third Michelin star and is an incredible experience. Better than French Laundry although twice as expensive.

Have a great time!
posted by Threeve at 8:13 AM on February 24, 2016

Our Napa favorites are Saintsbury (make an appointment) and Cakebread (make an appointment).

If you like to camp, or glamp, check out Bothe-Napa State Park. It's an adorable wooded campground with a stream running through it and hiking trails all around, including one that goes to the top of Coyote Peak (which takes maybe an hour or so each way). They've started putting in yurts for people to rent, which makes things easier for travelers from afar who don't want to lug a tent. You're within easy driving distance of everything Napa, including a Dean & Deluca (no joke, we're hardcore campers but when we stay here we get gourmet frozen pizzas and such from D&D and cook them over a campfire to go with our wine--and you will hear corks popping at neighboring campsites).

Seconding lots of things about SF proper: Exploratorium, stair walks, Philz, etc. There's also a Philz on 24th at Folsom in the Mission, which would give you a chance to stroll the shops on 24th, Valencia, and Mission streets. I love that they give you the option of having a mint sprig dunked in your coffee (it sounds weird, but is delicious and subtle). Actually, there's great coffee everywhere. Philz suits my tastes, but others in search of a more hip experience (for better or worse) like places like Four Barrel or Trouble. I enjoy both of their coffees, but I have a hard time on occasion not rolling my eyes at the patrons and/or staff (mostly at Four Barrel). That might be a good tourism experience, though: coffee jerks.

Consider exploring some of the less central neighborhoods. Bernal Heights, for instance, has a booming commercial/dining street (Cortland Avenue). Little Bee Baking, Red Hill Station (if you're an oyster fan), 3rd Cousin, Piqueo's (Peruvian), Little Nepal, Vega (Italian), Bernal Star (American bistro), Anda Piroshka, Mae Krua (Thai), Paulie's Pickling (deli)... these are all within about four or five blocks. It makes for a great stroll, after which you can grab a coffee and head up to the top of Bernal Hill, around which the neighborhood is built. Excellent views of the city and bay from up there.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:44 AM on February 24, 2016

I like Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn in Sonoma. The great thing is, it's in walking distance to several tasting rooms, so you can enjoy the wine with no worries about driving after. It's in reasonable driving distance to other wineries, too.
posted by Anne Neville at 8:53 AM on February 24, 2016

Forgot to add: hotels are expensive as all get out in SF. If you're wary of AirBNB, we tell everyone to stay at the Hotel San Remo in North Beach. It's an old hotel, and most (all?) the rooms have shared bathrooms on each floor, but in return you get a charming place that is never crowded. The books people have left there over the years now line bookshelves throughout the entire joint. Before we lived here, we stayed at the San Remo every time we visited. Our kids even love it. It's in a very convenient location for people dropping in for touring (here are some pics).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:54 AM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

If it's a special anniversary and you're willing to spend a bit of money, I'd suggest The Vintner's Inn. I've recommended it on the green before, and while it has been a few years, it was one of the loveliest places I've stayed.
posted by sardonyx at 10:09 AM on February 24, 2016

The Good Hotel has had some positive reviews from friends and is not insanely expensive.

Stop by the Ferry Building, especially if you can manage to do so on a weekday -- it gets crazy on weekends. There are quite a few little shops that mainly center on food. Plus it's right on the water so you can get a nice cup of coffee from Peet's and watch the ferries come and go.

Don't forget to stop by the half price ticket booth in Union Square to get last minute tickets to good shows. I'd say avoid the road shows and go with The Unfortunates at ACT, or anything at the Great Star (it's funky and groovy and my current favorite venue in SF -- plus it's just a block or so from Li Po, home of the Chinese mai tai). Or get tickets to jazz at Yoshi's in Oakland, and take a ferry there and back to SF. It's very fun and easy.
posted by janey47 at 10:10 AM on February 24, 2016

Something to keep in mind is that the winery tastings are a mid-to-late morning to late afternoon thing. That coupled with the not insignificant travel time from SF should be things you factor into your itineraries.
posted by mmascolino at 10:37 AM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's been a zillion years, but I really enjoyed Beaulieu Vineyards; it's historic (100 years old), and they make some very nice wines.
I also really enjoyed Domaine Chandon - but I'm partial to sparkling wines.
Every trip I take to the city (North Beach 'hood), I have a "pilgrimage" that starts at City Light Books (founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti) - it's a great bookstore, and continues at Vesuvio Cafe for an Anchor Steam(the original craft beer - on tap), and later in the day finishing at Cafe Trieste (first espresso bar on the West Coast) for some delicious espresso.

Have a great trip!
posted by dbmcd at 10:58 AM on February 24, 2016

I was going to State Bird Provisions for restaurant as well. If you show up exactly when they open and put your name on a list, and then are willing to wait 1-2 hours (go drink somewhere nearby), you will get seated eventually at the bar without a reservation. It's worth it, great example of SF cuisine as well that's not terribly expensive and you can get to eat a bunch of small things.
posted by bradbane at 11:17 AM on February 24, 2016

You can get a Gray-Line bus tour to John Muir Woods and Sausalito. The tour can actually pick you up at many dfferent hotels in SF. Seeing the Redwood trees in Muir Woods is amazing. Then, when you get to Sausalito, don't get back on the bus. Just stay a bit in Sausalito, eat dinner there. Check out the nice little town on the other side of San Francisco Bay. Then, take a ferry back to SF. Ferry will drop you right in Fisherman's Wharf.
posted by Flood at 11:48 AM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you do hang out in the Mission/Valencia area, as late afternoon dreaming hotel suggests (and I concur), here's a handy guide for a walking tour of the street art in the alleys.
posted by janey47 at 12:10 PM on February 24, 2016

definitely check out the Legion of Honor museum in sf! from there, you can easily hop over to Trouble Coffee and also Outerlands (one of my absolute favorite restaurants in the city) in the outer sunset. also, your ticket to the LoH is also good for a same-day visit to the deYoung in GG park, which is right next to the japanese tea gardens, the amazing botanical gardens, and the Academy of Sciences.
posted by burgerrr at 12:15 PM on February 24, 2016

Oh yeah, I nearly forgot to recommend a China Town walking tour! There are a couple of different walking tours to check out different stuff. We only did one through China Town. It was given by a retired history teacher who was married to someone raised in China Town. It was SUPER interesting and fun and we got a great recommendation for a Dim Sum place!
posted by VTX at 1:09 PM on February 24, 2016

If you want to have dinner in the Napa Valley, my favorite restaurant, period, is Terra in St. Helena. The setting is romantic and the food has always delighted me.

I grew up in Sonoma County, and lived most of my life in Walnut Creek, so I remember when you could buy a really nice bottle of Napa Valley chardonnay for about $3.

Also, my ex-husband and his parents were pretty well off, so I have eaten at many of the best and legendary restaurants in the area. I fell in love with Terra and it remains my favorite restaurant of all time.
posted by Altomentis at 2:11 PM on February 24, 2016

It's been 13 months since we went to SF for the first and only time and we still talk about how much we miss it. We mostly just went to comedy shows for that entire weekend... but I can highly recommend: Mymy for breakfast and The Italian Homemade Company for lunch.
posted by getawaysticks at 2:31 PM on February 24, 2016

We got up early one morning and walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. There was a fundraiser walk going on with all sorts of people watching to do, in addition to watching the nearby fog and the boats glide under. Traffic is loud though, wear earbuds. Nice little museum, too. Free. Suitable for biking.
posted by childofTethys at 5:33 PM on February 24, 2016

Woodhouse Fish Co. Has great seafood if you are looking for a tasty seafood meal in that area. I had to indulge when I was in town as I was raised on Chesapeake Bay seafood. The place delivered.
posted by childofTethys at 5:41 PM on February 24, 2016

While you're in the Napa area, if you're into food, check out Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller's casual eatery. It's the kind of place where you go and they serve tomato soup and grilled cheese but it's the best tomato soup and grilled cheese you've ever eaten and you end up licking the bowl and not caring if anyone sees you do it because it's that good.

It's about $50 per person, prix fixe, four courses (starter, main, cheese, dessert) with another $30ish for a wine pairing. The menu rotates weekly, if not daily, but to give you an idea - my husband and I went last weekend with friends and had a romaine/blue cheese salad, smoked pork loin with asparagus, peas, and mushrooms, some lovely cheese with honey and house made crackers, and maple pecan blondies a la mode. Everything was amazing. One of our friends kept saying, "I don't usually like blue cheese, but I like it here" and "I don't usually like mushrooms, but I like them here," and I felt the same way - I don't generally eat pork, but there? I'll eat whatever they bring me. Gladly.

Reservations are a good idea, but nowhere near as hard to get as some of the Michelin starred places - I think we got ours about three weeks before going.
posted by bananacabana at 6:45 PM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input! Lots of great info to go through.
posted by joelhunt at 10:28 AM on February 25, 2016

My two picks in Napa are wildly different, but: Ravenswood and Gundlach Bundschu.

Ravenswood has a nice outdoor patio and bocce court, and a menu of big, tasty reds. Gun Bun's tasting room is in a cave and they seem to specialise in difficult flavours - I'd be in their monthly wine club if shipping didn't literally double the cost.

Muir Woods is breathtaking.

Others might disagree, but I recommend not having a rental car for the days you plan to do stuff in the city - it's easier to get around on Muni and you won't have to deal with parking.
posted by a halcyon day at 11:39 AM on February 25, 2016

I always recommend the City Guides walking tours. They're free (donations accepted) and given by very knowledgeable volunteer guides. I have done lots of them with various out-of-town visitors and they're uniformly terrific. They have tours covering Chinatown and the murals in the Mission and the Japanese Tea Garden (if you do the 9:30 tours, you can even get in free!) and the Castro and the Haight and the Ferry Building and Hitchcock and Deco and the Gold Rush.

Also, I heartily second Muir Woods.

Welcome, and have fun!
posted by kristi at 12:30 PM on February 27, 2016

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