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12 Things You MUST See and Do in the Napa Valley

06/02/2015 05:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

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Vineyards in the Napa Valley

When it comes to figuring out what to see and do at any destination, every traveler derives special pleasure from discovering the hidden gems and authentic experiences that uniquely define a place and its people. It can entail tasting new foods, stumbling upon a local with an interesting story, or finding a picturesque trail to hike or take a walk.

Most hard-core travelers find a way to balance time spent seeing the "tried and true" vs. "getting off the beaten path." It may be trendy to disparage any attraction that reeks of mass tourism but who wouldn't want to see the Leaning Tower in Pisa or the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Indeed, there are times when it's worthwhile to follow the millions of tourists who have been there before us each year. At least, that's what we found when we visited the Napa Valley. Here are some of our favorite things to see and do:

1) Get the big picture on the Napa Valley Wine Train

2015-05-31-1433095875-8517165-P1130447.JPGTicket for the Napa Valley Wine Train

Since there is no hop-on, hop-off bus, you can scope out the terrain by boarding the Napa Valley Wine Train. During the three-hour ride, guests enjoy gourmet lunches or dinners (prepared onboard in the kitchen car) while capturing glimpses of town centers and wineries in Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena through oversized picture windows. The seasonal open-air Silverado car is especially popular with families. There is also a Tasting Car stocked with 30-40 boutique wines, where you can sample a flight of four for $10. The restored 10-car, 140-seat antique Pullman train departs from downtown Napa (the Depot is near the Oxbow Public Market) traveling north to St. Helena before the locomotive is switched to the opposite end for the return.

2) Soak in an expansive view from the terrace of Auberge du Soleil

2015-05-31-1433097388-4486000-P1170631.JPGTerrace of the Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil

On a clear day, you can almost see forever from the terrace of Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford. The restaurant at the posh resort offers breathtaking views of the valley below while you enjoy Chef Robert Curry's inspired lunch menu incorporating the best traditions of French and Napa Valley cookery. Reservations are a must.

3) Visit the CIA St. Helena campus

2015-05-31-1433095976-4529328-DSC06166.JPGStone entry to CIA

A cradle of sustainable farm-to-table cooking, Napa was the site of the country's first agricultural preserve (established in 1968). The sprawling Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in St. Helena has spawned many of the area's talented chefs. This campus of the nation's preeminent not-for-profit culinary college offers tastings, courses for food enthusiasts, public restaurants and a retail store with every kitchen gadget imaginable.

4) Grab a snack at the Oakville Grocery

2015-05-31-1433096024-3596061-P1130155.JPGOakville Grocery Store

When you step into the renovated Oakville Grocery that was once a gas station, you feel like you've stepped back in time. Founded in 1881, it is the longest continually operating grocery story in California although it probably didn't stock the same gourmet and artisanal food items it does today. Next door to the grocery is one of the best public bathrooms on Route 29.

5) Experience a winery or two

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Robert Mondavi Barrel Room

Every winery has its own personality. Choosing which to visit among the more than 400 in the region depends on where you stay, the length of your stay, and the type of experiences you're seeking (e.g., Are you interested in wine cave tours, barrel tastings, or food and wine pairings, etc.?). It's prudent to do online research (and sometimes make reservations) in advance.

Some are not-to-be-missed simply because they're so quirky. At Raymond Vineyard and Cellar in St. Helena, visit the Crystal Cellar, a stainless steel-walled tasting room with a mirrored bar where Cabernet Sauvignons are poured from Baccarat decanters. The winery also has a Corridor of Senses where visitors can learn about distinct wine aromas. At the Quixote Winery off the Silverado Trail in Napa, known for its Petite Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, you'll be wowed by the winery's Gaudi-like architecture.

One of our favorites is the Robert Mondavi Winery barrel room in Oakville. A 90-minute "experience" features a walk through the vineyards and cellars as well as a sit-down guided wine tasting. Some 95 percent of wineries in the Valley are family-owned. The contemporary tasting room at the Caridean Estate in St. Helena is one of the newest. Owners Edwin and Stacia Williams offer 23 different wines from their small-batch boutique winery.

6) Grab a burger at Gott's Roadside Diner

2015-05-31-1433096157-4329035-P1130657.JPGGott's Roadside Dinner

The popularity of this retro-style burger joint, which first opened in St. Helena in 1999, has spread as quickly as some California wildfires. There are now branches of Gott's Roadside in downtown Napa as well as in the hinterlands of San Francisco and Palo Alto. The concept is one of fast food with great ingredients. On a sunny day, it's nice to sit outdoors at the picnic tables.

7) Explore the outdoors

2015-05-31-1433096199-1584702-P1130140.JPGTourists on Segways in Yountville

With more than 53,000 acres of hills, mountains and fields protected by the Land Trust of Napa Valley, there are places to walk, run, hike, bike and to explore the surrounding Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges--to the west and east, respectively.

If you prefer to see the area on two-wheels, portions of the 47-mile Napa Valley Vine Trail are paved for cyclists, and numerous hotels and tour outfitters rent bicycle equipment, including Napa Valley Bike Tours. With lots of sunshine year-round and a valley with a flat floor, Segway tours can be fun and a great way to glide through Napa while covering lots of ground.

8) Savor the flavors

2015-05-31-1433096270-2278638-IMG_8703.JPGThomas Keller's Organic Farm in Yountville

You might get the impression that the valley is awash with vineyards but they occupy only nine percent of the land area. There are an abundance of working farms and gardens, and more than 125 restaurants, so deciding where to eat can be daunting.

With eleven Michelin stars, Napa has the highest per capita concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants of any wine region in the world. Reservations for the two with three Michelin-stars, The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena and The French Laundry in Yountville, can be hard to snag. If the restaurant prices are out of your ballpark, take a no-cost early morning walk through the Chef Thomas Keller's organic farm, located across the street from the French Laundry.

One of our favorite restaurants is Food Network celebrity chef Michael Chiarello's Bottega in Yountville that offers a contemporary take on bold Italian flavors. Stop in the delightful NapaStyle gift shop (adjacent to the restaurant) before or after your meal.

9) Visit a Tuscan Castle

2015-05-31-1433096331-5887824-P1170598.JPGCastello di Amorosa

The owner of Castello di Amorosa says he was fascinated by Italian medieval architecture. But it takes guts and tenacity for any individual to build an eight-level castle on 171 acres, chiseled out of 8000 tons of stone with 107 rooms, ramparts, towers, a drawbridge and moat. Definitely worth a peek and the general admission ticket allows you to visit two levels of the Calistoga castle and enjoy a 5-wine tasting.

10) Take a walk through St. Helena

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Main Street in St. Helena

The picturesque main street of St. Helena is filled with upscale boutiques, restaurants, shops and galleries housed in old buildings. If you love architecture, look up. Three blocks of the town have been designated a National Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. If you have a yen for contemporary Mexican food, stop at La Condesa for tacos and margaritas. Chocolate-lovers swear by the handmade sweets at Woodhouse Chocolate. Even if you are on a diet, check out the window displays.

11) Check out the vibrant art scene

2015-05-31-1433096420-5279370-P1170238.JPGSculpture outside the residence at diRosa

The valley offers galleries, museums, studios and outdoor exhibitions that will even appeal to babies in strollers. The 217-acre diRosa art gallery (Napa) includes more than 2000 pieces of contemporary art indoors and outdoors, in a variety of media, all by over 800 Bay area contemporary artists. Older kids love the rural setting with roaming peacocks, and the unusual sculptural displays indoors and outdoors, such as the hanging car. Both Napa city and Yountville have wonderful public art walks.

12) Memorialize your visit in front of the Welcome Napa Valley sign

2015-05-31-1433096474-6264586-P1130210.JPGWelcome to Napa Valley Sign in Oakville

There are actually two Welcome Napa Valley signs along Route 29, one in Oakville and another in Calistoga, and the iconic signs got a facelift last year. The signs are probably too wide for selfies but there's nothing wrong with asking a friendly stranger to take your picture. There will likely be someone around to oblige.

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For an infinite number of things to see and do, see the Visit Napa Valley website.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is an award-winning travel writer and member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). You can follow her blog for travelers over 50 at More Time To Travel.

All photo credits: Jerome Levine/More Time To Travel.

Follow Dr. Irene S. Levine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moretime2travel