Visiting Napa Valley on a Budget

GDP shares great tips on where to eat and stay at a moderate cost


It's easy to write about the Napa Valley as a tourist destination, but just how useful is that information once you become an actual visitor? A list of high end hotels and restaurants is both fun to write and to read, but in my life it's not terribly useful. You see, I am a bit of a budget traveler, by necessity as well as choice. I travel frequently enough so that splurging on every meal would bust both my wallet and my gut.
So today, instead of listing the best of the best, I'm simply going to share my impressions from a recent visit with you. After a long day of tasting and writing—what you'll find me doing on most wine country visits—I prefer a relatively light, simple dinner and a comfortable place to sleep. That's it. It may not work for you, but it did for me and this is how I did it. 
And just to be clear no one gave me any discounts or covered any cost for any of these recommendations; they were all out of pocket expenses.
Napa Valley Sign Image Via Shutterstock

Staying in Calistoga

With a week to spend in Napa Valley, I chose to split my time between accommodations in the cities of Napa and Calistoga in northern Napa Valley. This was done mostly for convenience;  while the distance between the two towns is not great (about 25 miles), cutting the added travel time driving back to Napa every evening, sometimes with significant traffic, from visits up north is greatly appreciated.

In Calistoga I chose a very affordable option, the Comfort Inn on Lincoln Ave, just on the edge of town. It's about a 12 minute stroll down the avenue into town, where you can find a supermarket, shops and plenty of dining options. The accommodations are relatively basic here, clean, spacious, perfect for a home base for a couple of days. One nice feature of the property is that even this simple place lets you take advantage of the soothing mineral spring waters Calistoga is famous for. There is an outdoor mineral fed-spa on the property that was a rejuvenating treat to take advantage of after a busy day.

Comfort Inn Calistoga
1865 Lincoln Avenue
Calistoga, CA 94515

Staying in Napa

In Napa itself I stayed at the River Terrace Inn, a lovely property just on the edge of town, affording convenient access to the Silverado Trail as well as pedestrian access to town. I really appreciated the convenience of walking into town each night for dinner, and then coming back to a welcoming room afterwards. I loved the bed at the River Terrace Inn, not only was it super comfortable, but the linens were silky and inviting. In fact all the details here, like the bathrobes and towels, were of a fine quality, particularly in light of the price.

Now admittedly I was there in the off-season, and midweek to boot, so I was able to take advantage of a “stay for two, get the the third night free offer,” which brought my nightly rate down to under $130 a night. At that rate this place is a steal, but I would still heartily recommend the River Terrace Inn at standard room rates. One thing worth noting is that breakfast is served on the premises, but the restaurant is detached from the hotel so you have to take a short stroll if you want a hot breakfast. On the other hand, a continental breakfast was on offer in the lobby of the hotel each morning for those so inclined.

River Terrace Inn
1600 Soscol Avenue
Napa, CA 94559

Pizza in Napa

Napa's culinary scene has really grown over the years and now the city is full of great dining options. As I mentioned earlier, I usually prefer something simple for dinner, so I decided to try two of the brick oven pizza restaurants in town, pizza being one of my three essential food groups!

The first stop was at Azzurro Pizzeria and Enoteca, a simply decorated place that felt convivial and friendly. The pizza here is personal size and brick oven baked, but had more of a New York pizza feel to it. In general it was delicious and affordable, great for groups or family dining. I also enjoyed their house made meatballs and a wonderful baby arugula salad along with a very modestly priced She Bang red wine produced by Morgan Twain Peterson of Bedrock fame.

The next day I made my way up 1st Street to find out for myself how good the pizza was at Oenotri. I've heard great things about this fashionable spot and my visit there supported most of them. I enjoyed the daily selection of house-cured salumi; the varied and delectable assortment makes a great start to the evening. The pizza, always a Margherita by the way (it's the pizzeria's roast chicken after all), had excellent flavors though it was a cooked a little unevenly. I'm going to chalk that up to my being the first customer of the day. I've worked a brick oven before and I know it take awhile to get one’s rhythm and the temperature of the oven just right. A glass of Carignano for Sardinia and crisp kale leaves rounded out my meal. Though a bit more expensive than Azzurro, Oenotri also offers fine value and should be tried.

Azzurro Pizzeria
1260 Main Street
Napa, CA 94558
Oenotri Restaurant
1425 1st Street
Napa, CA 94559

Burger Battles

And then there were the burgers. In truth I rarely eat burgers, but when I do I indulge it’s mostly on the road. This great American culinary tradition has been subjected to so many influences over the years that you really could eat almost a burger a day and not see the same thing twice. I prefer things pretty basic when it comes to a burger, so I stuck with some simple places that seem to do a good job with a classic.

In Calistoga, I stopped into the Hydro Grill right on Lincoln Avenue. The pretty basic pub setup suited me just fine so I slid into a booth and ordered their hamburger after noticing a sign outside proclaiming it the best in town. It was a pretty good burger—beefy, sizable and well prepared, so consider me satisfied.The menu’s packed with pub grub, chili, fish tacos, quesadillas, calamari. I also enjoyed a pretty convincing bowl of gumbo. This is my kind of place, unpretentious, comfortable, with a varied menu, good grub and very fair prices.

In Napa I stopped by the Squeeze Inn, a spot, or rather mini chain, that was new to me. This is a burger from another world, not to miss for nostalgic dinners searching for the next messy burger. The hamburger was fine, with plenty of good stuff on it (pickles, mustard, tomato, lettuce) but the killer here is the cheeseburger. This is not your ordinary cheeseburger, but rather something right out of the 1950s. Once your burger is cooked on a griddle, it's covered with grated cheddar and then steamed until the cheese is all melty deliciousness. The cheese runs all over the griddle and with two deft swipes of his spatula your cook will carve out a square of grilled cheese that now includes you burger and place it on your bun. You really have to see this to believe it, but it’s outrageous. Not for the faint of heart but a real treat!

1403 Lincoln Avenue  
Calistoga, CA 94515
Squeeze Inn Hamburgers
3383 Solano Avenue
Napa, CA 94558

Fish Tacos

Truth be known, I sort of stumbled upon Squeeze Inn while in search of fish tacos. Not any fish tacos mind you, but Michelin recommended fish tacos. (Yes, that Michelin guide.) La Taquiza Fish Tacos is a gem of a taqueria, and located in the same Redwood Village shopping center as the Squeeze Inn. Where else can you get grilled octopus tacos, and damn good ones at that? There's actually a wide array of fish tacos, grilled, fried, and shrimp along with chicken, pork, beef and veggie options. These are delicious tacos; they can be prepared mild or spicy and there is a salsa bar which allows you to add your own splash of inspiration to the finished product. Love, love, love this place and can't wait for my next visit!

La Taquiza Fish Tacos
2007 Redwood Road  
Napa, CA 94558

Blow the Budget

So that's a quick rundown of the highlights of my lowbrow trip. I love that you can get such great experiences without busting the bank in Napa Valley and I would love to hear from you guys about all the places I've missed.

And for those of you who just won't be able to bring themselves to wolf down a Squeeze Inn burger while sitting at a picnic bench in a shopping center's parking lot, one last bone. If you want to splurge and take advantage of the best of Napa Valley, don't miss Press Restaurant. It has one of the the best back vintage selections of Napa Valley wines anywhere in the world. Prices are ambitious at times, but you can still find great deals such as a 1978 Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet ($275), a 1985 Clos du Val Stag's Leap Cabernet ($175), the 1987 Dunn Napa Valley Cabernet ($275), and the 1984 La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet ($115), along with many other great values on the list and any of the vintages of Ritchie Creek, which range from 1983-2007 ($175 to $80)!

Press Restaurant
587 St. Helena Highway
St. Helena, CA 94574
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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: napagirl68
    Hand of Snooth
    87843 2,814

    Good recommendations, especially the recommendation to stay in Calistoga. In addition to reasonable accommodations, there are a few Calistoga tasting rooms that do not charge a tasting fee, and many that charge a minimal tasting fee. This information can be found through the hotel/inn you are staying at, or the local Chamber. Also, ask your hotel or inn for complimentary wine tasting passes for wineries that normally would charge a fee. Folks on a budget can practically taste all weekend with little to no charge using these methods. And Napa Valley tasting fees can be quite high- $20/person is not uncommon, and perhaps on the low end of the price range.

    Calistoga is also quieter and less crowded during tourist season than the other parts of Napa Valley.

    Personally, I would recommend a trip to Sonoma instead, with many fine wineries, low to no tasting fees, and less crowds. Many Sonoma wineries also have free tastings with Visa Signature card.

    Feb 25, 2013 at 2:34 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 3,348

    Alas, we were just up in the Dry Creek Valley this weekend, and the prevalence of tasting fees is rising rapidly. Holdredge was $10, reimbursed with purchase, Ridge was $5 for a lesser flight, $10 for pricier wines, and $10 for a pour of Monte Bello. (Depending on the size of that pour, that could be a cheap way to try Monte Bello.) We bailed at Ridge, I can take a chance on their wines because it's not much of a chance anyway.

    I've stayed at the Comfort Inn, although it's been a long time. It was right before the Napa Valley Marathon--if you're a runner, that's a great weekend to go up there, and the Inn is up on the end of town by the starting line, so you can walk to warm up. Glad to hear it's still nice.

    Feb 25, 2013 at 4:52 PM

  • Snooth User: winenana
    685466 39

    Join ATC. for low cost accommodations, including breakfast, with friendly folk. Napa and Sonoma areas and others have numerous members. Many are very familiar with the wineries in the area. They have a printed folder of members or an online program...all over the world. We have belonged for years and have stayed all over the country. Comfort Inn has gone way up in price the past few years.

    Feb 25, 2013 at 5:32 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 225,524

    Napagirl is telling folks to go to Sonoma!

    I'll be in Sonoma next week so more goodness to come on that front.

    If anyone has suggestions on little known options for great food I'mm all ears!

    Feb 25, 2013 at 5:51 PM

  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 7,889

    This is a great article, Greg. When I go to Napa Valley, I heave a big sigh and figure I am going to pay through the nose. Now, I know I am going to spend serious dollars at some of the restauarants, and those are dollars very well spent . But the alternatives that you have listed sound really great.

    One idea I may have for you in Sonoma County is Mary's Pizza. The one I've visited is in Rohnert Park, but I think they have other locations. Warning, it does seem to be family-oriented. So, if this is the night to take out the soccer team, then it won't be peaceful. We've picked up pizza and taken it to our hotel, and for us, who do not have kids, that works out well.

    Feb 25, 2013 at 8:29 PM

  • Snooth User: jeffhoo
    1134367 40

    Don't know if this is "little known" or not, but the wife and I had an AMAZING trip to Napa last May. Decided to head over to Sonoma one afternoon to check out spots for "our next trip." Had lunch at The Girl and The Fig and it ended up being my favorite meal of the week. I can still taste the pork belly and poached egg sandwich. Two words - yum and me!!

    Feb 25, 2013 at 9:12 PM

  • Snooth User: JNAI
    521428 10

    You can't do napa without a visit to Taylor's refresher. It's a napa legend and super yummy. Also, longmeadow ranch's resto is good and reasonable. Mustards grill as well. None of these places are too spendy, and they're great for first time visitors to experience the essence of the valley, albeit tourist style. To stay? The el Bonita motel is a popular choice if you don't want to break the bank. I've never stayed there, but I hear it's a good value choice. And it's right in st. Helena!

    Feb 27, 2013 at 12:53 AM

  • Snooth User: Al Faison
    196612 155

    Greg, I hope you get a chance to read this before you go to Sonoma. I really strongly recommend that you stop by my favorite winery there, Ravenswood, and enjoy some of Morgan Peterson's dad's great Zinfandels. The range from Joel Peterson's bargain priced Vintner's Blend Zin to his Single Vinyard Designates has something to tantalize any palate. Hope you'll review some of his wines soon. Al Faison

    Feb 27, 2013 at 5:44 PM

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