Visitors who glimpse Napa's malls and big-box stores from Highway 29 often speed past the town on the way to the more seductive Yountville or St. Helena. But Napa, population 79,000, has changed. After many years as a blue-collar burg detached from the Wine Country scene, Napa has spent the past decade reshaping its image. A walkway that follows the Napa River has made downtown more pedestrian-friendly, and each year more high-profile restaurants and hotels and inns pop up. The nightlife options are arguably the valley’s best, shopping has become more chic and varied, and the Oxbow Public Market, a complex of high-end food purveyors, is popular with locals and tourists. If you establish your base in Napa, you'll undoubtedly want to explore the wineries amid the surrounding countryside, but plan on spending at least a half a day strolling the downtown district.
Napa was founded in 1848 in a strategic location on the Napa River, where the Sonoma-Benicia Road (Highways 12 and 29) crossed at a ford. The first wood-frame building was a saloon, and the downtown area still projects an old-river-town vibe. Many Victorian houses have survived, some as beautiful bed-and-breakfast inns, and in the original business district a few older buildings have been preserved. Some of these structures, along with newer ones, were heavily damaged on August 24, 2014, during an early-morning magnitude 6.0 earthquake centered less than 10 miles south of town. The earthquake, the largest in the San Francisco Bay Area in a quarter century, caused an estimated $362 million in damage to private property and public infrastructure, most of it in and around Napa. The wine industry experienced an additional $80 million in losses. Bottles, tanks, and barrels of wine were destroyed, and some historic buildings, including the 1886 Eschol Winery structure at Trefethen Vineyards, suffered damage that will take years to repair. Much of Napa was back to normal within two months, but as you stroll downtown or visit the affected wineries you may detect lingering evidence of the quake’s destruction.