The false-fronted shops, 19th-century buildings, and unpretentious cafés lining the main drag of Lincoln Avenue give Calistoga a slightly rough-and-tumble feel that's unique in the Napa Valley. With Mt. St. Helena rising to the north and visible from downtown, Calistoga looks a bit like a cattle town tucked into a remote mountain valley.
In 1859 Sam Brannan—Mormon missionary, entrepreneur, and vineyard developer—learned about a place in the upper Napa Valley, called Agua Caliente by settlers, that was peppered with hot springs and even had its own "Old Faithful" geyser. He snapped up 2,000 acres of prime property and laid out a resort. Planning a place that would rival New York's famous Saratoga Hot Springs, he built an elegant hotel, bathhouses, cottages, stables, an observatory, and a distillery (the last a questionable choice for a Mormon missionary). Brannan's gamble didn't pay off as he'd hoped, but Californians kept coming to "take the waters," supporting small hotels and bathhouses built wherever a hot spring bubbled to the surface. In the 21st century Calistoga began to get back to its roots, with new luxury properties springing up and old standbys getting a sprucing up. At the Brannan Cottage Inn, you can spend a night in part of the only Sam Brannan cottage still on its original site.