The false-fronted shops, 19th-century buildings, and unpretentious tasting rooms 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 luxury properties like Solage (2007) springing up and Indian Springs and other old standbys getting a sprucing up. The trend continued in 2021 with the opening of the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Napa Valley and a total makeover of Dr. Wilkinson's. (In 1952 the latter advertised "The Works"—mud and steam baths and a blanket wrap followed by a massage—for a whopping $3.50, a sum that even adjusted for inflation wouldn't come close to covering the current charges.) At the Brannan Cottage Inn, you can spend a night in part of the only Sam Brannan cottage still on its original site.