Winter in Grass Valley and Nevada City: Gold Rush Lore, Modern Luxury + Old-Fashioned Holiday Fun
A view of downtown Nevada City at dusk from the National Exchange Hotel's second-story terrace. (Kat Alves)

Winter in Grass Valley and Nevada City: Gold Rush Lore, Modern Luxury + Old-Fashioned Holiday Fun


Nevada County, that swath of the Sierra Nevada mountains that is home to historic neighboring towns of Nevada City and Grass Valley (and, of course, Truckee), is rife with Gold Country narrative. Those mountain towns have real Wild West charm, with echoes of rollicking whisky-filled nights and glittering gold nuggets.

But to hold onto that old ideology is to miss the bigger picture: Today’s Nevada City and Grass Valley offer bounty beyond undiscovered gold. And while many folks think of the region as a summertime destination for fun by the Yuba River, a winter getaway up here won’t disappoint in the least.

Where to Stay in Nevada City and Grass Valley

A king suite at the Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley.

(Kat Alves)

In a silver lining of the pandemic for this neck of the woods, Santa Barbara–based Acme Hospitality upped the game for accommodations with the refurbishment of two historic hotels, the National Exchange(211 Broad St., Nevada City) and, four miles away, the Holbrooke (212 W. Main St., Grass Valley). While you can expect modern touches, rest easy knowing each property retains its individual identity and keeps true to history through meticulous restoration of the buildings, refurbished original antiques, and even some furnishings donated by locals as a way to preserve the character of these sites.

In Nevada City, the iconic National Exchange was built in the mid-1850s and is said to be the oldest continuously operating hotel in the state. A registered historical landmark, it's known locally as “the Nash.” After a three-year, floor-to-rafters renovation, you can laze around on a gold velvet sofa in the grand lounge while pondering the bold women who are said to have run a brothel here. The guest rooms blend Victorian-era touches like floral wallpaper and tufted furnishings with modern creature comforts such as sleek electric kettles and custom Mascioni Italian robes.

Over in Grass Valley, the landmark Holbrooke holds another historic title: It's home to the oldest running saloon west of the Mississippi. Famous guests have included President Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, and the infamous highwayman Black Bart, which might explain this hotel's more masculine energy. The property has a restaurant, two bars, and luxurious rooms similar in fashion to its sister the National—think exposed brick, antique furniture, and fireplaces—both in the main building and in the detached Purcell Carriage House. There are no televisions here, so unplug and enjoy.

Where to Eat + Drink in Nevada City and Grass Valley

Digging into dinner at Golden Gate Saloon.

(Ingrid Nelson)

Grass Valley

When the sun is out, take a seat on the dog-friendly patio at local favorite Tofanelli's(302 W. Main St.) and order any of the 101 omelets on the menu. // Lunch could be a quick, hand-held affair at Grass Valley Pasty Co.(100 S. Auburn St.), which serves a taste of the Gold Rush in the legit Cornish pasties brought by mining migrants from Cornwall, England. The Cousin Jack with skirt steak is a traditional place to start. // You might be surprised to find Middle Eastern fare here, but the all-organic MeZé(106 Mill St.) is Israeli-owned and serves a worthy hummus bowl with plenty of za’atar.

When the hankering for a cocktail strikes, you need not venture any further than your hotel. The Holbrooke's historic Golden Gate Saloon is a real Gold Rush–era watering hole. Order the Steeler's Wheel (bourbon, Cynar, Ancho Reyes, and tajin) and some guacamole for a nod to the place's California-meets-Mexico roots. At dinnertime, the saloon dishes sophisticated plates of rabbit mole and huge bowls of clams with chorizo along with thick slices of grilled sourdough. // Come late night, duck downstairs into the Iron Door, the Holbrooke's basement bar that's said to have been a speakeasy back in the day. In late November, the space will transform into Miracle, the over-the-top Christmas-themed pop-up bar.

Nevada City

Start the day at Communal Cafe(233 Broad St.), a sweet spot slinging cool matcha concoctions, Auburn-based Remedy Supply Co. espresso drinks, and artisan donuts by local baker Felicia Yoder. // The popular Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co. (211 Commercial St.) sources local ingredients for its wood-fired pizzas, served alongside regional wines and craft beers such as Emerald Pool IPA and a seasonal Humbug Harvest Oktoberfest. // With a focus on artisan cured meats from local and responsibly raised animals, the Ham Stand (821 Zion St.) is an awesome spot to grab a sandwich (we like the Roast Beast with horseradish and wild arugula).

Dinner should be had at Lola(211 Broad St.), the National Exchange Hotel's restaurant with a classy, urban vibe. Named for Lola Montez, a leading lady of the 1800s known for her outlaw spirit, the restaurant serves sturdy fare such as brandy-cream oyster mushrooms, steak tartare, and a memorable borscht soup. Go for a nightcap next door at the National Bar(211 Broad St.), a dimly lit tavern with stories to tell.

Things to Do in Nevada City and Grass Valley

Sarah Coleman's new mural inside the Nevada Theatre.

(Akim Aginsky)

Outdoor Activities

The Sierra Nevada is a hiker's heaven—you can land on a hiking trail without even knowing it and end up at a beautiful vantage point. At South Yuba River State Park(17660 Pleasant Valley Rd.), check out the restored Bridgeport Covered Bridge, the longest single span wooden covered bridge in the world. // Deer Creek Tribute Trail is easy to hop onto from downtown Nevada City, leading you over a suspension bridge that memorializes the early contributions of native Nisenan and Chinese people here. // A bit further out, Hirschman Trail(Indian Flat Rd.) loops two-and-a-half miles around a pond surrounded by cliffs created by hydraulic mining. // Empire Mine State Historic Park(10791 E. Empire St.) in Grass Valley is the place to visit for a deeper dive into California’s mining history.

Holiday Festivities

Nevada City's Gold Rush heritage gives way for a Dickensian holiday with the annual Victorian Christmas festival (Wednesdays and Sundays, Dec. 4-18, 2022), when authentic gas lamps light the streets for strolling carolers and vendors selling roasted chestnuts. // Downtown Grass Valley's traditions also take inspiration from across the pond: Its old-fashioned Cornish Christmas (Fridays, Nov. 25 through Dec. 23) features a tree-lighting ceremony, mulled wine, carolers, crafts, and food. // Center for the Arts (314 W. Main St., Grass Valley)is hosting a packed schedule of holiday concerts (including the Vienna Boys Choir and Squirrel Nut Zippers), theater ('Twas the Night Before Christmas), and events such as wreath making workshops. (David Sedaris fans can catch the author here on November 17th.)

Shopping + Culture

No trip to the area is complete without picking up a book about ghost towns or white trash cooking at Booktown Books(107 Bank St., Grass Valley). // Shop a curated collection of cool jewelry, clothing, home items, and self-care products at KitKitDizzi(231 Broad St., Nevada City). // Whether you catch some folk music, a film, a cabaret, or a production of Scrooge (Nov. 24 through Dec. 25), don’t miss a visit to the Nevada Theatre (401 Broad St., Nevada City). The West Coast's oldest continuously operating theater has been recently refreshed with a magical mural, entitled "Drop by Drop, a River Is Formed," by local artist Sarah Coleman. // Environmentalists and nature lovers should drop in for the 21st annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival highlighting activism through art and film (Feb. 16-20, 2023).

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