That California is a wonderful place we already know. But California goes far beyond big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. We have listed 25 charming towns, which come out of the traditional itinerary and that you cannot miss.
In addition to the excitement and glamor that big cities offer tourists, small towns continue to enchant their visitors with their beauty, tranquility, and countless leisure options. If you like to visit different, quiet, and peaceful cities, you cannot miss these cities during your trip, each one with its particularity and charm.
Interactive Map of 25 Best Small Towns in California
Known for its beautiful landscapes and charming little houses that look like fairy tales, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a seaside community full of personality. The cool thing about Carmel is that it fits right on a road trip through California’s Highway 1. And, in fact, it is one of the mandatory stops along it.
Carmel is friendly and cool, full of art galleries, good restaurants, and famous for an unforgettable sunset. The city has several peculiar laws, including the ban on wearing high heels without permission and the prohibition of any chain stores or restaurants. Besides the most popular attractions in Carmel, right next door is the city of Monterey, which has one of the largest aquariums in America.
Located 280 miles north of San Francisco, the college town of Arcata has a suburban feel, many coffee shops and parks, and a young community. In fact, the city is kindly nicknamed “Hippie Haven”. With the meaning of “where there is a lagoon”, the city gets this name because of the Arcata Bay located nearby.
Nowadays, Arcata is popular for its redwood forests and for being home to the Humboldt State University. Besides visiting Redwood National and State Parks, some of the attractions in Arcata include exploring its beaches and sand dunes as well as its historic architecture.
90 minutes from Los Angeles, Ojai is considered a treasure both for its spiritual energy and for its material resources which include uranium and oil wells. Considered by many as a spiritual vortex, one of Arcata’s attractions is its library where you can find many interesting books on the subject.
In the center of this small and beautiful city is a small open mall. Also, the city is known for its oranges and you can select the fruits by visiting Rancho Inn. This is an interesting tour where you walk through the plantations and harvest the fruits.
4. St. Helena
Located one and a half hours from San Francisco, St. Helena is one of the cities in the Napa Valley. The small town is known for its wineries, restaurants, and shops. Incorporated in 1876, several buildings are from the 19th century. This way, the city center is full of beautiful buildings with bricks and wood, which house decoration stores and incredible (and expensive) clothes shops.
The St. Helena region involves an area much larger than just the two city blocks. It actually starts in the Alpha Omega Winery area, right after Rutherford. Among the top wineries in the region are Beringer, V. Sattui (for picnics), Charles Krug Winery (one of the oldest wineries in the valley), and Prager Winery & Port.
5. Los Alamos
Founded in 1976, Los Alamos is a city in Santa Barbara County that is all about its wild west style. The main street in Los Alamos is Bell Street, at the junction of Highway 1 and State Route 135. Many businesses are on this street, such as the historic Victorian Mansion Bed & Breakfast, an 1864 Victorian hotel that houses six themed suites.
Home to the last standing Pacific Coast Railroad station, Los Alamos is most known for its proximity to Santa Ynez Valley. Some of the attractions in Los Alamos include wine tasting and exploring the town’s quaint and unique stores.
Located between the Cuyamaca and Volcan Mountains, Julian is a small town close to San Diego that attracts tourists mainly during winter. The small town is located at about 5,000 ft of altitude and as you go up, you notice the change of landscape. The green takes over and the path looks very pleasant.
After the snowboard descents, Julian’s second tradition is its apple pie and ciders. Besides snow sports, Julian’s proximity to the mountains makes it a great destination for hiking and spectacular views. When visiting Julian, be sure to check out the nearby casinos, the Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the coast, and the restored mines open to visitors.
Upon arrival at Santa Catalina Island, the ferry disembarks in the center of Avalon and most of the places that you will visit on the island can be seen from there. From the ferry, you already spot the small center, the delicious little Descanso Beach, and the casino.
The Avalon center is just a square mile, very easy to see on foot. On one side there are shops, restaurants, and hotels and on the other side the pier and the sea. The walk and the view are always pleasant regardless of your choice.
Close to the city of Santa Rosa, Healdsburg is a great option for those traveling through Sonoma Valley. The city is a reference in gastronomy, in addition to offering great options for outdoor events and charming streets shaded by trees.
Healdsburg Plaza is the ultra-charming and old town square, built in the 19th century. The small square, with redwoods at the ends, has several small shops around it. You can find anything, from decoration and a pastry shop to an ice cream shop and a bookstore. Also, Healdsburg is one of those cities that allows you to explore on foot or by bicycle. There are several more professional bike trails around the region and also a super popular and longer one, with 12 miles, that passes through the vineyards.
Mendocino is a small and ultra-photogenic town that combines beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean with great wines. Mendocino’s economy is practically all geared to tourism, with several hotels and inns, restaurants, and antique shops. And because of its unique architecture that resembles New England, most of the city is considered a World Heritage Site.
Highlights in Mendocino include Ford House Visitor Center & Museum, Kelley House Museum, MacCallum House, Mendocino Art Center, Temple Kwan Tai Museum, Artist’s Co-op of Mendocino Gallery. Also, during your visit, be sure to visit the botanical garden in Fort Bragg, the neighboring city, and the North Coast Brewing.
Solvang is a charming Danish city located between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Close to Santa Barbara, Solvang is a quick and mandatory stop for anyone making the Pacific Coast Highway by car.
European-style wooden buildings with old mills welcome visitors to Solvang which is most known for being a replica of a Danish city in the heart of California. With architecture reminiscent of Scandinavia, many cute shops and restaurants are located in super charming Danish-style buildings. Besides, there are many attractions and tours that can be done in and around Solvang. The region has more than 120 wineries open for visitation.
Situated on the Upper Sacramento River, Dunsmuir is a popular destination in Northern California for those seeking nature and peace. The town offers its visitors the opportunities to go fishing, skiing, climbing, and sight-seeing. Curiously, Dunsmuir is also known as the “Home of the best water on Earth”.
One of the main attractions around Dunsmuir is to visit Hedge Creek Falls. The waterfall is small but interesting, the coolest part is being able to pass behind it in a kind of cave.
12. Nevada City
Nevada City is a hippie (chic) village in northern California and is worth a visit if you want to have real contact with the local culture, after all, there are hardly any foreigners there. Surrounded by forest, this town of beautiful Victorian houses was originally founded in 1849 as a mining camp. Flawless 19th-century buildings with wooden balconies are now restaurants, gift shops, wine tasting rooms, and antique shops.
The inhabitants of this region are people who are generally connected to nature and are very fond of physical and mental well-being. You will easily find events of yoga, meditation, dance, and more.
Sausalito is a very cute, peaceful, and pleasant city, located on the other side of the Golden Gate, and with just over 7 thousand inhabitants. It has great restaurants, cafes, bistros, art galleries, markets, florists, shops, as well as beautiful hills. Not to mention one of the most beautiful views of the city of San Francisco. Most of the city is on top of the hill, full of colorful houses and flowers. The residential area of the city is very beautiful and charming.
Curiously, the port of Sausalito was founded in the middle of the 19th-century becoming one of the first cities in the north of the San Francisco Bay. It is possible to reach the city by car, bicycle, or via ferry boat.
Idyllwild is situated between two large rock formations, Tahquitz Rock and Suicide Rock, which are very popular amongst rock climbers. Surrounded by nature all around it, this small mountain town located in the San Jacinto Mountains is the perfect getaway from the big cities. For nature lovers, it is worth checking out Mount San Jacinto State Park, Idyllwild Park, and Lake Fulmor.
Besides nature, mountains, and parks, Idyllwild also offers many delicious eateries, cute shops, and unique wineries. And the Idyllwild Area Historical Society Museum tells the history of the region by detailing the lives of the mountain communities.
Highway 1 passes on the coast of Cambria, leaving its white sand beaches and sharp rocks practically deserted and untouched. The center full of small shops and fancy restaurants is very charming. Not to mention the romantic atmosphere that invades the region. A delightful city that few people know!
The Cambria center is formed by Main Street and its lanes that have a series of cute shops, wine tasting houses, art galleries, cafes, and restaurants. Cambria’s attractions include walking along Moonstone Beach, strolling through the downtown, wine tasting, and visiting the Nitt Witt Ridge.
With a relaxed pace and spectacular scenery, Ferndale is the perfect summer destination for the entire family. Close to the Californian Coast Redwood Forest, the city is home to several preserved Victorian-style buildings. Just by walking around its main street, you will be charmed by the cute storefronts and restaurants.
Some of the most popular attractions in Ferndale are Founder Grove, Ferndale Historic Cemetery, and Ferndale Museum. Also, be sure to check out the Victorian Village of Ferndale and the Chamber of Commerce to find out more about the city’s sights.
17. San Juan Capistrano
With a historic and charming city center, San Juan Capistrano is only a short drive away from Orange County and Los Angeles. The town’s Spanish culture and heritage can be noticed all around its buildings, gardens, and even restaurants. Some of its attractions are Los Rios Historic District, the Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Zoomars Petting Zoo.
Featuring unique architecture, the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano is much more than a church. The space counts with beautiful gardens, fountains, tiled roofs, and arches. In fact, this chapel became a museum over 200 years ago and has a lot of history to tell.
18. Three Rivers
Situated on the foothills of Sierra Nevada, Three Rivers is located very close to the entrances of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The highlights around Three Rivers include the glowing Millipeds of Sequoia National Park, Moro Rock, and Tharp’s Log. And, the famous General Sherman Tree is less than 1 hour driving from Three Rivers. So, this is the perfect base camp for those seeking to explore the national parks.
Besides being strategically located, the town itself is very charming. With many family-owned restaurants, this quaint community has a cute little downtown with interesting shops and museums. Make sure to check out the huge Paul Bunyan statue sitting in front of the visitor center.
Not as famous as its sister Napa, but just as special, Sonoma is amazing and has good wines and a super nice atmosphere. It is on the back roads around these cities that more than 400 wineries are concentrated. Some of them are even the oldest in the country! After all, it was in Sonoma County that the Californian wine industry was born. To get there you will need a car or a tour. But if you choose to drive, be careful with the drinking.
Local companies offer trails through the forests of Redwoods National Park, walks along the rugged coast of Sonoma Coast State Beach, kayaking and canoeing along the Russian River, yoga classes, and relaxation therapies at wellness centers or in the middle of nature, among others.
20. Laguna Beach
With an enviable cove and a romantic sunset, Laguna Beach embraces diversity, funky restaurants, and surf culture. This is the perfect stop between Los Angeles and San Diego. Located in Orange County, one of the most affluent regions of Southern California, Laguna Beach is proud to be an artistic village, with a delightful walking spot and without the ultra-snobbish look of neighboring cities.
The main beaches around Laguna Beach are Victoria Beach and Treasure Island, Thousand Steps Beach, Crescent Bay, Crystal Cove State Park. Also, with the Trolley’s you have the chance to enjoy the beautiful landscapes that are available throughout the route and make a few stops at points where important attractions and monuments are located. And one of the coolest tours to do in this part of California is the whale watching tour!
21. Pacific Grove
The 17 Mile Drive runs through the most beautiful places on the California coast, in the cities of Carmel, Pacific Grove, and Monterey. After all, the scenic road is the most perfect introduction to the HW-1 and the perfect sample of the longest and most famous stretch, which goes through Big Sur and Los Angeles.
Pacific Grove is mostly known for its beaches, marine life, and charming Victorian architecture. However, the big protagonists are the purple ice plants coloring the shoreline. The main sights around Pacific Grove include the Point Pinos Lighthouse, the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, and the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.
22. Half Moon Bay
A favorite destination for San Francisco residents, Half Moon Bay is a small town with a super cute center and a beautiful beach. Theoretically, this is the first city that people should stop when making the famous Highway One, which is the most popular tour on the California Coast, but it goes unnoticed on many itineraries.
Be sure to visit Surfers Beach and to take a walk around the center passing the church and the old jail. And for those who want to have a neat drink, the Ritz Carlton hotel is always a good choice. Actually, Half Moon Bay is also known for its craft beers and the quality of its flowers. So, you can imagine just how colorful the city is.
23. Tahoe City
Between the mountains and the border of the state of Nevada is the beautiful Tahoe City, a city that has developed around an immense lake of crystal clear waters and great mountains. 20,000 people live in this freezing paradise.
In winter, the place fills with snow and attracts many tourists who are adept at snowboarding and skiing. In summer, the lake turns into a huge beach, perfect for water sports such as SUP and canoeing. And in the territory of the state of Nevada, the city offers several casinos and music venues to make your trip even more fun.
Close to Santa Cruz, the city of Capitola is cute featuring charming houses with shops and restaurants. Capitola is a place very frequented by surfers. With a popular fishing wharf and a large sandy beach, Capitola is considered the oldest beach resort in California.
The charm of the Capitola beach itself is the hyper-photogenic colorful houses on the edge of the beach. You can also choose to take your pet to New Brighton State Beach nearby or visit Capitola Mall for an afternoon shopping session.
25. San Clemente
San Clemente is a very “quiet” or laid-back city, as the Americans say. It has a charming little center and a corner famous for surfing: Trestles. Trestles is part of the San Onofre State Beach, which is found southeast of San Clemente.
The T Street beach also has a lot of surf and a lot of beautiful houses around it. A lodging option over there is the Beachcomber Inn, a small and cute hotel. But there are several options for accommodation close to the pier. San Clemente has a holiday atmosphere, like a beach resort town.