20 Beautiful Small Towns in California | Travel

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Small towns

Skip California’s big city crowds in favor of these 20 charming getaways.

The Golden State is chock full of amazing destinations large and small. And while big city hubs and popular national parks enjoy a lot of love from visitors near and far, the state’s incredible small towns sometimes get lost in the vacation planning shuffle. That’s why U.S. News wanted to highlight the most beautiful small towns in California. We’ve chosen 20 incredible destinations that run the gamut of California’s uniquely varied landscapes, including tucked away mountain towns, secluded coastal communities, valley gems and so much more. No matter what type of traveler you are, you’re likely to find a small town in California that will fulfill all of your vacation dreams.
Small towns

Sausalito

Situated on the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge is the small community of Sausalito, a welcome breath of fresh air for those wanting to take a break from bustling San Francisco. And with a population of 7,100, an incredible bayfront location and picturesque architecture throughout, you’ll get just that. Meander around Bridgeway, the town’s main drag, and you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking water and city views as well as access to local shops, restaurants and parks. If you’ve got kids in tow, stop by the Bay Area Discovery Museum or The Marine Mammal Center. Whatever you do, don’t leave without admiring the area’s colorful houseboats, which can be found in both Galilee Harbor and Waldo Point Harbor.

Skip California’s big city crowds in favor of these 20 charming getaways.

The Golden State is chock full of amazing destinations large and small. And while big city hubs and popular national parks enjoy a lot of love from visitors near and far, the state’s incredible small towns sometimes get lost in the vacation planning shuffle. That’s why U.S. News wanted to highlight the most beautiful small towns in California. We’ve chosen 20 incredible destinations that run the gamut of California’s uniquely varied landscapes, including tucked away mountain towns, secluded coastal communities, valley gems and so much more. No matter what type of traveler you are, you’re likely to find a small town in California that will fulfill all of your vacation dreams.

Sausalito

Situated on the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge is the small community of Sausalito, a welcome breath of fresh air for those wanting to take a break from bustling San Francisco. And with a population of 7,100, an incredible bayfront location and picturesque architecture throughout, you’ll get just that. Meander around Bridgeway, the town’s main drag, and you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking water and city views as well as access to local shops, restaurants and parks. If you’ve got kids in tow, stop by the Bay Area Discovery Museum or The Marine Mammal Center. Whatever you do, don’t leave without admiring the area’s colorful houseboats, which can be found in both Galilee Harbor and Waldo Point Harbor.

Ojai

Drive about an hour and a half northwest of Los Angeles and you’ll arrive in the oasis that is Ojai. Ojai enjoys a breathtaking location in a valley among the Topatopa Mountains, affording visitors stunning mountain views. Hiking, biking, horseback riding, rock climbing and even Jeep tours are all popular pursuits. Its tranquil setting also draws those seeking wellness experiences. If you’re looking to unwind, treat yourself to a spa treatment at the popular Ojai Valley Inn. You’ll also want to check out Ojai Village, the town’s center that’s decked out in Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Here you’ll find a charming array of restaurants and shops, including the popular outdoor bookstore, Bart’s Books.

Carmel-by-the-Sea

This town is easily one of the most enchanting places in California. Its stunning location along the Monterey coastline, lush, wooded landscape and fairy tale-like architecture create a dreamy vacation destination that you’ll probably never want to leave. Like many charming small towns, the best way to take in Carmel-by-the-Sea is to walk its streets. In addition to its setting, Carmel is also unique in that it does not allow chain restaurants to set up shop, yielding plenty of one-of-a-kind dining experiences. After browsing and dining at local businesses in and around Ocean Avenue, walk down to Carmel Beach. Search for a spot under a cypress tree or stick around for a sunset.

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach is the stuff of southern California dreams. Located between San Diego and Los Angeles, this coastal Orange County beach town is popular thanks to its unique cluster of cove beaches that can be found hidden in residential areas. Some standouts include Victoria Beach, which has its own pirate tower built into the cliffs, or Thousand Steps Beach, famous for its sea caves. Meanwhile, Main Beach and nearby Crystal Cove State Park will satisfy beachgoers seeking traditional sandy shores. No matter your preference, make sure to stop by the beautiful Heisler Park for unforgettable oceanfront sunsets.

Julian

This mountain town offers a fun mix of sweeping wooded landscapes and country kitsch for visitors willing to make the hourlong drive from nearby San Diego. Julian, a former gold mining town, stands out for its abundance of outdoor activities and historic main street, which features Western-style business fronts decked out in Americana. Grab lunch at the old-fashioned Miner’s Diner, stop at the Julian Cider Mill for local goods and pick up dessert at the famous Julian Pie Company. After that, you have plenty of beautiful parks at your disposal, including Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, William Heise County Park and Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve.

St. Helena

St. Helena is likely the most picturesque town in all of Napa Valley. Located about 20 miles north of the city of Napa, St. Helena offers charm left and right thanks to its tree-lined main street, historic architecture, and a hearty collection of local shops, restaurants and art galleries. While in town, stop at local wineries, such as the artsy Hall Wines or Merryvale Vineyards, the latter of which was the first to open after Prohibition. If you’re in the mood to splurge, head to The Restaurant at Meadowood (which boasts three Michelin stars) or indulge in some fine local treats at Woodhouse Chocolate. The real draw here, however, is the easy access to Napa Valley’s vineyards and state parks.

Cambria

Cambria is the epitome of a sleepy coastal town. This small, seaside spot is well-known for its close proximity to Hearst Castle, but it could easily stand on its own for its dramatic scenery and quaint, village vibe. The town’s main street contains business fronts boasting a variety of gorgeous architectural styles that are made even more appealing thanks to the towering Monterey pine trees that enshroud the area. While visiting, check out the local art galleries, as Cambria has garnered a reputation for being a hamlet for the creative. Then, explore Moonstone Beach, Fiscalini Ranch Preserve or Hearst San Simeon State Park.

San Clemente

You may be hard-pressed to find better weather anywhere else in California than San Clemente. Located on the coast in Orange County, San Clemente bills itself as having “the world’s best climate.” The city sees about 300 days of sunshine annually and boasts an average temperature of 73 degrees year-round. The weather only enhances the already beautiful town, which is awash with cascading hillsides, picture-perfect beaches and Spanish colonial architecture. Start your trip with a visit to the city’s bustling beach and pier, where you’ll always find plenty of locals soaking up the sun and scenery. Then venture south along the approximately 2-mile-long San Clemente Coastal Trail, which guides visitors along the striking coastline.

Capitola

This adorable small town in northern California is historical for being home to California’s first beach resort, Camp Capitola, which first opened its doors in 1874. Although the resort no longer remains, Capitola still attracts plenty of visitors thanks to its beautiful seaside location. You can take in incredible views of the Monterey Bay coastline from the small Capitola State Beach. After you’ve admired the scenery, dine in Capitola Village, walk along the Capitola Wharf or take a short drive to other nearby beaches, including New Brighton State Beach or Seacliff State Beach.

Sonoma

Those hoping to experience California’s wine country on a budget will likely take to Sonoma. Located about 45 miles north of San Francisco, Sonoma is not only cheaper than its neighbor Napa, but it’s also bigger, translating to fewer tourists to contend with at tasting rooms. Sonoma County is quite large (more than 1,600 square miles), but the city of Sonoma is small, housing less than 12,000 residents. In addition to being a great home base to explore nearby wineries and vineyards, Sonoma stands out for its centuries-old colonial architecture, including the Sonoma Plaza, a National Historic Monument. While in town, stroll the picturesque town center, visit Buena Vista Winery, California’s first premium winery; or take a hike on the Sonoma Overlook Trail for spectacular views.

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is the perfect option for travelers seeking plenty of outdoor experiences. One of Pismo’s claims to fame is Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve. These expansive dunes allow for horseback riding on the beach as well as all-terrain vehicle rentals and tours through the dunes. In the water, visitors can embark on a kayak tour to explore the sea caves of Dinosaur Caves Park. If you aren’t much of an adventurer, stop by the Monarch Butterfly Grove to watch thousands of butterflies flutter about (the season runs from October to February) or take a stroll along Pismo Beach, which boasts beautiful views of the town’s lush coastal hillsides.

Avalon

Travelers looking for a unique small town experience will be thrilled with Avalon. Avalon sits on Catalina Island, which is located approximately 20 miles off the coast of southern California. After an hourlong ferry ride from the mainland, visitors are greeted with a town that resembles the seaside villages of Europe. Avalon boasts rolling evergreen hills, towering palm trees and colorful, compact streets. Take a long stroll along Avalon Bay, cool off at Descanso Beach and make the trek to the hillside Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens. To experience more of Avalon’s wild side, embark on a hike at the Catalina Island Conservancy.

Tahoe City

This Lake Tahoe town is a welcome respite from the comings and goings of the modern world. The little city of less than 3,000 can be found in the northwestern region of Lake Tahoe, not too far from skiing hot spots like Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. The town lives along the quiet Lake Boulevard, which is lined with towering pine trees, beautiful lake views and a handful of local shops and restaurants that range from rustic to quirky. For some in-town activities, visit Commons Beach, rent a bike and cruise down the Truckee River Bike Trail or dive into the lake from the pier found at the Tahoe State Recreation Area, a prime spot for camping.

Mendocino

Sitting atop verdant coastal headlands and backed by miles of forested land, Mendocino looks as if it could serve as the backdrop for a romance novel. This dreamy northern California town is about a three-hour drive north from the city of Napa, giving travelers a sense that they’ve stumbled upon a true getaway. In between its gorgeous natural landscapes lies a picturesque mix of Victorian architecture and modest cottages. After you’ve strolled the town’s peaceful streets, venture to one of the many nearby parks, including Mendocino Headlands State Park, Russian Gulch State Marine Conservation Area and Van Damme State Park, to name a few.

Nevada City

For a glimpse at what California looked like during the gold rush, there is no better place than Nevada City. The town, located about 60 miles north of Sacramento, has made preservation of its historic downtown district a priority, so much so that it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Start your journey down Broad Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, where you will find much of Nevada City’s famously preserved architecture, which now houses plenty of businesses run by smiling locals. History lovers will no doubt want to tour the nearby Empire Mine State Historic Park, while outdoorsy types should take advantage of the adjacent Tahoe National Forest.

Idyllwild

Idyllwild is a great option for those who want to experience Yosemite-like landscapes, but don’t want to contend with the crowds that descend on the popular national park. Located about 105 miles east of Los Angeles, Idyllwild lies within Mount San Jacinto State Park, which is awash with green forested landscapes and plenty of granite peaks. The town’s rustic charm compliments the surrounding scenery. Before you venture into nature, explore Idyllwild’s central streets and peruse local businesses for one-of-a-kind goods (the town is devoid of chain restaurants and stores).

Solvang

Solvang is probably one of the most intriguing small towns in California. That’s because the town, located in the Santa Ynez Valley, is entirely Danish in style, giving visitors a taste of Denmark in the Golden State. Solvang doesn’t just look the part, but acts it, too. While exploring the town, you can shop for Danish souvenirs, such as wooden clogs, and chow down on tasty treats like aebleskiver, which closely resemble doughnut holes. Solvang is also a gateway to Santa Barbara wine country, though there are some tasting rooms available in town.

Morro Bay

This quaint fishing village located about 15 miles northwest of San Luis Obispo is the perfect retreat for travelers seeking a simple getaway. Morro Bay boasts a low-key, laid-back atmosphere that encourages visitors to slow down and enjoy the scenery. The star of the show is Morro Rock, a 576-foot-tall volcanic plug that was previously used by mariners as a navigation tool as far back as 1542. Today, visitors admire the rock’s stature from adjacent beaches. Other popular things to do in Morro Bay include trips to Morro Bay State Park and the Morro Bay National Estuary Program, which teaches residents and visitors about local wildlife.

Pacific Grove

This small seaside town is easily one of the most stunning locales on Monterey Bay. Pacific Grove is primarily a residential community, so there isn’t much in the way of things to do, but there is much to see. Start your journey along Ocean Boulevard, which snakes up the coast and features plenty of truly spectacular lookout points and parks, including the popular Lover’s Point Park. Lover’s Point is particularly glorious come spring, when ice plants bloom and blanket the coastline with magenta flowers. After you’ve explored the coast, venture up to Lighthouse Avenue where you’ll be treated to plenty of dining options.

Coronado

Located across the bay from bustling downtown San Diego, Coronado isn’t your average small town. This little city just shy of 22,000 residents is a hot tourist destination thanks to its incredible namesake beach and the famous Hotel del Coronado, Curio Collection by Hilton. Once you’re done basking on the beach, stop by the beautiful Centennial Park for unobstructed views of the San Diego city skyline, rent a bike and ride along the scenic Bayshore Bikeway or venture south to the miles-long Silver Strand State Beach, where it won’t be difficult to find a quiet spot on the sand.

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