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The best small towns to visit in California

Peaceful desert retreats, scenic coastal resorts or historic villages – we have it covered in the best small towns to visit in California.

Written by
Joanna Kalafatis

Many travelers flock to California looking to immerse themselves in the sprawling cityscapes of Los Angeles and San Francisco or to explore one of the many stunning national and state parks in the Golden State. However, California’s many picturesque and tourist-friendly small towns often get overlooked, which is a shame because they provide the perfect weekend escape.

Whether you are looking for a peaceful desert retreat, a scenic coastal resort town, or a historic village reminiscent of the state’s Old West past, the best small towns in California included in this list are great stops to include on any West Coast road trip

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Best small towns to visit in California

Photograph: Shutterstock

1. Ojai

Less than two hours away from Los Angeles, the desert town of Ojai is a popular weekend destination for city dwellers looking for a peaceful, spiritually-focused retreat. Unwind at one of the many meditation centers in town or soothe your body at the local hot springs.

Outdoor types will find plenty of hiking trails to help them reconnect with nature, the most popular of which is the Rose Valley Falls Trail. While you’re in town, enjoy the fresh, organic food sold at locally owned and operated markets, and admire the work of local artists at one of the town’s many galleries. The Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts is an especially popular stop, thanks to its scenic setting and the eccentric collections on display.

Photograph: Shutterstock/Diego Mariottini

2. Carmel-by-the-Sea

As the name clearly indicates, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a beach town known for its quaint shops and galleries, rustic European-style village charm, and scenic sandy beaches. Walk along the 3.5 mile Scenic Bluff Path, which winds along the Pacific Ocean and provides some of the most majestic coastal views in the state.

The downtown area is easily walkable and designed to encourage exploration, as in order to preserve its small-town atmosphere. Don’t miss the San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo Mission, founded in 1770, which includes the Carmel Mission Basilica, now designated a National Historic Landmark.


3. Lone Pine

While most locals know Lone Pine as a great base to explore nearby Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park, or summit Mount Whitney, this historic town has plenty of attractions within its own borders as well, thanks to its iconic movie history. Several classic Westerns, including How the West Was Won and more recent films such as Django Unchained have been filmed in and around Lone Pine.

Check out the Museum of Western Film History to learn more about how the area became an unexpected home for so many classic movies, then explore the Old West-style main street. Don’t forget to drive Whitney Portal Road through Alabama Hills to experience one of the most scenic routes in California.

Photograph: Courtesy Shutterstock

4. Solvang

There’s no denying that Solvang has become a fully-fledged tourist town, but it’s still a great road trip stop to make, especially for families. This historic Danish town seems entirely out of place in the sunny Santa Ynez Valley, thanks to its classic European architecture and houses, but that only adds to its charm. 

Be sure to enjoy the delicious pastries of Solvang’s famous bakeries, ride around town in a traditional Danish Honen carriage, and pop into the Hans Christian Andersen Museum above The Book Loft before you leave town.

Nevada City
Photograph: Shutterstock

5. Nevada City

In the scenic Sierra Nevada Foothills, about an hour northeast of Sacramento, lies the small town of Nevada City. Established as a mining camp in 1849, the town has preserved many of its authentic Gold Rush-era buildings and history.

Discover what life was like in California in the 1800s by stopping at the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum and Empire Mine State Historic Park, the latter of which is one of the oldest and richest gold mines in the state. In the afternoon, stroll around the historic downtown district, which features modern shops and eateries located in Historic Landmark buildings.

San Luis Obispo
Photograph: Shutterstock

6. San Luis Obispo

The mountain town of San Luis Obispo is situated roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles and has a vintage feel to it that transports visitors back to the 1950s. Known for the beautiful nature around it, as well as the quirky and retro destinations within the town itself, San Luis Obispo provides the perfect balance of fun and adventure.

During the day, explore nearby Morro Bay and hike Bluff Trail in Moñtana de Oro State Park. At night, you can’t miss dinner and drinks at the famous Madonna Inn, known for its eccentric themed rooms and incredibly over the top décor. Finish off the day at the Sunset Drive-In, one of the last remaining drive-in theaters in the state.

Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Eureka

The coastal town of Eureka in Northern California offers an amazing mix of elegant historic charm and West Coast wilderness. Eureka has one of the best Old Town districts in the state, featuring ornate and historic Victorian homes, the most popular of which is Carson Mansion.

Venturing outside the town you will find the Lost Coast Trail, a jaw-dropping 25-mile hike that takes you through pristine beaches and serene tidepools, while giving you the chance to observe local wildlife including sea lions, bobcats and deer. For a less rugged outdoor experience, hike or bike the trails of Sequoia Park Garden, then drive the scenic Redwood Highway.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Jay Sterling Austin

8. Sausalito

Sausalito lies in picturesque Marin County, California, just across the bay from San Francisco. Known for its coastal charm and houseboat communities, this small town provides the perfect laidback weekend break from the rush of its urban neighbor.

Stroll along the Sausalito Boardwalk, home to many locally owned shops and eateries, or lay out in the sun on the unique black sand of Rodeo Beach. Visitors can take their cameras up to Vista Point for incredible views of the bay and San Francisco or check out historic Battery Spencer for equally stunning panoramas while learning about the military history of the area.

Tahoe City
Photograph: Shutterstock

9. Tahoe City

A haven for snowboarders and skiers during the winter, Tahoe City is a fun destination for sports and nature lovers all year round. Thanks to its location on the banks of scenic Lake Tahoe, visitors enjoy many hiking opportunities in the warmer months on Eagle Falls Trail and other well-known hiking spots, as well as plenty of photo opportunities.

Discover one of the most jaw-dropping views in California at Emerald Bay State Park. Rent a boat during the summer to enjoy slow, warm days on the lake, and in the colder months, try your hand at winter sports in nearby Squaw Valley, a world-famous ski resort that shot to international fame after hosting the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Photograph: Shutterstock

10. Sonoma

We couldn’t complete this list without including one of the most charming towns in California’s world-famous wine regions. More laid-back and somewhat less expensive than Napa, the Sonoma Valley is home to over 400 wineries, and the town of Sonoma is a perfect base for visiting them and tasting some of the best wines in the world.

Check out Buena Vista Winery or the family-owned Iron Horse Vineyards. Then follow the California Cheese Trail – what better pairing for a weekend of wine tasting – to enjoy cheese tastings and even cheese-making classes at historic properties like Sonoma’s Vella Cheese. End the day by dining at Sonoma Plaza, where restaurants offer many of the region’s local food and wines.

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