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21 Top-Rated Small Towns in California

Written by Brad Lane
Sep 20, 2019

Avoiding the hustle and bustle of California's larger cities, the best small towns in California deliver on the gleaming attributes of California without the crowds. From windswept coastal communities to mountain towns in the shadows of giants, places like Arcata and Ojai deserve to be kept a secret-but their charm is too much of a magnet for those who enjoy a slower pace. For weekend visits, annual road trips, or one of the best small towns to raise a family, little enclaves across the state offer just the places to visit.

Small towns like Half Moon Bay, Avalon, and Julian aren't only popular for their beautiful surroundings, but it's their culture and community that converts tourists into long-term residents each year. Communities including Mendocino, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Laguna Beach attract visitors based on their art, while other charming small towns like St. Helena and Sonoma lure tourists with more fruitful attractions. With no two communities exactly alike, other small towns like Nevada City and Solvang are built on a rich heritage and historic cultures.

Find the best places to escape the crowds with our list of the best small towns in California.

1. Carmel-by-the-Sea

The Lone Cypress near Carmel-by-the-Sea

On a stunning section of the Central California coast, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a romantic, seaside destination. Alongside a charming community filled with art galleries, boutique shops, and fairy-tale cottages, it's places like Carmel Beach with wind-molded cypress trees that are the true treasure of this small community. Cultural events like the Carmel International Film Festival occur each year, and day trips from Carmel include outings at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Carmel: Best Areas & Hotels

2. Arcata

Arcata Community Forest and Redwood Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Within Humboldt County in Northern California, on the northern portion of Humboldt Bay, a short drive from Eureka, Arcata is a charming small town defined by a laid-back atmosphere and a sense of history. The campus of Humboldt State University in Arcata adds to the casual tone of the city, and the Arcata Plaza displays its rich heritage with cultural spots like the Arcata Hotel and the Minor Theater. Bayside beauty abounds in Arcata, including massive redwood groves in Arcata Community Forest.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Arcata

3. Dunsmuir

Hedge Creek Falls near Dunsmuir

A central hub of attraction and getaways in Northern California, Dunsmuir is surrounded by the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and Castle Crags State Park. Hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail pass through Dunsmuir on their cross-country journey, and thousands of adventure seekers flock to Dunsmuir each year to indulge in mountain recreation. Hedge Creek Falls is always a popular place to head to from the historic downtown district of Dunsmuir, and similar natural appeal is experienced at the nearby Lake Siskiyou.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Dunsmuir

4. Half Moon Bay

Sunset at Half Moon Bay

Lined with coastal attractions, Half Moon Bay is a quaint, ocean community 45 minutes south of San Francisco. This proximity to the Golden Gate Bridge and the rest of the Bay Area doesn't represent the quiet and uncrowded attractions of Half Moon Bay, including miles of stunning beaches. Tide pool exploring, big wave surfing, and sunset watching are all popular things to do at Half Moon Bay, with inland activities including downtown perusing, redwood sightseeing, and golfing at one of the local courses.

5. Mendocino Editor's Pick

The Ford House Visitor Center in Mendocino | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

With an authentic charm dating back to when it was first developed by New England settlers in the 1850s, much of the coastal village of Mendocino in Northern California is classified as a Historic Preservation District. The old Victorian architecture lining the streets of Mendocino blends beautifully with Mendocino Headlands State Park, which borders the community on all three sides. Once attracting lumber industrialists, Mendocino is now better known as an artists' colony and a simply stunning place to visit.

6. Ojai

Aerial view of Lake Casitas Recreation Area

In a valley surrounded by the Topatopa Mountains of Ventura County, Ojai is a mountain-lovers town 80 miles north of Los Angeles. Alongside scenic natural beauty and recreation in the adjacent Los Padres National Forest and Lake Casitas Recreation Area, popular attractions of Ojai include an eclectic downtown district filled with art galleries and trendy boutiques. The Ojai Valley Trail is a popular walking and cycling destination within the city, and numerous golf courses are spread throughout the Ojai Valley.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ojai

7. Ferndale

Victorian homes in Ferndale

Surrounded by redwood environments and the Lost Coast of California, the historic city of Ferndale offers a unique oasis in Northern California. A 30-minute drive from Eureka, this thriving small town has its roots in the dairy industry, and its pastoral heritage is still on display with old Victorian architecture throughout the streets. Alongside the charming attraction of homes and local businesses, it's the eclectic events of the downtown district and the friendly Humboldt County community that makes Ferndale a special place to visit.

8. Avalon

Avalon Bay

On the stunning southeast corner of Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California, Avalon is the major hub of tourism and attraction of this island paradise, attracting millions of visitors each year. Many tourists arrive in Avalon via high-speed ferry. With a postcard bay and casual island pace, Avalon imbues the feeling of foreign travel without leaving the country. Wrigley Botanical Gardens on the edge of Avalon makes for a great daytime activity, as does the stunning promenade wrapping around Avalon Bay.

9. St. Helena

Balloons over the Napa Valley

Within Napa County in Northern California, St. Helena is dubbed as "Napa Valley's Main Street." Lined with fine-dining restaurants and chic shops displaying the latest styles, the charming downtown district of St. Helena entices visitors from around the world. The verdant scenery and rich tastes of St. Helena often attracts visitors for their first-time visit, and the laid-back sense of style and friendly community keeps them coming back for years.

10. Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

On the Orange County coast in Southern California, this artist colony receives mainstream attention and attracts celebrity and international tourists alike. Anyone who visits the bluff-lined beaches of Laguna Beach can't help but admire the sheer ocean beauty of this upscale community, including the art-infused Heisler Park, with manicured grounds overlooking the shore. Pristine coastal wilderness sprawls inland from Laguna Beach, with places like Crystal Cove State Park and Moro Canyon providing ample ways to explore the natural environment.

11. Julian

Wildflowers blooming at the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve

A vibrant mountain town an hour east of San Diego, Julian is a charming community built upon the 19th-century California Gold Rush. While only the architecture and historic air remain from Julian's Gold Rush past, the small town now blooms with apple orchards and accompanying pie shops that add a tasty appeal. Surrounded by places and peaks like William Heise County Park and Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, Julian is a great base camp for a Southern California adventure.

12. Sonoma

Lavender fields in Sonoma

Within an agriculturally rich region of Northern California, the stunning city of Sonoma is at the heart of the world-famous county of its own name. Epitomizing the tastes and culture of the surrounding Sonoma Valley, this historic city stills displays its past with colonial architecture and 19th-century adobes spread throughout downtown. The Sonoma Plaza is a first good place to stop in Sonoma, surrounded by blocks of local restaurants and boutique shops.

13. Idyllwild

Lake in Idyllwild

Dubbed "Idle-Awhile" by long-distance hikers passing through the area, Idyllwild is one of the first towns the Pacific Crest Trail passes through when heading north from the Mexico border. It's not just hikers who enjoy the natural splendors of this small community surrounded by the San Jacinto Mountains, thousands of tourists flock to Idyllwild to enjoy the mountain splendor each year. It's a perfect destination for day hikes and backpacking trips, and the restaurants of Idyllwild cater towards those who have worked up an appetite.

14. Nevada City

Old building in Nevada City's historic district

In California's Gold Country on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Nevada City was originally settled as a mining camp in 1859. Time has significantly changed the industry and way of living in Nevada City, though a lot of the preserved architecture has remained the same. Much of the appeal of visiting this capital of the California Gold Rush is simply walking the streets lined with historic buildings and modern amenities, including numerous local shops and restaurants.

15. Encinitas

San Elijo State Beach, Encinitas

Less than 30 miles north of San Diego, overlooking the ocean, Encinitas is known as one of the best surf towns on Highway 101. It's not just the rolling surf that makes Encinitas a popular place to visit-the community that tends to gather within the historic downtown district is known to have a "fun-in-the-sun" kind of mentality. Encinitas is also well traveled to for the extensive floral displays found throughout the city, including the intricate arrangements at the San Diego Botanical Garden.

16. Solvang

Danish village in Solvang

Just over 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, the historic Danish village of Solvang is nestled within the scenic Santa Ynez Valley. Founded by Danish Americans in 1911, the rich heritage of this enchanting hamlet is very much on display, with colorful storefronts and windmills throughout the city-as well as authentic Danish bakeries adding sweet scents to any visit. Further insight on the Danish culture surrounding Solvang can be found at the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art.

17. Lone Pine

View of Mt. Whitney from Lone Pine

Within Owens Valley of Eastern California, bounded on both sides by mountains, Lone Pine is a gateway town for adventure. The tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney towers on the western horizon of Lone Pine. Ambitious hikers can make their way to the top of the 14,505-foot peak via the Whitney Portal. Other adventurous options from Lone Pine include the boulder-strewn Alabama Hills and the forested paradise of the designated Golden Trout Wilderness.

18. Sausalito

Houses on the hill in Sausalito

A short jaunt across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Sausalito is a beautiful bay area city filled with waterfront restaurants and cafés. It's popular for city getaways without traveling too far. Regular ferries leave from Sausalito to San Francisco, where stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge can immediately be seen from the Marin Headlands. While visiting, The U.S Army Corp of Engineers' Bay Model is a fascinating representation of the San Francisco Bay available for viewing in Sausalito.

19. Tahoe City

North Lake Tahoe sunset near Tahoe City

On the shores of North Lake Tahoe, this esteemed mountain town boasts big adventure throughout the year. The historic downtown district is lined with boutique shops and local restaurants, and some of the best skiing and trail activities in California stem from Tahoe City in all directions-including the tranquil waters of Lake Tahoe at the city's edge. Numerous community events and festivals occur in Tahoe City throughout the year, including the winter SnowFest and a popular 4th of July celebration.

20. Temecula

City Hall in Temecula

Within the Inland Empire of Southern California, 40 miles south of Riverside, Temecula is known as a relaxing getaway filled with great tastes. Surrounded by the rolling hillsides and agriculture within the Temecula Valley, the city's Old Town district is lined with some buildings that are nearly 200 years old. Alongside the historical resonance throughout this charming small town, modern establishments and eateries line the streets, and all types of appetites can indulge.

21. Oxnard

Boats in the harbor in Oxnard

Neighboring the city of Ventura, west of Los Angeles, Oxnard is well regarded as one of California's best small towns to live in, and it's just as popular for weekend visits and vacation travel. Among the many seaside attractions in Oxnard are McGrath State Beach and Oxnard Beach Park. Visitors can also hop aboard a ferry from this charming seaside community and head to the offshore Channel Islands National Park for an easy escape from the mainland.

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More to Do in California: For those intrepid travelers out there, some of the best places to visit in California include national parks, coastal paradises, and some of the state's bigger cities. For couples looking for an escape, romantic getaways in California are laced with intimate settings and quiet surroundings. To tie everything together for an epic vacation, the top-rated West Coast road trips tour through the many attractions of California.

Best Big Cities in California: Offering cultural attractions on every street, the larger cities in California provide an entirely different traveling experience. The sunny streets of Los Angeles attract tourists and aspiring film stars alike with attractions like Hollywood and Universal Studios. Backdropped by the impressive Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is the capital of culture in the Bay Area. For even more great weather and plenty of city things to do, San Diego features internationally acclaimed attractions like Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo.

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