25 Top-Rated Small Towns in California

Written by Brad Lane
Updated May 26, 2022

The best small towns in California avoid the hustle and bustle of California's larger cities and deliver on the gleaming attributes of California without the crowds. From windswept coastal communities to mountain towns in the shadows of giants, some of these places deserve to be kept secret.

But with a certain charm and slower pace, California's best small towns are a magnet for those who enjoy the good life. And whether you visit for a weekend, an annual road trip, or you're looking for the best small towns to raise a family, little enclaves across the state offer new places to discover.

The most popular small towns aren't only drawing crowds based on their beautiful surroundings, but it's their culture and community that converts tourists into long-term residents each year. Many California small towns offer a vibrant arts scene or agricultural attractions; others offer a rich history.

With no two communities exactly alike, find the best places to escape the crowds with our list of the best small towns in California.

1. Carmel-by-the-Sea

he Lone Cypress near Carmel-by-the-Sea
The Lone Cypress near Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a romantic, seaside destination on a stunning section of the Central California coast. Art galleries, boutique shops, and fairy-tale cottages dot this charming one-square-mile village on the Monterey Peninsula. But 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. Day trips from Carmel include outings at Pebble Beach Golf Links, and Carmel is home to an entry point along the illustrious 17-Mile Drive within the Pebble Beach neighborhood.

2. Arcata

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

Arcata is a charming small town defined by a laid-back atmosphere and a sense of history. It's within Humboldt County in Northern California, on the northern portion of Humboldt Bay, and a short drive from Eureka.

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 also abounds throughout town, including massive redwood groves in Arcata Community Forest.

3. Dunsmuir

Hedge Creek Falls near Dunsmuir
Hedge Creek Falls near Dunsmuir

Dunsmuir is a central hub of attractions and getaways in Northern California. It's surrounded by Shasta-Trinity National Forest and Castle Crags State Park, and hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail pass through Dunsmuir on their cross-country journey.

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, and similar natural appeal is experienced at the nearby Lake Siskiyou.

4. Half Moon Bay

Sunset at Half Moon Bay
Sunset at Half Moon Bay

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

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

Mendocino once attracted lumber industrialists to the Northern California coast, but today, this seaside village is better known as an artists' colony and a simply stunning place to visit. It has an authentic charm dating to when it was first developed by New England settlers in the 1850s, and much of the coastal village is now classified as a Historic Preservation District.

The old Victorian architecture lining the streets blends beautifully with Mendocino Headlands State Park, bordering the village on three sides. This mixture of old Victorian homes and sea breezes lures several painters to set up their easels on any given day.

6. Ojai

Lake Casitas Recreation Area
Lake Casitas Recreation Area | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Ojai is a mountain-lovers town in a valley surrounded by the Topatopa Mountains of Ventura County, 80 miles north of Los Angeles. Much of its scenic attraction and outdoor recreation comes from the adjacent Los Padres National Forest and Lake Casitas Recreation Area.

Other popular things to do in Ojai include exploring its eclectic downtown district, filled with art galleries and trendy boutiques.

The Ojai Valley Trail is also a popular avenue for adventure, providing a vehicle-free way to explore the Ojai Valley. And for those interested in playing 18 holes, numerous golf courses are spread throughout the Ojai Valley.

7. Ferndale

Victorian homes in Ferndale
Victorian homes in Ferndale

The historic city of Ferndale offers a unique oasis in Northern California, surrounded by redwood environments and the enchanting Lost Coast. This thriving small town is a 30-minute drive from Eureka and has its roots in the dairy industry,

Ferndale's successful pastoral heritage is still on display with old Victorian architecture throughout the streets. And 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
Avalon Bay

Avalon is a major hub of tourism and attraction on the stunning southeast corner of Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California. This island paradise attracts millions of visitors each year, with many tourists arriving 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
Balloons over the Napa Valley

Within Napa County in Northern California, St. Helena is dubbed as "Napa Valley's Main Street." Fine-dining restaurants and chic shops line St. Helena's downtown district, displaying the latest tastes and styles. This scene and scenery attract visitors from around the world. And the laid-back sense of style and friendly community keeps them coming back for years.

10. Laguna Beach

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. And anyone who visits the bluff-lined beaches of Laguna Beach can't help but admire the sheer ocean beauty of this upscale community.

Any visit to Laguna Beach should include the art-infused Heisler Park, with manicured grounds overlooking the shore. For more to explore outdoors, pristine coastal wilderness sprawls inland from Laguna Beach, with places like Crystal Cove State Park and Moro Canyon offering ample ways to explore the natural environment.

11. Julian

Wildflowers blooming at the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve
Wildflowers blooming at the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve

Julian is a vibrant mountain town an hour east of San Diego. It comprises 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.

Julian is a great base camp for a Southern California adventure, surrounded by places and peaks like William Heise County Park and Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve.

12. Sonoma

Lavender fields in 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. This historic city epitomizes the tastes and culture of the surrounding Sonoma Valley and 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
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, and 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. San Clemente

San Clemente
San Clemente | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

San Clemente is a beautiful surf town in Southern California, at the southern edge of Orange County. This "Spanish Village by the Sea" has a long and unique history, much of which is on display at the Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens. Here, alongside a landscaped view of the San Clemente Pier, this former residence of the city's founder, Ole Hanson, dives into San Clemente's early history.

Surfing is also part of the history and current culture of San Clemente, including the city's approximately four miles of shoreline. Surfing spots like the Trestles at San Onofre State Beach give the town a legendary status. Other popular surf spots include the T-Street Beach and San Clemente State Beach.

Read More: Things to Do in San Clemente

15. Nevada City

Old building in Nevada City's historic district
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, now featuring numerous local shops and restaurants.

16. Encinitas

San Elijo State Beach, 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. But it's not just the rolling surf that makes Encinitas a popular place to visit. It's also well-traveled for its extensive floral displays found throughout the town, including the intricate arrangements at the San Diego Botanical Garden.

The community that tends to gather within the historic downtown district is known to have a "fun-in-the-sun" kind of mentality. Expect to encounter other people out and about enjoying the sunny weather throughout the year.

17. Solvang

Danish village in Solvang
Danish village in Solvang

The historic Danish village of Solvang is nestled within the scenic Santa Ynez Valley, just over 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. It was founded by Danish Americans in 1911, and its rich heritage is very much on display throughout this charming hamlet today.

Colorful storefronts and windmills add aesthetic appeal throughout the city, and authentic Danish bakeries add sweet scents to the air. Further insight on the Danish culture surrounding Solvang is at the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art.

18. Lone Pine

View of Mt. Whitney from Lone Pine
View of Mt. Whitney from Lone Pine

Lone Pine is a gateway town for adventure. It's within Owens Valley of Eastern California, bounded on both sides by mountains, with the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney, towering on the western horizon. It's also a lovely place to stop and soak up the scenery.

Ambitious hikers can make their way to the top of the 14,505-foot peak via the Whitney Portal from Lone Pine. Other adventurous options nearby include the boulder-strewn Alabama Hills and the forested paradise of the designated Golden Trout Wilderness.

19. Morro Bay

Horses on the beach at Morro Bay
Horses on the beach at Morro Bay | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Morro Bay is a charming coastal community in San Luis Obispo County in Central California. The most prominent feature of this fishing town is the outstanding Morro Rock, standing 576 feet tall in the surf. The Morro Bay Estuary extends from this ancient volcanic plug, teeming with wildlife and connecting to the town's charming downtown district.

Seaside restaurants, ocean-inspired gift shops, and watercraft rentals line the downtown district of Morro Bay, all with an incredible view across the water. But visitors also gravitate toward the natural spaces surrounding the city, including Morro Bay and Montaña de Oro State Parks.

Read More: Things to Do in Morro Bay

20. Sausalito

Houses on the hill in Sausalito
Houses on the hill in Sausalito

Sausalito is a short jaunt across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It's a beautiful bay area city filled with waterfront restaurants and cafés. And 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 are immediately 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 public viewing in Sausalito.

21. Tahoe City

North Lake Tahoe sunset near 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. Boutique shops and local restaurants line the historic downtown district and some of the best skiing and trail activities in California stem from the 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.

22. Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Pismo Beach is a popular tourist destination and small town in San Luis Obispo County. Many tourists flock to its Pismo Beach Pier Plaza, where a stunning ocean view awaits. A lively downtown district extends inland from the pier, offering places to grab a bite to eat after watching the sunset.

And the entire Pismo Beach shoreline warrants exploring. Pismo State Beach extends along the southern half of this small town, leading to the unique Oceano Dunes area, where visitors drive on the sand. North of Pismo Pier, a rough coast leads to such eye-catching areas as Dinosaur Caves Park.

Read More: Things to Do in Pismo Beach

23. Temecula

City Hall in Temecula
City Hall in Temecula | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Within the Inland Empire of Southern California, 40 miles south of Riverside, Temecula is known as a relaxing getaway filled with great flavors. The rolling hillsides and agriculture within the Temecula Valley surround the town, with Rancho California Road providing the main thoroughfare throughout this verdant valley.

The city's Old Town district has some buildings that are nearly 200 years old. Alongside the historical resonance throughout this charming small town district, modern establishments and eateries line the streets, indulging all appetites.

Read More: Top Things to Do in Temecula

24. Oxnard

Boats in the harbor in Oxnard
Boats in the harbor in Oxnard

Oxnard neighbors the city of Ventura, west of Los Angeles. It's 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 things to do 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.

25. Cambria

Moonstone Beach Boardwalk Trail, Cambria
Moonstone Beach Boardwalk Trail, Cambria | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Cambria is a sleepy seaside village approximately 10 miles south of Hearst Castle in Central California. It's an ideal spot for a relaxing weekend or an easy home base during a Big Sur vacation. It's home to a handful of cozy hotels and other accommodations, like romantic B&Bs.

Cambria's real appeal is its shoreline. The dynamic Moonstone Beach is the preferred place to explore, with a boardwalk navigating the rocky and dune-lined landscape. Several photogenic coastline features like sea stacks and wildlife dot this accessible boardwalk trail.

Map of Small Towns in California

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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.