There’s something about small towns that just feels charming and inviting. Maybe it’s the slower pace of life or the friendliness of the locals, but I always feel relaxed and at home when I’m visiting one. So if you’re looking for a change of scenery from your big city life, or you’re just curious to see what California has to offer outside of its major tourist destinations, then check out this list of the 21 Best Small Towns in California.
I’m starting my list of California’s best small towns with Carmel-by-the-Sea, a beautiful Oceanside town located on the Monterey Peninsula. This place is unsurprisingly picturesque, with its white-sand beaches, golf courses, and quaint cottages dotting the landscape. But what I really love about Carmel is its artsy vibe.
The town is home to more than 100 art galleries, as well as plenty of live music and theater performances. And if you’re a foodie, you’ll be happy to know that Carmel is home to more than 60 restaurants. When you’re ready to explore, start on Ocean Avenue, the town’s main drag, and pop into some of the galleries or grab a bite to eat. Then head down to Carmel Beach for a relaxing afternoon in the sun.
Ferndale is a small town located in Humboldt County, about 2 hours south of the Oregon border. This Victorian-era town is one of the best small towns in California and is known for its quaint Main Street lined with historic buildings, art galleries, and boutique shops.
One of the best things to do in Ferndale is simply to stroll down Main Street and admire the charming Victorian architecture. Be sure to pop into some of the shops, and if you’re there on a Saturday, check out the farmers market. There are also plenty of great restaurants in Ferndale, serving everything from Mexican food to wood-fired pizza. And for a little bit of history, pay a visit to the Ferndale Museum, which is housed in an old creamery building from 1893.
Oxnard is a beautiful oceanside town located just 60 miles west of Los Angeles. With a population of 207,000, it’s the largest city in Ventura County but still offers a small-town feel. This town is regarded as one of the best small towns to live in California thanks to its lovely weather, affordable housing, and close proximity to beaches, wineries, and other attractions.
The city’s historic downtown is filled with quaint shops and restaurants, and the beaches are perfect for relaxing, swimming, surfing, and fishing. Other popular attractions include the Channel Islands National Park (just a short boat ride away), Heritage Square, and the Oxnard State Beach Park. And for those who love the outdoors, there are plenty of hiking and biking trails to explore.
Sonoma is a small town located in Sonoma Valley, California’s wine country. This beautiful town is known for its world-class wines, as well as its stunning scenery. Sonoma is the perfect place to spend a weekend if you’re looking to relax and enjoy some of the best food and wine in California.
Apart from its vineyards, Sonoma is also home to a number of historic buildings and sites. You can visit the Mission San Francisco Solano, the last of the 21 California missions, or the Sonoma Plaza, the town’s central square. If you’re looking for a little adventure, head to Traintown USA, where you can take a ride on a real steam engine.
Next on my list of best small towns in California is Arcata, located in Humboldt County. This college town is home to Humboldt State University, as well as a lively downtown scene with plenty of shops, restaurants, and bars.
One of the best things to do in Arcata is to explore the downtown area. Stroll down the pedestrian-friendly streets and pop into some of the shops, or grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants. For a dose of culture, visit the Humboldt County Museum or take in a performance at the Arcata Playhouse. And if you’re a nature lover, be sure to explore the nearby Arcata Marsh, a wetlands area that’s great for birdwatching.
Avalon, located on Santa Catalina Island, is one of best California’s small towns for beach getaways. This town, which has a population of just under 4,000, is the only incorporated city on the island and is a popular spot for both tourists and locals alike.
With its Mediterranean-style architecture, white-sand beaches, and turquoise waters, Avalon is the perfect place to relax and soak up the California sun. Visitors can enjoy plenty of activities such as swimming, snorkeling, fishing, golfing, and hiking. There’s also a variety of shops and restaurants to explore. And if you’re looking for some fun nightlife, head to Descanso Beach Club, where you can dance the night away under the stars.
Julian is a small town located in San Diego County, about an hour east of the city of San Diego. This historic gold mining town is best known for its apple pies, which you can find at almost any restaurant in town. But Julian is also a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and enjoy some peace and quiet.
There are plenty of hiking trails in Julian, as well as horseback riding and biking trails. And if you’re looking for a more unique experience, you can go on a gold mine tour or visit the Julian Pioneer Museum. For a sweet treat, be sure to grab a slice of apple pie from one of the local restaurants.
Looking for a quintessential California beach town? Encinitas, located about 26 miles north of San Diego, definitely fits the bill. With a population of just over 60,000, this town is home to some of the best surf spots in California, including Swami’s, Beacons, and Grandview.
Besides its stellar waves, Encinitas is also known for its vibrant downtown area, which features a variety of shops, restaurants, and cafes. Nature lovers will also enjoy exploring the town’s many parks and hiking trails. And don’t forget to check out the world-famous Self-Realization Fellowship Hermitage & Meditation Gardens.
With all these great things to see and do, it’s no wonder Encinitas made it to this list of the best small towns in California.
Everybody seems to know about Mendocino, a small town located about three hours north of San Francisco. It’s famed for its dramatic coastline and as the setting for the 1980s TV show “Murder, She Wrote.” But Mendocino is more than just a pretty face. It’s also home to some of the best wineries in California, as well as art galleries, shops, and restaurants.
Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty to do here too. There are hiking and biking trails galore, and the town is a great jumping-off point for exploring the Mendocino National Forest. In the mood to relax? You can’t go wrong with a sunset stroll along Mendocino Headlands State Park.
Mendocino is also regarded as one of the best towns to live in California because of its low crime rate and close-knit community.
Sausalito is a small town located just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. This picturesque town is known for its Mediterranean-style architecture, stunning bay views, and its vibrant arts scene.
When you’re ready to explore, start on Main Street and pop into some of the galleries or shops. Then head down to the waterfront for a beautiful view of the Bay. And if you’re feeling active, you can rent a bike and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco.
11. Half Moon Bay
Nobody can tour the best of California’s small towns and skip Half Moon Bay. This world-famous town is home to some of the best beaches in California, as well as great restaurants and shops. But what really sets it apart is its annual Pumpkin Festival, which celebrates everything pumpkin and draws in crowds from all over the state (and beyond).
During the rest of the year, though, Half Moon Bay is a relatively quiet town where you can enjoy stunning coastal views, go for long walks on the beach and explore the quaint downtown area.
12. Sutter Creek
Sutter Creek, located in Amador County, is one of the best small towns in California for those who love the outdoors. The town, which has a population of about 2,500, is situated in the heart of the Sierra Foothills and offers easy access to nearby lakes and rivers as well as hiking and biking trails.
In the town itself, you’ll find a number of historic buildings, including the Sutter Creek Theater, which opened its doors in 1920 and is now home to live theater performances. There are also a number of art galleries and shops worth exploring. And when you need a break from all the outdoor activities, make sure to sample the local wines at one of the town’s many tasting rooms.
Any trip to California’s wine country should include a stop in Yountville, a small town located in the heart of Napa Valley. This place is known for its world-class wineries and Michelin-starred restaurants, but there’s more to Yountville than just wine and food.
Start your tour with a leisurely stroll down Washington Street, where you’ll find art galleries, boutique shops, and plenty of places to eat. Then head over to Yountville Park for a picnic lunch or relax in the sun. And in the evening, enjoy a delicious meal at one of Yountville’s Michelin-starred restaurants.
If you’re looking for a small town that’s big on wine, then head to Temecula in Riverside County. This Southern California destination is home to more than 50 wineries, many of which offer tours and tastings. In addition to its impressive wine scene, Temecula is also known for its beautiful hot air balloon rides, Old Town district, and annual events like the Balloon and Wine Festival.
With a population of just over 100,000, Temecula is the perfect size for those who want all the conveniences of a big city but with a more laid-back vibe. And with a good climate, Temecula is one of the best small towns in California to visit year-round.
15. Tahoe City
Tahoe City may be a small town, but it’s packed with big-time outdoor recreation. Located in Placer County along the shores of Lake Tahoe, Tahoe City is the perfect basecamp for all your lake activities. In the summer, rent a paddleboard or kayak and explore the crystal clear waters of Tahoe. Or take a scenic hike or bike ride along one of the many trails in the area.
In the winter, hit the slopes at one of the nearby ski resorts, such as Alpine Meadows or Northstar California. Or go for a snowshoe or cross-country ski outing in one of Tahoe City’s many parks. When you’re ready to refuel, head to one of the town’s many restaurants, cafes, and bars.
Another one of best California’s small towns is Idyllwild, located in the San Jacinto Mountains. This town is a nature lover’s paradise, with miles of hiking and biking trails, as well as plenty of opportunities for rock climbing and camping.
Although it may be best known as a summertime destination, Idyllwild is actually a great place to visit year-round. In the winter, you can hit the slopes at one of the nearby ski resorts, and in the spring and fall, you can enjoy the beautiful wildflowers that blanket the hillsides. No matter the time of the year you visit, you’re sure to find plenty of things to do in this outdoor lover’s paradise.
17. Lone Pine
Lone Pine is a small town located in Inyo County, just east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This town is a popular starting point for hikers and climbers looking to explore the nearby mountains, but it’s also a great place to simply relax and enjoy the scenic views.
Start your tour at the nearby Alabama Hills, which offer miles of hiking trails with incredible views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When you’re not out exploring, you can relax in one of the town’s hot springs, go for a swim in Lone Pine Lake or visit the Museum of Western Film History. And be sure to catch the sunset over Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.
18. Nevada City
I continue my list of the best small towns in California with Nevada City, a former gold rush town located in the Sierra foothills. This place definitely has a historic feel, with its well-preserved Victorian buildings and quaint shops. But it’s also a place with a lot of character, thanks to its many artists, musicians, and outdoor enthusiasts who call it home.
There’s plenty to do in Nevada City. In the summer, you can go hiking, biking, or fishing in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains. Or, if you’re just looking to relax, take a stroll down Broad Street and browse through some of the cute shops or stop for a bite to eat. And don’t miss to visit the Nevada Theatre, California’s oldest theater in continuous operation, which offers a variety of live performances. In the winter, you can hit the slopes at one of the nearby ski resorts.
Solvang is a small Danish town located in Santa Barbara County, about 2 hours north of Los Angeles. This quaint town is best known for its Danish bakeries and shops, as well as its windmills (which are a replica of the ones found in Denmark).
In Solvang, you can spend your days exploring the Danish shops and bakeries. Be sure to try some of the delicious pastries! You can also visit one of the several museums in town, including the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. And if you’re looking for a little bit of exercise, take a walk or ride a bike through the scenic countryside.
20. St. Helena
Picture-perfect St. Helena is one of the best small towns in California’s famed Napa Valley wine country. With a population of just over 5,000, this pretty town is home to a number of tasting rooms and world-renowned restaurants, as well as picturesque vineyards and rolling hills.
Main Street is the place to start your visit, where you’ll find a number of tasting rooms, shops, and galleries. Be sure to check out The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, a top culinary school, and stop by one of the town’s many restaurants for a bite to eat. If you’re visiting in the fall, don’t miss the annual Harvest Celebration.
Ojai is a small town located in Ventura County, about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. It’s well-known for its arts and culture scene, as well as its natural beauty. This makes it a popular town for Angelenos looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
Start your tour in Ojai at the Downtown Plaza, where you’ll find a number of shops and restaurants. Then explore some of the town’s art galleries or take a stroll through one of its many parks. When you’re ready to get a hike, there are plenty of hiking and biking trails to choose from. I recommend the Ojai Valley Trail, a 9.5-mile trail that winds through the valley. You can also head up into the mountains for some fantastic hiking.
Each of these small towns offers its own unique charm, making them some of the best towns to live in California. If you can’t visit them all at once, plan a road trip and take your time exploring each of these wonderful towns. And, of course, don’t forget to enjoy the food and wine while you’re there!