TravelMag tries to find the most charming towns and small cities in California. Check out the survey below for a look at some of the lesser-known small towns in the Golden State.
The first thing that probably doesn’t come to mind when one mentions California is the glamorous state of California. More could be the Hollywood image of its famous metropolises – Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego – coupled with the dreamy idea of ever-warm, sunny weather and palm-lined beach promenades. But there’s more to Cali than sun and surf, gorgeous cityscapes and epic traffic jams.
As the third largest state in the United States, it’s also home to snow-capped mountains, fertile farmland and vineyards, and stretches of desert. While mostly lacking the quaint, cobbled beauty of the colonial towns across the river, California can show itself in a different way.
But where? To find out, TravelMag invited more than 300 locals, travel gurus, writers and photographers to name the top three most charming towns and small cities in California with populations over 1,000 and under 200,000.
Below, we reveal the top 20, in alphabetical order. All cities have their own California flavor, with historic Main Streets, echoes of the Wild West, and natural wonders that entice strolls; where the whistle of a car can be exchanged for the chirping of a bird or the intimate quiet. Very charming indeed.
Arcata is known for its over-the-top, eco-friendly little world along Humbolt Bay in Northern California. This gateway to the Pacific Northwest has also been named one of California’s best towns to visit by The Crazy Tourist, combining a gorgeous coastline with a cloudy redwood forest. You can hike in these views along the trails of the 575-acre Arcata Community Forest. More outdoor exploration awaits you at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary; a bird lover’s paradise. Back in town, take in the Victorian-era homes, avant-garde cafes, shops and galleries in the central plaza, an interesting juxtaposition of spaces for Humboldt State University students. Numerous safe bike lanes add to the laid-back, eco-friendly tone. You can bike or walk like a local (or make a moving masterpiece for the annual Kinetic Grand Championship race).
Traveling up the coast of PCH, you’ll pass beach town after beach town, each with its own character. Carlsbad, the “seaside village” of Southern California (SoCal), is popular for its seemingly endless coastline. Typical warm weather makes the state’s beaches popular year-round, where you can ride the waves, build sand castles, run along the hard shore or boardwalk, and relax to the sound of the ocean waves. But what sets this North County San Diego favorite apart is its cool, intimate atmosphere. This vibrant community is also home to the world-famous Carlsbad Triathlon and the state’s first skate park (built in 1976), as well as skateboarding legend Tony Hawk and Olympic snowboarder Shaun White. Locals mingle weekly at the village’s bustling State Street Farmers Market; the town center is full of interesting shops and restaurants. Craft beer lovers can sample the county’s growing number of microbrews at Pizza Port, a local brewery with mouth-watering pizzas and many other famous local beers.
Carmel by the Sea.
This paradise town, once run by Hollywood star-turned-mayor Clint Eastwood (1986-88), is one of the best beach towns on the Central Coast of the United States. Whether you’re wiggling your toes on the beach or stopping by the side of the road to breathe in the salty sea breeze and snap photo after photo of the lush green hills, pristine beaches and babbling sea, you might see why. Another view worth seeing is the restored 18th century Carmel Mission Cathedral, where Mass is still celebrated today. Shopping and dining in the European-style village is equally luxurious, with high-end brands and boutiques along the stone-paved streets and in buildings with lovely, curly roofs. The food and wine shop offers you an unforgettable picnic in Devendorf Park or any of the village’s 60 yards (where, interestingly enough, you need a permit to wear heels larger than two inches). Nearby charming cities like Monterrey and Big Sur are also not far away by car.
Encinitas (city in the Netherlands)
Encinitas is one of the best beach towns in California, located on the southern border of Carlsbad, with miles of mouth-watering coastline. It’s no wonder it was named one of the top 20 surf towns in the country by National Geographic, and the Beach Boys’ hit “Surfin’USA” even raved about the now legendary surf spot Swami’s. The surfing culture of the 1960s still retains a strong vibrancy today. For example, the Granddaddy of All Woodie Meets is an annual gathering of Woodie surfers at Moonlight Beach in September, which was a popular spot for midnight picnics in the early 20th century. Beyond the waves and white sandy beaches and cliffs, this is home to the San Diego Botanical Garden, the “Flower Capital of the World,” where green hands can weave their way through the country’s largest bamboo forest and largest interactive garden for children while photographing thousands of plants from around the world. The laid-back Californian charm is also very much in evidence here, with sidewalk cafes, meditation gardens, and yoga studios to keep you zen in check.
With its abundance of warm, sunny days, California is perfect for beaches, as well as making rich, full-bodied wines. Fort Hales is one of the best towns in California, where you can taste a variety of local wines in gorgeous surroundings. Surrounded by the famous Sonoma Wine Country appellations, you may have noticed that with their wines – Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley – Hildesburg is certainly known for its picturesque wines. The charm of this once rural farming town is that, despite its growth, the small town feel remains, which means you can enjoy great food and wine without having to slack off. Of course, there’s more to it than a glass of wine here. Pack a picnic lunch and head to the park, stroll along art and farm trails, kayak down the Russian River, or hike the ridge trails for majestic mountain views. In town, browse the antique shops for treasures and enjoy live jazz music in the town square.
This tranquil retreat in the San Jacinto Mountains, 100 miles east of Los Angeles, is another California gem that retains its small-town character. Whether you embark on a multi-day backpacking adventure or spend a few hours on a mountain trail, staying in a cozy cabin or camping, you’re sure to breathe in the fresh air and feel the cedar and pine trees. Other ways to embrace the “wild” include mountain biking, fishing, and rock climbing on Suicide Rock and Tahquitz Rock, the daunting boulders that come into view long before you leave the highway. A few blocks downtown are not chain stores, but instead consist of local gourmet shops, art galleries and specialty shops like Mountain Mike, a custom leather goods store.
In the oak and pine forests of the Cuyamaca Mountains northeast of San Diego, you’ll find yourself transported back in time to the gold rush of the 19th century, which attracted early settlers to California. In Julian, you can even visit the underground tunnels at Eagle Mining Co. and practice panning for gold. Aside from the friendly locals, the real treasure of this historic area is its signature apple pie, made from apples harvested from the surrounding orchards, which germinate after the gold has disappeared. The best apple pie in town is a matter of debate and the perfect excuse to visit several stores, especially Moms Pie House and Julian Pie Company, where fresh apple pies range from original, Dutch crumbled, to creative pies with a mix of berries. Take the “a la mode” option and cruise downtown, where Main Street resembles the set of a Western movie, with pioneer storefronts selling antiques, Native American handicrafts, local art, and more. There is not a single stoplight or fast food restaurant here.
To experience the most quintessential beach town in Southern California, head to Laguna Beach. Along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway, between Los Angeles and San Diego, this quaint, affluent enclave was once the home of the famous MTV reality show. Fortunately, there’s much more to this seaside city than just teen drama. For those eager to enjoy the sound of crashing waves, whether you’re riding on a surfboard or lounging on the beach with a book in hand, you’ll find plenty of opportunities along Laguna’s seven miles of coastline. Like a place with fewer people? Is it only for surfers? Or do you prefer tidal pools?Each of the 20 bays has its own advantages, they are all connected under a cliff face. Located in the heart of downtown, Main Beach is an easy place to take a break in the sun and wander through the many art galleries and tempting boutiques.
Fun fact: This small frontier town in the Owens Valley is sandwiched between two national parks that are home to the highest and lowest points in the United States – Mount Whitney (to the west) and the Bad Water Basin in Death Valley (a little to the southeast). While many visitors are bent on summiting Mount Whitney with the coveted mountaineering pass in hand, Lone Pine Mountain has its own charm. The town, once a supply center for silver miners, was named for a lone pine tree at the mouth of the canyon. While looking out over the wooden bars and shops of downtown and the awe-inspiring rock formations piled high in the Alabama hills, it’s easy to picture cowboys on horseback, stirring up a burst of dust. There’s a good chance you’ve seen a scene like this on the silver screen. More than 400 films have been made here since the 1920s, including films by stars like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp and Mel Gibson. Outdoor activities abound, but for a different feel, head to nearby ghost towns like Cerro Gordo to witness the mining ruins.
It’s no wonder Trips to Discover also named Murphys – the Queen of the Hill – as one of the best towns in California. The charm of Murfrees, as one local put it, is that it gives the impression of an old, golden oasis of countryside that no other outsider has, but without the modern comforts. You can stroll down Main Street and admire the early 19th century stone buildings that have survived the wagons in the Sierra Nevada Mountains while sipping locally roasted coffee drinks and tasting the delicious food trucks. For those eager to learn more about history, take a guided walking tour every Saturday morning from the Old Timers Museum on Main Street (which includes the home of the famous physicist Albert Michelson, the first American Nobel Prize winner). Afterwards, you can taste samples at local wineries and chat with people who grow grapes and produce wine. Enjoying the outdoors is a must in the Sierra. Not to be missed is the giant redwood grove at nearby Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which has been drawing people here since the early 1850s (which is very, very long ago by Californian standards!) .
Nevada City, Nevada
Like Murphys, this former frontier town in the Sierra Nevada foothills feels like a preserved relic of American history. This once gold rush town is now rich in local art, theatre and cuisine, but still draws visitors away from the city to escape to the humbling majesty of the mountains and take a spin in the Yuba River, one of the famous “golden rivers” where glittering nuggets can still be found today. A dip in a secret swimming hole by the river on a hot summer day is equally invaluable. Unlike many parts of the Golden State, summer in Nevada City is not all year round. Here, the trees give way to an autumn rainbow, enough snow falls to make the town more picturesque, and the warm spring flowers bloom (plus the beauty of the snow-capped peaks) to make the winter chill last longer. Another bonus of winter is the Victorian Christmas celebrations, when the streets come alive with twinkling lights, Victorian singers and minstrels, roasted chestnuts, craft vendors, horse-drawn carriages, live nativity rituals and holiday cheer.
The sweet citrus scent that fills the air in the spring with the bounty of Ojai Pixie citrus and is complemented by the scent of lavender in the summer is a symbol of not only local organic agriculture but also local commerce in this Central Coast gem. The legal prohibition of chain stores here is a loyalty to the “local” while retaining its community-oriented ecological charm. The smallest city in Ventura County, nestled in a valley full of oak trees, it sits in the Los Padres National Forest and has long been one of the best havens in California. Ojai has a number of resorts dedicated to rejuvenating the mind and body, including the five-diamond Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, where you can take a scenic trolley ride to the charming downtown village. Or travel through the city and beyond via the Ojai Valley Trail. Cruise along the Ventura River on this old Southern Pacific Railroad track, on foot, horseback or by bike.
San Clemente, California
San Clemente, a surfer’s paradise in Orange County, a city transformed from its former farmland into a wealthy one, came to the forefront of attention in the Orange County television series. In addition to its year-round temperate climate, San Clemente is also known for its consistent sea swell. There are world-renowned surf destinations – T-Street, Trestle, Church and San Onofre – that attract and produce top surfing talent. Locals have their favorite beach spots, but the easiest place to go on a perfect beach day is City Beach, and the San Clemente Pier is a great choice. A stroll down the wooden dock, a break in the sand and waves, and a look back is rewarding; the view of the beach and the hills behind it are reminiscent of villages along the Mediterranean coast, with white red-roofed apartments and slender palm trees intermingling. The San Clemente Beach Beach Trail is lined with an Amtrak railroad for even more gorgeous ocean views. Every once in a while, stand and feel the whoosh of the passing train as its rumble overcomes the roar of the nearby waves.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo County was one of the original 27 counties when California became a state after the Mexican-American War in 1850. However, the indigenous roots here go back thousands of years to when the Chumash people inhabited the land. The city was named after the Spanish mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded in 1772, and still attracts many visitors to explore its distinctive low and narrow roofs. Another attraction for the young, curious is Caltech, a nationally ranked university that is uniquely learning. The area earned the title of “Happiest City in America” because of its community atmosphere and abundance of hiking and biking trails, wineries, microbreweries, and famous farmer’s markets. Unique boutiques and food outlets in the historic downtown area, along with friendly local conversation, make it even more attractive.
Santa Barbara, California
Located in southern San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara, like many neighboring coastal cities, has picturesque beaches and an average of 300 days of sunshine. However, the “American Riviera” has its own flavor, with its cool nights and characteristic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Slender palm trees are scattered between white-washed buildings, topped by red tile roofs. No wonder this small city was once the “Hollywood” of the silent film era and continues to attract film and photography enthusiasts. This tranquil setting is filled with the historical and cultural influences of Native Americans, Portuguese, Spanish and Mexicans. The historic Presidio Neighborhood offers a peek into some of the oldest homes in the state. The quaint downtown area is worth a day (or days) of strolling. Shop and taste along State Street. Here, you can also enjoy a leisurely wine tasting from one tasting room to another along the Urban Wine Trail.
A 30-minute ferry ride from San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is a fun way to get to this charming cityscape while taking in some stunning views. You can also self-drive, but more adventurous people may prefer to ride over the Golden Gate Bridge and then ride along the bay toward the waterfront or downtown. You can enjoy sandwiches and picnics in the picturesque offshore rock formations at Yee Tok Chee Park, Vi?a Del Mar Plaza or Rodeo Beach. In addition to the casual shopping downtown, another attraction of the area is hiking through the Marin Headlands and Muir Woods’ towering redwood forests. A definite highlight, though, is the unique boathouse community, where floating homes range from upscale to creatively remodeled to “How come they’re still floating?” dating back to WWII. Every year there are open house events where visitors can visit certain homes. You might also, like Otis Redding, write about the inspiration for “(sitting) on a dock in the bay” on a yacht here to make you forget time and “watch the tide roll away.”
This small Danish village in the St. Inez Valley was founded in 1911 and is the epitome of charm in a European sense. Think of the half-timbered, thatched-roofed Danish provincial building. Yes, there are windmills and even a replica of the famous author Andersen’s statue and the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen. The aroma (and taste!) of freshly baked pastries Make this little world more fascinating. In the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country, you can easily sample local wines in the village’s tasting room. Horse-drawn carriage rides are a fun way to see the area, especially for families. The Old Mission Santa Inés is another piece of history that has undergone centuries of cultural change and is still active in the community today.
You may have noticed that California is home to many wine regions, but the two most famous (both for wine and longtime competitors) are neighboring Sonoma and Napa Valley. While you can certainly visit both areas in one trip, it’s impossible to visit every winery: there are more than 400 wineries in Sonoma County alone, ranging from rustic, family-owned wineries (by appointment only) to luxurious wine castles. Sonoma City is the perfect starting point for any wine tasting adventure, as the Buena Vista Winery here was the first winery in the state, founded in 1857. This historic California landmark, with its vine covered stone walls, was in operation long before the region became a wine production mecca. If you want to take a break here, check out the gourmet shops and restaurants at Sonoma Plaza, a National Historic Landmark surrounded by historic buildings such as Mission San Francisco Solano, the last mission established in California, and the nearby Sonoma Barracks, an adobe building once used by the Mexican Army.
As Sonoma’s neighbor, the heart of the Napa Valley, St. Helena is known as Napa’s Main Street. The first Napa winery was built here, and the wine and kitchen trend continues to blossom here. The farm-to-table movement is the pulse behind the seasonal, creative cuisine that draws foodies and drinkers alike to a place where chefs make their names household names and those who follow in their footsteps train at the Culinary Arts Institute of America. One side effect of its popularity, some might say, is that it feels less glamorous and more businesslike. But St. Helena’s half-mile-long downtown, with its lovely shops and gourmet shops in historic buildings, exudes a unique charm that makes you want to stay for a long time. That’s what Robert Louis Stevenson was doing long before he wrote the classic Treasure Island. When the penniless writer brings his bride to St. Helena, they squat in an abandoned hut on a hill, and you can learn more about the story at the town’s eponymous museum.
Tahoe City, California
Also on our list is an alpine favorite, Tahoe City is a quaint mountain community right next to Lake Tahoe. While nearby ski resorts like Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows and their private boutique resorts attract snowbirds in the winter, the area is also a treasure trove of summer outdoor activities. You can cruise around the lake in a small boat, kayak or paddle board and enjoy the stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Later in the day, you can hike or ride a mountain bike on the trails in the mountains. A more relaxed ride awaits you on paved bike paths through the city and along lakes and rivers. The lovely town centre is ideal for walking, shopping and snacking, with a number of unique shops, art galleries, local restaurants and coffee shops. And just like that, another charming California oasis that has attracted many big city visitors to turn to live here.