Towering redwoods and disused mines, sun-soaked beaches and award-winning wines. Our list of California’s charming small towns, each with their own personality, is here to inspire your next getaway to the Golden State.
Old mining towns, surfing idylls, artistic hubs, mountain hiking bases…the following small towns in California each have something slightly different to offer to travelers. Of course, California isn’t always the cheapest destination when it comes to accommodation, so it’s a good idea to look into local vacation rentals. In smaller towns and villages, there’s often a broad choice of rentals, giving you lots of options and often at a wallet-friendly price. Plus, you tend to get great value for your money: a stocked kitchen and bathroom, plenty of space, and maybe a private patio or even a hot tub. You’ll have all you need for that home-away-from-home feel when you put key to lock.
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From the elegant Victorian village of Ferndale to the mountain mining town of Julian, we’re betting one of these small towns in California has your next vacation written all over it!
First stop is Ojai, a delightful town full of little art galleries and shops. There’s lots to do: boating and fishing on Lake Casitas, seeing the scenery by e-bike, rock-climbing, and wine tasting. The farms here are bursting with produce—pick juicy tangerines or watch olives being turned into oil, before picking up the rest of your groceries at the farmers’ market. You can also visit the studio at Firestick Pottery and have a go at making your own creation. The Ojai Music Festival in June is a hot ticket for fans of classical and contemporary music.
This charming village is nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains, surrounded by lush forest and granite outcrops. It’s a top choice for hardy hikers, mountain bikers, and rock-climbing enthusiasts. In true Californian style, the town has artsy leanings, so take a bit of time to browse its many galleries. If you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss the traveler favorite El Buen Cacao, a boutique bean-to-bar chocolate shop.
“We stopped in after hearing a passer-by rave about this place. Almost all their chocolate is vegan/non-dairy, including the white chocolate (my favorite). We also had the ghost pepper (spicy but yummy), raspberry and a few truffles. I wish we would have bought more. We were greeted by the very sweet Sophia and really enjoyed our visit. Hands down, probably the best chocolate I’ve had.” — TripAdvisor Reviewer of El Buen Cacao
This was the very first of California’s beach resorts, and it remains a truly charming place to visit. Capitola Beach is the main event, bordered with quaint, colorful buildings. Listen for live music from the bandstand in the summer months and grab your spot on the deck at Zelda’s on the Beach for waterside cocktails. Just a few miles away, you can take a steam train ride through the Santa Cruz redwood forests.
The Danish influence is unmistakable in the lovely community of Solvang, with its windmills and European-style architecture. A fun way to discover the area is on a one-hour Segway tour, finishing with a wine tasting. Don’t miss the bakeries piled with traditional Danish pastries. This is a family-friendly place and, as you might imagine, absolutely delightful at Christmas time. At October’s Solvang Stomp you can get involved with some grape squishing and general festivities. Attention wine lovers: this Santa Ynez Valley wine tour takes you through gorgeous scenery to three different wineries.
“We had a fantastic exhilarating tour around Solvang, learning lots about the area along the way. This was a real highlight of our holiday to California.” — TripAdvisor Review of Solvang Segway Tours
Included in National Geographic’s top 20 surf towns in the world, this San Diego County town is beloved for its wonderful sandy beaches and strong surf culture. It retains its old-time beach resort feel along with some hippie vibes. This is a mellow place, perfect for sipping quality coffee, buying some vinyl and, of course, hitting the beach. The end of April sees the arrival of the Encinitas Spring Street Fair, so if you’re in town swing by for food and craft stalls, live music, and kids’ entertainment.
Ever-popular Laguna Beach continues to draw visitors to its sandy coastline, where you can watch whales, go diving, explore caves, and investigate tide pools. Or you can head away from the water, grab your hiking boots and explore the beautiful terrain of Crystal Cove State Park. Book your place on a guided tour to view the street art and hear about the history of the community. You can also check out the neighboring beaches on this best beaches in Orange County tour.
“We really enjoyed the OC Beach Bus Tour. Our driver, Tom was very friendly, funny and was very knowledgeable about the area. Our pick-up was on time, the bus was clean, very comfortable and air conditioned. We enjoyed the day and would highly recommend this tour to anyone who doesn’t want the hassle of driving to enjoy the beaches.” — TripAdvisor Review of the Best Beaches in Orange County Tour
Sunny Sausalito was a popular gathering place for artists and writers in the 1960s, and there’s still a thriving art community here. Check out the local galleries and the annual Sausalito Art Festival, and in September, you can tour the famous houseboats that were home to many in the 1960s. Look up in awe at the stunning homes built into the surrounding hillsides. Making dinner plans? You can’t go wrong with the cuisine and cocktails at the Barrel House Tavern. On a sunny day, bike over the Golden Gate Bridge, or hop on a ferry, for amazing views and a great introduction to San Francisco, where you’ll find tons of exciting ways to discover the city.
“Get to this town. Whether by driving or by boat, get into Sausalito. Park near the docks and wander the charming hillside shops and good restaurants. Very cute little place.” — TripAdvisor Reviewer
Visitors to Avalon aren’t allowed to rent vehicles. But the good news is that they can explore this pretty island city by golf cart, which is much more fun. For longer distances you can join tours, such as this two-hour Santa Catalina Island Skyline Drive on a classic 1950s bus. This Avalon tour focuses on the beachfront and historic town, and this relaxed food and walking experience gives visitors an authentic taste of the island. Once you’ve seen the sights, you can get back to diving, swimming, snorkeling, and enjoying the harbor views.
Just a short drive from Santa Barbara, you’ll find the relaxed beach town of Carpinteria. Here the surf is great, the beaches are broad and clean, and the vibes are decidedly casual. Grab your tamales from Reynaldo’s Bakery then hit the picnic area at Carpinteria State Beach. If you’re new to surfing, or need a refresher, these surf lessons will get you up and running quickly.
“We went to Carpinteria to enjoy some few days in the sun. We chose this small town, close to Los Angeles as we didn’t want to go through the nightmare of having to fly and go through an airport. And we made a great decision. Carpinteria is close enough but far enough from the crazy traffic and noise of Los Angeles. This quaint city along the California coast is just a [stone’s throw away] from Santa Barbara. It offers many charming restaurants and eateries that cater to the locals and visitors. No restaurant chains except for a Coffee Bean and the stuff you try is quite authentic while in a relaxed atmosphere. The city maintains the local beach and the sand is clean. The sunsets are just amazing!” — TripAdvisor Reviewer
Sitting at the heart of the Napa Valley, this one’s a no-brainer for the oenophiles. This is prime Californian wine territory, so book your wine tastings and tours in advance. It’s also something of a gastro hub—you can take a class at the Culinary Institute of America and sample the finest local dishes at several Michelin-starred restaurants.
Here you can surf off the Pacific coastline, bike through redwood forests, or browse the crafts and quirky finds of this welcoming university town. Arcata holds onto its alternative feel (its nickname is ‘Hippie Haven’), and there’s plenty of entertainment happening all year round—check the listings at the Arcata Playhouse and the Arcata Theatre Lounge. Independent cinema fans should take a look at the single-screen cinema, the Miniplex.
This small California town offers a taste of the good life, with heaps of mouth-watering produce at the farmers’ market and wine tastings at every turn. Book a visit to the Gracianna Winery to sample its award-winning wines and see if you can actually tell your chardonnay from your sauvignon blanc. Other local activities include horse riding around Lake Sonoma or canoeing down the Russian River. Travelers rave about Healdsburg Plaza, the town square complete with boutique shops, restaurants, and grassy areas to relax.
“I always look forward to visiting the Plaza when I’m in town. It reminds me of a European town square with people gathering to talk, eat ice cream, lay in the sun, play cards, etc. Across from the [square] on all sides are terrific shops (I especially love “One World Fair Trade”), wine tasting rooms, art galleries, clothing shops, etc. Very charming.” — TripAdvisor Review of Healdsburg Plaza
Up in the Cuyamaca Mountains you can explore the history of Julian, a goldrush town with preserved 19th-century buildings. This place is famous for its apple pies—try one at the Apple Alley Bakery and many other eateries in town. Don’t miss the Pioneer Museum’s exhibits of Victorian-era artifacts and mining equipment. You can also tour the town in charming fashion aboard a horse-drawn carriage and even wander the tunnels of two of Julian’s original gold mines.
The small mountain community of Tahoe City is set right on Lake Tahoe. Skate, walk, or bike the paved trail around the lake or relax at family-friendly Commons Beach, where you can hear live concerts in summer. Locals recommend Fire Sign Café for a hearty breakfast. Try this seven-hour tour around Lake Tahoe for incredible views or consider a lake dinner cruise. This photography tour led by a pro will give you tips for creating memorable shots to treasure forever.
“I can’t say enough positive things about Keith! The tour with him was the highlight of my trip to Tahoe. He is truly one of the nicest, most knowledgeable men who is passionate about photography and Lake Tahoe.”— TripAdvisor Review of Tahoe Photographic Tours
This one involves a bit of time travel. At least that’s what it feels like when you step into this living goldrush town, complete with a rumbling stagecoach, working blacksmith, costumed merchants, and old-fashioned saloons. All of this makes Columbia a hit with families or anyone with a touch of gold fever. It’s also conveniently located for visiting other historic towns in the area.
Yet another nostalgic Californian stop-off is the Victorian village of Ferndale. In town, enjoy the handsome architecture and boutique shopping of Main Street. A little further afield, take time to enjoy the Lost Coast’s peaceful Centerville Beach or feel minuscule under the trees in Redwoods National and State Parks. If you’re traveling in a group, consider this charming Ferndale house, complete with hot tub.
“A charming rural town. Ferndale itself is a California Historic Landmark, due to the number of classic Victorian homes here. There are some grand ‘painted ladies’ here, many lining the Main Street. I usually park on the street and wander into some of the shops. They change from time to time but there are always gift shops, a few art galleries, candleworks and similar types of shops. Ring’s Pharmacy is the oldest continually operating pharmacy in California and dates from 1894. I always find folks here to be friendly and relaxed, and more than willing to go out of their way to answer any questions. If you like old cemeteries, Ferndale’s is one of the prettiest with lovely rhodies and azaleas.” — TripAdvisor Reviewer
We’ve previously featured Temecula in our recommended weekend getaways, keen to bring attention to its nostalgic Old Town with wooden boardwalks, amazing golf, and award-winning wines. Kick off your Temecula trip with this food and walking tour, visit some vineyards, or even see them from above on this hot air balloon ride.
A popular place for LA residents to take a breather is Oxnard. Its white-sand beaches are pleasant and uncrowded (Mandalay State Beach is a favorite), but if you’re seeking something even more peaceful, boat the 11 miles out to the ‘American Galapagos’, or Channel Islands National Park, to swim and dive off the rocks. Other attractions include the Carnegie Art Museum, the Murphy Auto Museum, and Silverstrand Beach for sun and surfing. If you’re visiting in mid May, look out for the California Strawberry Festival.
“Charming California, perfect location. Whether it’s a brisk walk you want, or a casual stroll with friends or just a place to chill, meditate and people-watch. This is a glorious slice of the California coast and a delightful way to spend some time alone or with friends…Very soothing for the body, mind and soul.” — TripAdvisor Review of Mandalay State Beach