While a new visitor to the Golden State might anticipate a metropolitan way of life, it’s a lesser-known truth that the category of best small towns in California is in fact extremely competitive.
In such a large state, the smaller outposts that dot its vast, varying landscape are often charmingly idiosyncratic. Start planning your next trip to the West Coast with this list of the best small towns in California in which to spend a day.
With an uneven helping of both coastal charm and handsome buildings, Carmel-by-the-Sea is widely recognized as one of the best small towns in California.
Its emblem is the serene 18th-century Carmel Mission—a honey-colored reminder that the trailblazers here with a good eye for a development site were the Spanish missionaries, led by one Junipero Serra. The Carmel Mission was the second to be established in the chain running the length of the old El Camino Real (now the 101) and is also Serra’s final resting place.
Beyond the mission, Carmel’s multi-layered architectural history is best dissected through a guided tour. Or wander the pine-shaded streets that act as an open-air catalog of idealized Californian residences, with juxtaposed Tudor Revival, Spanish Revival, and Arts-and-Crafts flourishes catching the eye.
A coastal walk here is a must, as you’re in Big Sur country, with grass-tufted dunes and stacks of boulders accented by solitary Monterey pines. The town’s Scenic Road Walkway follows the bluff behind Carmel Beach and the town, giving you the best of both worlds with views of the town and out to sea.
Just north of San Diego, La Jolla is as handsome an arrangement of sand, cliff, and sea as you’ll find in the area. Overlooking the seductive coastline is the upscale Village of La Jolla, a jumble of millionaire homes, restaurants for all occasions, and beachy boutiques.
It’s a wonderful place to spend an active day, either surfing the swells at Black’s Beach, golfing at the clifftop Torrey Pines course, or exploring the hiking trails and their expansive views over the Pacific.
Tacos are an elevated experience in La Jolla. Track down the beloved Galaxy Taco, where you can experience the taco’s gourmet zenith—a short rib mole taco with pickled red onions, sesame seeds, and cress. If you’re still there in the evening, visit La Valencia Hotel, which was popular with Hollywood’s Golden Era glitterati. Order a signature Pink Lady in La Sala Lobby Lounge and pair it with views of the sun sinking into the Pacific.
The only town on rugged Catalina—the enticing island silhouette underscoring the Californian sunset—Avalon has long acted as a favorite day-trip option for Californians. Twenty-two miles across the Catalina Channel, the crossing can be an incredible trip in its own right. Look out for dolphins leaping at your prow or, if you’re lucky, blue whales rising for air nearby.
As you approach Avalon, the first thing you’ll notice, along with the picture-perfect harbor, is the Art Deco colosseum that is the Catalina Casino. While it has the presence of a Bond-worthy gambling house, it’s actually a mixed-use entertainment center with a film theater inside.
But you don’t want to be inside when you’re visiting this sun-soaked oasis of calm. Check into a palm-shaded cabana on exclusive Descanso Beach, with views of the mainland across the turquoise shallows. The arid hills provide some splendid dusty hikes where you might even encounter some bison—shaggy-haired castaways from a 1920’s film shoot.
Sonoma is a name intrinsically tied to the Californian wine industry. To the west of Napa, nestled between the foggy Pacific and verdant Mayacamas Mountains, Sonoma County is recognized as the industry’s birthplace of West Coast wine-making. It remains one of the best wine regions in California, if not the world.
An hour’s drive north of San Francisco, the town of Sonoma is the perfect place to get swiftly attuned to the county’s virtues. The first thing you’ll notice is the colonial heritage of this former Spanish mission village, especially surrounding the community’s heart—its leafy eight-acre central plaza. Make the plaza your base for the day. Orbiting the square are restaurants, shops, and over 20 tasting rooms.
An easygoing beach town in Central California with a strong sense of local community and a golden tan, Carpinteria is the perfect place to let the beach way of life seep into your skin.
The sandy fringes are the center of life in this small town just outside of Santa Barbara. Carpinteria State Beach is an expansive playground with plenty of sand for walks by the hissing surf and even space for basking seals in the spring.
When this was the home of the Chumash tribe, the beach was where they constructed their canoes, sealing them up with the nearby naturally-occurring tar. While canoes are no longer a local specialty, Carpenteria has earned itself something of a reputation as a vintage treasure trove.
When you’ve finished at the beach, explore Linden Avenue’s bounty of independent boutiques that remind you of a time before big chains and homogeneous high streets. Stop into Whimsy for eclectic home decor pieces and rummage through the treasure-filled Homestead Antiques & Trading Co.
As the name’s ring might suggest, Solvang is a little slice of Scandinavia nestled in the golden Santa Ynez Valley.
A short 45-minute drive north of Santa Barbara, Solvang was originally settled by Danish immigrants who, weary of the frigid winters of the Midwest, struck out for the warm West Coast. In this choice spot, they created a microcosm of traditional Denmark (except with much-improved weather). When, in 1947, the rest of the country discovered this quirky outpost with its dirndls and horse-drawn wagons, the good Solvangers understood that tourism would be a boon.
Walking around its half-timbered home, windmills and statues plucked from Copenhagen’s waterfront, the “Danish Capital of America” makes for an entertainingly quirky day out. Pick up a traditional Danish costume for a niece or nephew and stain your shirt with raspberry jam after gorging on Aebleskiver pancakes. While Solvang is unique, its sense of fun and commitment to its idiosyncrasies connects it to something universally Californian.
The Santa Ynez Valley is a golden pocket of Central California characterized by gnarled oak woods, rolling hills, and verdant grasslands. Elevated into the mainstream as the alluring backdrop to a popular movie in the early 2000s, the region is one of Central California’s finest wine-producing areas, its landscape riddled with dusty tracks leading to boutique wineries.
Amid this vinicultural paradise is the eponymous town of Santa Ynez—a perfect staging post for planning a regional wine tour. While its neighbor, Solvang, offers a portal into everything Danish, the Wild West ambiance of Santa Ynez almost transports you out of modern-day California entirely. Mosey over the horseshoe-embedded crosswalks and get context at the excellent Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum.
After having got to grips with the local pioneer history, taste the character of the town at the Maverick Saloon—a 60-year stalwart of Sagunto Street that feels as comfortable and lived-in as a well-worn cowboy boot. Order up a plate of oak wood BBQ tri-tip sandwiches, spread out your map, and plan your tasting forays into the sun-kissed countryside surrounding one of the most unique places to visit in California.
The inspiration for John Steinbeck’s classic novel, Cannery Row, handsome Monterey might have moved beyond its working-class roots, but it still retains much of its impressive heritage.
Cannery Row itself—a waterside strip that was formerly a hub for sardine canneries—has now become the town’s chief entertainment and shopping district. If you haven’t read the 1945 novel yet, get a kitschy introduction to the area’s history, which includes a burning Monterey bay and lightning strikes, at the Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum.
Also among the Steinbeck busts and stuffed orcas of Cannery Row is the outstanding Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the best aquariums in the world. This world-class institution brings Monterey Bay’s awesome abundance of sea life up close and personal to those without a PADI certificate. Once you’ve worked up an appetite for seafood, make your way past Old Fisherman’s Wharf to LouLou’s Griddle in the Middle for the town’s finest seafood chowder.
Having eaten your fill of the entertainment district, leave the bustle of the world behind and take a nature walk along the wooden boardwalk of Asilomar State Beach. Amid the dunes and wind-sculpted cypress, squint into the sun to see if that was sea spray or an orca.
Stroll, bike, or drive across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge out of San Francisco, and the first town you’ll come to is Sausalito, one of the best small towns in California.
An authentic fragment of the bay’s more bohemian past, Sausalito is well known for its colorful houseboat community, originally the preserve of hippies, writers, and artists. Otis Redding wrote his classic “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” while staying on one of these houseboats in Richardson Bay. It’s the perfect soundtrack to the pace of life in this colorful enclave.
Head over to Liberty Dock for a self-guided tour of the mural-adorned floating homes, where even some of the letterboxes are worthy of a gallery window. Beyond the floating community, this eucalyptus-scented corner of Marin County, with its bougainvillea, art galleries, and waterfront promenade ideal for dawdling, is often described as having an almost European atmosphere. If you can, catch the ferry back for spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco.
The largest small-yacht harbor in the United States, as well as one of the best small towns in California, Newport Beach is a charming mix of seaside-town nostalgia and luxury real estate.
The former zip code of such stars as John Wayne and Walt Disney’s older brother, Roy, Newport Beach’s addresses are set over the seven islands that surround the busy recreational harbor. Hire an electric Duffy Boat (or go on a guided tour) and putter about ogling the tech executives’ superyachts and admiring Cyndi Lauper’s resplendently pink residence.
Newport’s nostalgic heart lies with the 80-year-old Ferris Wheel and carnival games found within the Balboa Fun Zone. The town also offers some of SoCal’s best shopping districts, including the high-end Fashion Island.
Don’t forget the superlative SoCal beaches. If the swell’s up, head to the east end of the Balboa Peninsula to find The Wedge and watch those brave enough to surf it in high seas.
Goleta, located just west of Santa Barbara, sits along an enviable ten-mile stretch of Central Californian pulchritude. The streets and hills scented with the fragrance of the abundant lemon trees, Goleta is an uncomplicated, pleasantly old-fashioned small town on California’s coast.
For many, it’s Goleta’s surroundings that make this one of the best small towns in California in which to spend a day. Launch a paddleboard off of Goleta Beach, and you could be rewarded with near-spiritual close encounters with dolphins and sea lions. If you didn’t bring your trunks, head over to the Ellwood Mesa, a network of hiking trails crisscrossing the coastal bluff that also includes a 78-acre eucalyptus Monarch Butterfly Grove.
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