Explore 10 of the Best Small Towns in California

a california highway sign with palm trees in the background
Image by Canva

What are some of the best small towns to visit in California?

Some of the best small towns in California to visit include Carmel-by-the-Sea, Solvang, Avalon on Catalina Island, Nevada City, and Julian. Each offers unique charm, history, and attractions that showcase the diverse beauty and culture of the Golden State.


  1. California’s charming small towns offer beauty for all tastes: seaside escapes, artistic havens, historic gems, and mountain retreats.
  2. From Carmel’s beaches to Nevada City’s gold rush past, explore scenic landscapes, rich history, and vibrant culture.
  3. Find relaxation by the ocean in Mendocino or unwind in Napa Valley’s Calistoga with hot springs and wineries.
  4. Immerse yourself in Danish vibes at Solvang or artistic energy in Ojai, all within driving distance of Los Angeles.

California is about more than just the bustling cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Golden State is also home to some of the most charming small towns, offering a delightful escape from the hustle and bustle. With their beautiful scenery, ocean views, and historic places, these small towns provide a unique experience for visitors. Whether looking for natural beauty, artistic havens, or a taste of history, California’s small towns, such as Julian, a vibrant mountain town an hour east of San Diego, have it all.

Get ready for an exciting journey as we uncover the 10 best small towns in California. From the scenic seaside escape of Carmel-by-the-Sea to the artistic haven of Ojai, each town has its own unique character and attractions waiting to be discovered. So, pack your bags and join us as we embark on this adventure to explore the hidden gems of California.

Discovering The 10 Best Small Towns in California

According to the best travel guides, California is home to numerous small towns that offer a refreshing change of pace from the busy cities. These towns, with their rich history, natural beauty, and unique attractions, are perfect for a memorable getaway. Or perhaps a new place to reside. Let’s dive into the 10 best small towns in California and explore what makes each one special.

1. Carmel-by-the-Sea: A Scenic Seaside Escape

a view of the beach and golf course in pebble beach, california
Image by Canva
One of the Best Small Beach Towns in California

Along the central coast of California is the scenic escape, Carmel-by-the-Sea. This quaint town is known for its beautiful beaches, stunning ocean views, and thriving art scene. The name alone hints at the romantic quality of the downtown area, dotted with enchanting gardens and storybook cottages.

Once a boho artist colony, Carmel-by-the-Sea is now home to over 100 art galleries, making it a haven for art enthusiasts. Stroll along Ocean Avenue and explore the charming boutiques and high-end shops that line the streets. Don’t forget to catch the breathtaking sunset on the white sands of Carmel Beach, a truly magical experience.

In addition to its artistic charm, Carmel-by-the-Sea offers various outdoor activities. Explore the scenic 17-mile Drive, which winds along the coast and offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a must-visit for nature lovers, with its rugged cliffs, hidden coves, and diverse wildlife. During the winter months, visitors can also visit the nearby Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary to see thousands of monarch butterflies that migrate to this area each year to spend winter in the mild climate of the Pacific Coast.

2. Solvang: A Taste of Denmark in California

a row of buildings along a street in a small town
Image by Canva

Located in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang is a small town that offers a taste of Denmark in California. Known for its Danish architecture and charming streets, Solvang is a delightful destination for those seeking a unique cultural experience.

As you meander through the town’s center, you’ll be instantly transported to a Scandinavian village. Danish flags flutter from street lamps, and the architecture mirrors the allure of a traditional Danish town. Immerse yourself in the experience of exploring the various boutiques and shops that offer a treasure trove of Danish-inspired goods, from wooden clogs to delectable Danish pastries.

Solvang is also a gateway to Santa Barbara’s wine country, with several quality tasting rooms to sample local wines. Take a leisurely bike ride through the surrounding vineyards or embark on a guided wine tour to learn about the winemaking process.

3. Ojai: An Artistic Haven Amidst Nature

a white building with arches and a clock tower
Image by Canva
One of the Best Small Towns to Live in California

Nestled in a valley among the scenic Topatopa Mountains, Ojai is a small town that has long been an oasis for artists and free spirits. Its tranquil setting and natural beauty have inspired many artists throughout the years.

Ojai offers a mix of outdoor and wellness activities, making it a perfect destination for those seeking relaxation and rejuvenation. Explore the numerous art galleries and studios that showcase the works of local artists. The town’s center, Ojai Village, is home to Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and a charming assortment of New Age shops and boutiques. The picturesque town of Los Olivos is just a short drive away, known for its abundance of wineries and tasting rooms.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Ojai offers a variety of activities, from hiking and horseback riding to spa treatments at the renowned Ojai Valley Inn. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience the “pink moment,” a stunning sunset alpenglow that bathes the valley in hues of pink and purple.

Just a short drive from Los Angeles, Ojai provides a peaceful retreat from the bustling city life. Immerse yourself in the artistic ambiance and natural beauty of this hidden gem in California.

4. Nevada City: Rich History and Vibrant Culture

a city street with cars parked on both sides of the road
Image by Flickr

Located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Nevada City is a small town steeped in history and charm. Its rich history dates back to the gold rush era, and many of its buildings have been preserved, giving it a timeless feel. According to travel guides, a stroll down Broad Street is wonderful for admiring the well-preserved Victorian architecture. On Broad street you’ll also be able to explore the numerous boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants.

Nevada City is also known for its vibrant cultural scene. The town hosts various festivals and events throughout the year, showcasing music, art, and theater. The Nevada City Film Festival and Victorian Christmas are just a few annual events that draw visitors from near and far. For those with a passion for history, a pilgrimage to the Nevada County Historical Society is a non-negotiable. Delve into the town’s gold rush past and its pivotal role in shaping the history of California. Nevada City is a treasure trove, a harmonious blend of rich history and vibrant culture.

5. Mendocino: Coastal Beauty and Serene Landscapes

a view of houses on a cliff overlooking the ocean
Image by Canva

Mendocino, located on the rugged coast of California, is a small town that offers breathtaking coastal beauty and serene landscapes. With its dramatic cliffs, pristine beaches, and charming architecture, Mendocino is a paradise for nature lovers and artists.

Explore the picturesque coastline and discover hidden gems like the tide pools, where you can observe marine life up close. Take a leisurely stroll along the Mendocino Headlands State Park, which offers panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.

The town is a work of art, with its Victorian-style houses and historic buildings. Visit the Mendocino Art Center, which showcases the works of local artists, or explore the numerous art galleries that line the streets.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Mendocino offers a plethora of activities, including hiking, kayaking, and whale watching. The nearby Russian Gulch State Park, with its stunning waterfall and hiking trails, is a must-visit.

Whether seeking a peaceful retreat or an adventure in nature, Mendocino has something for everyone. Immerse yourself in this charming small town’s coastal beauty and serene landscapes.

6. Calistoga: Hot Springs and Wineries

cactus plants in a field with mountains in the background
Image by Canva

Nestled in the heart of Napa Valley, Calistoga is a small town known for its hot springs and wineries. It’s the perfect destination for those looking to relax, unwind, and indulge in the finer things in life.

Calistoga is home to various hot springs, where visitors can soak in the healing waters and enjoy therapeutic mud baths. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit Old Faithful, one of the three geysers in the world with the “Old Faithful” designation.

For wine enthusiasts, Calistoga is a paradise. The town and its surrounding Napa Valley are home to a plethora of wineries, each offering a unique tasting experience. Embark on a wine-tasting tour and savor the region’s diverse and exceptional wines, with the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon being a standout.

The town exudes charm with its Victorian architecture and quaint downtown area. Explore the boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants that line the streets, or take a leisurely stroll and enjoy the small-town atmosphere.

Calistoga offers a unique blend of relaxation, natural beauty, and wine tasting, making it a must-visit destination for any wine lover or spa enthusiast.

7. Julian: Historic Gold Mining Town with Apple Orchards

an old red barn sits in the middle of a field
Image by Canva
One of the Best Small Towns in Southern California

Tucked away in the mountains of San Diego County, Julian is a historic gold mining town that offers a charming blend of history and natural beauty. The town’s rich gold rush heritage is evident in its well-preserved buildings and historic sites.

Embark on a journey through time as you stroll the streets of Julian, adorned with charming shops, restaurants, and historic landmarks. Immerse yourself in the town’s fascinating history and the gold rush era at the Julian Pioneer Museum. For outdoor enthusiasts, Julian offers a variety of activities, from hiking and birdwatching to horseback riding and fishing. Remember to make some time to explore the nearby Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, which boasts stunning landscapes and hiking trails.

Julian has something to offer whether you’re a history buff or a nature lover. Immerse yourself in this historic gold mining town’s charm and enjoy its apple orchards’ beauty.

8. Ferndale: Victorian Charm and Scenic Pastures

an old town with cars parked on the side of the road
Image by Canva
One of the Best Small Towns in Northern California

Ferndale, located in Northern California, stands out as one of the best small towns in the region. Known for its charming Victorian architecture and picturesque streets, Ferndale offers visitors a glimpse into the past with its well-preserved historic buildings, including the Ferndale Museum. The town’s vibrant community spirit and welcoming atmosphere make it a popular destination for tourists seeking a peaceful retreat close to Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

In addition to its architectural beauty, Ferndale boasts stunning natural surroundings, including nearby beaches and redwood forests. These provide ample opportunities for outdoor activities such as hiking and beachcombing. The town also hosts yearly events showcasing local art, music, and culture.

With its unique blend of history, nature, and community charm, Ferndale embodies the essence of a quintessential Northern Californian small town. Whether you’re strolling along Main Street admiring the ornate facades or exploring the city’s scenic landscapes, Ferndale offers a delightful escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

10. Idyllwild: A Mountain Retreat for Arts and Nature

the sign for idyllwild is in front of a lodge
Image by Canva
One of the Best Small Towns for Retirement in California

Idyllwild, nestled in the picturesque San Jacinto Mountains above the desert communities of Riverside County, stands out as one of the state’s best small towns for retirement. Its serene natural beauty and tranquil atmosphere offer a perfect escape for retirees looking to enjoy a peaceful lifestyle surrounded by stunning landscapes. The town’s vibrant arts scene, with numerous galleries and music festivals, provides ample opportunities for cultural enrichment and social engagement. With miles of hiking trails and famous rock faces for climbers, Idyllwild is the perfect small town for retirees who love the outdoors and want to stay active in their retirement years, especially during the summer months.

Idyllwild boasts a close-knit community that values sustainability and outdoor recreation, making it an ideal place for nature lovers and active retirees. The town’s proximity to hiking trails, camping sites, and lush forests allows residents to stay active and connected with the great outdoors.

Furthermore, Idyllwild’s charming downtown area is filled with quaint shops, cozy cafes, and local restaurants serving farm-to-table cuisine. This tight-knit community fosters a sense of belonging and camaraderie among its residents, creating a welcoming environment for retirees seeking a fulfilling retirement experience.

a river in the middle of a forest with mountains in the background
Image by Canva

In conclusion, exploring the best small towns in California offers a delightful mix of scenic beauty, cultural richness, and unique experiences for every interest. Whether you seek seaside charm, artistic havens, or historic treasures, California’s small towns have something special to offer. From the coastal beauty of Mendocino to the mountain retreat of Idyllwild, each town exudes its own distinct charm. So, embark on a journey to discover the hidden gems and vibrant cultures that make these small towns in California truly exceptional.

If you’re looking for more locations around the world be sure to check out some of our most recent destination guides.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some other states in the US with charming small towns?

If you’re looking for charming small towns outside of California, there are plenty of options across the United States. States like Colorado, Vermont, Washington, and Texas are known for their beautiful scenery, historic places, and great small-town vibes.

What are the best small towns in California for retirement?

California’s small towns offer a peaceful and idyllic setting for retirement. Some of the best small towns for retirement in California include places like Palm Springs, Paso Robles, and Carmel-by-the-Sea. These towns offer a combination of natural beauty, mild climate, and access to quality healthcare, making them perfect for retirees looking for a relaxed and fulfilling lifestyle.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top