Last Updated on December 15, 2022 by Helen E. White
There are plenty of enviable destination spots in California, but as the third-largest of the 50 states, there are plenty of lesser-known and out-of-the-way cities.
Most of California is made up of small beach towns and friendly mountaintop neighborhoods.
20 Best Small Towns in California
See More: Best Small Towns in America
The Golden State has a natural and tranquil beauty that inspires all visitors to leave their worries behind and soak up the sun. Let’s take a look at the best small towns to visit in California:
The perfect microcosm of California as a whole is Arcata. It has a diverse population, is neither particularly urban nor particularly rural, and has a variable climate and landscape.
Visitors love the redwood forests, salt marshes (bird lovers take note), accessible beaches, and the quiet town square.
Humboldt State University is located there, and while it’s part of the California State University system, it gives off its hippie vibe, just like Arcata itself.
If you’re looking for small-town, family-friendly health, you’ll be delighted to hear that the whole town is coming together to watch the minor league Humboldt Crabs play a few innings.
It was included in Hardie House’s “Ten Most Enlightened Towns” list, and you’ll find that strong sense of community missing in big cities.
With a population of around 4,000 souls, Avalon is located on Catalina Island. Originally a pre-modern settlement of the Gabrielino/Tongva tribe, it is now the only incorporated city on the island. – and the southernmost city in Los Angeles County.
Despite its location on the west coast of the United States, Avalon has a distinctively Mediterranean feel.
The houses hidden in the hillsides, the lush vegetation and the brilliant blue water play an important role in creating this soft environment.
An incredible one million people visit each year to take part in the spectacular outdoor adventure activities on offer.
There are also art galleries, boutique shops, streets lined with beautiful palm trees and restaurants with fabulous food and views of the sea.
It’s a popular stop for cruise ships, and thanks to year-round moderate temperatures, there’s a real waiting list to live there.
Known simply as Carmel, this is another European-style city located on the Monterey Peninsula.
Known for the historic Carmel Mission and wonderful libraries and museums, it is a must-see for anyone touring the California coast.
Mission San Carlos Borrmoeo de Carmelo was founded in the 18th century and remains a beautiful and peaceful place.
Everyone falls in love with the town’s country houses, which seem to have been the inspiration for many a Disney fairy tale.
Carmel is the perfect size for exploring on foot, and the white-sand beaches are always a big draw.
The city also boasts beautiful architecture, great food, and many boutique shops.
Don’t miss the Point Lobos State Nature Reserve, where you can observe marine animals and visit the whaling museum.
Drive your car or bike to the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge and you’ll find yourself in one of California’s finest small towns: Sausalito. A superb bayfront location and picturesque architecture are all part of this charming offering. Walking along Bridgeway, the city’s main street offers breathtaking views of the water and San Francisco, as well as access to quirky shops and restaurants. Located right at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Area Discovery Museum offers family-friendly entertainment and natural education. Don’t leave Sausalito without admiring Galilee Harbor and the colorful houseboats at Waldo Point Harbor. Just be prepared for a dose of water-based real estate envy.
It has been described as a serene and secluded mountain paradise. It’s towns like Dunsmuir that keep America’s rich history alive. Stroll through the historic district and the old railroad station for a glimpse of California at the turn of the 20th century.
Join the locals for some amazing rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, skiing, and camping.
Outdoor adventurers love to take a break on Mount Shasta, which sits at just over 14,000 feet and has a forest filled with tall Jeffrey ponderosa pines.
Dunsmuir has no traffic lights, no parking meters, and well, no traffic! Be sure to visit the Botanical Gardens in the city park to see the Shasta lilies and other native flora.
If you’re visiting during the summer, see if you can make it to the annual Tribute to the Trees solstice concert.
Solvang … California or Denmark? This postcard-perfect little town in the Santa Ynez Valley is entirely Danish in style and architecture. Danish flags hang from the street lamps in the city center, which looks exactly like a Danish village. You can buy wooden shoes, eat Danish food like Aebleskiver (think donut holes), and take selfies in front of the famous windmill. And since Solvang is the gateway to Santa Barbara wine country, the city also has some quality tasting rooms.
With fewer than 1,500 residents, Ferndale is a welcoming Victorian town in Humboldt County, California.
Main Street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has dozens of examples of Victorian houses and buildings.
Many of the buildings have been preserved by turning them into storefronts, cafes and art galleries.
With redwood forests on either side, it’s a great natural spot.
Drive the five miles of the Lost Coast, a spectacular section of pristine coastline, or visit Russ Park, a bird sanctuary lined with Sitka spruce trees.
8. Grover Beach
With a climate so mild it’s impossible to stay away, Grover Beach is a small beach community, smack dab in the middle of the coast.
With 12 months of sunshine and just 20 inches of rain a year, it’s the perfect place for families seeking the beach lifestyle California is famous for.
The community is diverse, the cost of living is affordable, and you’re near the mountains, the Arroyo Grande Valley wine country, and Lake Lope.
You must visit Monarch Grove when you are there.
It is a sanctuary for Monarch butterflies and from November to February each year, they create a fantastic sight that will warm your heart.
Julian started as a gold mining town. Tucked away in the Cuyamaca Mountains, with exceptional stands of pine and oak, this small town in Southern California is known for its apples and history.
Visit museums, art galleries and cafes offering cakes and cider from local farmers.
You can even learn to make your cider.
If you’re traveling with kids, you can pick up a Chamber of Commerce History Hunt card and go on an exciting tour that includes Julian Jail, Pioneer Cemetery, and many other fun places.
When you’re done, take a horse and buggy ride, or hunt for gems at one of the shops along Main Street.
For the adults, try a wine tasting that highlights many of the local vineyards.
10. Pismo Beach
Looking for a classic California beach getaway in a small town? Look no further than Pismo Beach. This city on the central coast has a wide sandy beach and a central pier that extends 1,200 feet into the Pacific Ocean. You can visit dozens of surf shops and beach cafes, but the real action happens on the sand and in the surf. At the Oceano Dunes Nature Reserve, you can ride horses on the beach and take ATV rides on the dunes. Take a dip in the water with a kayak tour of the sea caves at Dinosaur Caves Park. And if you’re looking for typical California surfing, book a lesson with Esteem Surf Co. Their motto is “Not Los Angeles, Not the Bay!” – everything is said.
11. Tahoe City
The city of Tahoe is proof of California’s diversity of landscapes and attractions. In the summer it’s all about life on the lake, and in the winter it’s all about skiing in the nearby Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. The tranquil epicenter of Tahoe City is Lake Boulevard, home to tall pine trees, great views of Lake Tahoe, and several local shops and restaurants. When you’re not touring Lake Tahoe, visit Commons Beach, rent a bike, and hit the Truckee River Bike Trail. No boat? Dive into the lake from the pier located in the Tahoe State Recreation Area, a popular camping spot. Tahoe City is a two-hour drive from the big city of Sacramento, but it could just as well be in another world.
Synonymous with California wine country, Sonoma is many things. It is a historic destination, a paradise for foodies and a dream place for nature lovers.
The historic center presents Mexican colonial architecture and the layout of the streets still follows the original plans designed by General Mariano Vallejo.
Considered the birthplace of California viticulture, each year residents celebrate the valley’s first Zinfandel grape with the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival.
You will enjoy Mission San Francisco Solano (the last Spanish mission in California), Sonoma State Historic Park, El Pueblo de Sonoma and the annual international film festival.
13. Nevada City
The entire city of Nevada City is considered by many to be a historical landmark.
Situated in the Sierra Nevada mountains, it is a former gold rush town that is now an idyllic natural wonder.
Brimming with charm, Nevada City has carefully preserved the original Victorian architecture created when the city was the third largest in the state.
It is regularly named among the best small cities in California, and despite its size, there is plenty to do here.
Enjoy a stroll through historic downtown, shopping including locally made crafts, the annual bike classic, First Friday art walks, and even try some of your gold pannings.
For lovers of outdoor activities, Nevada City offers great activities for kayaking, rafting, and boating.
14. The Second
Not much in California is remote, but El Segundo qualifies. This small town’s relaxing beach doesn’t draw the usual crowd because the waves tend to be a bit rougher here.
Which makes it perfect for those who want a getaway. The community is active, and residents pride themselves on a clean, safe, and accessible city.
Another escape from the cities and crowds is Ojai. Ninety miles north of Los Angeles, it’s the perfect nature retreat for city dwellers and tourists alike.
You’ll fall in love with the Spanish Mission Revival buildings like Arcade Plaza and the Los Padres National Forest, where you can hike around Topa Topa Mountain.
Ojai is known for its citrus groves and high-quality organic produce.
If you’re there in the spring, the hint of orange in the air adds a lovely touch to small-town life.
Visit the farmer’s market (with live music) to sample fantastic local produce, and if you’re into food, try a farm and food tour.
You can visit Regalo Olive Oil Ranch, Friends Ranch, Libby Park, several regional vineyards, and more.
Don’t forget to visit the Ojai Valley Museum and art center.
Montague was established in the mid-19th century and takes its name from the chief engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad, an industry vital to the growth of young cities.
Part of the appeal is the charm of the American Old West and the natural beauty that has been so well preserved.
Located in the Shasta Valley, it is a favorite destination for hot-air balloon lovers.
There is an annual Balloon Fair and it is just beautiful to see so many balloons floating above the valley floor.
Even with the Four Seasons resort opening in 2021, Calistoga is still the coldest town in the Napa Valley. This is where you go to relax, drink and repeat. The area is known for its natural hot springs and mud baths. Don’t miss Old Faithful, one of only three geysers in the world with “Old Faithful”. designation. (The other two are located in Yellowstone National Park and New Zealand, although the Calistoga Geyser isn’t all that dramatic.)
18. Saint Helena
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a livelier or more inviting community than St. Helena. Some call it Napa Valley’s Main Street because it represents the best of what the region has to offer.
The city itself is surrounded by Mediterranean-style vineyards and hills. Home to the Culinary Institute of America, this is a foodie’s mecca. It’s also something of a literary mecca, and if that’s your world, St. Helena is a virtual who’s who of writers and publishers.
The locals pride themselves on hospitality, fine wine, adventurous cuisine, wellness, and the arts. Enjoy the boutiques, restaurants and galleries, as well as hiking and biking.
19. Los Alamitos
It may seem like an odd combination, but Los Alamitos is famous for sugar beets and water polo.
Originally developed as a sugar beet ranch in the late 19th century, the industry that has grown around the first 8,000-acre farm created the city as it is today.
As for water polo, the US National Water Polo Aquatics Center is located here and is home to world-class athletes who train and compete here year-round.
Even the Los Alamitos High School team is ranked nationally.
The Spanish and Mexican influence can be seen throughout the city and the border with Mexico is quite close.
This is a city that routinely appears on every “Best of” list you can think of. The best of…California, small towns, vineyards, luxury destinations and old-fashioned charm.
As one of the Sonoma region’s crown jewels, Healdsburg has an edge on sophistication and pampering.
If you want to treat yourself to the best of the best, this is your place. It is charming and world-class.
Many say the river is the secret to Healdsburg’s successful vineyards.