Top 10 Best Small Towns in California

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The best small towns in California avoid the hustle and bustle of the state's larger cities and deliver on California's gleaming attributes without the crowds. ... read more...

  1. You'll probably arrive in town via inland Highway 101 before heading west, winding through coastal hills down to the water. When you arrive in town, you'll notice that you're a world away from the hustle and bustle of California's major cities to the north and south. Life in Morro Bay moves at a pace that is ideal for a "vacation for real people". Visit the wharf, where children of all ages will enjoy watching fishing boats deliver their daily catch. And you don't have to just watch; local restaurants like Bayside Cafe transform each day's catch into creative dishes like modern takes on fried clams and crabcakes.

    Stroll down Morro Bay's main street, stopping in at charming shops like Kites & Surreys and Revolve Thrift. Explore the outstanding parkland, such as Morro Bay State Park, or the nearby beaches. Relax in a comfortable, low-cost room at The Landing motel, with views of the bay — and the iconic Morro Rock — from your window. Morro Bay is one of those small towns that has such a strong emotional impact that a return visit is almost mandatory.

    Nature lovers will appreciate Montaa de Oro State Park's hiking opportunities along the rugged coastal canyon, El Moro Elfin Forest's stunted California live oaks, and Morro Bay National Estuary's rich habitat. Enjoy the outdoors by hiking, birdwatching, mountain biking, or canoeing at Morro Bay State Park, and learn about the city's unique culture at Morro Bay Maritime Museum.

    Photo by Alex Samuels on Unsplash
    Photo by Alex Samuels on Unsplash
    Photo by Derek Liang  on Unsplash
    Photo by Derek Liang on Unsplash

  2. Carmel-by-the-Sea is an utterly enchanting small town on California's Monterey Peninsula and an essential stop on any California road trip, as well as a place that could just as easily — and enjoyably — be done as a separate getaway. It's a small village with a single square mile of land. Within the minuscule footprint, however, there is a wealth of history, cinematic beauty, and fairy-tale charm.

    Carmel-by-the- Sea has, to some extent embraced its status as a tourism darling, though many residents are still dragging their feet. Today, the downtown area is home to wonderful galleries, Hansel and Gretel-worthy storybook cottages, high-end shops, restaurants, and, of course, the historic Carmel Mission. Visiting the numerous galleries is a popular pastime. Original works by local California artists can be found at the Carmel Art Association, Bennett Sculpture Carmel, and Galerie Plein Aire. It's also fantastically dog-friendly, so bring your pup. Beautiful beaches, coastal trails, and scenic drives can be found just off the main drag.

    Because Carmel-by-the-Sea has a mild climate, you can expect beautiful weather all year. However, the fall, dubbed the "secret season" by locals, is one of the best times to visit because of the warm, sunny days and crisp evenings that invite you to cozy up with a glass of local wine by an outdoor fireplace. One of the most exciting automobile events in the country is Monterey Car Week, which takes place in August. Classic car enthusiasts and collectors travel from all over the world to display and admire priceless vehicles, collect memorabilia, check out new models, and attend lavish parties. Because of its small size and walkability, you can see much of Carmel-by-the-Sea in a day or two, though that won't leave much time for exploring the side streets and discovering the hidden gems that lurk around every corner.

    Photo by mana5280  on Unsplash
    Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash
    Photo by Daniela Araya  on Unsplash
    Photo by Daniela Araya on Unsplash
  3. Spend some time in Solvang, a Danish village in the Santa Ynez Valley that looks and smells like Christmas all year, with twinkling lights at night and freshly baked goods served every morning. Solvang, a 45-minute drive from Santa Barbara, is a truly one-of-a-kind village brimming with activities, seasonal festivals, wine-tasting rooms, and delectable dining. Bring the whole family or plan a romantic getaway for two.

    Begin your day with a stroll down Mission Drive, the town's main thoroughfare. Explore the streets, walkways, and catacomb-like shopping nooks. To commemorate your Solvang adventure, you'll find a variety of interesting Danish-themed souvenirs. Shop your way through town for unique gifts such as wooden shoes, cuckoo clocks, and clothing. Stop by a few of the local bakeries and confectionaries along the way for tasty traditional Danish treats like aebleskiver (pronounced able-skeevers). You can find those fluffy, donut hole-like treats in a variety of bakeries and restaurants, but the most popular bites are available at Solvang Restaurant's walk-up window, which also serves Arne's famous aebleskivers.

    Between the shops, the streets are lined with mom-and-pop restaurants and local cafes, as well as a number of tasting rooms serving Rhone, Burgundy, and Bordeaux-style wines. Finish the evening with live theater at the Solvang Festival Theater, where you will be entertained under the stars. If you're in town in September, don't miss one of the town's signature events, Solvang Danish Days, which begins with a parade of Danish costumes and horse-drawn wagons. Explore the Old-World artisans' market, watch Viking-age re-enactments, toast your neighbor in the beer and wine garden, watch (or compete in) the aebleskiver-eating contest, and listen to old-fashioned storytelling by a local "Hans Christian Anderson." This is a truly one-of-a-kind and unforgettable event for visitors of all ages.

    Photo by Anthony Fomin on Unsplash
    Photo by Anthony Fomin on Unsplash
    Photo by Grant Thomas  on Unsplash
    Photo by Grant Thomas on Unsplash
  4. Paso Robles is a well-known, world-class wine region with 40,000 acres of vineyards that will amaze you with its rich agriculture, restaurants, stunning views, and one-of-a-kind outdoor activities. Explore the Pioneer Museum and the world-famous Hearst Castle and be prepared to get a little tipsy after visiting wineries, craft breweries, and artisan distilleries. The Paso Robles Downtown Wine District alone has over 20 Wine Tasting Rooms. By the way, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance is a fantastic resource for planning your wine tasting adventure.

    If you're not a wine drinker, Paso Robles has you covered as well! With locally brewed beers and spirits such as limoncello, grappa, and whiskey! Join the Paso Robles Distillery Trail or visit Tin City, an industrial-looking neighborhood with microbreweries, boutique wines, and an ice cream parlor. Enjoy the great outdoors by horseback riding through the vineyards with Central Coast Trailrides, boating or fishing at Lake Nacimiento, golfing at Castoro Cellars, ziplining, and other activities. Visit Studios on the Park to find your inner artist and get the perfect shot in front of the Paso Robles mural wall.

    It packs a lot of flavor for such a small town. Some of the wineries have full-service restaurants, and while in downtown Paso Robles, try Buona Tavola (a local favorite), have brunch at the Steakhouse at the Paso Robles Inn, visit Fish Gaucho, or grab a delicious hot sandwich at Red Scooter deli. Try their Rubenesque or Tuna Melt with a fresh salad to share and enjoy a picnic in the city park across the street. There is a wide range of cuisines to satisfy your every craving, from Thai to French to local Californian cuisine.

    Photo by Brenda Lai  on Unsplash
    Photo by Brenda Lai on Unsplash
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    Photo by Kevin Lanceplaine on Unsplash
  5. Top 5


    The Town of Avalon: Tucked away on Santa Catalina Island, approximately 22 miles off the Southern California coast, is a charming little town. To get to Avalon, take a ferry from one of three Southern California locations: San Pedro, Long Beach, or Dana Point. The fast ferry will take you there in about an hour. If you're feeling daring, you can also travel by helicopter, which will take you there in 15 minutes. The Town of Avalon, primarily a resort community, feels like a magical snow globe of wonder from the moment you step foot on the island—minus the snow, of course.

    One of the first things you'll notice about Avalon is the absence of automobiles. With the exception of golf carts, bikes, and a trolley, it is primarily a walking community due to vehicle restrictions. This adds to its allure. The pristine beauty of Avalon Bay surrounds the city of Avalon. The magnificent bay in the distance can be seen from every angle, with the city's reflection reflecting back at you. The colorful houses dotting the hillside add to the charm of this charming city. There will never be a dull moment during your stay in Avalon. You can begin your day by exploring the town's numerous walking paths. Explore the town's main street, which is lined with local shops and restaurants. A charming stretch of beach along the main street is always a fun way to spend some time.

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    Photo by Harshit Joshi on Unsplash
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    Photo by Amy Vosters on Unsplash
  6. You might think of the famous Mission San Juan Capistrano when you hear the name San Juan Capistrano. While that is a wonderful destination in and of itself, there is even more to love about this lovely small town in Southern California than you may have realized. Of course, the Mission must be one of your stops as you make your way through town. You'll appreciate the beautiful architecture and gardens. While walking around the grounds, pay attention to the interesting plant species around you. While there are many cactus species in Southern California, they are not always as bright and colorful.

    Following your visit to the Mission, make your way to the Los Rios Historical District, where you will fall in love with the fun shops, restaurants, and unique attractions. The buildings in the historical district are especially charming, and you'll adore the way they look. You won't find architecture like this anywhere else in the region, so it adds to the uniqueness of this district's experience. Sun-Dried Tomato Cafe, a sweet bistro with a delicious menu and tasty wine options, is one of the best restaurants in town. Everything from a light garden salad to a prime filet mignon is available. If you're craving Mexican food, El Adobe de Capistrano has all the classics as well as some incredible new ones.

    Photo by Yalimna Etnegoroska on Unsplash
    Photo by Yalimna Etnegoroska on Unsplash
    Photo by 12019 on Pixabay
    Photo by 12019 on Pixabay
  7. If you're looking for a quick day trip in Southern California, look no further than the small town of Los Alamos. It has a population of just under 2,000 people and is located in the Santa Ynez Valley. Before it became a town, the area was a hideout for famed bandit Saloman Pico, who inspired the character Zorro. The charming small town has no postal service, so residents must pick up their mail at the post office. With such a charming atmosphere, it's no surprise that this small town in Southern California is ideal for a day trip. "Los Alamos" translates to "the cottonwoods", and there are plenty of them in the area.

    The annual Old Days Festival is a fantastic time to visit. It takes place on the last weekend of September and celebrates the town's western heritage. A parade, car show, barbecue, and arts and crafts fair are all planned. It's a wonderful time for the entire family. The main street in Los Alamos is only about seven blocks long, but it makes up for it in character. You'll feel as if you've stepped onto the set of an old Clint Eastwood film. Los Alamos has grown in popularity among antique collectors in recent years. The Depot Antique Mall is a great place to find great deals on antiques.

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    Photo by Jonathan Saleh on Unsplash
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    Photo by Jo Van de kerkhove on Unsplash
  8. Top 8


    It's no secret that Northern California is home to dozens of "hippie towns" that appear to be frozen in time. The town featured here may be the largest hippie town of them all. When it comes to environmental issues, California has always been on the progressive side, but this town takes it to a whole new level. Furthermore, this town is home to a plethora of attractions and activities. It should undoubtedly be on your travel itinerary. Arcata is a city in Humboldt County with a population of about 17,000 people. Despite its origins as a logging community in the late 1800s, the town retains a distinct "hippie" vibe with a strong love for the environment.

    Walking through the town square, you're bound to meet some interesting people. The Plaza, as it is known, is home to dozens of small specialty shops and community spaces. Even Humboldt County's largest farmers market is held here. Humboldt State University is located in Arcata. Much of the hippie atmosphere can be attributed to the town's large number of college students. This is one of the last places that evokes the free-spirited era of the 1960s. The town has a sizable artistic community. It appears that art can be found almost anywhere. The town is famous for hosting an event called "The Kinetic Sculpture Race", in which artists create man-powered vehicles that resemble something out of a fantasy land. Arcata is perhaps best known for its extremely progressive politics. The town was the first in the country to have a majority of city council members elected from the Green Party.

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    Photo by Olga Subach on Unsplash
    Photo by iulian_ursache on Pixabay
    Photo by iulian_ursache on Pixabay
  9. Are you passing through the Northern California town of St. Helena? You won't be able to continue without stopping. This town is so charming and delightful, with beautiful wineries, delectable restaurants, and quaint shops that you will want to return again and again. Wine lovers will fall in love with St. Helena, which is the ideal peaceful setting for an afternoon of wine tasting. In fact, this town is one of Napa Valley's hidden gems. St. Helena is well-known for its picturesque Main Street. You'll enjoy visiting the mom-and-pop shops, one-of-a-kind wineries, and art galleries.

    The Franciscan Winery is one of St. Helena's hidden treasures. There are numerous wineries to visit in Napa Valley, but St. Helena's Franciscan Winery is one of the best, offering high-quality wines in a serene and welcoming setting. The winery is famous for its bold wines with vibrant flavors. It also doesn't hurt that the location is highly Instagrammable. Just look at that fountain, which is surrounded by autumn foliage. Del Dotto Vineyards has more delicious wine in a beautiful setting. Del Dotto offers barrel tastings in the historic caves of the vineyards. You'll learn about the winery's history and the Napa Valley while sampling some world-class vino.

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    Photo by Eric Muhr on Unsplash
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    Photo by Hector John Periquin on Unsplash
  10. Top 10


    If you haven't visited the picturesque small town of Ojai, you're missing out on one of the most beautiful places in Southern California. Ojai is one of the most idyllic places to visit, whether you're looking for a romantic weekend away, an outdoor adventure, or a spiritual retreat with time for solitude and relaxation. Everyone should go to this tiny Southern California town. This tiny town with less than 10,000 residents is located in Ventura County's Ojai Valley and is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, towns in the county.

    This boutique haven is only 45 minutes from Santa Barbara and 90 minutes from Los Angeles, making it easy to get to and from the region's larger cities. The setting of Ojai will take your breath away with its stunning mountain landscape and lush natural surroundings. When people gather on a Saturday morning to paint a picture of the magnificent setting, you know you're in a special place. What can you expect to see in Ojai besides its natural beauty? You're in for a surprise! The activities are virtually limitless, making it an ideal day trip destination in Southern California.

    Whether you enjoy hiking, biking, golfing, or anything in between, Ojai is a fantastic place to be outside. You could spend your entire trip exploring scenic trails in the Ojai Valley, which has over 24-miles of hiking paths. Visit Ojai during its annual food and wine festivals. If you're a foodie or an oenophile, plan your visit around the annual Wine Festival, which takes place in June at Lake Casitas. Alternatively, attend the annual Taste of Ojai, which takes place in October each year.

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    Photo by Brandon DesJarlais on Unsplash
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    Photo by Justin Aikin on Unsplash

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