People walking around in Avalon, California, via Darryl Brooks /

10 Picturesque Small Towns in California for a Weekend Retreat

California is a panoramic state with amazing topography. From beaches along the Pacific coast to the San Gabriel Mountains, California offers every type of landscape. Of course, the sunshine and vibes have been popularized in many pop songs, but there is also snow, fall foliage, and everything in between.

Bigger cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco often come to mind when people think of traveling to California. However, numerous scenic small towns and villages also hold their own against their larger counterparts. Here are ten picturesque towns that are ideal for a weekend retreat.


Street view in Avalon, California
Street view in Avalon, California

Avalon is the only town on the world-famous Catalina Island and is perfect for a ritzy weekend getaway. The only ways to get to Avalon are by boat or plane, and once you arrive, make your way to Crescent Street. Known by locals as Front Street, this main thoroughfare is where you'll find the shops, Wrigley Fountain, and the Serpentine Wall, two landmark attractions on the island.

Boats anchored at Avalon Harbor.
Boats anchored at Avalon Harbor. Image credit Darryl Brooks via Shutterstock

For those looking for a bit of adventure, check out the Catalina Island Company's ocean tours. They offer an undersea sub expedition, glass-bottom boat tours, and more. Other attractions include the casino, which opened in 1929, and the Catalina Island Museum of Art and History. This glamorous seaside town offers a perfect mix of luxury and natural beauty.


Aerial view of Healdsburg, California
Aerial view of Healdsburg, California

While Napa Valley is a destination for wine lovers, the nearby Sonoma Valley, close to the Russian River, offers plenty for weekend vacationers. Start by visiting Healdsburg and its marvelous town square, which boasts many tasting rooms and shops. Book a room at the Montage with a zero-edge pool overlooking the vineyards for an upscale stay.

Healdsburg boasts 90 vineyards and Michelin-star restaurants like The Single Thread and Barndiva. The Plaza offers a fountain and gazebos to relax after a busy afternoon of dining and wine tasting. If you find yourself in Healdsburg during the week, be sure to check out the live music at the Plaza. There is also an annual jazz festival held here every summer.


Carmel, California: shopping on main street with luxurious boutiques all around,
Carmel, California: shopping on main street with luxurious boutiques all around, via oliverdelahaye /

Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the prettiest and most unique towns on the West Coast. Near the famous Pebble Beach, Carmel-by-the-Sea offers panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and a scenic hiking trail that goes around the peninsula. Alongside the museums, the town is known for the historic Carmel Mission.

Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Image credit David A Litman via Shutterstock.

In town, follow the cobblestone walkways through European-inspired architecture, hidden passageways, and coves to find spectacular dining and shopping or a path to the beach. Carmel, as it is commonly known, has 60 eateries, including La Balena and Pangea Grill. This town, which once had Clint Eastwood as its mayor and has no residential mailboxes, is a charming way to spend a weekend unwinding.

Los Alamos

Welcome sign, Bell Street, Los Alamos.
Welcome sign, Bell Street, Los Alamos.

Los Alamos is a quaint Old West agricultural hub and a modern vino destination. Notably, Emilio Estevez and Kurt Russell have tasting rooms here. The town is famous for being home to the last Pacific Coast Railroad Station and has evolved into a gastronomical and wine scene that is gaining recognition.

Vineyards like Bedford, Casa Dumetz, and Los Alamos stand out here, and the food scene reflects the elegant vino atmosphere. For an authentic experience, book a room at the 1880 Victorian bed and breakfast, the Union Hotel. Renting a bicycle and cruising down Bell Street is another popular attraction. Los Alamos melds Old West aesthetics with a modern vibe for a great weekend trip.


Main street, street view, and tourists in Solvang.
Main street, street view, and tourists in Solvang. Image credit HannaTor via Shutterstock.

If your dream trip to Scandinavia is not in the cards, consider heading to Solvang. This central California town emulates Danish culture, from the architecture to authentic pastries, cheeses, and even downtown windmills. The Elverhøj Museum of History & Art showcases Solvang's impressive history through personal stories and artifacts.

Another highlight is the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum, a collector's dream. Winter is a magical time to visit, as the town hosts a month-long Danish Christmas celebration starting in November. While Solvang is quite pedestrian-friendly, taking a trolley tour is a guided way to explore.


The charming town of Bishop, California.
The charming town of Bishop, California. Editorial credit: MarieKaz /

Bishop is a classic mountain town at the northern end of the Owens Valley, renowned for its abundant natural scenery and outdoor activities like mountain climbing, camping, and fishing. Beyond its natural beauty, Bishop boasts historical landmarks.

The Laws Railroad Museum, an eleven-acre exhibit, is registered as a Historical Landmark. It features a train donated by the Pacific Coast Railroad in 1960, with guests able to ride in the restored Car #5 on select weekends. The Wanaaha Casino is another popular attraction for weekend leisure.

Three Rivers

Scenic rural landscape in Three Rivers, California.
Scenic rural landscape in Three Rivers, California. Image credit Konoplytska via Shutterstock

For those seeking outdoor adventure, Three Rivers is an ideal destination. Positioned against the massive redwood forests bordering Sequoia National Park, it's perfect for whitewater rafting, hiking, and camping. The Slick Rock Recreation Area, popular with both visitors and locals, is a great spot for swimming and sunning along the Kaweah River.

In addition to outdoor adventures, there are attractions in town as well. The Kaweah Post Office claims to be California's utopian postal service, housed in a one-room wooden building. The Gateway Restaurant and Lodge and the River View Restaurant and Bar offer scenic dining experiences. Three Rivers is an excellent place for unwinding with nature while enjoying "in-town" amenities.


Downtown Main St. West End in Cambria, California
Downtown Main St. West End in Cambria, California, via randy andy /

Cambria is situated halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, known for its historic architecture and art galleries. Riding a bicycle down Moonstone Beach Drive is almost a rite of passage in this coastal town. The path runs along Moonstone Beach, named for the moonstone agate scattered throughout the sand.

The Cambria Historical Museum offers a prime opportunity to learn about the town's history, dating back to the 1860s. This former ranch is available to rent for special events. There's a Farmer's Market on Fridays, and it's worth arriving a day early to grab some local produce and soups. The Stolo Vineyard, located in Cambria, features a tasting room and live music on select dates.


The quaint town of Idyllwild, California.
The quaint town of Idyllwild, California. Image credit: APK, via Wikimedia Commons.

Idyllwild is renowned as a rock-climbing destination due to its proximity to Tahquitz Peak and Lily Rock, offering a perfect mountain getaway for those looking to avoid big crowds. The Nature Center boasts five acres of hiking trails, a museum, and Native American cultural displays.

The downtown area is small and can be easily explored in a day, with popular sites like Ephemera and Candy Cupboard among its local shops. Staying at the Idyllwild Bunkhouse enhances the rustic aesthetic, as all rooms offer views of the forest and feature authentic wood paneling.


Street view in Sausalito, California
Street view in Sausalito, California, via f11photo /

Sausalito, located right across the Golden Gate Strait from San Francisco, boasts a vibrant culture and arts scene, a bohemian atmosphere, and spectacular views of the Bay. Popular attractions include the Boardwalk, Waldo Point Harbor with its houseboat community, and the Marine Mammal Center.

The downtown area is a haven for shoppers seeking to avoid the crowds of more populous cities. The Sausalito Ice House Museum, a historical site once serving as a railway car in the late 19th century, is open for daily tours. No trip is complete without walking the 0.4-mile trail to Battery Spencer, which offers breathtaking views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

California's small towns offer a mosaic of experiences that capture the state's diverse cultural heritage, breathtaking landscapes, and vibrant arts scene. From the historic charm of Cambria and the rustic allure of Idyllwild to the picturesque waterfront of Sausalito, each town presents a unique gateway to exploring the less-trodden paths of California. Whether you're drawn to serene coastal views, mountain adventures, or the rich tapestry of local art and history, these destinations promise unforgettable weekend retreats. Embracing everything from European-inspired architecture to the natural beauty of the American West, these towns are jewels in California's crown, waiting to be discovered.

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