San Juan Capistrano and its famous Los Rios Street, California.

11 Coolest Small Towns in California for a Summer Vacation

The Golden State is an eclectic mix of rich outdoors, world hubs, and scenic enclaves, which are ideal for a summer vacation with engaging attractions for everyone. You may be visiting small towns but passing big-time names, like the famous Golden Gate Bridge separating San Francisco from Sausalito. Drive along the scenic Highway 1 or to the lusciously giving Sonoma wine region, with its ripe fruit wines and cheese galore. Pay a visit to one of the most historic towns in California, San Juan Capistrano, from the 18th century, with some of the most unique sights and nature in California. These small towns will cater to and exceed expectations offering views of the Pacific Coast and lakeside towns, drawing all kinds of summer vacationers.


Aerial panorama of Hotel del Coronado and other buildings in Coronado, California
Hotel del Coronado and other buildings in Coronado, California.

Coronado is a small but lively town of around 20,000 residents, living in one of California's coolest places and ranked the best for a summer vacation by Leisure & Travel magazine. Often overlooked for more famous locales around, Coronado offers a change of pace from the hustle and bustle and a respite from the city with a vast choice of engaging pursuits without the tourist vibe. Enjoy easy access just outside of San Diego and explore the small town on foot.

Dive into the multiple events throughout the summer, like regular live music downtown every afternoon on the weekends along the scenic Ferry Landing, as well as a wealth of shops, diners, and museums for every taste, like the Coronado Museum of History and Art. The SoCal town is your refreshing escape into cool summertime feels, along the pristine beaches lapped by clear waters, and the quaint, Orange Avenue that will keep you occupied for days without a common stop, including boutiques, galleries, and theaters.


Boats in Humboldt Bay, Eureka Harbor, Eureka, California
Humboldt Bay, Eureka Harbor.

Starting with its name, the coastal town of Eureka emanates coolness from the core along the Pacific shores of Northern California. The small town is a dream come true for any summer vacationer with its fine mix of elegance and the West Coast's wild vibe. Feel engrossed in historic charm on a stroll through the most atmospheric Old Town, a real pride of the region, with its old, ornate Victorian homes like the grand Carson Mansion.

Feel equally captivated along the shores of Eureka's pristine beaches while exploring tidepools and local wildlife, from sea lions to bobcats and deer. The Lost Coast Trail, just outside the town, offers jaw-dropping views of the coast for 25 miles on a hike. You can dive into the serene Sequoia Park Garden on a stroll or bike ride and take a scenic drive down the Redwood Highway. Let all the coolness sink in as you finally relax at the most picturesque beachscape views by the water.

Hermosa Beach

Colorful dawn in Hermosa Beach, California
Stunning Hermosa Beach, California.

What can be cooler than finding yourself in a 70s surfer vibe city under 200 days of sunshine a year while being immersed in a small-town atmosphere? The nostalgic town of under 20,000 is a cool place to spend a summer vacation along the lovely Santa Monica Bay. Moreover, in just twenty minutes from LAX or Burbank, you can begin the best summer vacation of your life with a bang during the Fourth of July weekend, which the town takes seriously.

With all that sunshine, you can get away from the city any time of the year to immerse yourself in Hermosa Beach's special Peter Pan vibe. Stroll along the pedestrian-only Pier Avenue, which is strewn with shops and restaurants for several miles along the ocean. Head to nearby Manhattan Beach, with its walking and biking paths, for days spent chilling and atmospheric evenings at outdoor concerts throughout the town. When it is time to recharge, the Palmilla is authentically Mexican, while Hook & Plow serves the best seafood.


Rocks and beach of Russian River emptying into Pacific Ocean at Jenner, California
Russian River emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Jenner, California.

Under two hours north of San Francisco, along the Sonoma Coast, the small town of Jenner is high on cool and doesn't know the meaning of crowds, with only 31 locals. Jenner is a friendly town with a foggy beach and a "twilight-zone" feel that gives it a chill vibe, ideal for an unplugged weekend. Visit during the summer to catch the blooming wildflowers that cover the coast in a riot of color through June and more remarkable nature at Sonoma Coast State Park.

Grab a local brew at Cafe Aquatica for a stroll along the beach, and find your spot for the day's relaxation to enjoy stunning vistas of the magical Northern California coastline with waves rolling in. Watch the kayakers' comic attempts on a windy day, or just close your eyes to the sound of the surf that laps at your feet as you slip into zen. The roadside pink-and-white-striped Patrick’s Salt Water Taffy shop sells hundreds of taffy flavors, 20 minutes out of town to continue your vacation in Bodega Bay.

June Lake

Beautiful art crafts saw at Gull Lake in June Lake loop, California
Gull Lake in June Lake loop. Image credit Kit Leong via Shutterstock

The stunning small town set beneath breathtaking craggy peaks is nothing short of a heavenly California slice. Land in this cool place amid alpine lakes with plenty of outdoors to pursue in any way you like. At 7,654 feet in the Eastern Sierra, the town rightfully boasts the "Switzerland of California" title, with an authentic mountain feel sans the tourist trap vibe that bigger places north and south of June Lake receive. Do not miss the turnoff into this picture-perfect base, with plenty to see and do all around, with both Mammoth Lakes and the stunning Yosemite National Park nearby for your favorite summertime ventures.

Find the four local lakes of June, Gull, Silver, and Grant along the June Lake Loop road, as well as several campgrounds. Enjoy days by the water and nights one-on-one with nature under the stars. Take one of the trailheads and peruse downtown, which has a wealth of shops and galleries. Choose from spa-like lodging options for rest and rejuvenation or go bare-naked style at a woodsy cabin where nature will do all the magic healing of your mind, body, and soul, as well as motels and B&Bs in between.

Pacific Grove

Homes along the beach in Pacific Grove, California
Beach in Pacific Grove, California.

Zip down the scenic Highway 1 along the coast to land in Pacific Grove. The town sits nonchalantly at the tip of the beautiful California coastline that protrudes to the other side of Carmel Bay. This cool alternative to the more crowded or expensive places around Monterey and Carmel is the undulating "Butterfly Town USA" on the route of thousands of monarch butterflies passing through in October on their way to winter in Mexico. Though you may miss the magical scenery on a summer vacation, you have more than enough reason to return after falling head over heels in love with the town.

There are influences of the "butterfly effect" all throughout Pacific Grove, in images on the street signs and store awnings and constant banter about them. Stop by the cozy BookWorks bookstore and coffee shop for some morning java and a book to read at the beautiful Lovers Point beach, just a quick shot away. There is also the Mindshop for a touch of cool-weird with its beautiful Zen garden in the back. Come in the fall to see a real monarch sanctuary with the bright butterflies that envelop the trees and fill the air.

Pismo Beach

sun setting on Pismo beach pier
Pismo beach pier at sunset.

The small town along the central coast delivers a dose of classic California beach culture to immerse yourself in through cool experiences. Enjoy the chill vibe along its white sand beaches and the central jutting pier for 1,200 feet into the Pacific Ocean. There are dozens of surf shops, telling of all the cool and exciting ways to engage yourself in the waters, and just as many beach cafes to check out and recharge after.

Relax and enjoy real action along the sands, and visit the Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve for a sightseeing hike. Take up their offer to experience horseback riding along the beach or take an ATV tour through the dunes. Dive into the waters with swimming, a kayak tour around cool sea caves at Dinosaur Caves Park, or join in on the quintessential California surf experience with Esteem Surf Co. for cool ways to handle the waves.

San Juan Capistrano

Outside of Mission San Juan Capistrano, Landmark, Chapel, Museum and Gardens
Outside of Mission San Juan Capistrano.

This small SoCal town with a long and fascinating history since 1776 is a cool place to visit and linger for a diverse summer vacation in California. Established as the 17th mission of the state, San Juan Capistrano, or San Juan, changed flags from Spain to Mexico and finally the US in 1848. Enjoy the immersive history at the Los Rios District on a sightseeing stroll through this state’s oldest neighborhood and the cultural heritage that pertained to this day with countless historic sights, like Montanez Adobe and Capistrano Train Depot.

The hidden gem within Orange County is awesome for a chill summer vacation amid refreshing nature, like the cool Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park for some stunning and unique flora and fauna. Kids love the fun, of Los Rios Park, while adults enjoy the scenic heritage artifacts and displays at the O’Neill Museum. Let yourself loose in one-of-a-kind places like beautiful boutique shops and top-notch restaurants. The Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano is a must-visit, as is the Old Barn Antique Mall, for an unforgettable shopping experience. Take a trip over centuries of history in this cool town, just an hour south of LA and an hour north of San Diego. It is a story of evolution and a glimpse of California life as it once was.


The colorful houseboats of Sausalito, California
Houseboats of Sausalito, California. Image credit James Kirkikis via Shutterstock

You can drive or bike right to Sausalito, on the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge, from San Francisco. This gorgeous bayfront town delivers a dose of cool coastal scenery like no other, soaked in historic charm through the heart and with enviable waterfront real estate views along Galilee Harbor and Waldo Point Harbor. Immerse yourself in the colorful houseboat community appeal with a vibe of San Francisco sights without the crowds on a laid-back summer vacation from the urban scene that is right at hand.

Take the atmospheric Sausalito Boardwalk along locally owned shops and eateries to the famous black-sanded Rodeo Beach. It will hold you captive for days by the sea with unbelievable scenery that will imprint in your mind as most magical. Check out the historic Battery Spencer with its stunning panoramas and military history of the area, and head to Vista Point for the best bay views and a particularly romantic sunset. The all-around cool town offers a vibrant shopping scene, quality dining by the water, and the notable Bay Area Discovery Museum, right at the bridge's foot, with fun natural education for the entire clan.


The City Center of Sonoma, California
Downtown Sonoma, California.

Just 45 miles north of San Francisco, this cool town with a laidback vibe is also the most charming in one of California’s best wine regions. Set amid the scenic and fruit-bearing Sonoma Valley, you will find over 400 wineries with unique flavors that boast worldwide recognition. Enjoy wine tastings throughout your summer vacation and stock up on some great quality bottles to take with you at lower prices than in Napa Valley.

Check out Buena Vista Winery or the family-owned Iron Horse Vineyards, and follow the California Cheese Trail with tastings. Try cheesemaking and check out Sonoma’s Vella Cheese, or go straight for an evening of shopping, dinner, and entertainment at the Sonoma Plaza. Enjoy the wholesome small-town appeal with locals, cheery from wine running through their veins, and the Cali sun that ripens all those grapes to oh-so-juicy. Enjoy a stroll through the colonial architecture and fascinating statehood history within the town's center or take a hike along the Sonoma Overlook Trail for breathtaking views of an Italianate landscape.

Tahoe City

People enjoying the beach at Lake Tahoe, California
Beach at Lake Tahoe, California. Image credit Asif Islam via Shutterstock

This cool California town, which was the host of the 1960 Winter Olympics, is not just a cool winter destination for all the skiing and snowboarding you can do on the champions' footpaths. Immerse yourself in a real small-town feel during the summer with fun attractions and plenty of nature to enjoy without crowds. The name, Tahoe City, is only somewhat misleading, but the small-town appeal along the gigantic Tahoe Lake is real. Enjoy the banks and the city-size waters through your favorite summertime recreation, relaxation, and water fun from the beach.

Stroll, bike, or drive along the immense shoreline to a chosen spot and enjoy cool activities or simply chill, including boat rentals. Visit Emerald Bay State Park for breathtaking vistas and take the Eagle Falls Trail, which has plenty of cool, shaded places for a picnic, photoshoots, and wildlife sightings along the way. Come for the winter holidays for all the snow fun and shredding at nearby Squaw Valley, now a world-famous ski resort with international fame and flair.

Find undulating nature throughout the Golden State in blooming meadows with flowers, colorful monarch butterflies, emerald caves, and black beaches. Enjoy hikes through state parks and reserves and seek lavish white-sand beaches, or choose one headed by craggy cliffs and with all types of surf. Enjoy all the same California sunshine kissing your face and watch the sunset from the shore with the lapping waters at your feet, an oceanside restaurant, or over the craggy bluffs pounded by violent waves. The vibrant state is full of juxtaposing scenery, like historically charming towns bounded by waterside mansions or boardwalks with exclusive boutiques.

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