Historic district in Marysville, California

11 Oldest Founded Towns To Visit In California

California is one of the most visited states in the country, drawing millions of tourists every year to experience its beautiful beaches, vast national parks, and vibrant cities. However, beyond its contemporary comforts, California has a rich history and cultural heritage that can still be experienced today. Many of the state's oldest towns offer a unique glimpse into California's past and the foundations it was built upon. 

These historic settlements showcase what life was like for early pioneer colonists and remain captivating places to visit today. All the towns own rich histories and charming atmospheres well worth experiencing firsthand. So, set the stage for an immersive journey back in time in these oldest-founded towns you can visit in California.


Franklin Street in historic downtown Monterey.
Franklin Street in historic downtown Monterey. Editorial credit: Albert Pego / Shutterstock.com

Monterey’s history dates back to 1770, when Captain Gaspar de Portola and Farther Junipero Serra started a mission on the Monterey Bay, around which the town grew. Today, you can visit Monterey’s historical centerpiece at the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, which is also California’s oldest stone building. The Colton Hall Museum and Jail is another historical gem in Monterey and among the state’s most historically significant buildings. This 19th-century structure was constructed as a public school and meeting hall. However, it is best remembered for being the birthplace of California, as this is where the constitution was crafted. 

Besides its history, Monterey’s coastal location on the Monterey Bay presents stunning natural surroundings, best exemplified by Point Lobos Natural Preserve. Visitors come to the park to soak in rugged ocean views, hike, dive, and spot diverse aquatic animals. 

San Luis Obispo

 A charming beach town in San Luis Obispo County, California.
 A charming beach town in San Luis Obispo County, California. Image credit HannaTor via Shutterstock.

This beautiful town along California's scenic Central Coast is home to around 48,000 residents. Steeped in history yet full of modern spirit, SLO offers the perfect blend of culture and outdoor adventure. History buffs will find much to explore at the iconic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, established in 1772 as the first Spanish mission among the indigenous Chumash people. Its well-preserved architecture provides a portal to the past. Nature lovers will want to challenge themselves with the climb up Bishop Peak, which culminates in sweeping views of rolling hillsides from the summit. 

SLO is also renowned for its vineyards and among its top establishments is Wolff Vineyards, where guests can sample crisp Chardonnays and bold Pinot Noirs in a chill atmosphere. Downtown, the thriving arts scene comes alive at the esteemed Performing Arts Center San Luis Obispo. World-class musicians, plays, and dance performances draw in locals and visitors alike to appreciate creative local talent.

San Juan Capistrano

Courtyard of Mission San Juan Capistrano in California at dusk
Courtyard of Mission San Juan Capistrano in California at dusk, via Alizada Studios / Shutterstock.com

Like most historical towns in California, San Juan Capistrano developed around a Spanish mission founded in the town in the 18th century. Tourists flock the town to discover its rich cultural roots stretching back over two centuries. One of the first stops in the town for history enthusiasts is the landmark 1776 Mission San Juan Capistrano. Considered the birth place of Orange County, you can walk the grounds of this well-preserved complex, now a museum and chapel, to get a glimpse into early Spanish colonial life in the region.

A more immersive journey into the past awaits along the quiet streets of the Los Rios district, the oldest continually inhabited neighborhood in California. This is an opportunity to examine centuries-old adobe structures and experience a uniquely blended culture thanks to the eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, and bars. While there, don’t forget to stop by Ysidora Restaurant and Lounge to enjoy flavorful cuisine in a picturesque and peaceful setting, enhanced by soothing live music as you dine.


Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California.
Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California. Image credit StephanieFarrell via Shutterstock.com

Aptly nicknamed the "Queen of Southern Mines," Sonora has been a hub of activity since 1848 when Mexican miners established the town in the midst of the Gold Rush frenzy. It is steeped in mining heritage and remains a treasure trove for history buffs. At the Tuolumne County Museum, visitors can explore local history by perusing artifacts, photographs of colorful characters, and tales that shaped the region. Just a short drive away, the Columbia State Historic Park hosts a series of immaculately preserved buildings portraying life in the boomtown era. 

Those wishing to escape city streets can embark on the scenic Dragoon Gulch Trail, which winds nearly 2.5 miles through oak woodlands alongside a pristine seasonal creek in the backcountry. Finally, culture vultures can take in a live performance at the renowned Sierra Repertory Theater, which has for years captivated audiences with dramas, musicals, and comedies. 


Benicia, California: This State Building California's Third Capitol building, located in the small community of Benicia
Benicia, California: This State Building California's Third Capitol building, located in the small community of Benicia

With a legacy dating back to 1847, Benicia is one of the oldest towns to visit in California. It houses a charming display of vintage architecture on historic structures spanning the Wild West and California Gold Rush eras. Notable sites in Benicia include the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, which hosted the California State Legislature between 1853 and 1854. A guided tour lets guests peruse period interiors, archive documents, and educational information from the bygone eras. You can get a more vivid look into life in Victorian-era Benicia at the Fischer Hanlon House, constructed in 1849 by Joseph Fischer. Those with an affinity for the open spaces will fancy exploring the diversity of Benicia State Recreation Area, home to a unique mix of grassy hillsides, secluded marshes, and rocky beaches. The nature space attracts adventurers, from hikers and bikers to anglers and birders. 


Elks Building on Miner Steet Downtown in Yreka, California
Elks Building on Miner Steet Downtown in Yreka, California, via CL Shebley / Shutterstock.com

Sitting just south of the Oregon border, this northern California town came about during the gold rush era, when prospectors discovered gold nuggets in 1851. The city retains evidence of its storied history at the Siskiyou County Museum, which takes visitors on an immersive journey into the town’s formative years. You can follow up this historical experience with a tour of the Franco-American Hotel, a historic inn turned museum with a vast collection of antique photographers, old memorabilia, and other archives. 

Yreka’s colorful heritage can be seen in its thriving arts scene, presenting several venues staging various live performances for the public’s entertainment. A good example is the Siskiyou Performing Arts Center, which allows audiences to enjoy enthralling Broadway-level shows. Those who’d rather explore the open spaces can check out Greenhorn Park, a popular recreation hub for hikers, picnickers, biking, anglers, and kayakers. 


Historic buildings in Eureka, California
Historic buildings in Eureka, California

Tracing its storied beginnings to the 1850s, Eureka emerged as a historic port town along California’s rugged North Coast. A stroll through Old Town Eureka exposes you to elaborate Victorian homes lending the district a rustic charm, portraying the era when lumber and shipping ruled this remote region. History buffs will find various gems to discover, including the Morris Graves Museum of Art. Housed in a neoclassical 1900s building, its collection features works primarily from local artists hinting at Eureka's artistic spirit.

Nearby, a visit to Fort Humboldt State Historic Park transports you back to the 1800s military post where President Ulysses S. Grant once resided. Meanwhile, animal lovers can head to the Sequoia Zoo for an educational experience amidst towering old-growth redwoods within Sequoia Park. Within the surrounding Sequoia Park, thrill seekers enjoy taking on the intimidating Sky Walk, which rewards with panoramic coastal views worth the scare.

San Gabriel

Mission Playhouse in San Gabriel
Mission Playhouse in San Gabriel, By Laurie Avocado, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Of the twenty-one Spanish missions in California, the fourth one sits in this delightful town in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley. Established in 1771, tourists can still visit the historic church, Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, which marked the town's birth. Several historical markers allow you to delve deeper into the region’s past, including the Ramona Museum of California Museum. This remarkable facility focuses on state history, presenting it through a fine collection of artifacts dating back to 1887. 

But San Gabriel is known for more than its colorful history; the local arts scene is just as impressive, hinting at the town’s exceptional cultural heritage. The San Gabriel Mission Playhouse sports a Spanish architectural style façade and has been a mainstay since its construction in 1927, entertaining the public with movies, plays, and concerts. For outdoor enthusiasts, Vincent Lugo Park provides a laid back atmosphere with quirky animal sculptures as the perfect backdrop for a photograph. 


Marysville, California: Traffic passes through historic downtown Marysville.
Marysville, California: Traffic passes through historic downtown Marysville, via MattGush / iStock.com

Popularly known as “California’s Oldest Little City, Marysville traces its founding to 1843 when settlers began arriving from the East. However, the town’s history stretches further back to when the native Maidu tribe inhabited the territory for millennia. Today, you can find various historic sites that are a testament to Marysville’s storied past. The Mary Aaron Memorial Museum has been a mainstay in the town since its construction in the mid-1800s. It continues offering a window to old-world Marysville through its period furnishings and artifacts. Bok Kai Temple is another gem worth checking, dating back to 1880.

The Taoist temple was once the hub of a bustling Chinatown, and a tour introduces intricate Chinese traditional architecture. But history isn’t the only thing you’ll be soaking in in Marysville; Lake Ellis presents a lovely atmosphere for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy picnicking, camping, photography, hiking, and sightseeing. 

Crescent City

Crescent City, California: Street view near the Ocean World Aquarium. Sea lions figure on foreground
Crescent City, California: Street view near the Ocean World Aquarium. Sea lions figure on foreground, via Victoria Ditkovsky / Shutterstock.com

After being established in 1853, Crescent City gained prominence as a thriving trade and shipping hub servicing miners during the boom era. This port city in Del Norte County is a mixed bag of experiences, famous for its imposing redwoods, picturesque lighthouses, and dynamic wildlife shows. The lighthouses are a must-visit, providing some of the best sights in town, and Battery Point Light, a registered National Historical Landmark, is among the state’s first lighthouses. Adventurers can immerse in the surrounding wilderness inside Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, spanning 10,000 acres of old-growth redwoods.

However, the best spectacle in the city awaits at Ocean World, a beautiful aquarium known for staging thrilling shows for the whole family. Visitors and locals alike assemble at the venue to watch dynamic seal and sea lion shows and wonder at the exotic marine species behind the tank glass. 


Petaluma River downtown in Petaluma, California.
Petaluma River downtown in Petaluma, California.

Petaluma’s storied beginnings date back to 1858, when it was founded in the Bay Area region. Its charm lies in the beautiful outdoors and a bustling downtown with an acclaimed food and wine scene. Lovers of the open spaces have multiple pursuits to be one with nature, including hiking and birding in the 80-acre Shollenberger Park and wildlife watching in Helen Putnam Regional Park. Strolling through downtown Petaluma exposes you to a vibrant corridor with a mix of fun businesses worth checking out.

The wining and dining landscape stands out thanks to multiple classy restaurants and wineries treating tourists to tantalizing flavors. You can stop by The Shuckery to sample scrumptious seafood or Stockhome for some Swedish cuisine before downing it with a fresh glass of wine at Sonoma Portworks. 


The oldest towns to visit in California provide a unique window into the state's fascinating history and roots. From the lively port city of Eureka to the tranquil vineyards of San Luis Obispo, each settlement tells the story of the hardy pioneers who established early colonial outposts in the late 18th and 19th centuries. While modern life has transformed these places over time, exploring their hidden historical gems, travelers can experience the lasting impacts of the missions, forts, and Gold Rush boomtowns that shaped the Golden State in those formative years. 

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