People pedal on surrey bikes past the Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, California. Editorial credit: Sherry V Smith /

11 Unforgettable Small Towns to Visit in Southern California

“Facing west from California’s shores, Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound, I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the land of migration, look afar, Look off the shores of my Western sea, the circle almost circled… But where is what I started so long ago? And why is it yet unfound?”

Above is a poem titled Facing West From California’s Shores by Walt Whitman. The central theme of the poem is the joy to be found in exploration and the journey itself. It was written at a time when America was expanding its borders. Heed Whitman’s call to discovery and journey through some of the unique, quaint small towns that Southern California has to give. These villages not only feature unforgettable natural beauty and wildlife but are also home to enchanting downtowns, historic landmarks, and many fun activities for couples and the whole family.


The Verbal Building in Claremont, California, with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background in Claremont, California
The Verbal Building in Claremont, California, with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background in Claremont, California, By Sdkb - Wikimedia Commons

The town of Claremont lies in the Pomona Valley, at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It’s roughly 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Incorporated in 1907, the town has beautiful period architecture, mature tree-lined streets, a thriving art scene, and is home to several colleges and universities. There’s the First Saturday Art Walk, Inland Pacific Ballet’s The Nutcracker in December, the Annual Wildflower Show and Festival every April and the Midsummer Shakespeare Festival, among other cultural events throughout the year. Be sure to visit Packinghouse Wines for a unique food and wine pairing experience. Two other must-see sites include the historic 1927 Santa Fe Depot and the nearby Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.

La Cañada Flintridge

La Cañada Flintridge, California: Descanso Gardens
La Cañada Flintridge, California: Descanso Gardens, via JWCohen /

Known to locals as simply La Cañada, the town is in the Verdugo Mountains in Los Angeles County. It’s a picturesque town with a lot to discover. If you want to experience the nature La Cañada has to offer, Descanso Gardens, Mount Wilson Observatory, and Cherry Canyon Park are some excellent local options. If one is interested in period architecture and history, consider stopping by The Lanterman House. Built in 1915 this craftsman home is on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum highlights fascinating stories of those who settled the region. There’s also the LA County Public Library, which is one of the largest libraries in the United States and of course one is near all the Hollywood sightseeing attractions, as well.

Laguna Beach

Street view in Laguna Beach, California
Street view in Laguna Beach, California, via PICTOR PICTURES /

The charming beach town of Laguna is a haven for artists and offers enticing natural beauty and fun-filled activities for all. Of course, there are water sports and relaxing sunbathing and beach walking. This is one of the best beaches in California, with seven miles of coves and magnificent canyons. The climate is warm and mild all year round, perfect for enjoying the outdoors. The town is also known for its world-class festivals. The Sawdust Art and Craft Festival offers food, entertainment, and booths for local artists to display their amazing creations. The Pageant of the Masters has been a world-famous event for over 90 years, where some of history’s most iconic paintings and artworks come to life. There’s also a first-rate foodie scene and boutique shopping. Nick’s is a personal favorite with delicious, fresh seafood and a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean.

San Clemente

Overlooking San Clemente, California.
Overlooking San Clemente, California.

Known as the “Spanish Village by the Sea,” San Clemente is the southernmost town in Orange County. It’s located directly across from the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton on the inland side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. San Clemente was also home to former US President Richard Nixon. The 15,000 square foot Spanish-style mansion overlooks the Pacific and was dubbed “The Western White House” by the media, when Nixon was in office. Despite its laid back beach town vibes, there’s plenty to see and do. San Clemente Pier is a popular boardwalk, where one can get up close with the ocean views. There’s great surfing, fishing, and general water sport activities to be enjoyed at the state beaches. For a dryer experience, head over to the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center, where the walls are lined with surfboards from different eras, showing the progression of the sport. San Clemente Coastal Trails offers miles to walk along the water and train tracks to explore nature. The Farmers Market is the place to find local honey, fruits, vegetables, other foods, and fresh flowers. The San Clemente Outlets provide for an excellent shopping experience. Consider ending the day with a cool one at Left Coast Brewing Company.


Store fronts with tourist checking out the different spots in Ojai, California
Store fronts with tourist checking out the different spots in Ojai, California, via J Marquez /

Near beautiful Santa Barbra is the rural town of Ojai. This small town has long been a favorite of the artistic community. Here you’ll find local painters, woodworkers, potters, and sculptors with their works on display at local galleries such as, Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, Flrestick Pottery and Dan Schultz Fine Art Gallery and Studio. The town is also known for its festivals like the Ojai Music Festival, Wine Festival, 4th of July Parade, Taste of Ojai and the Holiday Home Tour and Marketplace. The Ojai Valley Museum shares the art, history, and culture of the town. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy Ojai Meadows Preserve and the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy. Discover Ojai on horseback with the Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company.


Aerial view of Fallbrook, California
Aerial view of Fallbrook, California

Many Southern California locals are unaware of the small town of Fallbrook, located in North San Diego County, inland from Oceanside of the 76 freeway. Fallbrook isn’t one’s typical Southern California town. It looks more like old town America. It used to be home to one of Hollywood’s most celebrated filmmakers, director, writer and producer, Frank Capra, known for films like It’s A Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart. The downtown has cute little shops and restaurants like 127 Social House, where one can enjoy a beer and Bavarian-style pretzel. There are parts of the town that feel quite rural, with views that rival Italy and the South of France. Historical landmarks include the Heritage Center and the Palomares House and park. Known as the “Avocado Capital of the World,” Fallbrook plays host to the ever-popular Avocado Festival in April.

Seal Beach

View of the beach at sunset in Seal Beach, California
View of the beach at sunset in Seal Beach, California

Once known as Anaheim Landing in the mid-1860s, the area was a warehouse and wharf where Anaheim Creek emptied into the Pacific. Incorporated in 1915, Seal Beach is a coastal town in Orange County known for its greenbelt. Other than all the beach and water activities, the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge offers 965 acres of coastal nature to investigate. Discover Old Town with a stroll along Main Street where all the best shops and restaurants are located. Joanne’s Antiques has a variety of local jewelry and unique pieces to suit every taste. The Seal Beach Red Car Museum is a great place to see vintage trolley cars that were frequently used in the 1920s, before personal automobiles became commonplace.

Dana Point

The beach and marina at Dana Point, California.
The beach and marina at Dana Point, California.

Known for its beaches and surfing at Doheny State Beach and Salt Creek, Dana Point is a lovely little coastal town in Orange County. Dana Point Harbor, with its quaint marinas, is the perfect place to find an upmarket hotel, like the Laguna Cliffs Marriott and resort, for a longer stay or to enjoy a meal while looking out at the Pacific. The town has seven miles of coastline with stunning bluffs and gentle rolling hills. It’s been dubbed “The Whale Watching Capital of the World,” and there are lots of opportunities to experience nature on land and at sea. Consider heading over to the Pirate Sea Cave Tide pool Walk. The downtown is charming and quite walkable. One thing to check out is the Lantern District. The streets in this area are named after maritime signal lanterns. These lanterns were used by traders to signal ships to come in port, with their color-coded messages. At one time, there were as many as 150 copper lanterns on the streets of the town, but today there are only a few lamp posts left. The Dana Point Historical Society has done a good job preserving some of the romance of that era.


Rods and Roses classic holiday car show in Carpinteria, California
Rods and Roses classic holiday car show in Carpinteria, California, via  L Paul Mann /

The small seaside village of Carpinteria is just southeast of Santa Barbara. The town was once a Chumash village during pre-colonial days and was referred to as Šujtu. Located in the foothills of the surrounding mountains, there are fields of flowers, avocado farms, and ranches. The same coastal bluffs and grassy beaches grace this beautiful village, but today, there’s a downtown with antique shops and restaurants. Other than exploring Carpinteria State Beach, there’s Harbor Seal Preserve and Rookery with its abundant nature and wildlife. The Worker Bee Café is the place for a sweet breakfast or an afternoon coffee or go for something more substantial at the Padaro Beach Grill. Be sure to visit Wardholme Torrey Pine where one can see the largest known Torrey Pine tree, which is over 130 feet tall with a 20 '5'' trunk circumference and is over 130 years old.


 Hotel del Coronado and other buildings in Coronado, California.
Hotel del Coronado and other buildings in Coronado, California.

The resort town was founded and later incorporated in the 1800s. Coronado is Spanish for “Crowned,” and it is a true crown jewel of San Diego. The tied island is close to the city of San Diego, and before the 1969 San Diego-Coronado Bridge, it was only accessible by ferry. In the late 1800s, the now historic Hotel del Coronado was built, a lovely wooden Victorian beach resort, which is considered by many today to be one of the top resorts in the world. By the 1900s, the island was developed into a resort destination. The north part of the island was established by the US Navy prior to WWII, and today, in addition to the Naval Base, it’s home to the training center for the Navy SEALs and Special warfare combatant-craft crewmen. Orange Avenue, until 1939, was crowded with street cars, today it’s filled with boutique shopping and restaurants. Every 4th of July, there’s an excellent patriotic parade down Orange Avenue with the nearby active and retired military and their vehicles participating. The downtown is walkable with sidewalks and friendly to cyclists. One will find Cape Cod, Victorian and Spanish homes on the island.


Sunny afternoon view of the public City Hall of Blythe, California
Sunny afternoon view of the public City Hall of Blythe, California. Image credit Matt Gush via Shutterstock

The town of Blythe is located in Riverside County near the California/Arizona border and the Colorado River. The downtown has a small village-feel with classic shops and solid restaurants. The Palo VerdeValley Railroad Depot is a great place to explore the region's past. The Blythe Geoglyphs are mysterious ground drawings of humans and animals that are likely 400 to 2,000 years old. They have long intrigued historians and anthropologists. The Cibola National Wildlife Refuge offers something special for nature lovers and birders. Mayflower County Park is a great spot to pitch a tent and do some camping, while experiencing all the river has to offer with fishing and water activities. The 1920 St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church is worth a look and has become a spiritual pilgrimage for some.

The Unforgettable Small Towns of SoCal

Each one of these towns offers a different experience to be had, away from the busy cities, to get back to nature, visit some remarkable historical sights and enjoy a day of shopping, fine food and drink. Hopefully this article has sparked one’s travel itch for a weekend getaway or a day trip. Keep the spirit of discovery alive and enjoy the journey!

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