Aerial view of Truckee, California.

12 Top-Rated Small Towns In California

With so much maritime scenery, it is no wonder that the sea is the main attraction here in the Golden State. You can catch the best from piers and boardwalks while the natural world abounds in whale sightings, tide pools, and aquariums. With history running deeper than the waters, there's the illustrious Cannery Row in Monterey, a former working-class hub turned entertainment district with vibrant shopping as well as dining and vestiges from the past at the Old Fisherman's Wharf.

For seabreeze and coastal pulchritude, there's San Clemente, the "Spanish Village by the Sea," Goleta with its scented streets and hills with lemons, and Palm Springs, just thirty minutes away from the Coachella Music & Arts Festival at Empire Polo Club in Indio. Truckee is an Old West year-round destination in the Sierras with the best skiing, where an artist hub unites with historical sites and an appealing shopping scene.


The beachside in Coronado, California
The beachside in Coronado, California.

This appealing island community, in a lover's embrace with the perfect soft-sanded beaches and Pacifica sunsets, is just a stone's throw away from San Diego. Coronado draws respite crowds for its intimate island feel, the ultra-family-friendly Coronado Beach, and deep historical sites. Case and Point, its crown jewel: the castle-like Hotel Del Coronado, from 1888, with russet-red turrets you can tour in the footsteps of the rich and famous people who stayed here, like Marilyn Monroe, while shooting the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot right alongside!

From scenic adventures to the sumptuous food lover's scene, The Del serves a Sunday brunch, while the Babcock & Story bar is favored for sipping craft beer overlooking the ocean. Nearby, Loews Coronado Bay Resort has a private 15-acre peninsula with water sports and a dog-friendly atmosphere! The diminutive island, with its elegant oceanfront mansions and tended gardens, is yours to explore on a rover from Holland's Bicycles, or you can stroll along Orange Avenue's shops, restaurants, and galleries. Take it away at Ferry Landing, where Il Fornaio Coronado and Peohe's offer dining over the sweeping San Diego skyline!

Del Mar

Aerial shot of Powerhouse Park in Del Mar, California.
Aerial shot of Powerhouse Park in Del Mar, California.

A retreat for the biggest movie stars in the golden era of Hollywood, Del Mar's scenic beauty is unreplicable! So, are you seeking a peaceful ambiance along pristine beaches with exhilarating views? The historic village, with its tranquil and stunning coastal outline of sandstone canyons and soft sands, delivers recreational activities and relaxation for days. Add in award-winning cuisine against those spectacular ocean views, and you've got a top-rated destination on a global level, all just within one very walkable town! From its impressive and unique collection of independently owned shops to spa services and upscale restaurants among casual cafes, you can stay in comfort with boutique hotels throughout the heart and easily navigate around on a bike, veering off to the beaches with trails, which are often dog-friendly.

There's never a wrong time to visit, with a calendar full of local events like Summer Solstice in June and Twilight Summer Concerts through September! Whether you are coming to "Taste of Del Mar" in September or meet "Santa by the Sea" in December, SoCal's perfect weather greets you alongside even warmer locals. Speaking of, mingle for cultural sights, fresh produce, and baked goods at Farmers Market every Saturday, perfect if you're coming for a weekend getaway with Del Mar Racetrack in the summer and fall racing seasons! The quaint seaside village meets all your "top-rated" demands, like its rich history, striking architecture with European charm, and stunning natural beauty. Just 20 miles north of San Diego, you can enjoy the winding trails at Torrey Pines State Park through cliffs and canyons to the beach and a small-town atmosphere of under 5,000!


The beautiful sea beach in Goleta, California.
The beautiful sea beach in Goleta, California.

The seaside beauty of Goleta, some nine miles northwest of Santa Barbara, is like a dream girl escape! Home to the University of California, Santa Barbara, and agriculturally rich lands in avocado-growing business and citrus trees, you can enjoy campus strolls from youth and really feel reborn as a smooth-bottomed baby after all the avo toasts and vitamin C-rich juices, and don't forgo the desserts! This slice of the Santa Barbara South Coast offers unmissable beaches to launch off on a paddleboard from Goleta Beach, with spiritual dolphin encounters and spirited sea lions!

Ellwood Mesa Open Space, with its rich biodiversity and crisscrossing hiking trails along the bluffs, is also great for casual biking, running, and horseback riding, with plentiful respite from the sun in the shade of trees! Sprinkled with opportunities for outdoor recreation, the flora and fauna here are some of the state's most breathtaking. Take the Coronado Butterfly Preserve part of the Mesa, for instance, all quaint 9.3 acres of it with more than monarch butterflies but native species of eucalyptus, coastal sage scrub, and birds. The serene Lake Los Carneros within the historic Rancho La Patera is a peaceful and insightful retreat minutes away, and those Santa Ynez Mountains are haunting in pair with the stillness of the lake!

Los Olivos

Downtown Los Olivos, California.
Downtown Los Olivos, California.

Welcome to Los Olivos, your personalized wine retreat in the infamous Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Santa Barbara! The charming town along the stagecoach route from San Francisco has been making a statement since 1861 as the weekend escape for Angelenos as well. The brand-spanking-new, highly anticipated 67-room Inn at Mattei's Tavern welcomes you for a stay in Auberge-collection style, while the nearby, beautiful Global Gardens offers olive oil tastings.

Onto the walkable downtown, you will find tasting rooms atop each other, all 27 with different vibes, like Stop in at The Bubble Shack for sparkling and E11even Wines for sample deep reds of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. See how many you can fit in between art galleries and a shopping spree with cafes in between. Rich in Victorian-style architecture, you can drool over sight and the sumptuous food scene, like the notable Nella Kitchen for dining at the Fess Parker Winery & Country Inn.

Mammoth Lakes

The boat dock at Mammoth Lakes, California.
The boat dock at Mammoth Lakes, California.

Winter wonders await this holiday season in an alpine lakeside dream that this town in the foothills of the majestic eastern Sierras inspires. Home to 8,000 people, the unreal scenery and slower local pace instill a sense of calmness with year-round experiences to commune with Mother Nature. The long-time settled spiritual place is now a destination to unplug and recharge over unfiltered adventures, fingertips away from the modern shopping at the village of Mammoth Lakes. From the most popular Westin Monache Resort to the charming Old Mammoth, you can seek entertainment in dining, the Beerpaloosa, and culture at the Mammoth Museum at the Hayden Cabin.

With skiing slopes down Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain ski areas, you can warm up at The Warming Hut bistro. From fly-fishing to mountain biking and camping in the summer, there are also hiking trails through untamed wilderness or the easy 2.5-mile loop around the crystal-clear Convict Lake against the towering Mount Morrison at 12,241 feet! The moderate and steady Rainbow Falls ascent culminates in a 101-foot waterfall spectacle, part of Devil's Postpile National Monument, and onto the leaf-peeping season, with no better than the Twin Lakes Vista Point!


Monterey, California.
Wildflowers growing by the beachside in Monterey, California.

Can't decide between the mountains or the beaches? Monterey, a quintessential SoCal town, has both, including the award-winning Pebble Beach with world-class golf courses! With a lovely spread of houses along a bluff, its curving sweep of the namesake bay appears on tons of magazine covers. From tides of history along Cannery Row to luxurious waterfront hotels, there is also Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the world's tallest, with the bay's secrets like colored jellyfish that resemble gliding aliens, adorable sea otters, and leopard sharks through 28-foot windows! The historic pier is great for catching a sunset over Monterey Bay or boating out to meet someone on a whale-watching or fishing trip.

Since the time that John Steinbeck called this strip "a poem, a stink, a grating noise," the sardine industry has evolved into a hub of restaurants, boutiques, and tasting rooms with scenic remnants of old cannery buildings along Old Fisherman's Wharf. With clam chowder from the wharf's many seafood restaurants to warm you up on a brisk evening, Montrio Bistro serves locally sourced seafood and organic produce within an art-filled, brick-walled interior of a 1910 firehouse. Handsome Monterey is a working-class hub turned chief entertainment town without the kitsch. You can discover its heritage, like burning Monterey Bay and lightning strikes at the insightful Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum.

Palm Springs

The beautiful town of Palm Springs, California.
The gorgeous town of Palm Springs, California.

A party atmosphere and calm vibes, with adventure over relaxation? Is that four towns? No, it is all here in the world-famous, unparalleled small town of Palm Springs! A real trendsetter, Palm Springs has been an iconic SoCal destination for generations, warmly welcoming new and returning visitors with a friendly spirit, entertainment-laden beaches, and a real art oasis. Don't think twice before visiting with your young family to relax at the sea views after adventures, like on the memorable Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world's largest rotating tram car.

From the Palm Springs Art Museum to its fascinating workshops and exhibits at the Architecture & Design Center, the Empire Polo Club in nearby Indio hosts the Coachella Music & Arts Festival, which you can plan to hit with your group. There are dozens of spas in Desert Hot Springs that the city sits on, while the nearby Joshua Tree National Park offers to stretch your legs over scenic ventures. You can always push through the bustling downtown, give your credit card exercise at one-of-a-kind boutiques, and hone down your desired star for a selfie along the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach, California.
Pismo Beach, California.

The town along the Central Coast, with the expansive attraction right in the name, will take your California beach experience to the next level! Despite its larger population of 60,000, the sandy beaches have room for you, your kids, and your grandma to find serenity in the sweeping Pacific views! The central 1,200-foot pier and the boardwalk offer dozens of surf stores and beach cafes with sunset views, overlooking the real action along the sand and in the surf. Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve is a real roaming ground for horseback riding on the beach and dune ATV tours!

From serene paddles in a kayak to a tour of the Dinosaur Caves Park with sea caves, you can even join the ranks of the esteemed California surfing crowds after a few lessons at the quintessential Esteem Surf Co. with "Not L.A., Not the Bay!"-motto. Replete with beachfront rentals, the Inn at the Cove is central along the beach strip, with Dinosaur Caves Park on the left flank and the immense Pismo Preserve breathing on it from behind, so you get the mix of sea and fresh forest smell through your window!

San Clemente

Metro commuter train entering San Clemente Pier Beach Station
Metro commuter train entering San Clemente Pier Beach Station in San Clemente, California.

This SoCal, Orange County gem along the Pacific coastline is midway between San Diego and Los Angeles. Having gained national prominence in 1969, President Richard M. Nixon chose the property here for his summer White House! San Clemente's roots reach even deeper to 1925 when Ole Hanson set off to create a development called "Spanish Village by the Sea." The town you have the pleasure of visiting today was named after the offshore San Clemente Island, named in turn by Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno. You can visit Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens from 1928, Hanson's bluff-top home—an aptly named attraction and architectural masterpiece.

Looking over San Clemente Pier, you can stroll along the pier and the shore—approximately four miles of shoreline with beaches. From the legendary surfing spots at the Trestles, there is the quieter T-Street Beach to practice at or the popular San Clemente State Beach for your family. If you are not staying at the epic Holiday Inn Express San Clemente-Beach Area, the architectural Casablanca Inn is right near Roco Park with a playground! From downtown strolls with a Spanish edge, there's also San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and Camp Pendleton, a U.S. Marine base, as well as access to Cleveland National Forest.

St. Helena

Historic buildings in St. Helena, California.
Historic buildings in St. Helena, California.

Welcome to Napa Valley, where it only takes a few steps along the thoroughfare to get charmed with top attractions in the one-of-a-kind atmosphere of a Main Street town. From chic shops for unique finds to art galleries, the cafes will hold you over until it is time for a fine-dining restaurant of your choice! The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone attracts foodies for cooking demonstrations and tours in the building from the late 19th century, a former Christian Brothers Winery in the early 1900s! You can stay at the top-rated Meadowood Napa Valley or choose Alila Napa Valley along Main Street with a pool.

Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park offers a glimpse into the town's history with industry, including the 36-foot water wheel and grist mill from the 1800s that helped it thrive into what St. Helena is today—a destination for the latest tastes and styles. The laid-back and friendly community with many businesses inside the historic stone and brick buildings is only five square miles, with 22 of them on the National Register of Historic Places. Just 20 miles north of Napa's vineyards and state parks, St. Helena has plentiful wine-tasting rooms with Napa's renowned cabernet sauvignon, like Beringer and Charles Krug, the two landmark wineries held responsible for the happy and hoppy crowds.


Aerial view of Trinidad, California.
Aerial view of Trinidad, California.

Just below the Oregon border, the bluff-top hamlet of Trinidad overlooks the harbor at Trinidad Bay with picture-perfect headlands. The beautifully rugged coastline is idyllic, with rocky outcroppings and ten beautiful beaches, like College Cove, the northernmost secluded section of Trinidad State Beach. Surfers gather at Trinidad State Beach, while the broad and sandy Moonstone Beach attracts sunbathers and beachcombers. You can get the best views from the cement Trinidad Pier, jutting out into Trinidad Harbor as the state's northernmost oceanfront pier. Refurbished in 2012, it's popular for strolls, local crabbers, and shade in the shadow of a massive rock with a crown of greenery. From its Seascape Restaurant for a hearty bowl of chowder to a local Humboldt County microbrew, the nearby Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse is open for tours.

With so much maritime scenery, you can stay at the Trinidad Bay Bed & Breakfast Hotel, which has a staircase to a rooftop overlooking the sea and the coolest structure in the front yard. With only 360 locals, there's much more wildlife to spot around, like whales and tide-pool creatures at Indian Beach, just south, as well as starfish, among other species at Humboldt State University's Marine Lab. Though tiny, Trinidad's history runs deep, rooted in the site of the first human settlement on California's north coast. The Yurok Indian village of Tsurai—in existence for at least a millennium—was "discovered" by Spanish explorers in 1775. You can tour the Yurok Village at Patrick's Point State Park, just 15 minutes north, for history, camping, and hiking.


Historic homes in Truckee, California, USA.
Historic homes in Truckee, California.

This charming mountain town in the Sierras is the central hub for the North Shore, with quick access to Lake Tahoe's northern coastline just 20 minutes away. Truckee reminisces about its Old West in the stylized downtown along Donner Pass Road, with more history at the Museum of Truckee History (MoTH), the Truckee Railroad Museum, and the Old Jail Museum. Truckee has been a California Cultural District in its entirety since 2017, with one-of-a-kind boutiques and galleries. With highlights like Gallery 5830', Mountain Arts Collective, and Riverside Studios, you can browse the handiwork of local artists of all mediums, including sculpture, hand-blown glassware, and woodwork.

For the best unique home decor, there is the curated gift store, Bespoke, with a mountain edge, while the independent bookstore, Word After Word Books, focuses on local history and nature, as well as a stocked kids' room. The outdoor 20 Mile Museum offers numerous interpretive signs with insights into ice harvesting, ski history, and Native American petroglyphs, while Alibi Ale Works at Truckee Public House hosts the largest beer garden with live music and a family-oriented restaurant. Truckee Certified Farmers Market opens from mid-May until mid-October with top-notch produce, freshly made meals, and baked goods to mingle with the local crowd. Nature abounds here at the California-Nevada border with over 22 miles of scenic paved paths, like the 9.1-mile loop Truckee River Legacy Trail along the Truckee River or the Sparkling Donner Lake in Donner Memorial State Park.

With a gorgeous coastline for every taste, from rocky outcroppings to white-sand beaches, California is a naturally blessed state to visit year-round. You will find the best skiing and hiking in the deep Sierra wilderness, with northern redwoods and home turf for surfers in the popular Pismo Beach, Trinidad, and Venice Beach—the spring breakers' favorite. Trinidad is built on the site of the first human settlement on California's north coast, and St. Helena is a destination for the latest tastes and styles rooted in the hard-working mill workers from the 1800s. This laid-back and friendly Main Town is also just 20 minutes from Napa, a not-so-secret top place to wine.

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