California attracts millions to its big cities annually and is one of the largest states in America by area. However, tucked between its major tourist destinations are charming small towns that offer a uniquely personalized version of what can be found in major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Despite their similarities of climate and proximity to one another, these towns emphasize unique themes and communities to attract visitors. While some accentuate European cultures with their architecture and cuisine, others leverage agricultural advantages, like a few wine-producing towns on this list. It can be challenging to rank these towns in order due to how far apart their offerings are, but it is safe to say that hidden gems in The Golden State do not get any better than this.
The beloved Danish-themed town of Solvang is headlining the list, which offers a continental trip and a mix of American and European cultures. Spot the classic Dutch windmill located near Copenhagen Dr, indulge in delectable pastries, and immerse yourself in a European atmosphere that’s uniquely Californian. Aside from the distinctive theme offered, Solvang is located in Santa Ynez Valley, giving the town another charming aspect: its nature. The panoramic mountain views of colorful trees are mindblowing in the fall and make the city one of the prettiest Christmas towns in the winter.
On the rugged Northern California coast, Mendocino exudes artistic flair with its small, locally owned galleries and boutiques while emphasizing natural beauty as its tourist advantage. The Victorian Village downtown makes for the perfect evening stroll after enjoying what the town offers: hiking trails, glass-clear beaches, and ocean-side vistas. Poplar “Ind-style” art in the area can be found at Highlight Gallery, Anderson Alternatives, and the popular Lynn Prentice Gallery. From craftsy sculptures to abstract paintings of local creatives, you’ll get a real sense of an American small-town feel when visiting Mendocino.
The creative community of Carmel By The Sea makes it worth your visit, as it is home to a range of caring, artistic locals who project beauty onto the town’s streets, houses, and boutiques. Another reason to visit the quaint town is Carmel Beach, a popular beach escape destination, rating the city “One of America’s top beach Towns.” Browse the town’s business district on Ocean Ave, and support local efforts at The Carmel Art Association, Gallery MAR Carmel, and Gallery-by-the-sea while exploring.
On to an agricultural scene balanced with a classy downtown atmosphere, Ojai’s valleys are lands for various produce, including grapes and olives. The fresh production plays a key role in the town’s booming culinary scene of up-scale restaurants and posh tasting rooms. For an inclusive dining experience, walk down Ojai Ave, offering everything from vegan-themed fast food parlors to top-of-the-line dining like Ca’ Marco Ristorante Italiano and The Nest.
Located 69.3 mi from San Francisco, Healdsburg is yet another wine-producing town that makes it onto our list of the best small cities in Califonia. A wine enthusiast’s paradise, the first thing to do when in Healdsburg is checking out the local vineyards to start your exploration in a more amenable state of mind. Once you check the vines off your list, get a sense of the local community and stroll down Healdsburg’s Historic 19th-century plaza, titled one of America’s six “Most Romantic Small Towns” by CNN Travel.
Avalon is a captivating blend of coastal beauty and adventurous spirit that tailors to the vacation experience with a range of Spas, Resorts, Water Tour experiences, and beautiful Pink-sky sunsets. Popular getaway attractions include Catalina Island Inn and Hotel Vista Del Mar for the best hospitable experience. To get a better sense of local culture, stroll the Main St of Cresent Ave and the surrounding business area near Avalon Bay to shop for a local dining experience at locally acclaimed restaurants and family-owned parlors like the Avalon Grille, Big Olaf’s Ice Cream Shop, and El Galleon restaurant.
This Victorian town, nicknamed Cream City for its booming dairy industry, is located in Humboldt County and boasts ornate architecture like The Famous Butterfat Palaces. Downtown buildings narrate their story with Gothic Revival, Italianate, Eastlake, and Queen Anne designs. An educational experience on American culture that can be lived at certain resorts and rentals, like the Victorian Inn, Gingerbread Mansion, and Ye Old Danish Inn, each with its unique design. Visitors seeking outdoor activities can explore Russ Park, the 100-acre Bird Sanctuary, and Tennant Lake Park to hike and explore the town’s scenic nature.
Nevada City and Murphys, listed right after, are two towns that offer a distinctive side to the state than any other town on this list, as it was of significant importance to migrants in the gold rush era. Nevada City attracts visitors from all over to witness well-preserved remains of the golden age and get a stronger sense of what southern America was like. Miners Foundry, Malakoff Diggins State Park, and the Gold Quartz Discovery Site are all excellent destinations to learn more about the town’s historic gold Heritage.
In the heart of the Sierra Foothills, Murphys blends history, wine, and outdoor adventure in what was once a gold mining town of great significance. The town’s gold rush history dates back to 1848, and it is now known as a wine-producing small town lined with over two dozen different tasting rooms. Alchemy Cafe, Ironstone Vineyards, and the Community Club are some popular attractions to visit when in town.
Known for its rugged outdoors and abundance of hiking trails, Idyllwild is an outdoor-centric escape offering pine-fresh air and challenging rock-climbing spots. The town has been a hotspot for filming world-class movies when producers aim for a wild-west, nature-rich backdrop. Notable movies filmed in Idyllwild include Bonanza, Riders of the Range, and Storm Over Wyoming. The Grand Idyllwild Lodge, The Creekstone, and Strawberry Creek Inn Bed & Breakfast are relaxing resorts in the secluded wilderness that make up for a perfect romantic escape.
A gateway to Lake Tahoe, Truckee captures the essence of the Sierra Nevada. Enjoy year-round outdoor pursuits, from winter skiing to hiking and summer water activities. Along with Idyllwild are perfect all-year-round destinations, offering vibrant nature all year round. Downtown Truckee calls for a calm evening between the mountains, whether spent at upscale restaurants or a local pub. Petra Wine Bar, Trokay, Truckee Tavern, and Grill offer some of the town’s best dining experiences.
Cambria defines the meaning of a Typical American beach town with its art galleries, oceanfront hiking trials, and absence of mega shopping centers and chain stores. The calm, small village also enjoys abundant historic tales narrated through its iconic buildings. Notable historic homes and landmarks in the area include Maggetti House, Westendorf/Dickie House, Camozzi’s Bar, built in 1922, and not to forget the oldest house in the area, The Guthrie-Bianchini House.
A peaceful beach mountain town brings us closer to the end of our list. The city is built along Big Bear Lake and offers abundant outdoor activities, from ice skiing to skating and fishing in fresh water. The town is rich with different vacation stays and waterfront rentals if you turn your visit into a calming, romantic escape. Local dining in Big Bear can be found on Pine Knot Ave, with places like Saucy Mama’s Pizzeria, Peppercorn Grille, An Ran Ju Gelato & Teahouse.
Back to one of the agricultural charms of The Golden State to wrap up our list of the 14 Small Towns In California ranked among US favorites. Sonoma is one of the all-time favorites because of its contrast of settings. In Sonoma, you get a balance of farmlands and beaches, allowing visitors to indulge in some of the most inclusive farm or ocean-to-table dining experiences. Visiting Sonoma for an escape falls more onto the classy side of things. Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa, and The Lodge at Sonoma Resort are some of the best places to kick back and relax during your stay at Sonoma.
Although California is one of the wealthiest and most prominent states, this list of 14 small towns perfectly represents the state’s diversity and allure. Each destination presents a unique slice of California’s multifaceted charm, from the coastal beauty to the mountain tranquility. Whether you’re seeking artistic inspiration, outdoor exploration, or a taste of local culture, these towns will capture your heart and offer a refreshing escape from the urban hustle.