Pescadero, California.

7 Best Small Towns in Northern California For A Weekend Escape

Northern California encompasses the area that is above Fresno, including the San Francisco Bay Area, and higher up until Oregon. The north of the Golden State is home to wilder coasts, remote beaches, and scenic bluffs. Head inland, and you will find sparse coastal redwoods growing thicker into forests.

There are many marvelous coastal towns for any budget, with unique Northern California flavors and sights. Discover the best towns on a weekend escape and enjoy the nature around you through a broad range of outdoor pursuits, like visiting wine country with its unique flavors at a fair cost. These towns singularly boast the best of Northern California in one concentrated place.

Bodega Bay

Fishing boats and yachts in Bodega Bay, California
Fishing boats and yachts in Bodega Bay, California.

Bodega Bay is a cute little town in Sonoma County with just over 864 residents, who proudly call the setting of the infamous Ansel Adams film and Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" their home. The family-friendly town has no shortage of ways to keep any group engaged during a memorable weekend escape. Find this bucolic and occasionally mysterious enclave along the renowned Highway 1.

Park by the beautiful trail jutting out four miles into the Pacific over a trail-spliced peninsula. Enjoy the easy hike through the engulfing waters to the tip. You can picnic while gawking at the overwhelming ocean vistas with migrating whales or head back to refuel on Bodega Bay's staple Dungeness crab at Spud Point Crab Company. Head inland to explore the charming downtown Bodega with famous historic architecture like the Saint Teresa of Avila Church and Potter School House from Hitchcock's horror classic.


Colony of harbor seals in front of the village of Bolinas in California, with the babies playing in the mud
Colony of harbor seals in front of the village of Bolinas in California, with the babies playing in the mud.

Bolinas is a match made in heaven for weekenders looking to relax within some of the state's best views. The beautiful town with only 1,441 residents can be a reclusive place that avoids being in the spotlight. You will hardly find any markers along the Pacific Coast Highway. However, nothing stops the relentless tourists from finding this Marin County enclave with a GPS. 

Meet some of them at Smiley's Schooner Saloon, the oldest saloon west of the Mississippi since 1851, and visit the charming Coast Cafe for an authentic fisherman-style seafood meal. Bolinas is also a must-visit for the astounding Bolinas Lagoon, an Audubon Important Bird Area. Make your way over to the other side of the lagoon to visit the famed Stinson Beach, which is a destination in itself.


Small stores along the sidewalk in Carmel, California, USA.
Small boutique stores along the sidewalk in Carmel, California.

Carmel is an upscale small-town retreat from the city with a European-village atmosphere unlike anywhere else in the US. Find lovely Carmel-by-the-Sea on the Monterey Peninsula, 26 miles north of Big Sur and two hours south of San Francisco. Enjoy strolls along the tranquil tree-lined streets leading to a quiet, white-sand beach on a weekend escape. It is also a perfect excuse to gorge on gourmet dinings, like at Clint Eastwood-owned and restored Mission Ranch, which serves delicious fare with a Western flair. Bring your canine companion to this, one of the most dog-friendly places in California, to enjoy the beach alongside you and go window shopping or visit some of the stores.

Stroll along the Dutch-inspired fairy tale village, where you will find a vibrant blend of Spanish colonial-style architecture and low-key Mediterranean glamor. Find the Ocean Ave. thoroughfare replete with boutique and specialty stores like Fjorn with Scandinavian furniture, home goods, and gifts in hygge style or the Cottage of Sweets with British-style candies. The Aubergine, part of the L'Auberge Carmel, is the most celebrated restaurant and glitzy hotel. 

You can visit the nearby McWay Falls or Point Lobos State Natural Reserve for scenic seaside hiking along the rocky bluffs over the waters with sea otters and sea lions. Stroll by the local artists' canvases and head to Stationæry to dine on elegant comfort food. The Brophy's Tavern serves pub fare, like bougie grilled cheese sandwiches and cold draft beers. 

Half Moon Bay

Beach and seaside cliffs at Half Moon Bay California
Beach and seaside cliffs at Half Moon Bay, California.

The small town sits amid a vast, diverse landscape with miles of wide, sandy beaches overhung by lush, meadow-topped bluffs. Half Moon Bay is an enviable weekend escape with all types of pursuits, from surfing and water sports to hikes through the rolling, forested hills. Discover the fascinating culture of the northern coast on a stroll through the vibrant working harbor. Peruse the historic Main Street with over one hundred small, local businesses, like boutiques, eateries of all styles, and stunning art galleries. Head to one of the many restaurants for dinner that use locally sourced ingredients from the surrounding farms and gardens.

Enjoy discovering a diverse marine ecosystem on a fishing trip or taking a kayak or stand-up paddle-board ride to explore the waters. The blend of coastal vibes and the rich Old West heritage of the town lends itself to most romantic strolls, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "walking into the sunset." Take an evening stroll along the architecture and landmarks, or head to the beach at this most magical time. Half Moon Bay is also home to two world-class waterfront golf courses and nighttime entertainment.


Mendocino, California
The quaint town of Mendocino along the Pacific coast of California.

With a population of around 850, Mendocino is one of the cutest and northernmost towns in this part of the state. It is the heart of a less visited wine country, where you can taste, sip, stroll, and relax on a weekend respite with unbeatable ocean views without other groups. Mendocino's delicate, floral wines thrive in the cool environment, where you will pay a fraction of the price for a bottle or few than you would in Napa and Sonoma.

The sight of the enchanting town atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific is just as magical as the streetscape itself, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Stroll along the glorious architecture downtown and visit the nearby Foursight Winery for a glass of its winner, Pinot Noir, while taking in the stunning ocean views. Choose from flavors less accessible in other parts of the state to bring home, like the white Alsatian-style Rieslings and Gewürtztraminers.


Pescadero, California
The coastal town of Pescadero with the Pigeon Point Lighthouse visible in the distance.

Pescadero is a hidden gem on the San Francisco Peninsula, with more famous neighbors like Pacifica and Half Moon Bay. Find Pescadero just two miles inland from the San Mateo Coast. The town, with only around 580 residents, feels like a blissful weekend retreat where you can immerse yourself in light-hearted pursuits and sights easy on the eyes. Stop by the beautiful Pescadero State Beach or head just a few miles south to the stunning Pigeon Point Lighthouse for a view and Instagram shot with which few other lighthouses in the state can compete.

Pescadero downtown is none-the-less picturesque and strewn with opportunities to spend the best weekend. Enjoy ample cultural pursuits during the day and great entertainment into the night. Head on a simple morning stroll along the white picket fences, to a steepled church, and the quaint main drag. Immerse yourself in the small-town atmosphere of this artichoke-growing community at one of the coffee shops or cute eateries over lunch. Families love cooing over baby goats at the Harley Farms Goat Dairy and tasting deliciously fresh goat cheese. Choose a unique flavor like honey and lavender for a unique souvenir that you might devour during the ride home.


grape vines at a vineyard in the spring in Yountville Napa Valley, California, USA
Grape vines at a vineyard in the spring in Yountville, Napa Valley, California.

Yountville is a really special place in Northern California, with colorful hot air balloon sightings over the glorified Napa Valley, spread around. Set base in this little town on your next visit to the wine-rich region and enjoy the most scenic morning strolls amid vast land and the blue sky overhead. Reserve an aerial journey with Napa Valley Bike Tours, or bring your own two-wheeled friend. You will love breezing through the sunny area, slowing down at the vineyards to enjoy the scenery, and stopping at popular wineries.

Chandon is a famous winery with highly respected sparkling wine choices to try over a tasting, food pairing, or a lesson on making champagne cocktails. Pick up a bottle and head to the atmospheric lawn to enjoy several glasses in good company within scenic views. Yountville is also renowned for its award-winning restaurant scene, including Thomas Keller's Ad Hocand Bouchon Bistro and the best American fare at the local favorite, Mustards Grill.

These charming towns are quaint little hotspots for a real weekend respite from the daunting feeling of the city. The natural world in this part of the state is a must-experience, like the magnificent grey whales in the distance making waves that crush upon the white-sanded beaches and against scenic bluffs. Explore lagoons with plenty of bird-watching opportunities and hike through the coastal redwoods along the bluffs to the edge for a sunset picnic. Enjoy nature's bounty with a glass of wine overlooking the ocean. 

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