Street in Ferndale, California. Image credit mikluha_maklai via Shutterstock

7 Most Beautiful Historic Towns in California

The Golden State is perhaps most known for the glitz and glamor of Tinseltown, the wealth of Silicon Valley, and its beaches and natural wonders. Prized for its perfect climate, California offers myriad outdoor activities, from downhill skiing to surfing. Often forgotten, however, is the hidden treasure of California’s small historic towns.

Many of these Gold-Rush-Era towns date back to the mid-1800s and offer visitors a chance to journey back in time to the state’s Wild West past. From the Native Americans who shaped the land to the pioneer settlers, immigrants, and miners. The tales of guts, glory, booms and busts, and the legends of gambling and gun battles are told in the preserved agriculture of the historic downtowns, their museums, and local attractions. Join us on a tour of the best historic small towns of California and find the inspiration for one’s next getaway. 


The historic 1898 Courthouse in downtown Auburn, California.
The historic 1898 Courthouse in downtown Auburn, California.

The town of Auburn sits at the base of the Sierra Nevada range. Surrounded by gentle hills and graced by the American River, the town offers many natural beauties. Auburn is a Gold-Rush-Era town that was founded in the mid-1800s. What is now the town of Auburn was once home to over 2,500 gold mining camps. The first discovery of gold in the region that made the town known was by Claude Chana, a Frenchman. By 1860, Auburn had become a thriving town of roughly 1,300. Today, when visiting Old Town (the historic district), one will find many well-maintained 19th-century buildings. Landmarks to visit include Placer County Courthouse the Recreation Area, with its Bernhard Museum Complex (to learn more about the area). Some commercial attractions are the Auburn Alehouse, Flower Farm Inn, and the Auburn State Theater. 


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

Sonora is another Gold-Rush-Era town from the mid-1800s, making it one of the oldest towns in the state. At one time Sonora was a Wild West town, full of gambling, guns, and greed. The town’s mines were abundant, and Sonora became known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines.” The town’s wealth in the late 1800s and early 1900s allowed the residents to build lovely homes and brick buildings that today make up the treasured heart of the downtown’s historic district. Sonora is in the Sierra Nevada foothills, bounded by the Stanislaus River and enveloped by wooded mountains, making for many stunning vistas. Landmarks worth seeing are the Tuolumne County Courthouse, Railtown 1897 Historic Park, Veterans Memorial Hall and Military Museum and the Sonora Opera Hall. Consider stopping by the Indigeny Reserve for some fresh apple cider and Columbia State Historic Park to get in touch with nature. 

Nevada City

Main street in Nevada City, California
Main street in Nevada City, California, Editorial credit: Chris Allan /

One of the best-preserved Gold Rush towns in the state is Nevada City. The mining and supply town became a hub for trade and a vibrant art scene. Immigrants from diverse backgrounds (including the Chinese) were attracted to all this town had to offer in the mid-1800s. Situated on the western side of the Sierra Nevada, the town is enveloped by verdant forest and is framed by the South Yuba River. The charming downtown features many Victorian buildings from the period that have been lovingly looked after. Must-see landmarks are the Nevada County Courthouse, the Miners Foundry Cultural Center, Firehouse No. 1 Museum, and the Nevada Theatre. Besides exploring the downtown and the river, a tasting at the Nevada City Winery might be a nice way to end one’s day in Nevada City. 


Main street in Ferndale, California
Main street in Ferndale, California, By Ellin Beltz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Downtown Ferndale is known for its Victorian architecture and colorful buildings, which are a testament to its wealthy past. Bounded by the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountains, the town is abundant in natural beauty. The 1850s town was centered on timber and dairy. Ferndale’s culture was greatly influenced by Portuguese and Danish immigrants. The Victorian village of Ferndale is a must for architecture lovers. Ferndale Museum, Ferndale Cemetery, and the Shaw House Inn (Gothic Victorian-style mansion) should also be on one’s list. Fern Cottage and the Ferndale Emporium are some excellent commercial attractions. 


Historic old town of Julian, California.
Historic old town of Julian, California.

Surrounded by pine and oak forests in the Cuyamaca Mountains, Julian is known for its beautiful nature and world-famous baked pies. After the US Civil War, veterans from Georgia went west to seek their fortunes, and among that group was Mike Julian (whom the town is named after) and Drue Bailey. Julian is the only place in San Diego County where gold was discovered by cattleman, Fred Coleman. In present times, Julian has become a resort town and is frequented by visitors in the fall to the area’s foliage and the apple cider from its orchards. The downtown is quaint, with many historic buildings. Landmarks are the Eagle and High Peak Mine, the Julian Pioneer Museum, and the Julian Jail. Also, consider a visit to the Julian Mining Company, Julian Cider Mill, and the Julian Pie Company. 


Back street in Mendocino, United States.
Back street in Mendocino, United States. Editorial credit: oliverdelahaye /

Located along the Pacific and roughly 150 miles north of San Francisco is the town of Mendocino. The town is known for its cliffside trails and stunning views of the ocean. The 1850s town was founded on its timber mill from the surrounding giant redwoods. The mill owners and their families from the eastern side of the US and their sense of style can be seen in the New England and Victorian homes, buildings, and churches they built. Immigrants from China, Canada and Finland would play a role in shaping the town’s culture and heritage. Landmarks to visit include the Ford House Museum, Point Cabrillo Light Station, Temple Kwan Tai, and the Kelley House Museum. Don’t miss the Mendocino Art Center, the Mendocino Headlands State Park, and the Mendocino Theatre Company. 


Murphys Hotel is one of the oldest hotels still operating in California.
Murphys Hotel is one of the oldest hotels still operating in California. Image credit JRJfin via Shutterstock.

John and Daniel Murphy were a couple of lucky Irish brothers who discovered over two million dollars worth of gold ore in the mid-1800s, and they serve as the namesake for the town of Murphys. The entrepreneurs built the town into a popular trading post and gold mine operation, and many immigrants followed their lead, swelling the population to over 3,000. The Murphys Hotel played host to celebrity figures like Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain. The town is surrounded by vineyards and is set at the base of the Sierra Nevada range. The charm of the downtown is in its wooden sidewalks and period brick buildings. Must-visit landmarks are the Murphys Historic Hotel, Ironstone Vineyards, Mercer Caverns, and the Old Timers Museum. Lavender Ridge Vineyard and Hatcher Winery are two great options for a relaxing wine-tasting experience.  

Historic Towns of California 

These towns tell stories of resilience, perseverance, and ambition. The threads of these narratives are woven together to form the tapestry of California’s cultural heritage. On one’s next visit to the Golden State, consider venturing out from the touristy centers of Hollywood and San Francisco to the smaller historic towns and discover the cultural foundations that modern California is built on.

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