While large cities in Southern California like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara are well known to tourists, those seeking a pleasant weekend getaway in “SoCal” should include some of the state’s attractive small towns on their travel itinerary. These towns are not only perfect for weekend getaways for travelers looking for a relaxing escape from the pressures of everyday life but are also a fun way to find out more about the state’s rich history. Its culture, and of course, its splendid scenery.
From the Old West feel of Los Alamos to the stunning mountain scenery of Idyllwild, and the coastal delights of Avalon to the European flare of Solvang, these seven small towns are perfect places to visit in Southern California for a memorable weekend getaway.
We’ll start our SoCal small-town adventure in Ojai. A lovely 50-minute drive east of Santa Barbara past Lake Casitas (check out the scenic viewpoint along the way), Ojai is making a name for itself as a romantic getaway destination for Californians and travelers from out of state. Highlights of your weekend away include exploring the town’s wineries and wine-tasting experiences, including those offered by the Naturalist Organic Winery & Tasting Room.
Ojai is also a shoppers’ paradise, with eclectic, stores including famous Bart’s Books, an outdoor bookstore established in 1964, and Treasures of Ojai, a marketplace-style store offering handcrafted goods from local artisans. Outdoor adventures include Ojai Valley Trail, a nine-mile paved path along a former railroad that’s ideal for biking or a stroll. Our choice of great places to stay in Ojai includes the prestigious Ojai Valley Inn and the unique Emerald Iguana Inn.
Los Alamos’s location in the Santa Ynez Valley, 50 minutes northwest of Santa Barbara, makes it an ideal Southern California getaway destination. Founded in 1876, this charming town feels like something out of the Old West, with its boutique shops and restaurants being given façades that look like they’ve come straight out of the late 1800s.
Popular things to do include shopping at unique locations like the Los Alamos Depot Antique Mall and Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, two local favorites housed in repurposed old buildings (a grain storage and gas station, respectively); and sipping local wine while listening to live music at Lo-Fi Wines. Great places to spend the night include the centrally located Los Alamos Mercantile Building, which, as its name suggests, is a former store, and the historic Victorian Mansion Bed & Breakfast.
Idyllwild is certainly one of the quirkiest towns on this list. Boasting a dog for a mayor (true story!), it’s located just two hours east of Los Angeles and is only separated from Palm Springs by the San Jacinto Mountains. Start your weekend getaway with an exploration of the town's main street, North Circle Drive. Here, you’ll find an array of fun things to do from shopping to visiting its numerous art galleries, including the Idyllwild Arts' Parks Exhibition Center, which features regular displays of work by local and regional artists.
For outdoor fun, hit any one of the 30 trails of Mount San Jacinto State Park, and be sure to pop into the Idyllwild Nature Center to learn about the area's flora and fauna. For accommodations in Idyllwild, check out the following: The Fireside Inn, Idyllwild Inn, and The Grand Idyllwild Lodge.
San Juan Capistrano
Located between Los Angeles and San Diego, San Juan Capistrano is a historically rich town with a blend of Spanish, Mexican, and American influences. The town's centerpiece is the Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776 and providing a fascinating glimpse into the state's early history. Another highlight is the Los Rios Historic District, the oldest neighborhood in California and home to photo-worthy streets lined with historic homes and retail outlets.
If you’re planning an overnight stay in San Juan Capistrano (and you should!), you can’t do much better than booking into the Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, a plush 4-star hotel that’s part of the Autograph Collection and located within walking distance of the must-visit tourist attraction after which it’s named.
As the only island destination on this list, Avalon is the perfect spot for a weekend getaway in Southern California. While regular ferry services to Long Beach and Newport Beach make day trips possible, a two-night stay here will ensure you get to sample as many fun things to do on Santa Catalina Island as possible. Avalon itself is certainly lovely to explore, with plenty of attractions to keep you busy, including its waterfront and iconic Green Pleasure Pier.
Interested in marine life? Avalon is a hugely popular destination for divers and snorkelers and is surrounded by a healthy marine environment. Equipment rental and guided tours are available through local companies like Diving Catalina and Catalina Divers Supply. Popular Avalon hotels include the Catalina Island Inn and Hotel Atwater.
Established in 1870 after the discovery of quartz and gold and supposedly named in honor of the town’s most handsome man, the mountain town of Julian is located an hour northeast of San Diego and is a must-visit if you’re interested in the state’s early pioneer days. Begin your stay in Julian with a visit to the Julian Pioneer Museum which presents a fascinating look at the town's past through its large collection of vintage clothing, mining equipment, and Native American artifacts.
Julian is also known as SoCal’s apple capital, with numerous local orchards, like Calico Ranch Orchard, offering a hands-on experience with apple and pear picking, complemented by their tasty ciders. Come bedtime, where else would you want to lay your head but at the Julian Gold Rush Hotel?
Founded by Danish settlers in 1911, Solvang in California's picturesque Santa Ynez Valley offers a uniquely European flavor to your getaway experience. While here, you’ll want to sample Solvang’s traditional Danish pastries including aebleskiver, flodeboller, and stroopwafels, available from Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery and Birkholm’s Bakery and Café. Delicious.
You can also learn more about this rich Danish heritage at the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, located in a historic home, and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, which pays homage to the famous Danish author. Great accommodation options for that overnight stay include the Vinland Hotel and Lounge and the Royal Copenhagen Inn.
The Final Word
Whether your interests are arts and cultural activities or you’re more inclined to want to hang out in the great outdoors, SoCal’s small towns are just the thing for weekend warriors. From nature adventures to artistic discoveries, find out more with this list of 7 small towns in Southern California to visit for an unforgettable weekend getaway.