Downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Image Credit oliverdelahaye via Shutterstock

7 Towns in California With Thriving Local Businesses

The state of California is dotted with small towns that offer an enchanting blend of history, natural beauties, and vibrant local economies. From the Gold Rush towns to the tranquil coastal villages to the rolling hills and vineyards of Wine Country, there are so many places to explore and things to do. Of course, the Golden State abounds in outdoor activities, from its beaches to its rivers, deserts, and mountains. However, there are some California villages with unique, thriving local businesses that are worthy of one’s attention.

Healdsburg has its coffee houses, art galleries and restaurants. Carmel-by-the-Sea is marked by European-style architecture and is a haven for artists and celebrities. Solvang will transport one to Denmark with its windmills and traditional bakeries. Ojai offers a spiritual experience with nature and a third-generation family-owned olive oil farm. St. Helena has access to some of the best wine and culinary experiences. Nevada City has well-preserved Gold Rush heritage and a bustling local art scene. Fallbrook is one of Southern California’s best kept secrets with its rolling hills and mountain views, rivaling Italy and the South of France. It also has some notable local businesses like the Fallbrook Art Center. Come with us on a journey through some of California’s small towns with dynamic local businesses.


Aerial view of Healdsburg, California
Aerial view of Healdsburg, California

Set in Sonoma County, Healdsburg is a quaint town known for its vineyards and wineries. The town lies along the Russian River, and visitors prize the beautiful vistas, fine wine, culinary delights, art galleries, and museums. Healdsburg Plaza is a historic downtown with some of the best shopping and dining options. Must-visit bustling local businesses, including Flying Goat Coffee. The family business closed during the Covid pandemic but has since reopened. Loved for its signature lattes, unique flavors, and fresh foods, this is a great place to stop in the morning on your way to wine-country adventures or in the late afternoon after a fun-filled day. The Paul Mahder Gallery is the place to experience local art. The Shed is a great spot to grab a bite with soup and café fare. Healdsburg Farmers Market is admired for the quality of their produce.


Carmel-by-the-sea, is a town on the Pacific coast known for its enchanting architecture with fairytale houses
Carmel-by-the-sea, is a town on the Pacific coast known for its enchanting architecture with fairytale houses - Naeblys /

The small seaside town, known by locals simply as Carmel, has some of the most beautiful real estate in the world. This little village has long been loved by celebrities and artists. Some have made it their home. Famous actor and director Clint Eastwood was once the mayor of Carmel. The downtown architecture features artistic touches and European-style homes against rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, and sweeping ocean views. Carmel is only one square mile in size but makes up for that with the most per capita restaurants of any small city in America. Michelin-starred Aubergine Restaurant is an upmarket eatery with New American fare. Be sure not to skip The Cheese Shop, which has fine cheeses from around the world. The Carmel Farmers’ Market is the place to find fresh local produce. Steven Whyte’s Sculpture Studio and Gallery is the best place to appreciate local art. Carmel is a prime example of a small town with active local businesses.


Main Street in Solvang, California
Main Street in Solvang, California. Editorial credit: HannaTor /

The little village of Solvang has a Danish history and Danish-inspired architecture, which is further celebrated by its windmills and its annual Danish Days festival. Located near the Santa Ynez River and enveloped by rolling hills and valleys, this town oozes charm. Of course, Solvang is valued by many for its Dutch bakeries like Birkholm’s Bakery and Café. Other popular local businesses include the Succulent Café, which has New American comfort foods and an excellent breakfast and brunch menu. ZFolio Gallery with its jewelry and glass art and Solvang Antiques. Be sure to check out El Rancho Marketplace for their premium foods. Additional landmarks include the Old Mission Santa Inés and Elverhøj Museum of History and Art.


Store fronts with tourist checking out the different spots in Ojai, California
Store fronts with tourist checking out the different spots in Ojai, California, via J Marquez /

The town of Ojai is a spiritual center and refuge where people come for nature hikes, meditation, and horseback riding. The downtown has a bohemian flair, and the area is surrounded by the Topatopa Mountains, with the Ventura River lying proximate to the town. Local landmarks include the Ojai Valley Museum and Libbey Park. Some flourishing local businesses include Ojai Coffee Roasting Company, Porch Gallery Ojai is the shop to admire local art, Artisan Shops is home to Bart’s Books, a unique outdoor bookstore. There’s also an Ojai Certified Farmers Market for one’s grocery needs. Ojai Olive Oil is a third-generation, family-owned, certified organic olive farm that sells oils and balsamic vinegars, which can be sampled in their stylish tasting room. Come unwind in Ojai, enjoy the lovely, peaceful nature, and be sure to explore some of the local businesses.

St. Helena

Wine enthusiasts taste wine at the Del Dotto Estate Winery & Caves, in Napa Valley, St. Helena, California
Wine enthusiasts taste wine at the Del Dotto Estate Winery & Caves, in Napa Valley, St. Helena, California. Editorial credit: Leonard Zhukovsky /

The mid-19th century town of St. Helena developed quickly during the California Gold Rush era. The village is located on the banks of the Napa River in wine country and is surrounded by the verdant rolling hills of Napa Valley. Most people come for the wine but discover the nearby state parks, hiking, camping, and picnicking spots. The downtown architecture has many well-maintained 19th and 20th-century buildings, with Victorian, Italianate, and Craftsman-style homes. There are also some fine local establishments that are worthy of your business. Model Bakery has been serving up delicious pastries, breakfast, and lunch options for over 25 years. Caldwell Snyder Gallery is where art lovers discover one-of-a-kind masterpieces. Woodhouse Chocolate has something for one’s sweet tooth and St. Helena Framer’s Market is one that shouldn’t be missed.

Nevada City

Broad Street in Nevada City, California.
Broad Street in Nevada City, California. Editorial credit: Chris Allan /

Another Gold Rush Era town, Nevada City, is nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills and is venerated for its well-preserved 19th-century buildings. One unique feature of the town is its annual Nevada City Film Festival. Must-see local landmarks are the Nevada Theatre and the Miners Foundry Cultural Center. There are some fine local businesses in Nevada City that offer a more authentic experience such as Curly Wolf Espresso House, located on Broad Street. The name derives from old miner slang for an especially tough man. The atmosphere, with its ‘30s vibes and the enjoyable coffee and bites, will leave one satisfied. LeeAnn Brook Fine Art is a gallery that displays some of the best work from locals. The Chocolate Shoppe and Nevada City Farmers’ Market are not to be skipped, either.


Aerial view of Fallbrook, California
Aerial view of Fallbrook, California

“The Avocado Capital of the World,” Fallbrook, is probably most known for its annual Avocado Festival in April, which brings crowds from all over the state and beyond. The charming downtown has that small-town Americana feel, which is more often found in the Midwest, making it an unusual experience in Southern California. Located just inland from Oceanside, sunny Fallbrook was once home to Hollywood writer, producer, and director Frank Capra, known for films like It’s A Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart. There are areas of Fallbrook with stunning views of surrounding hills, mountains, and valleys, nature hikes, and the nearby wild Santa Margarita River. Be sure to stop into local restaurants such as 127 Social House for their craft burgers, Bavarian-style pretzels, and cold beer on tap. Skip the bigger chains and consider The Hearth with its excellent coffee, delectable treats, and good vibes. Dominic’s Deli offers the perfect Italian Deli subs and a small Italian market. Major Market is valued for their fine meat selection. Café des Artistes offers European flair and access to the Fallbrook Art Center.

Parting Thoughts

The state of California has been shaped by numerous peoples and movements, from the Spanish Colonists to the Gold Rush to the many immigrants from all over the world who have come to call the state home. Those souls have put their stamp on the state, bringing with them their cultures, expressed through art, their culinary delights, and local businesses. Whether one is enjoying a hot cup of java in Healdsburg, browsing the art galleries of Carmel, sampling some fine wines in St. Helena, or having some world-class guacamole in Fallbrook, these small towns won’t disappoint, and neither will the local business, which are pillars of their communities.

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