Street view in Sausalito, California. Image credit f11photo via Shutterstock

8 Coolest Towns in Northern California for a Summer Vacation in 2024

California is one of the most touristy states in America. The northern half of the Golden State particularly dazzles with diverse landscapes, ranging from beautiful coastlines to picturesque mountain peaks. Dotted within this spectacular scenery are countless small towns offering their own charming brand of summer fun. Unlike famous cities like Sacramento and San Francisco, these mostly overlooked gems present a more laid-back atmosphere with plenty of outdoor adventures tailored for a warm-weather escapade.

From artsy beach burgs and idyllic wine country hamlets to historic Gold Rush towns tucked in the Sierra, each destination serves up memorable attractions and adventures. So whether you seek ocean views, mountain trails, or local culture, there is enough to go around for all types of travelers. In 2024, consider skipping the major metro areas to discover these cool towns in Northern California for your summer vacation.


California Coast in Mendocino
California Coast in Mendocino.

A mix of scenic Pacific headlands, Victorian architecture, and a quaint art scene makes this cozy coastal village a must-visit on your Northern California itinerary. Summertime in Mendocino exposes you to the sheer beauty of the Pacific shoreline, with a selection of secluded seaside state parks waiting to be explored. Mendocino Headlands State Park harbors gentle trails, inviting lazy strolls to admire its rugged coastlines and discover secluded beaches. Meanwhile, Russian Gulch State Park offers a little protection from the summer sun, with 15 miles of scenic trails cutting through shady forests and the open coast.

Mendocino's vibrant art scene provides a range of visual and performance art venues that let you experience unique coastal creativity. Mendocino Art Center exhibits pieces by local and regional artists, whereas the Mendocino Theater Company welcomes visitors to enjoy a variety of fun stage performances. You cannot leave the town without checking out its historic homes, especially the 19th-century Kelley House Museum. Lastly, the Mendocino Music Festival, which will be held in July 2024, is usually a major hit with summer crowds in the town.


Storefronts line the Ferndale Main Street Historic District in Ferndale, California.
Storefronts line the Ferndale Main Street Historic District in Ferndale, California. Image credit Michael Vi via

This well-preserved Victorian village traces its beginnings to 1852, when it was founded and stands out for its rustic downtown, harboring a mix of Victorian storefronts and historic homes. Walking through the charming district transports you back to bygone eras, thanks to its collection of historical treasures. A stop at Ferndale Museum introduces visitors to the town's history, which features a storied Gold Rush heritage. Elsewhere, the Ferndale Repertory Theater captivates audiences with family-friendly theatrical productions inside a historic venue.

Beyond its beautiful downtown, Ferndale offers an escape to the picturesque Pacific Ocean coast at Centerville Beach County Park. This open space delights with dramatic sandstone cliffs and breathtaking water views. Alternatively, you can walk along the historic Fernbridge to soak in the stunning scenery of the Eel River and the town from a distance.


Historic buildings in Eureka, California
Historic buildings in Eureka, California.

Visiting Eureka places vacationers in the heart of imposing California redwood trees, with amazing adventures awaiting in the dense wilderness. The town boasts a cozy natural scenery that you can explore along the scenic nature trails at Sequoia Park. The 67-acre preserve is home to the Sequoia Park Zoo, which entices guests with exotic animal encounters. Although small, the sanctuary houses more than 50 species of animals, including rare ones like red pandas and spider monkeys. While at the park, you cannot miss out on the adrenaline-inducing experience of the Redwood SkyWalk, which takes enthusiasts 100 feet into the towering California redwoods.

Eureka also features a quaint Old Town district with an elaborate display of Victorian-era structures and historic homes worth checking out. Carson Mansion is among the most notable in the region and stuns with its Queen Anne-style architecture. Old Town is also home to the Clarke Historical Museum, which provides travelers with a hint of the town's historical and cultural heritage through a rich collection of artifact exhibits.


Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, Healdsburg, California.
Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, Healdsburg, California.

This California wine country village promises tourists endless wine-tasting experiences with a touch of 19th-century charm on the side. Healdsburg has an impressive cluster of wine-making establishments producing some of the best offerings the region has to offer. From the historic Seghesio Family Vineyards to the quaint Williamson Wines, oenophiles can prime their palates to taste several award-winning varieties.

Most of the town's activities are centered around Healdsburg Plaza, a 19th-century square with a mix of shopping outlets, art galleries, restaurants, and antique shops. The plaza's bustling atmosphere attracts tourists in droves, offering eclectic dining opportunities. You can stop by Valette to wine and dine on California cuisine in a rustic yet chic venue. But if you prefer to get away from the crowds, Byron Gibbs Park provides a more secluded and peaceful environment with pleasant picnic spaces.

Grass Valley

Main Street in Grass Valley, California.
Main Street in Grass Valley, California. Image credit EWY Media via

From rich California Gold Rush history and vibrant art landscape to sprawling vineyards, Grass Valley guarantees a jam-packed summer vacation in Northern California. This Nevada County hamlet harbors a storied gold mining heritage that is well documented inside the Northstar Mining Museum. A selection of exhibits transports you back to the gold rush days. However, the Empire Mine State Historic Park provides a more vivid perspective of the mining days. At its peak, the defunct mine was California's oldest, deepest, and richest mine, and continues to maintain several historic buildings and antique mining machinery.

When not absorbing Grass Valley's gold heritage, tourists may opt for an enthralling stage performance at The Center for the Arts. Alternatively, a tour of Montoliva Vineyard & Winery is an opportunity for remarkable wine tastings, with a rich variety of Tuscan-inspired wines to sample.


Town of Lakeport by Clear Lake.
Town of Lakeport by Clear Lake, California. Image credit Aneta Waberska via

Waterfront escapes make for the best summer vacations, and Lakeport is one of the best lakeside towns in Northern California for your warm-weather getaway. Sitting on the lovely shore of Clear Lake, Lakeport presents fun opportunities on the water, courtesy of local outfitters like Disney's Boat Rentals. If you are not keen on getting wet, several waterfront parks, including Library Park, offer the perfect chill atmosphere to sit back, relax, and enjoy the scenes during a lazy picnic. Alternatively, you can pack your camera and find a nice spot at Eyes of the Wild to admire cute water birds like ospreys and capture exquisite wildlife photographs.

Moving away from the water, the Historic Courthouse Museum provides a bit of Lakeport's retro charm in a rustic 1870 building. Housed inside is a collection of archives, memorabilia, and artifacts chronicling the area's history. Meanwhile, catching the latest Hollywood flicks at Lakeport Auto Movies Drive-In will also pass for the perfect summer activity.


Main street in Quincy, Plumas County, California.
Main street in Quincy, Plumas County, California. Image credit Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many tourists flock to the small village of Quincy in Plumas County for the popular High Sierra Music Festival. Scheduled for July 4, 2024, the four-day music extravaganza attracts concertgoers from within and out of state, with performances from world-renowned acts that bring the small town to a standstill. However, visiting outside the festival period does not keep you from having fun in Quincy. The town hosts a lush wilderness in the form of Plumas National Forest, harboring a raft of recreation opportunities across its rugged landscapes, featuring mountain peaks, high-altitude lakes, thick forests, and lush river valleys.

Quincy's charm goes beyond the great outdoors; it has a fair share of interesting indoor attractions. Tourists can pass by Plumas County Museum to explore the region's colorful history, from whence it was inhabited by the native Maidu tribe, through the California Gold Rush era, to its logging heyday.


Floating houses of Sausalito, California
Floating houses of Sausalito, California.

Considered a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, this picturesque Bay Area community is known for its historic floating homes at Richardson Bay. A trip to Waldo Point Harbor brings you to the iconic houseboats, which were constructed by artists squatters upon the end of World War II. Sausalito also boasts some of the best views of the San Francisco Bay and the iconic Gold Gate Bridge. From the Battery Spencer vantage point, tourists can take in panoramic vistas of the world-famous landmarks and take advantage of awesome photo opportunities.

Battery Spencers sits at Fort Baker, a 19th-century fortress storing a vital slice of Sausalito's history. The site is home to over 20 historic military structures and walking trails placing you in the perfect position to admire awe-inspiring bay views. Animal lovers can also find inspiration at the Marine Mammal Center by showing some TLC to cute marine animals recovering from abandonment, illness, or injury.

Northern California's small towns offer an immense variety of scenic backdrops and atmospheres for creating lasting summer memories. From exploring picturesque coastal shorelines and immersing in Gold Country heritage to getting lost in the California redwood wilderness, unforgettable adventures abound in the upper half of the Golden State. These charming towns in Northern California showcase the region's natural gifts alongside welcoming community spirit. Whether a beachgoer, history enthusiast, culinary connoisseur, or outdoor thrill seeker, set the stage for a riveting rendezvous in 2024.

  1. Home
  2. Places
  3. Cities
  4. 8 Coolest Towns in Northern California for a Summer Vacation in 2024

More in Places