Main Street in the historic town of Placerville, California. Image credit Laurens Hoddenbagh via Shutterstock.

8 Must-Visit Small Towns in Northern California

The “Golden State” of California is an undoubted jewel of the continental United States, and with its exquisite natural beauty, captivating history, and stunning cultural attractions there is always a reason to want to visit. But with a State as large as California it can be difficult to know where to begin. In the northern portion of the State, guests will find less crowded urban centres but still full of all the allure that makes California truly special. From seaside communities to historic landmarks, the beautiful small towns of Northern California are indeed a great place to begin one’s exploration of the State. So take to the road and see firsthand these great small town gems in a part of California not visited as often.


Statue of President William McKinley, by Haig Patigian (1906), Arcata Plaza, Arcata, California.
Statue of President William McKinley, by Haig Patigian (1906), Arcata Plaza, Arcata, California. Image credit: Jss3255 via Wikimedia Commons

Established in the 1850s, the picturesque town of Arcata is situated near Humboldt Bay and offers its residents and visitors alike comfortable temperatures year round. Home to a population of just under 19,000, a great assortment of local eateries, bars, galleries, shopping outlets, and of course splendid beach views make Arcata a wonderful place to explore. Admire the number of restored Victorian houses and other buildings or enjoy an afternoon or evening at the Arcata Plaza and its open spaces and welcoming businesses. And with truly breathtaking views of the Bay and Pacific Ocean there is never a shortage of natural awe to enjoy in Arcata, a perfect place to enjoy California’s charms in a smaller town setting.

Fort Bragg

Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg California
Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg California

Situated in Mendocino County, the town of Fort Bragg was originally founded as a military garrison in the 1850s and today is home to a modest population of just under 7,000 inhabitants. A popular spot to enjoy the outdoors, visitors, and residents alike of Fort Bragg enjoy plenty of welcoming public parks, hiking, and biking trails, and wonderfully scenic beach areas. Situated right along the Shoreline Highway, amongst Fort Bragg’s famous destinations include the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, the Glass Beach, and the MacKerricher State Park and its stunning array of natural landmarks like coves, wetlands, and dunes! And with its mild temperatures in both summer and winter, Fort Bragg is indeed a comfortable place to explore no matter what time of year.

Shelter Cove

Shelter Cove California drone view
Shelter Cove California drone view

Shelter Cove lies at an elevation of some 138 feet on the alluring Lost Coast and boasts a population of just over 800 permanent residents. A tranquil place of reflection, one may indeed feel a sense of isolation when visiting this community and its wonderful natural surroundings. With its warm summers and mild winters, Shelter Cove can be enjoyed throughout the year and one can take appreciate its assortment of beautiful bike paths, stunning coastline trails, and welcoming restaurants and other local businesses all along the water’s edge. A relaxing escape from some of California’s hottest and busiest places, Shelter Cove is indeed a charming place a where a different view of the “Golden State” can be enjoyed by all ages.


Drone shot of Mendocino, California

Drone shot of Mendocino, California 

Though only 932 residents call Mendocino home, this most charming, historic, and fascinating community is indeed a place not to be missed by any traveller in Northern California. Established in the 1850s, much of the modern Mendocino is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is celebrated locally as an artists’ colony. Take a stroll through the town’s historic streets and encounter an abundance of 19th century buildings and Victorian style homes, while welcoming eateries and unique boutique shops fill out the rest. Meanwhile with its location along the Pacific Ocean, there are always wonderful views to be enjoyed here while afternoons spent at such places like the Mendocino Headlands and Woodlands State Parks are awesome ways to encounter raw nature.


View of the pier and beach in Capitola, California.
View of the pier and beach in Capitola, California.

The oldest seaside resort in California, the town of Capitola can trace its history to the 1850s. Situated on the shores of Monterey Bay, just under 10,000 residents call this picturesque town home that is full of loads of historic allure, scenic beach areas, and plenty of welcoming hospitality and businesses. Spend time in the Venetian Court neighborhood that is known for its unique and colorful homes or explore the Riverview Historic District along the Soquel Creek. And with its mild climate, Capitola is certainly a comfortable destination to discover for most of the year. Enjoy swimming, sailing, and fishing in the beautiful surrounding waters, or simply take in the cultural sights, when in Capitola a fun and memorable time is never far away.


Colorful signs on an old yellow pickup truck advertising organic strawberries for sale at a farm located on scenic coastal Highway 1 in Davenport, California
Colorful signs on an old yellow pickup truck advertising organic strawberries for sale at a farm located on scenic coastal Highway 1 in Davenport, California

Davenport was settled in the 1860s as a whaling village, and today just under 400 inhabitants call this quiet and reflective community home. At an elevation of some 259 feet and right along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, wondrous vistas are never in short supply in this town. Indeed with its dramatic cliff landscapes, secluded and quiet beaches, and awesome surfing areas, Davenport is a great place to immerse oneself in nature and a slower pace of life. Among its other natural attractions include Davenport Beach and the special Shark Fin Cove, while a stop at the Jail Museum (1914) is a unique way to learn more about local California history. And with its mild year round temperatures, this Santa Cruz County locale is definitely a delight in any month.


Street view in Sausalito, California
Street view in Sausalito, California, via f11photo /

Just six miles from the city of San Francisco, the town of Sausalito is a splendid North Bay destination where guests of all ages can find something to enjoy. From a Spanish word meaning “Small Willow Grove”, this town with a modest population of just over 7,000 inhabitants is full of a wonderful assortment of local restaurants, shopping centres, galleries, and naturally truly terrific panoramas. Indeed whether its time spent at the harbor catching sea breezes and shopping around for that very special souvenir item, Sausalito is a welcome day trip locale and one of the best in Northern California. And do not forget to get another angle view of the famed Golden Gate Bridge for some very special photographic memories!


Historic buildings in Placerville, California.
Historic buildings in Placerville, California.

A former gold mining town first established in the 1850s, Placerville is a historic locale that today serves as the seat of El Dorado County. A part of the greater Sacramento metropolitan area, just under 11,000 residents call this town home which has many attractive cultural and historic landmarks. A bustling place with a great assortment of charming local businesses, restaurants, galleries, and shopping outlets, Placerville is a comfortable mid sized destination with a pleasant climate for much of the year. And with many historic buildings from its Gold Rush days (many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places), visitors will have plenty to learn about this important period of California’s past. Amongst the places of note include Hangtown’s Gold Bug Park, the El Dorado County Historical Museum, and the Placerville Tower, to name but a few. Indeed for an attractive mid sized destination, with plenty of historic intrigue Placerville is a great place to discover first hand.

The northern portion of the “Golden State” of California is a veritable place of wonder, where natural beauty and plenty of cultural and historic allure meet. Though not often as visited as many destinations in the southern portion, Northern California and its small towns are too worthy of discovery. From the coastal sights of Mendocino to the lively atmosphere of Sausalito outside of San Francisco, these and other great Northern California towns eagerly await any visitor with a desire to see another side of the State. Do not wait any longer for Northern California is calling and come see why some of the best locales in “Golden State” may just be a little further north!

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