California is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the United States, but when we imagine a trip to this Golden State, we probably think of its flashy attractions before we think of its friendliness. It is true that southern states like Tennessee and Texas are more commonly associated with their reputation for hospitality, but do not let the glitz and glam of Hollywood fool you–California has some of the most down-to-earth people in the country, and many can be found in the state’s small towns. These small towns, despite their size, welcome upwards of 1 million people every year, so they know a thing or two about welcoming their guests. From their local festivals to their majestic landmarks, these small California communities are excited to welcome you to the towns they are lucky to call home.
Despite having a population of just over 6000 residents, this southern California town welcomes more than 1 million visitors every year. Solvang, a village founded in 1911 by 3 Danish immigrants, celebrates its heritage in a huge way. From its exposed beam buildings to its seasonal festivals, no matter what time of year you make your way here, your visit will feel like a trip across time and space. The Danish-style architecture and European windmills set the scene for your stay, transporting you to quaint, old-world Denmark.
During your stroll through town, let your nose guide you to one of the many authentic Danish bakeries. Places like the Danish Mill Bakery have been serving traditional cakes and cookies to townspeople and tourists since 1960. If you are hungry for a more historic attraction, make your way to the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, or tour the town by trolley on Solvang’s wooden horse-drawn streetcar. September offers a fabulous blend of history and excitement with the town’s famed Danish Days festival. Viking reenactments, Danish artisan pop-ups, beer tastings, and other festivities are kicked off with a parade, and the celebration draws in crowds from all over California.
Sausalito is another tiny California town that welcomes over 1 million people every year–and for good reason. Whether crossing the Golden Gate Bridge or traveling by ferry, San Franciscans adore Sausalito for its laid-back, family-friendly seaside culture. People of all ages will love touring the Marine Mammal Center, the largest marine mammal hospital in the world. Harbor seals, sea otters, and other adorable aquatic patients can be visited before they are treated and released back into the wild, joining the other 24,000+ rescues the center has saved.
For a closer look at the coast, the best views of the San Francisco Bay are from the Bridgeway Promenade on the corner of Richardson Street, or the Tiffany Beach Boardwalk. Make sure to visit the latter for views of Sausalito’s postcard-perfect hillside homes. Speaking of homes–at the north end of town, you can take in the 500 colorful houseboats Sausalito is famous for. If you like what you see, you may just want to spend the night on the water! There are several houseboats available for rent, but the historic Yellow Ferry is one of the more sought-after, especially after being featured on the Netflix show, “The World’s Most Amazing Vacation Rentals”. Once called “The Spirit of Seattle”, this former ferry-turned vacation rental was built in 1888, making it the oldest surviving wooden ferry on the entire west coast.
Borrego Springs is a one of a kind town known for its one of a kind setting–the very feature that lures hundreds of thousands here each year. It is the only town in all of California to be fully surrounded by a state park, and the largest in California, at that. The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park reaches across 600,000 acres of glorious western Sonoran Desert. Its terrains are largely untouched, ranging from palm-lined oases to cactus-dotted slopes, with 110 miles of hiking trails to explore. The Borrego Palm Canyon hike is a local favorite, featuring an easy 3-mile shaded fan palm path. Keep your eye out for barrel cacti, hummingbirds, and bighorn sheep on the ridges above while traversing this heavenly hiking trail. Aside from the gorgeous landscapes, locals will tell you to stick around until nightfall to see why Anza-Borrego was deemed an International Dark Sky Park. Seeing as Borrego Springs is the only artificial light source around for miles, the light pollution is slim and the night sky is crystal clear. One look at Borrego Spring’s night sky will show you why stargazing is on everyone’s list when they visit this California desert town.
Found in the beautiful Sonoma Valley winemaking region, the town of Sonoma is no stranger to welcoming visitors. The Sonoma Valley, known as “the birthplace of wine in California” and “the location where California was born” has some of the best wineries in the country, welcoming millions every year. With over 100 wineries, ranging from casual garden estates to more elegant castle manors, the Valley has something for any wine connoisseur or curious taste tester. And Sonoma is at the heart of it all, enticing locals with its easygoing atmosphere and small town feel.
Wear some comfortable shoes and explore this walkable town by foot. The plaza is a great homebase, and your ticket to the surrounding attractions. Places like the Arts Guild of Sonoma are just a few steps away, and the Sonoma State Historic Park has various sites nearby as well, like the Mission San Francisco Solano, a charming Adobe church built back in 1823. But of course, if you came for the wine, there is no shame in skipping the history. Over 2 dozen tasting rooms are within walking distance of the plaza, so realistically, you could make it a full day of tours and tastings. Walk a few blocks to the Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery to tour their antique barrel rooms before sampling an array of world-class wine and cheese pairings. For a closer stop, Sigh is just a 3 minute walk away, featuring a bubbly atmosphere that pairs beautifully with their specialty sparkling wines.
For a slice of history you simply cannot skip, Pacific Grove is a darling coastal town whose romantic past couples perfectly with its serene shores. History buffs can appreciate a stroll through Pacific Grove’s historic downtown, or the Pacific Grover Museum of Natural History to learn about California’s central coast. But the community’s undeniable anchor is the Point Pinos Lighthouse. Built in 1855, this dazzling beacon still operates today, making it the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the entire West Coast.
For a closer look at the mighty Pacific, Asilomar State Beach is known for its tide pools. Lovers Point Beach on the other hand, has been the most popular shore in town for over a hundred years and locals are happy to share in the fun. Picnicking, kayaking, and surfing are just some of the beach activities enjoyed here. And if you stop by bright and early, you can take advantage of the east-facing views. Lovers Point is one of the only beaches on the West Coast offering sunrise views over the water, making it a truly unique shore.
If Pacific Grove’s beachtown vibe is what you are after, Morro Bay is another community with some pretty gorgeous shores. This Central California Coast town lures hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, mainly for its eye-catching natural attractions. The biggest of which (both physically, and in terms of popularity) is Morro Rock, a 576-foot-tall volcanic plug. Connected to shore on a causeway, this “Gibraltar of the Pacific” was once a navigational landmark for sailors out at sea for over 300 years thanks to its massive (and easily spotted) size. Today, it stands as an impressive symbol of the volcanoes that once towered over the present-day beach, and it makes for a pretty great photo op.
Plant yourself in the sand or rent a kayak from A Kayak Shack in town to hit the waves for some sea lion spotting. To head deeper into the Pacific, book an excursion with Morro Bay Whale Watching. Board for a classic whale watching trip, a cocktail cruise, or a private charter for the ultimate personalized experience. If you do not mind sharing the views, take the Sub Sea Tour for some out-of-this-world sights. This semi-submersible vessel is super popular with people of all ages but especially with the kiddos. Keep an eye out for fish and jellyfish below deck, and sea otters and seals up above.
With the vast Los Padres National Forest just north of Ojai, this Topatopa Mountain valley town is heaven on earth for outdoor enthusiasts. Hiking, of course, is one of its most sought-after pastimes, and locals are happy to share their inside knowledge on the best spots to hit. If you happen to mingle with a few downtown, they will likely suggest the nearby Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, whose 2000 public acres and 27 miles of trail lead through the rolling valley hills. Keeping with the area, the Ojai Valley Trail begins right from downtown. This converted rail line runs 10 miles to the coastal city of Ventura, and was once used to transport oranges. Today, this historic path is now a beloved biking and horseback riding trail. Rent a ride from the Bicycles of Ojai shop, or take a guided horseback tour with the Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company
Last but certainly not least, we have Truckee. Like Ojai, the nature here is pretty spectacular, and Truckee residents invite fellow outdoorsmen with open arms. You will find hospitality to be a signature of this Sierra Nevada mountain town, and locals are happy to acquaint themselves with the visitors who come and go year-round. Wintertime is a special time of year here, with 7+ ski resorts within driving distance of town, ranging from as short as 15 minutes to as long (a still manageable) 45. The Northstar California Resort is a popular choice right in town, with 100 trails across 3,000 skiable acres.
If you find yourself in Truckee outside of ski season, there is still plenty to see and do. Hike the winding Legacy Trail along Truckee River or blend nature with history at Donner Memorial State Park. But no trip to Truckee would be complete without making a short drive southeast of town. In less than 20 minutes, you can bask in the glory of North America’s largest alpine lake: Lake Tahoe. This gorgeous “Big Blue” is one of the purest bodies of water in the world, and is so crystal clear, you can see down depths of more than 70-feet.
From Solvang’s Danish Days festival to Pacific Grove’s historic lighthouse, there is something incredibly special about each of these small towns–and boy, do the locals know it. With thousands upon thousands of visitors dropping in throughout the year, these communities are not simply used to welcoming guests. At this point, tourism is embedded in these local cultures, and visitors are treated like part of the community. Whether that means learning about the best hiking paths from locals in Borrego Springs or mingling with townspeople over wine in Sonoma, these California small towns will have you feeling right at home.