Aerial view of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Pacific Grove.

9 Best Small Towns In Northern California

With many people fleeing south of the state for the beach fun, the natural setting and ruggedness of the remotely perched beaches in the Northern parts are largely left unexplored. Unspoiled by the human hand, they will comprise an experience to be imprinted in one's memory and a tale to tell upon visiting these beautiful towns in Northern California.

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon BAY
Beach and seaside cliffs at Half Moon Bay California.

A beautiful beach town for surfers, the legendary Half Moon Bay's waves reaching up to 60 feet have been the spotlight at the big-wave international surfing competition for many years in the past to make a return last year. The beautiful Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail offering unparalleled ocean views is great for strolling or jogging, while the hikers would revel in the nine state parks in the vicinity to choose from. The spring season also brings along another type of beautiful sea, the yellow-blooming wildflowers. The adorable town also comes with a wide range of seafood restaurants on water, such as the Sam's Chowder House, with famed lobster rolls.


California Coast in Mendocino
California Coast in Mendocino.

Established in the 1850s, the enchanting, Victorian-style Mendocino comes with romantic ocean views and the redwood fern forest in the Van Damme State Park. It is also complemented by the rich wine scene of over 30 wineries in the vicinity, including the Navarro Vineyards, the Pennyroyal Farm, and the Philo Ridge Vineyard. The historically Point Cabrillo Light Station Historic Park with headlands trail and a lighthouse inspire romantic strolls. The town is registered on the National Register of Historic Places as the only town on the California Coast that is a designated historical landmark. The postcard town set on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean is a definite bucket list item, as the town one pictures when reading fiction novels with a seaside-town setting.


A chapel in Carmel. Image credit: Dsdugan, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of California's most charming seaside towns, "Carmel" is only two hours south of San Francisco, perched picturesquely on the Monterey Peninsula. It is favored for the quaint charm, the white and sandy beach, and the village's shaded tree-lined streets. Known for the gourmet dining and one-of-a-kind shopping options on the main, Ocean Ave., the visit might get pricey. The Cottage of Sweets sells British-style candies, while at Fjorn one can find any type of hygge-styled furniture and home decor. While there, one can also watch local artists at work on their canvases. There is the nearby scenic Point Lobos State Natural Reserve for seaside hiking, offering a beautiful walk along the rocky bluffs with sea otters and sea lions squabbling below.


Monterey, California.
Boats in the harbor seen from the Fisherman's Wharf, in Monterey, California.

Reaching Monterey via the Big Sur Highway, known for the most extraordinary landscape in the region and jaw-dropping ocean views, comprises a beautiful start to the journey and exploring one of the best beach towns in Northern California. The notable landmarks include the Monterey's Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in the state, while the Monterey Bay Aquarium is known for its conservation efforts as a wildlife refuge that returns rescued marine critters back to the ocean. Whole families can have a day-out seeing and learning about the sharks, rays, sea otters, local bay pipefishes, and the countless species of jellies.

Morro Bay

Morro Bay
Winter anchorage at Morro Bay, California.

As a protected harbor and marine sanctuary, the town of Morro Bay provides endless wildlife spotting opportunities, including humpbacks, gray whales, blue whales, orcas, and dolphins. One can also rent a boat in the historic Embarcadero area to watch sea lions and otters playing, just a hand reach away. Embarcadero is also perfect for casual waterfront dining. Tognazzini offers casual clam chowder, fish tacos, sea scallops, and the Galley Seafood Grill and Bar is known for the special blackened halibut, complemented by a patio-view with the scenic bay vistas. The brackish water marshes of the Morro Bay State Park comprise a great bird-watching spot, while windsurfers thoroughly enjoy the Morro Strand State Beach. One can also come home a bit wiser upon visiting the Museum of Natural History.


Cayucos, California
Cayucos Pier 

The quaint coastal town of Cayucos is a known quintessential beach destination with a grand personality in Northern California. The beach town has a back-in-time vibe with a wide range of antique shopping options and two antique fairs a year. The notable collection of large mural walls throughout the town, make it like no other and compose a perfect day-out scavenger-hunting for, in the tiny, five square miles, limits. The 950-foot wooden pier is made for romantic strolls, gathering one's thoughts or letting go of the worries, with fishermen at the base and extensive vistas to the horizon where surfers are catching waves. One of the most-notable stops in the center is the Brown Butter Cookie Company, serving the original brown butter sea salt cookies and chocolate, shortbread, lemon, and cinnamon options. 

Pacific Grove

Pacific Grove
Pacific Grove, California, USA.

Known for its rugged Central Coast of California locale, Pacific Grove comprises a peaceful retreat with a long, raw coastline, offering wondrous views into the Pacific. The shore's paved path or the rocky bluffs call out for a prophylactic oceanfront stroll in the salty air, with mood-complementing sounds of ocean-crushing waves any time of day. Marine life can be sighted in the tide pools, such as crabs, abalone, mussels, sea anemones, starfish, sand dollars, and sea urchins. Many of the excellent restaurants, boutiques, small shops, and cafes are housed within the Victorian-style buildings of the historic downtown. The Red House Cafe is a local favorite to visit along the self-guided tour of the architectural center.

Stinson Beach

Stinson Beach
Aerial view of Stinson Beach.

The beautifully-perched town of Stinson Beach at the western edge of Marin County is easily reachable from San Francisco via the scenically enchanting drive on Highway 1. Although a thriving metropolis with fewer than 700 full-time residents may sound odd, the town is a real find, offering one to get away from the crowds and into incredible nature while having all the comforts of a big city at hand. The town's namesake 3.5 mile-long, wide, flat, and soft-sanded beach is the only swimmable spot in the vast Golden Gate National Recreation Area, while the surfers can head to Bolinas Beach. The Nature-lovers and the birdwatchers will find their heaven at the Bolinas Lagoon, while the active can enjoy picturesque hikes along the Point Reyes National Seashore to the north. 

Tahoe City

Tahoe City
Tahoe City marina.

Straying away from the ocean scene, Tahoe City is a two-in-one-wonder, with the thought-after combination of mountains and a great lake. Named the "America's Best Mountain Town," the Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range provide a level ground for those wanting to experience snow and water sports in one place, when in Northern California. The Squaw Valley Ski Resort with 34 lifts and two mountains of 6,000 skiable acres is favored by advanced skiers. The Granlibakken offers gentler slopes for beginners and sledding, and the Tahoe City Winter Sports Park is the prime snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and ice skating destination of the town. The Tahoe City Marina is great for boating of any kind in the embrace of a tree-lined shore within the surrounding snow-capped peaks. A bike path leads along the Truckee River to the Squaw Valley. 

These quintessential towns offer unforgettable getaways to the less crowded beaches of California, where one can enjoy the tranquility of rugged nature, along with some architectural marvels of the historic downtowns.

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