People walking in downtown Avalon, Catalina Island, California. Image credit HannaTor via Shutterstock

9 Best Small Towns In Southern California

Songs have praised the summertime beaches and laidback countryside of Southern California, always about the cowboy lifestyle, the countryside, and the freedom of the Wild West. But among these songs are melodious mentions of the quaint, simple, homely atmospheres of the small towns in the Gold State. With an abundance of sun, a friendly blend of American, Latino, Native American, and even Danish cultures, and diverse landscapes, SoCal (as the locals like to call Southern California) promises and provides. So play old-school folk music from Merle Haggard or modern country songs by Gary Allan on the endless highways, and visit small towns like Avalon and San Juan Capistrano.


Downtown Ojai, California after a winter snow in the mountains.
Downtown Ojai, California.

Ojai is the perfect remedy for chaotic city life. Explore the town’s grandiose Spanish Colonial buildings, sample fresh wine from the Topa Mountain Winery, and browse books in Bart’s Books, the largest independent outdoor bookstore in the United States. After spending relaxing quality time in the adorable small town, navigate along the Topatopa Mountains for scenic hikes, exciting bike rides, and astonishing views, or consider a relaxing and scenic horseback ride through the Ventura River Valley or Enchanted Forest, which the Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company assists you with.

And don’t miss out on Ojai’s annual activities, like the Ojai Music Festival, the Ojai Valley Lavender Festival, or the Wine Festival, which happens annually in June at Lake Casitas. If you enjoy history, stop by at the Ojai Valley Museum, where you can learn about the Chumash people who originally inhabited the area. After a long day’s adventure, rest in the Ojai Valley Inn or the Caravan Outpost, then rinse and repeat at your leisure.

Los Alamos

Welcome sign, Bell Street, Los Alamos.
Welcome sign, Bell Street, Los Alamos, By NHRHS2010 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, File:Bell Street Los Alamos.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Like a jewel beneath the hot sand, Los Alamos shines in the Santa Ynez Valley. This Old West town was founded in 1876 by two ranchers and remains a favorite destination for foodies and wine lovers. The best wines can be sampled in Lo-Fi Wines, Casa Dumetz, or Lumen; or, if you prefer beer, Babi’s Beer Emporium sells a grand selection of craft beers on tap and in the bottle.

If you happen to be in town the final weekend of September, check out Los Alamos’ annual Old Days Festival, which celebrates the town’s glorious history. Visitors can book rooms in the historic Union Hotel, built in 1880 and still operational today, but you can also opt for more modern lodgings like the Skyview Los Alamos, Alamo Motel, or Victorian Mansion Bed & Bread.

Idyllwild-Pine Cove

View of shops on main street of Idyllwild, California.
The main street of Idyllwild, California. Image credit Rosamar via

Few small towns offer a splendid getaway from metropolitan hassle, but the unique town of Idyllwild is an idyll wild right for you. There are plenty of outdoor opportunities to enjoy in the embrace of the Mount San Jacinto State Park, from mountainous pine forests to memorable trails and treks where you can set camp. The Idyllwild Nature Center is a good place to start your wildlife adventure, and for those who like to go extreme, you might consider taking the Tahquitz and Suicide Rock Climbing challenges or the Spring Challenge mountain bike race.

For those who like to take things easy and relaxed, experience Idyllwild’s famous "Jazz in the Pine" festival for honey-smooth melodies. Then, when your wild ideals have been fulfilled, rest easy in Idyllwild Inn, The Fireside Inn, Silver Pines Lodge, or Idyllwild Buckhouse.

San Juan Capistrano

Outside of Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The beautiful Mission San Juan Capistrano.

While other small towns in Southern California have experienced radical changes since their inception, San Juan Capistrano maintains and upholds its historical aspect. San Juan Capistrano — founded as a Spanish Mission in 1776 and named after the French saint Saint John of Capistrano — showcases its gripping history in the Blas Aguilar Adobe Museum and Acjachemen Cultural Center. The town mixes Mexican, Spanish, Acjachemen, and Californian cultures into its architecture to create beautiful attractions. For example, the San Juan Capistrano Basilica and the Los Rios District, the oldest neighborhood in California, where the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society offers tours of the district once a week.

There are many spectacular places to celebrate the three-week heritage festival commemorating the return of thousands of swallows to their summer breeding grounds. Stay awhile in the Inn at the Mission or the Residence Inn by Marriott Dana Point.


Evergreen Cafe and Racoon Saloon decorated in Christmas holiday lights on Evergreen Rd in Wrightwood, California
Evergreen Cafe and Racoon Saloon decorated in Christmas holiday lights in Wrightwood, California. Image credit Jon Osumi via

Wrightwood exudes an unhindered, uncomplicated atmosphere that brings peace and calmness with each relaxed breath in the San Gabriel Mountains. Go on fun skiing and snowboarding experiences in the Mountain High ski resort, the best in Southern California. Kick the dirt with trips across the plentiful hiking trails in the town, including the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes through Wrightwood on its way from Mexico to Canada.

You can also browse wares in the Wrightwood Farmers Market, where fresh produce and unique artisanal crafts are purveyed. Although Wrightwood is not the most adventurous and dynamic of towns, its laidback simplicity and chill warmth create an environment worth staying, especially in Grand Pine Cabins, Canyon Creek Inn, and Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham Victorville.


Main street Solvang, California, with its Danish style of architecture.
Main street Solvang, California. Image credit Valeriya Zankovych via

Solvang is a far cry from the usual Californian image of beaches and sunshine. In this town named after the Danish word for "sunny field," the Danish-inspired architecture creates the illusion of touring Amsterdam rather than SoCal. Amazed tourists can meander down Copenhagen Drive and delve into the town's many European-style stores, boutiques, and patisseries, providing traditional Danish delicacies. During Solvang Danish Days in September, you can peruse more items at the Old World artisan marketplace and even view a Viking reenactment.

You can also explore the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, which preserves the town’s history and culture through interactive exhibits, and the Wildling Museum of Art and Nature, which helps inspire future generations of artists and conservationists to protect natural heritage. After your faraway trip to "The Danish Capital of America," you can lounge in the Vinland Hotel and Lounge, The Hadsten Solvang, King Frederik Inn, or The Landsby.


Vacation homes in Avalon, California.
Vacation homes in Avalon, California.

Beyond the mists of time and silver waves lies the mystical hamlet of Avalon! Not the Avalon of Merlin and King Arthur, but the quaint small town on Santa Catalina Island in Southern California. Though not as mythical as the British Avalon, the SoCal Avalon has enough charms and mysteries to delight you in your mystical journey. From the historic Catalina Casino, where Hollywood’s elite once glamorously played, to Wrigley Memorial Botanical Garden on the edge of Avalon, the town and the island bestow many wonders.

Because it’s on Santa Catalina Island, one of many islands in the Channel Islands, Avalon is abundant with scenic waterfronts, where you can take a stroll and marvel at the views of the ferry-filled harbor, the Green Pleasure Pier, and fine restaurants like the Lobster Trap and the Descanso Beach Club. Being one of the world’s healthiest marine environments, Avalon is a great place for diving and snorkeling. When you’re done touring the area, rest in the Bellanca Hotel, Hotel Atwater, and Aurora Hotel.


View of the historic old town of Julian, California.
Historic old town of Julian, California. Image credit littlenySTOCK via

Apples, apple pies, and historic ties to gold mining in the serene Cuyamaca Mountains? Julian has that covered. A gold-digging settlement first, Julian is now renowned as the Apple Capital of Southern California, cultivating an abundance of tasty apples that visitors can pluck themselves from the Calico Ranch Orchard. The Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve provides a spellbinding backdrop for exploring the natural beauty of the region, with spectacular sights of the Anza-Borrego Desert and the Salton Sea. History buffs can explore Julian's time-honored Julian Pioneer Museum and the Eagle and High Peak Mine, where you can peek into the town's prosperous mining legacy.

Plus, because Julian is an international dark sky community, the town makes special accommodations for the StarFest in August, where visitors can participate in stargazing activities. But if you prefer to relax, you can spend the night peacefully at Orchard Hill, Apple Tree Inn, and Tucker Peak Lodge.

Los Olivos

Cars angle parked and the facade of store fronts in Los Olivos, California: small American city in California in the wine region.
Street view in Los Olivos, California. Image credit Marco Bicci via

Vineyards, wineries, and horse ranches spread far and wide in the idyllic town of Los Olivos, a small town with great taste. The town’s Main Street is lined with Prairie-style Victorian edifices, many comprised of vineyards and tasting rooms that showcase the region’s rich agricultural heritage. Savor the town's award-winning wines like elegant aficionados while serenading in the Los Olivos Jazz and Olive Festival.

Cycle or walk about as you travel along this fertile region of the Santa Ynez Valley, where you can learn all about the wine-making and grape-treading processes that produce the sweet, sparkling nectars of Los Olivos. But the finest wines are best served in the finest establishments, and lodgings like Fess Parker Wine Country Inn, The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern, and Hampton Inn Buellton are as fine as they come.

On the endless highways of Southern California are small towns brimming with relief from metropolitan chaos, nature's awesome and dynamic artistry, and windows to the Old West. Songwriters have praised the sunny wilds and townsfolk of Southern California, and you can sing along with them as you blaze a trail across desert and forest. So kick up the dirt and sample the towns' many attractions in a land rich in diverse cultures mixing together as well as wine.

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