In the heart of Southern California, known for its iconic beaches and bustling cities, lie hidden gems - small towns brimming with warmth and hospitality. These locales stand in contrast to the fast-paced urban centers, offering a serene embrace to those who wander into their bounds.
This article takes you through nine such towns, each radiating a unique charm and a welcoming spirit. From coastal havens like La Jolla to quiet desert retreats like Joshua Tree, these towns are not just stopovers but destinations in their own right, where every visitor is greeted with open arms and a warm smile. Join us as we explore the most inviting towns Southern California has to offer, where community warmth lights up even the sunniest days.
Ojai is a friendly village in Ventura County in the Topatopa Mountains. The town center has a village aesthetic with traditional Spanish architecture that is the focal point for visitors. There are several outdoor adventures here, like Jeep tours, offroad bicycling, golf, and horseback riding.
The downtown area has a unique atmosphere that is known locally as "distinctly Ojai." Local favorite restaurants like Olivella, Rory's Place, and The Dutchess offer locally sourced fare with outside and indoor dining available. Ojai embodies artistry, and this spirit is evident in the art and culture scene. The Libbey Bowl is an outdoor amphitheater where you can enjoy the majestic scenery while enjoying one of many concerts held throughout the year.
Joshua Tree is a small community in the High Desert with a population of less than 10,000. The town is 2,700 feet above sea level and borders the Joshua Tree State Park along with two other small towns. The town features UFOs, funky art, and remnants of the Wild West.
Among the most eclectic art exhibits here is the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum. This ten-acre art exhibit includes various "assemblage sculptures" that are made from bowling balls, mufflers, and a 14 toilet sculpture shaped into a "U" shape. There is also the Pioneertown, built by Gene Autrey in 1946. Famous Western television shows were filmed here, including the Cisco Kid series.
La Jolla is a coastal town 20 miles north of San Diego and is in between two rocky cliffs. It is home to La Jolla Shores, a pristine shoreline of white sand and clear water that is perfect for kayaking and snorkeling. The shoreline is lined with firepits for sunset gazing. The gorgeous natural scenery also includes long patches of tall pine trees, hiking trails, and the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve which has a 2.3 mile loop trail.
The world-renowned Torrey Pines Golf Course includes two courses on top of a stunning sea cliff. La Jolla Cove is another popular spot and can be experienced in less than an hour It does not charge an entrance fee. Visitors are always welcome to visit the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institue of Oceanography which has guided tours, seminars, and annual events.
Los Alamos is in Santa Barbara County on the North end of the Santa Ynez Valley. The town proudly calls itself a "small town with Old West Heritage," and the main road, Bell, is only seven blocks long. Los Alamos is famous for being the last standing Pacific Railroad Station and is now known for its multiple wine-tasting rooms and fine dining establishments like The Willows.
Santa Ynez Valley is known for its large production of wines like Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Bell Street has abundant wine tasting rooms that showcase these wines, including Bedford Winery, which specializes in Syrah, Lo-Fi Wines, which specializes in natural wines; and Casa Dumetz Wines, featuring chardonnay wines from the valley. Los Alamos boasts the Depot Antique Mall, which is fun to visit even if you are not into antiquing.
Palm Springs is a small resort town in the Sonoran Desert and is known for its hot springs and golf courses. It has been a favorite playground for Hollywood stars since the 1930s and is the place to go for pampering. The architecture is distinctively mid-century, and there are private and group tours that go through the most historic neighborhoods.
The Coachella and Stagecoach Festivals have brought renewed attention to the desert town. Until recently, the shops and restaurants closed in the summer because of the oppressive heat but now stay open year-round as the area continues to develop. One of the more unique attractions is the Forever Marilyn statue. The statue was created by artist Seward Johnson, who was influenced by the iconic photo from the movie The Seven Year Itch.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, or SLO CAL to the locals, is a unique town brimming with eclectic art and history. The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art showcases work by local artists. The San Luis Obispo de Teloso is a 1700s mission on Mission Plaza that includes a museum. Along the way, you will find Bubblegum Alley, where the walls are covered in chewed-up bubblegum.
The town boasts 315 days of sunshine per year with beaches and miles of vineyards. SLO CAL is positioned between two culinary hubs, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and attracts some of the best chefs and sommeliers in the country. Restaurants like Luna Red and Windows On The Water are just two out of many that are home to this talent, making this a perfect foodie destination.
Located on the world-famous Catalina Island, Avalon is the only incorporated town on the island. The resort town enjoys stunning topography and views of the ocean that belong in a painting. To get to Avalon, you will have to take a helicopter, private plane, or the high speed ferry.
Crescent Avenue, known locally as Front Street, boasts beautiful architecture like the Wrigley Fountain and the Serpentine Wall, each adorned with Catalina Tile. Other points of interest include the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens, Catalina Island Museum, and the Catalina Casino. The Casino Ballroom is in Avalon's Historic Landmark and features a luxury movie theatre and an exquisite domed ballroom that is a must-see attraction for all visitors.
Cambria is a small seaside village halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on Route 1. Along with views of the Pacific Ocean, there is historical architecture and many historical buildings, each marked with its own sign. You can schedule a walking tour with a docent from the Cambria Historical Society and explore the Kaetzel/Williams House, the Santa Rosa Chapel and Cemetery, and the Utley/Leffingwell/Goodall House.
For such a small town, there is enough to do and see here to keep a visitor occupied for at least a week. One of the most romantic places to go is Hearst Castle located on the "Enchanted Hill". This exquisite chateau sits atop a mountain with views of the ocean 1,600 feet below. There is also an observation deck where one can watch the sunset paint the ocean orange with an unobstructed view like no other.
Coronado is a resort town on a peninsula in San Diego Bay. It's home to the historic Victorian Hotel del Coronado. The landmark hotel was built in 1888 and has a view of Coronado Beach, a haven for surfers and beachcombers alike.
The town is known for its art and culture and has theatres such as the Coronado Playhouse and the Lamb's Players Theater. The Coronado School of the Arts also hosts several shows per year to showcase the local high school talent. There are also annual events such as the Annual Flower Show and Motorcars on Main Street. This town has something for everyone and is one of the prettiest towns on the coast.
California is one of the prettiest states in the US to visit any time of the year. If Southern California is on the itinerary, visiting these small towns and villages is an ideal way to experience the best that California has to offer.