Old style building in Pacific Grove, Monterey, California.

The Best Small Towns in Southern California for a Weekend Retreat

Southern California, known for its year-round sunshine, stunning coastlines, and varied landscapes, offers numerous options for a perfect weekend getaway. With everything from coastal beach towns and desert escapes to mountain retreats, these nine small towns provide a diverse range of environments and activities to suit all preferences. Whether you seek a serene retreat, an adventure-filled weekend, an educational experience, or a culinary journey, there's a small town waiting for you. Experience the vibrant culture of San Juan Capistrano, the outdoor thrills of Big Bear Lake, or the peaceful ambiance of New Cuyama. So pack your bags and discover the hidden treasures of Southern California for an unforgettable weekend.

Solana Beach

Aerial view of Solana Beach, California.
Aerial view of Solana Beach, California.

If you're seeking sunshine for your weekend retreat, Solana Beach, aptly named after the Spanish word for "a sunny place," should be at the top of your list. A mere 30-minute drive from downtown San Diego, this lovely coastal town offers more than just beautiful weather. In the heart of Solana Beach is the vibrant Cedros Avenue Design District, a two-block stretch styled in a captivating European fashion. This bustling hub is home to a variety of local boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and outdoor cafes, offering something for art enthusiasts, coffee lovers, wine connoisseurs, and those looking for a unique find.

Nearby, you'll find the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center, one of San Diego’s largest wetlands with 9 miles of diverse hiking trails. These trails meander through various habitats, including coastal strands, salt marsh, freshwater/brackish marsh, riparian woodland, coastal sage scrub, and mixed chaparral. Exploring these terrains will expose you to over 1,000 diverse plant and animal species that call these habitats home. A standout among these trails is Annie’s Canyon Trail. This 2.3-mile loop through an otherworldly sandstone slot canyon's peaks and valleys might make you feel like you're on an entirely different planet.

After a day filled with exploration, you can unwind at the town’s main beach, Fletcher Cove, soaking in the breathtaking ocean views framed by cliffs and palm trees, or head to Tide Beach Park to discover the natural tide pools. To round off a perfect day, retreat to the centrally located Winner's Circle Resort. This hotel offers full amenities, including an outdoor pool, tennis courts, and a hot tub, ensuring ultimate relaxation on your weekend getaway.

Big Bear Lake

View of the main street, Pine Knot Avenue, in Big Bear Lake, with season decorations, buildings, and cars.
View of the main street, Pine Knot Avenue, in Big Bear Lake, with season decorations, buildings, and cars. Editorial credit: Alizada Studios / Shutterstock.com

Big Bear Lake, situated in the San Bernardino Mountains, provides a four-season retreat for those seeking a weekend getaway. This mountainous sanctuary is ideal for outdoor enthusiasts, offering a variety of activities such as hiking, skiing, snowboarding, fishing, and mountain biking. All these activities are set against the stunning backdrop of mountains, lakes, and forests that the San Bernardino Mountains have to offer. Accommodation options are abundant and cater to all types of travelers, with options ranging from the rugged campsites of the Serrano Campground, the cozy cabins of Summit Happy Cabin, the lakeside lodges of Lagonita Lodge, to the luxurious Noble and Proper Hotel.

Big Bear Mountain Resort is a must-visit spot, teeming with amenities and activities. Visitors can embrace the mountain summits, hurtling down the slopes on skis or snowboards, or gliding down on a tube. For those preferring a more grounded adventure, the alpine trails offer ample opportunities for hiking or biking. For a leisurely day, the pristine greens on the Bear Mountain Golf Course provide the perfect setting for a round of golf. After you've worked up an appetite, The Village district at the center of Big Bear offers an array of dining experiences, from farm-to-table delights to refreshing pints of beer. Amid mountain tops, pine tree forests, and serene lakes, Big Bear Lake is a true escape from the daily grind, offering a chance to reconnect with nature, indulge in outdoor activities, or simply enjoy some peace and quiet.


Main street, street view, and tourists in Solvang
Main street, street view, and tourists in Solvang. Image credit HannaTor via Shutterstock.

Located in Southern California's Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang is recognized for its distinctive architecture, plentiful wine, and tranquil atmosphere. Often referred to as America's Danish capital, Solvang reflects Northern European charm with its windmills, flower-lined streets, and authentic Danish cuisine. Stroll through the town at your leisure, stopping to admire the European-inspired architecture and the charming, storybook atmosphere. The town is small enough to explore on foot, turning a simple stroll into a unique journey of discovery.

Year-round sunshine complemented by cool, crisp nights not only provides an ideal climate for a weekend getaway but also cultivates perfect conditions for the abundant vineyards. In a town renowned for its wine, indulge in world-class selections at Rusack Vineyard or any of the numerous restaurants, tasting rooms, and wine bars scattered throughout the town. A trip to Solvang wouldn't be complete without sampling its culinary and cultural offerings, such as the authentic Danish pastries at BRØD & KAGE, famous for their Danish rolls, butter cookies, and cream puffs. For a unique experience, visit the Solvang Viking Museum, which boasts a collection of authentic 1,000-year-old Viking artifacts and its own Viking ship built by Denmark's Roskilde Viking Ship Museum. A few nights at Hotel Ynez, set on two acres of lush gardens, are the perfect way to enhance your weekend getaway. Take a leisurely walk through the vibrant gardens, enjoy a swim in the heated pool, relax on the patio hammocks, and conclude your day with a bonfire at the pavilion for a memorable night under the stars.


Victorian Hotel del Coronado
Victorian Hotel del Coronado

Coronado, known as "The Crown City," is an idyllic destination for a weekend retreat in Southern California. With expansive beaches sparkling with mica, it provides the perfect setting for activities such as swimming, sailing, and surfing. The city's picturesque coastline is interlaced with miles of bike paths, offering stunning views of the San Diego Bay and ensuring a truly scenic experience for outdoor enthusiasts.

The heart of Coronado, Orange Avenue, is a vibrant hub filled with unique shops, restaurants, and galleries. The Coronado Ferry Landing houses an array of stores and restaurants, all boasting breathtaking views of San Diego's skyline. The city offers a variety of recreational pursuits, including sailing, stand-up paddling, Venetian gondola cruises, and golfing. Moreover, the town boasts a thriving cultural and arts scene with local community theater groups, a museum of history and art, and a variety of shows at the Coronado School of the Arts.

The iconic Hotel del Coronado, built in 1888 and designated a National Historic Landmark, is a must-visit. Its fascinating and colorful past includes presidents and princes, socialites and scandals, ghosts, and glamorous celebrities. Visitors can unwind with a cold one at Coronado Brewing, which offers nine signature brews and delicious eats. As the sun goes down, guests can gather around a fire pit on the beach at the Hotel del Coronado, indulging in campfire-cooked s'mores next to the rolling surf, under a blanket of stars. With its blend of natural beauty, outdoor activities, rich history, and outstanding amenities, Coronado is a great choice for a weekend retreat in Southern California.

San Juan Capistrano

Businesses on Verdugo Street in the Historic downtown district of San Juan Capistrano, California
Businesses on Verdugo Street in the Historic downtown district of San Juan Capistrano, California. Editorial credit: Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock.com

San Juan Capistrano is a unique city, steeped in a rich history that spans across multiple eras. Initially inhabited by Indigenous people, this town was taken over by the Spanish in 1776, marked by the construction of the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Subsequently, it came under Mexican rule in 1833 before becoming part of the US in 1848. This mosaic of cultures has left an imprint on the town’s architecture, culture, and community, making it a vibrant living history. Central to the town's attractions is the Mission San Juan Capistrano, open to visitors to explore the landmark known as the birthplace of Orange County.

For outdoor enthusiasts, the Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, an 8,000-acre preserve of California wilderness, offers stunning landscapes of sandstone canyons, river terraces, and the picturesque Santa Ana Mountains. Hikers can enjoy this secluded outdoor haven, exploring various trails that wind past fields of wildflowers and streams, immersing themselves in the native flora and fauna such as the California sycamore and coastal live oak trees. The town is perfect for wandering, especially through the historical streets of the Los Rios Historic District, California's oldest neighborhood. Here, visitors can shop at local boutiques for souvenirs and enjoy a unique dining experience at the iconic Ramos House Cafe. After a day filled with exploration and adventure, visitors can unwind at the Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. This retreat, inspired by the town's unique history, provides a pool, fitness center, and spa for ultimate relaxation.

Pacific Grove

Waterfront homes in Pacific Grove, California.
Waterfront homes in Pacific Grove, California.

Pacific Grove, a picturesque town situated in the northern part of Monterey County, is an ideal destination for a weekend retreat in Southern California. Its unique location along the rocky shoreline of Monterey Bay makes it one of the few places where one can catch a breathtaking ocean-view sunrise. The town offers the scenic Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, stretching for 18 miles along the oceanside, perfect for a bike ride or a leisurely walk. You might even spot seals and sea otters frolicking just beyond the shore. For the more adventurous, kayaking in the bay, courtesy of Adventures by the Sea, provides an exhilarating experience. Lovers Point Park and Beach is a great spot to lounge in the sun, cool off in the ocean, try surfing, or simply catch the sunrise.

The historic downtown area of Pacific Grove is filled with charming cafes, local boutiques, and standout restaurants like Wildfish. Whether or not you're in the mood to shop, the beautiful streets lined with traditional 19th-century cottages are worth admiring. After a day filled with activities, the Asilomar Hotel and Conference Grounds offer a cozy cottage for a relaxing stay. The accommodation, set in the center of the 100-acre Asilomar Conference Grounds, features Asilomar State Beach with a boardwalk winding through pine forests, sand dunes, and trails that follow the rugged shoreline of Monterey Bay. With its blend of natural beauty, recreational activities, and relaxing atmosphere, Pacific Grove presents itself as a perfect choice for a weekend retreat in Southern California.

Joshua Tree

Road through the town of Joshua Tree.
Road through the town of Joshua Tree.

Joshua Tree, a census-designated place in San Bernardino County, offers an unparalleled escape for visitors. With a humble population of just over 7,000, this desert oasis is home to Joshua Tree National Park, a breathtaking natural wonder that spans nearly 800,000 acres across two distinct deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado. The park is renowned for its unique rock formations and surreal landscape, with iconic Joshua trees and towering rock formations that have long captivated adventurers, artists, and nature enthusiasts. Each desert within the park has its own elevation-determined ecosystem and is home to a diverse set of plants and wildlife that have adapted to the harsh desert climate. This rich array of plant and animal life includes creosote bushes, cholla cactus, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and a variety of bird species. Visitors can partake in a range of activities such as hiking and rock climbing during the day, all while soaking in the stunning views of the rugged desert terrain. As the sun sets, the park offers a one-of-a-kind experience with an unobstructed view of the starry night sky.

Beyond the geological wonders of the famous park, the town of Joshua Tree offers a unique small-town ambiance, making it an ideal spot for a getaway. Embracing the adventurous spirit, the town offers a dynamic range of accommodations, from traditional camping to unique lodgings such as The Castle House Estate guard towers and the modern airstream trailers at AutoCamp Joshua Tree. Each Saturday, the town comes alive with a Farmers Market, where visitors can enjoy fresh produce, dairy, flowers, handmade jewelry, and other local specialties. Whether you're seeking solitude, adventure, or simply the chance to marvel at the beauty of the California desert, Joshua Tree offers an unparalleled experience for those seeking the raw, untamed beauty of the American West.

Del Mar

The coastal town of Del Mar, California.
The coastal town of Del Mar, California.

Set along San Diego’s northern coastline, Del Mar is a captivating seaside town perfect for a weekend retreat. The town boasts a perfect blend of natural beauty, upscale amenities, and a laid-back atmosphere, making it one of the best small towns in the region. At the heart of the town lies the Del Mar Village, dating back to the 1880s, and brimming with unique local boutiques, cafes, hotels, and restaurants, all accessible on foot. The centrally located L’Auberge Del Mar is an excellent lodging choice, offering stunning ocean views and easy access to both downtown and the beaches.

Outdoor enthusiasts have endless opportunities to explore Del Mar's scenic landscapes. The Del Mar Canyon Preserve and Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, with their scrub oak chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and vernal pools, provide excellent hiking and cycling trails for nature lovers. The Torrey Pines State Reserve stretches over 2,000 acres of wild coastline, with unspoiled beaches and the nation's rarest pine tree, Pinus torreyana. Visitors can also take a stroll along the iconic Del Mar Boardwalk, which offers breathtaking views of the coastline and the opportunity to spot local wildlife, such as seals and dolphins. With world-class surfing beaches, miles of coastline for fishing, kayaking, and horseback riding, and the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course nearby, Del Mar offers many recreational activities for an action-packed weekend retreat.

The Takeaway

Whether you're seeking sunshine, stimulation, or solace, Southern California's small towns have something for everyone. From the rich cultural history of San Juan Capistrano to the rugged desert landscape of Joshua Tree, the upscale coastal charm of Del Mar, and the tranquil rural retreat of New Cuyama, each town offers a unique experience. Nature enthusiasts, history buffs, foodies, and those just in need of a quiet escape will all find something to love. So, whether you prefer the beach, mountains, desert, or history, start planning your next weekend retreat to one of these captivating Southern California towns for an unforgettable experience.

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