Avalon, California. Image credit Michael Rosebrock via shutterstock

These Small Towns In California Have The Best Downtown Areas

California is a truly diverse state of scenic and historical sights and attractions concentrated in downtown squares surrounded by mesmerizing nature full of activities to pursue. These 10 small towns with some of the state's best downtown areas can compete with larger centers throughout the nation.


Aerial view of Avalon downtown and bay with boats in Santa Catalina Island, California
Aerial view of Avalon downtown and bay with boats in Santa Catalina Island, California. 

Avalon is a tiny atmospheric town perched on Catalina Island, with 4,000 residents. It calls for scenic strolls with 360-degree views, while locals use golf carts to get around. The town was a pre-modern settlement-turned tourist destination with one million visitors each year for the distinctive Mediterranean feel. The endless list of activities includes highlights like off-coast snorkeling, sport fishing, hitting the white-sanded beaches, and the 38.5 miles of hiking Trans-Catalina Trail with vistas all along.

There's fish-themed The Lobster Trap for a delicious bite with an option to cook one's fresh catch for a scenically-set meal. Avalon's whole one-mile breadth is a mellow-vibe downtown area with unforgettable art galleries, boutique shops, and waterfront restaurants, aligned by gorgeous palm trees. The hillside-set homes are surrounded by lush vegetation and brilliant-blue waters for wet and dry outdoor adventures.


Downtown Main St. West End in Cambria, California
Downtown Main St. West End in Cambria, California. Editorial credit: randy andy / Shutterstock.com

Despite its small size, the coastal town features one of the most atmospheric downtowns in the nation, set in the shadow of the Hearst Castle. It is a popular destination with Alcatraz and the beaches that retains a quaint charm and low-key vibe for an ideal laidback getaway and relaxation. The downtown filled with salty air is a stroll-worthy thoroughfare, while the Paso Robles wine country is less than 30 miles away for scenic outings heading inland.

There's the Elephant Seal Rookery in town with some 20,000 seals for families and nature lovers, while The Vault Gallery features Plein air painters and contemporary works by Billy Zane for the art fans. The town is also a destination for antiquing with stores like Rich Man Poor Man, Antiques on Main, and Home Arts. To dine, there's the most-popular Sea Chest Restaurant & Oyster Bar calling all of the seafood lovers for a scenically-set meal right along the Moonstone Beach, as well as the new-in-town White Water that doubles up as a hotel.


A fashionably-dressed woman strolls down a sidewalk in Carmel-by-the-sea, California
A fashionably-dressed woman strolls down a sidewalk in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California. Editorial credit: pbk-pg / Shutterstock.com

The town, located right outside of Monterey, is the setting of the Big Little Lies series. Its Pebble Beach's world-class golf links overlook the scenic hiking trails of the peninsula below. One can meander through the cobblestone street of the picturesque downtown area just like its long-time resident, Clint Eastwood has probably done many times. The extensive main thoroughfare is filled with tons of intriguing stops for days worth of perusing. The former boho-artist colony features over 100 art galleries, upscale wineries, high-end boutiques, and the Ocean Avenue-full of great restaurants for a chilled oyster dinner. 

The coastal town comes with the renowned dog-friendly Carmel Beach, which is also a surfer's galore and known for some of the state's whitest sands. The stunning locale features ethereal Cyprus trees, unforgettable sunsets, and countless ways to stay active. The Bruno's market and deli is a popular stop for a quick bite or grub to go, like the delectable tri-tip sandwich. The town set along the famously-scenic Big Sur is a perfect romantic getaway with enchanting gardens and fairy-tale cottages. 


Picture of the California Theater in the town of Dunsmuir, California
Picture of the California Theater in the town of Dunsmuir, California. Editorial credit: FinJoe / Shutterstock.com

The serene and secluded mountain paradise of Dunsmuir is one of the oldest towns in the state. The downtown area features a historic district that looks straight out of a time capsule, along with an old railroad depot with a nostalgic 20th-century California vibe. There's also an endless line-up of shops, antique stores, and restaurants, among many attractions like a hardware store that is also a museum. Summertime brings about the annual Tribute to the Trees solstice concert as the most atmospheric gathering for the music-filled fun.

The town-set along the upper Sacramento River is a tourist trap with scenic adventures like hiking, biking, and fishing. The active also flee for some of the nation's best rock-climbing, mountain-biking, skiing, and camping. The 14,000 stance of Mt. Shasta offers forested hillsides of tall Jeffrey ponderosa pine trees for the conquerors to reach its peak. The au naturale Dunsmuir is void of traffic, including motorized vehicles, while generously offering its Botanical Garden in the city park with Shasta lilies and more native flora. 


The main street of Ferndale, California
The main street of Ferndale, California. Editorial credit: Bob Pool / Shutterstock.com

Ferndale is a cozy Victorian village with fewer than 1,500 full-time residents and many more tourists who come yearly to this galore of National Register of Historic places. The town brims with atmospheric Victorian homes and buildings, many of which have been preserved and turned into delightful storefronts, cafes, and art galleries. The main historic thoroughfare features boutique shops and awesome restaurants.

The charming town is also a spectacular base camp for adventurous explorers. Ferndale is surrounded on both sides by California Redwood forests for a real nature fan's paradise. One can drive down the stunningly-scenic five-mile Lost Coast pristine coastline, stroll through the fresh-air Russ Park, and visit the bird sanctuary with atmospheric Sitka Spruce trees.

Nevada City

Broad Street, Nevada City Downtown Historic District
Broad Street, Nevada City Downtown Historic District. Image Credit: Frank Schulenburg via Wikimedia Commons.

Nevada City is a small town on one side and one big historical landmark on the other. The former gold rush town is set picturesquely in the Sierra Nevada range for an idyllic natural getaway. Nevada City overflows with charm in the preserved downtown full of Victorian architecture. The atmospheric festivals and events include the annual Bicycle Classic and First Friday Art Walks. 

The small charming townscape offers a galore of activities and attractions to keep busy for days, such as perusing through the historic downtown, with stops to shop for homemade crafts along the roadway. The exuberant town gives off a postcard-like vibe from every angle, including friendly merchants lining the streets and wine tasting rooms, along with tranquil inns and lodges. The water-sport lovers greatly enjoy kayaking, rafting, and boating down the extensive Deer Creek.


Aerial view of Ojai, California
Aerial view of Ojai, California. Editorial credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Ojai has long been synonymous with an oasis for artists and free spirits of the country, many of whom come to settle in the atmospheric town. The small community is tucked an hour and a half northwest of Los Angeles in a valley of the Topatopa Mountains. The tranquil town in the shadow of the peaks features an equal mix of prime outdoor activities and many attractions within one of the state's best downtown areas. There is hiking and horseback riding along the scenic trails, with spa treatments awaiting back in town at the renowned Ojai Valley Inn. Other scenic activities include hot springs, the Meditation Mount, and hiking trails through the pixie tangerine groves.

The heart of the town Ojai Village houses incredible Spanish Colonial Revival architecture among a prime collection of New Age shops to suit any taste. There are also tons of art galleries, along with Bart's Books, which is the world's largest outdoor bookstore. Ojai is naturally-renowned for the "pink moment" when the mountains get sun-kissed by the softest of the glows each evening. The laid-back town is known as the spiritual artist's haven, as well as the home of the late avant-garde potter Beatrice Wood, with streets strewn with an eclectic mix of cozy craftsmen and cottage architecture. There's the Porch Gallery with famed Beato chocolates, many clean-eating cafes using locally-grown ingredients, such as the Farmer and the Cook, as well as the Tipple & Ramble wine bar and shop with vintage finds. The town is also popular for its unique jewelry pieces with rare gemstones at Susan Cummings. 


Aerial view of downtown Sausalito, California
Aerial view of downtown Sausalito, California. 

Sausalito is set across the bay from San Francisco, with a downtown full of coastal charm. The houseboat communities offer a perfect laidback getaway from the urban commotion to a tranquil coast. The Sausalito Boardwalk is lined by local shops and eateries to peruse during atmospheric strolls. The town is renowned for the unique black sands of Rodeo Beach, while Vista Point offers breathtaking views over the bay and San Francisco. The heart of town, Bridgeway, features similar vistas along with easy access to many quaint shops and restaurants. The historic Battery Spencer is a scenic lookout site with military history expositions.

Visiting the historic downtown of Sausalito feels like being dropped into an old town in the Mediterranean, with ocean views and idyllic hillside homes. There's the annual Sausalito Art Festival during the Labor Day weekend, along with the state's best seafood restaurants that will make any meal feel celebratory throughout the year. The Fish Restaurant is one of the most popular for serving sustainable seafood with a taste of heaven. Sausalito is easily reachable from San Francisco via a ferry, while the active can bike in-town along the vehicular traffic via the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge. There's also the Bay Area Discovery Museum right at the foot of the bridge. The Galilee Harbor and Waldo Point Harbor's colorful houseboats present postcard-worthy ops for photo shoots.


Main Street in Solvang, California
Main Street in Solvang, California. Editorial credit: HannaTor / Shutterstock.com

The small town of Solvang features one of the nation's most unique downtown areas, making one feel in the middle of a European city's town square. The picture-perfect town encases exclusively Danish-style architecture, surrounded by the lovely Santa Ynez Valley for a complementing vibe. One will find many flags of Denmark waving from the main thoroughfare's lamp posts, along with endless shops, eateries, and bakery-style cafes reminiscent of the original settlers' homeland. One must purchase the wooden clogs or at least a smaller-replica souvenir, try out the aebleskiver donut holes, and stop by the iconic windmill.

Solvang is also the gateway into the scenically-delicious Santa Barbara wine country, with quality tasting rooms right in town. The Scandinavian town-set central in the state is a tourist trap for authentic pastry and Danish cheeses, hand-made Christmas ornaments, and a year-round biking scene just like in Denmark. It is a wonderful place to visit for the holidays with the true spirit of European Christmas, while other days of the year call for touring museums and missions. The famed Alisal Guest Ranch is an atmospheric estate with scenic horseback rides and gourmet BBQ cookouts alongside celebrity chefs.

St. Helena

Wine enthusiasts taste wine at the Del Dotto Estate Winery & Caves, in Napa Valley, St. Helena, California
Wine enthusiasts taste wine at the Del Dotto Estate Winery & Caves, in Napa Valley, St. Helena, California. Editorial credit: Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock.com

The lively, engaged community of St. Helena is also known as the "Napa Valley's Main Street." Despite its small breadth of just five square miles, the picturesque town is the epitome of the region concentrated in its downtown. Lovely vineyards and scenically-Mediterranean hills surround the known food and literary mecca. There's the classic Culinary Institute of America, while writers and publishers make up a large chunk of the residents.

Everything about the town screams of Californian authenticity, including fine hospitality and wine, experimental cuisine, wellness pursuits, various art, and 22 listings on the National Register of Historic Places. Downtown streets come lined with boutiques, restaurants, and galleries, complete with many historic stone and brick buildings housing many businesses. The natural paradise around is meandered by some of the state's best hiking and biking trails, including those running through vineyards and state parks.

The small towns in California really know how to take it up a notch in their downtown areas. Even those who come prepared to be amazed will have a jaw-dropping experience in these small towns' atmospheric and truly-best hearts.

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