California was admitted to the Union in 1850 and, despite being one of the USA’s newest states, does have plenty of fascinating history to share with curious travelers. One of the largest states (it’s #3 after Alaska and Texas), you can learn a lot about California’s storied past from its many interesting small towns.
From the rolling hills and mountains of Northern California to the sun-kissed beaches of SoCal, these small towns host some of the best historic districts in the state, each offering a glimpse into California's rich and varied past. Find out more with a read of our list of small towns in California that have the best historic districts.
Located in Northern California near the state border with Oregon, Yreka was founded in 1856 and given a Native American name for "white mountain" as nearby Mount Shasta was known. Boomtime for Yreka came during the Gold Rush era soon after its founding, a period when many of the buildings you’ll see today in the historic downtown area were constructed.
The best of these can be seen along Main Street, where you’ll find notable Yreka attractions including the Siskiyou County Museum with its large collection of artifacts and exhibits that tell the story of the region's indigenous people and its Gold Rush settlers. For those interested in architecture, Yreka's Historic Homes Walking Tour is a must-do and includes a chance to see over 70 houses built before the turn of the 20th century.
San Juan Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano’s Southern California setting, along with its Mediterranean climate and artsy vibe, often sees this historic town topping lists of the best places to live in the state. The town’s best-known historic landmark is the Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776 by Catholic priests to convert Native Americans to Christianity. It’s largely tourists who make the pilgrimage here today, drawn by the Mission’s stunning architecture and, in springtime, to witness the annual return of migrating swallows.
Other highlights of San Juan Capistrano's historic district include its picturesque old adobe homes and early Californian architecture, especially along Los Rios Street, the oldest residential street in California.
Just a 25-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles (traffic permitting), Monrovia is about as close as you can get to California's largest city for an authentic “small town” experience. The heart of historic Monrovia is its Old Town on South Myrtle Avenue, a scene made even prettier due to its backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains; it’s so pretty a scene, in fact, that you’ll often see film crews here capturing it for TV shows and movies. One of the best places to live in Los Angeles, Monrovians are proud of their community spirit, something they celebrate with events like the weekly Friday Street Fair and Market.
The Monrovia Historical Museum is a must-visit and presents a variety of exhibits showcasing the town, including relics from its founding to Native American treasures and WWII artifacts. Another historical landmark is the Aztec Hotel, built in 1925 and known for its intriguing history of crime, legal issues, and paranormal activity.
Dubbed by locals as the "Citrus Capital of the World," Santa Paula is only an hour’s drive from LA and makes for an ideal day trip for those seeking a taste of authentic California. Although the town was only officially incorporated in 1902, it was settled decades earlier, and many well-preserved examples of architecture dating from the late 19th century can still be seen today in and around the downtown area.
The town's historic Main Street district is so pretty that it’s often chosen as a film location. Standout buildings here include the old train depot, now a popular art gallery, and the old John Scott building, constructed in 1870.
Located just 60 miles east of San Diego, Julian’s location in the mountains of Southern California certainly adds to the town’s appeal. Established in the 1870s at around the time of the California Gold Rush, Julian’s historic downtown and Main Street area features many attractive 19th-century buildings surviving from this period. Only a short stroll away is the Julian Haven of Rest cemetery where many of the town’s first residents are buried.
You can also experience a little of the Gold Rush at the Eagle and High Peak Mine attraction through fun interpretive tours, including a glimpse into some of the town’s old gold mines. Visit during the popular Apple Days Festival in the fall for the chance to sample one of the town’s famous Julian apple pies.
San Juan Bautista
Travel 45 miles southeast of San Jose and you’ll wind up in San Juan Bautista, one of the best places to visit in California for a fun small-town weekend getaway. You’ll learn much about the town and the region at San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, a fascinating sightseeing opportunity that consists of four main historic museums and several distinctive buildings dating back to the 1800s. Highlights include an old jailhouse, a blacksmith shop, and an early American settler’s cabin.
Other fun things to do in San Juan Bautista include visiting Mission San Juan Bautista, founded in 1797 and the largest mission church in California; and Juan Bautista De Anza Historic Trailhead, a lengthy trail network that extends over 20 counties of Arizona and California.
Located on the scenic coastline of Northern California, Mendocino was founded in the 1850s and has the distinction of being the only coastal community to be designated an Historical Landmark. Here, grand old Victorian homes and quaint Saltbox cottages rub shoulders and look like they might belong to a small town in Maine. Highlights of a visit include exploring historic downtown Mendocino, a walkable area that encompasses Main Street and Mendocino Headlands State Park with its many historic buildings. Highlights include the Temple of Kwan Tai, Kelley House Museum, and the Mendocino Art Center.
You’ll also want to visit Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park. Built in 1909, this historic park features restored buildings, including lightkeeper homes and a marine science exhibit, as well as displays relating to the Indigenous Pomo tribe.
The Final Word
Thanks to their well-preserved historic districts, these small towns in California are much more than just quaint stopovers. Together, they amount to a living history of the state’s fascinating past, as well as its people. Find out more with this list of small Californian towns that boast the best historic districts.