Downtown Water Street in Port Townsend Historic District. Image credit 365 Focus Photography via Shutterstock

These Small Towns on the Pacific Coast Have the Best Historic Districts

Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world in 1521 led to him dubbing the sprawling seascape as "Mar Pacífico," the peaceful sea. The Pacific’s largest seas and gulfs may pledge allegiance to other landmasses, but the tides of America’s Salish Sea, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Gulf of California bring gifts aplenty. Escape to these Pacific Coast small towns where the past and present meet and play in some of America's best historic districts.

Mendocino, California

Historic home of lightkeeper of Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
Historic home of the lightkeeper of Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. Image credit travelview via Shutterstock

The entire town of Mendocino is a Designated California Landmark. The population of 700 lives among a nest of historic water towers, which has given the town a distinctive New England feel. The water towers were made of old redwood lumber, just like the buildings of the Mendocino and Headlands Historic District. The historic district has been on the National Registry of Historic Places since 1971.

Learn more about the elegant water towers with a walking tour developed by the Kelley House Museum. The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek and Spa has even renovated one of the towers so visitors can stay overnight in one. Watch baby seals play on the beach with a trip to the historic Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. Explore one of the Mendocino area's sea caves with a kayak rented from Catch-a-Canoe. Every fall, Mendocino hosts an enormous mushroom foraging event attracting naturalists around the state.

Port Townsend, Washington

Port Townsend, Washington waterfront view of old Victorian era architecture on a clear sunny day with blue sky.
Port Townsend, Washington waterfront, and historic buildings.

Cruise by the Victorian houses of the population-10,100 city of Port Townsend in Washington’s Jefferson County. Visit Fort Worden and gaze upon the extraordinary Alexander Castle. At first glance, the edifice appears as a common house with an egocentric chimney. Chess players will think of it as the largest sculpture of a rook, perhaps anywhere.

Port Townsend’s Historic District is an official US National Historic Landmark District. The eye-popping Starrett House, built in 1889, has five rooms that can be booked online. The guest rooms and common rooms have just as much rustic charm as the outside. Before skipping town, be sure to book visits to the Jefferson Museum of Art and History and the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

Astoria, Oregon

Captain George Flavel House Museum is now a house museum in Astoria, Oregon, United States. It was built in 1885 in the Queen Anne architectural style, by George Flavel, a Columbia River bar pilot
Captain George Flavel House Museum in Astoria, Oregon.

The best way to get a lay of the land in the population-10,300 city of Astoria is "Old 300," the 1913-era riverfront trolley car that passes through the downtown area twice on its hour-long trip. The Flavel House Museum is one of the best-preserved examples of Queen Anne architecture in the United States. The house was built between 1884-85 for Captain George Flavel, a Columbia River bar pilot.

The museum currently features an exhibit called "Blocked Out," highlighting the history of racial segregation in Astoria. It is hard to miss the pink, 1877 Peter L. Cherry house sprouting tall amidst a corona of bushes. The house is but one of many of Astoria’s residential treasures. Do not forget to pop by the Oregon Film Museum to see a trove of artifacts from the filming of The Goonies (1985). A full guide to the town's Historic District can be found on the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association's website.

Monterey, California

View of Franklin Street in Historic downtown on a sunny morning. Downtown Monterey features a variety of dining options, retail stores, and entertainment.
Franklin Street in Historic Downtown, Monterey, California. Image credit Albert Pego via Shutterstock

Monterey still has a relatively small-townish population of 29,800, despite being Larry and Cheryl’s favorite destination on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Saunter down Pacific Street in Monterey State Historic Park, where architectonic gems such as the Larkin House await. Cannery Row, the iconic real-life setting of John Steinbeck’s eponymous novel, has been restored to a dizzyingly beautiful menagerie of galleries, studios, restaurants, and shops.

The crown jewel of the area is the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. Watch a hammerhead shark part a scintillating cloud of northern anchovies. Escape to the 18th-19th centuries in Monterey Old Town Historic District, found within the boundaries of Monterey State Historic Park. Grab a meal and a brew at Old Fisherman’s Wharf. The view from the upper floor of the Crab House rewards customers with a 180° perspective of the changing tides and the comings and goings of skiffs.

Bandon, Oregon

The main downtown street in Bandon, Oregon
Downtown street in Bandon, Oregon. Image credit Bob Pool via Shutterstock

Horseback riding is popular in Bandon, with 11 miles of equestrian-friendly trails at Bullard’s Beach State Park. The park’s Coquille River, which empties into the Pacific, is named after the Coquille Tribe of Oregon. The Coquille River Lighthouse was built in the 1890s to guide ships upriver. Today’s population of 3,300 enjoys the 10 square blocks of shopping, dining, and art in the 19th-century setting of Old Town Bandon. One can land in this historic paradise conveniently from Highway 101 South. The Bandon Historical Society Museum has elegant old ferries on display as well as artifacts recovered from local shipwrecks.

Florence, Oregon

William Kyle & Sons Building, Florence, Oregon, USA, listed on the National Register of Historic Places
William Kyle & Sons Building, Florence, Oregon, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Image credit Acroterion, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Florence’s Historic Old Town District includes the incredible Suislaw Pioneer Museum. The district runs along the Suislaw River, a body of water named after the Suislaw Tribe, who are a part of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. Today, Florence's 9,475 residents test their nerves by sandboarding at Sand Master Park. Florence has preserved its unique natural history as well. The Darlingtonia State Natural site is an 18-acre preserve set up to specifically protect the carnivorous Darlingtonia californica (aka the cobra lily) pitcher plant. Tickets to tour the majestic Sea Lion Caves are just under $20, and children under four are admitted free of charge.

Friday Harbor, Washington

View of downtown Friday Harbor, the main town in the San Juan Islands archipelago in Washington State, United States.
Downtown Friday Harbor, Washington. Image credit EQRoy via Shutterstock

Friday Harbor and the San Juan Islands were once the locus of a confrontation called The Pig War, so named because it was ignited with the summary execution of a Hudson’s Bay Company-owned pig. Today, Friday Harbor has a humble population of 2,162 and a whole lot of treasures of the past to share with travelers. The Whale Museum is open every day from 10 to 4 and provides crucial context for understanding the ecosystem of the Salish Sea as well as the history of whaling in the region.

Since 1998, the Friday Harbor Historic Preservation Review Board has been restoring the treasures of its downtown Historic District. For a complete walking map of the district, stop by their website. Do not leave town without stopping by the Arctic Raven Gallery and admiring their collection of Arctic and Northwest Coast indigenous art.

Stephen King’s Andy Dufresne is driven to the Pacific because it "has no memory." Travelers rewrite their troubles to this day by inviting the sea’s air into their lungs. The legacy of displacement across the Western lands and its neighboring seas, however, remains fresh to those affected. While adventuring through these towns' historic districts, consider saving spending cash on Native American businesses and products. Please leave no trace of stays at campsites and keep an eye out for invasive species, reporting sightings to respective states’ Departments of Agriculture.

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