The qualities that make a downtown area exceptional are numerous. These include distinguished architecture, a unique social scene, an abundance of outdoor amenities that must be experienced firsthand to be fully appreciated, and a dynamic lifestyle that sets it apart from the rest of the city.
Whatever the characteristic that makes downtown a special part of any town, great or small, there is a special almost timeless quality worthy of experiencing. After all, most towns began small and evolved, while the core of the town remained steadfast. California has plenty of these terrific downtown areas, each with character and flair, and all are worthy of your attention.
Escape to something a little different when you visit the Danish-inspired village of Solvang. Even a simple drive through the area will make you feel like you have been transported to Holland, with sights, smells, and happy citizens that live the Danish lifestyle to the fullest. They even have a windmill to complete the scene.
Downtown, visitors delight in tasting rooms featuring local wines, enjoy Danish baked goods hot from the oven, and feel as though they are shopping in boutique stores plucked from stories like Hansel and Gretel, of course with modern goods. Be sure to take the family on a ride on the Solvang Trolley, a horse-drawn, authentic testament to the rich history featured in every corner of the town.
California towns may seem similar at a glance but once explored, they have distinctive personalities that embody the spirit of community that relaxes the soul and nourishes the spirit. Arroyo Grande embodies this ideal with its downtown village lined with old Victorian buildings and farm-to-table dining.
The Village is small enough to walk in an afternoon but has plenty of potential to draw you in for additional exploration. Antique stores, watering holes, and the famed Swinging Bridge where a brood of beloved roosters can be safely viewed are a small part of what makes this town unique. It is hard not to love the lifestyle and energy in Arroyo Grande. It turns visitors into residents often.
Live in the moment and prepare to have a blast when Cambria is on your trip itinerary. Start with a lovely drive up the coast on Highway 1. It takes about 4 hours from San Fransisco and is worth every second as the coastal air soothes your weary soul. The drive alone is worth the adventure, but once entering Cambria, then find your way downtown, it is evident that Cambria dances to its own beat.
Stores set into classic California structures, an artistic flair embodying everything you see, and an easily accessible boardwalk to Moonstone Beach, you will not need shoes to have a good time when taking in the sights and sounds of the "Little Village." Eat, drink, play, shop, and relax.
Moving away from the Spanish architecture is downtown Sausalito, which to the untrained eye might look very much like the Amalfi coast of the Mediterranean. It is just across the bay from San Francisco, situated on coastal hills where homes are stacked, giving them the best view of the Pacific money can buy.
Downtown Sausalito features the Sausalito Boardwalk where travelers can window shop and dine in a variety of eateries that can only be found here. The town is overrun with art lovers as downtown explodes with color and creativity during the Sausalito Art Festival. Oh, and don’t miss the views from Bridgeway if you are looking for a few places to take amazing pictures.
San Luis Obispo
You are going to want to plan a long stay and bring plenty of electrolytes to keep you going because downtown SLO is go, go, go. Start with some shopping in one or more of the retail outlets scattered around the downtown area, followed by some culture in the many museums, art galleries, and studios, then round the whole day out with some grub at the distinctive local eateries.
Drop into a huge Farmer’s Market filled with local and regional vendors, come for the famous Sip N’ Saunter event held every year in May, and, if you have little ones, they will love spending time and energy at the SLO Children’s Museum. There is so much going on all the time, so don’t forget to slow down, take a few breaths, and collect yourself before diving into more. It can be overwhelming.
Catalina Island has many treasures, a lot that even California natives don’t know. For instance, three quarters of it is a buffalo preserve to replenish the buffalo population after they were almost hunted to extension. But one part of Avalon that is not hidden from the world is the lovely downtown area, preserved and cherished by the 4,000 permanent residents.
Over a million tourists flock to this slice of heaven to get away from the mainland and cruise ships make Catalina a port of call, allowing guests to board ferries from ship to shore. Many of these tourists spend their time at the casino, doing one of many ocean activities, and collecting lovely souvenirs at the downtown promenade. Much of the economy in Avalon is fueled by tourism.
With a newly redesigned downtown, the feel in Palm Springs is a little different than the heavily renovated and restored downtowns in coastal cities. That being said, Palm Springs didn’t say “out with the old, in with the new” but incorporated modern ideas with classical California styling. Feel it all when you visit and take a stroll down the new downtown plaza.
Shoppers will delight in the myriad of stores and eclectic vendors placed strategically, only separated by artisanal restaurants with mouth-watering potential. Most of the restaurants are locally owned and can only be found in the Downtown Plaza. With tours of the Moorton Botanical Gardens, Palm Springs Walk of Stars, and Village Fest, there is always something to see and do and none of it involves the beach.
California has a unique legacy, distinctive style, and vibrant coastal life, but that doesn’t mean the towns away from the shore should be ignored. Take some time to visit towns away from the beach and experience their downtown areas, too. They will surprise you with how they have a personality that is all their own.