All settlements and cities have a universal understanding that 'Downtown' is where the action happens. This notion, that a community's excitement should concentrate in one particular area, is exemplified in California because 'staying in' simply isn't an option. By investing in their cores, each of these towns has committed to celebrating select histories, designs, and leisure activities unique to themselves. Enough about that — if you want to discover where California natives go to discover and create their roots, then this small-town collection is the best place to begin.
Go back in time 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, but 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.
Nowhere in California screams "1980s summer of fun" more than Arroyo Grande. A tight-knit suburban community, the town is proud of its interlocked sidewalks that coalesce into the quirkiest streets you have ever seen, with old-school movie theaters and curiosity shops on every corner.The town's iconic '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 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.
This town is aptly named after the paradise that exists for noble souls in the old tales of King Arthur — but luckily, you do not have to be a medieval knight to visit here. Catalina Island, which sits in the heart of Avalon, has many treasures 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.
In larger cities, it is far too easy to feel like your journey is being drowned out by the endless noise and sights all around you. These dense hubs of excitement bypass that with community spirit, breathtaking landscapes in the background, and personalized experiences. Oddly, it is in these microcosms where stories about meeting locals or bumping into interesting characters are the most frequent. Most importantly, long days of walking in the Californian sun will end in relative quiet, alongside a proper view of the stars as you sip on one last evening drink. So don't be shy; go check out what all the fuss is about regarding these legendary upscale hamlets.