TravelMag set out to find the most charming towns and small cities in California. Check out our survey results below for the scoop on the oft lesser-known, little gems in The Golden State.
Charming might not be the first word that comes to mind when thinking of California. More likely are the Hollywood images of its famed metropolises – Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego – coupled with dreamy thoughts of perpetually warm, sunny weather and palm-tree lined beach promenades. But there is much more to Cali than sun and surf, glitzy cityscapes and epic traffic jams.
The third largest state in the U.S. is also home to snow-crested mountain ranges, fertile farmlands and vineyards, and long stretches of sparse, thirsty desert. Though mostly lacking the cobblestoned, antiquated aesthetic of Colonial towns on the opposite coast, California can also be charming in its own varied ways.
But where? To find out, TravelMag asked more than 300 locals, travel gurus, writers and photographers to name their top three most charming towns and small cities in California, with populations of more than 1,000 and less than 200,000.
Below, in alphabetical order, we unveil the top 20. All woo in their own Cali-way, with historic main streets, echoes of the Wild West, or natural wonders that invite wandering; where the sound of honking cars is traded for the concert of birds or gracious silence. Charming indeed.
Arcata is known for being its own ultra-progressive, eco-minded little world along the banks of Humbolt Bay in Northern California (NorCal). Also voted as one of the best small towns to visit in California by The Crazy Tourist, this passageway to the Pacific Northwest combines gorgeous coastline with cloud-kissing redwood forests. You can hike amongst these beauties along trails traversing the 575-acre Arcata Community Forest. More outdoor exploration awaits at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary; a paradise for birders. Back in town, enjoy people-watching in the central plaza along with the interesting juxtaposition of Victorian-era homes and the edgy cafes, shops and galleries that cater to students attending Humbolt State University. Numerous safe bike paths are a fitting addition to the laid-back, earth-friendly tone. Do as the locals do here and get around by bike or on foot (or craft a mobile masterpiece for the annual Kinetic Grand Championship race).
A taste of Arcata’s unique culture: the Kinetic Grand Championship race (Photo: Bob Doran via Flickr)
Up and down the coast along PCH, you’ll pass through beach town after beach town, each with its own personality. Carlsbad, the “village by the sea” in Southern California (SoCal), is adored for its seemingly endless coastline. The characteristically warm weather makes the state beach a popular attraction year-round, perfect for riding waves, building sand castles, running along the hard-packed shore or boardwalk, and relaxing with the sound track of crashing waves in the background. But what sets this North County San Diego favorite apart is its chill, congenial vibe. The active community is also home to the world-renowned Carlsbad Triathlon and the state’s first skateboard park (built in 1976), as well as the skateboarding legend Tony Hawk and the Olympic snowboarder Shaun White. Locals mingle weekly at the lively State Street Farmers Market in the Village; the town center that is packed with interesting shops and restaurants. Craft beer fans can sample the county’s growing micro-brew scene at Pizza Port, a local brewer with crave-worthy pizza and a bounty of other celebrated local brews to boot.
This pocket of paradise, once run by Hollywood-star-turned-Mayor Clint Eastwood (1986-88), along the Central Coast ranks as one of the best beach towns in the United States. Whether you’re wiggling your toes in the sand or pausing roadside to breathe in the salty ocean air and snap yet another photo of the tree-covered hills, pristine beaches and gurgling sea, you may understand why. Another beauty to behold is the restored 18th century Carmel Mission Basilica, which still holds mass today. Shopping and dining in the European-style village is equally luxurious, offering a mix of high-end brands and boutiques along stone-paved streets in buildings with adorably curly-cued roofs. Gourmet food and wine shops provide the goods for a memorable picnic in Devendorf Park or any of the 60 courtyards within the one-square mile village (where, fun fact, you’ll need a permit to wear heels higher than two inches). Nearby charmers like Monterey and Big Sur are a short, breathtaking drive away.
Spooning Carlsbad’s southern border, Encinitas is one of the best beach towns in California, with miles of coveted coastline. It’s no wonder why the area made the National Geographic’s list of the top 20 surf towns in the country. The Beach Boys hit “Surfin’ USA” even gives a shout out to the now legendary surf spot Swami’s. That ‘60s surf culture remains very much alive today. Case in point: the “Granddaddy of All Woodie Meets” is a gathering of wood-sided surfer mobiles every September at Moonlight Beach, which was a popular spot for midnight picnics in the early 1900s. Beyond the waves and the white sandy beaches and bluffs, the “Flower Capital of the World” is home to the San Diego Botanic Garden, where the green-thumbed can meander through the largest bamboo grove and largest interactive children’s garden in the country while snapping shots of thousands of plants from across the globe. The laid-back Cali vibe reigns here too, replete with chill sidewalk cafes, meditation gardens and yoga studios where you can get your zen on.
California’s abundance of warm, sunny days is perfect for the beach and also for producing luscious, full-bodied wines. Healdsburg is one of the best towns in California to visit where you can taste a variety of local wines in a gorgeous setting. Surrounded by famed Sonoma Wine Country appellations you’ve probably noticed on memorable bottles of wine – Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, and Russian River Valley – Healdsburg is surely known for its picturesque scenery as well as its wine. The beauty of this former rural farming town is that despite its growth, the small-town feel remains, which means you can enjoy tantalizing food and wine, sans the snootiness. Of course, there’s more to do here than swirl a glass. Pack up a picnic and head to a park, wander along the Art and Farm Trails, kayak down the Russian River or hike the Ridge Trail for majestic mountain views. In town, scour antique shops for treasures and tap your toes to live jazz playing in the town square.
This peaceful escape in the San Jacinto Mountains, 100-miles east of Los Angeles, is yet another California gem that has retained its small-town character. Whether you set off on a multi-day backpacking adventure or spend a few hours on the trails, stay in a cozy cabin or camp out, you’re sure to get your fix of fresh air spiked with the scent of cedar and pine. Other ways to embrace being out in the “wild” include mountain biking, fishing, and rock climbing on Suicide Rock and Tahquitz Rock, the intimidating monolith that comes into view long before you exit the highway. The few-block downtown is devoid of chains and flavored instead by local eateries, art galleries and characterful shops, like the custom leather outfitter Mountain Mike.
Amidst the oak and pine forests of the Cuyamaca Mountains, northeast of San Diego, find yourself transported back to the gold rush that lured early settlers to California in the 1800s. In Julian, you can even tour the underground tunnels at Eagle Mining Co. and practice gold panning. The true treasure of this historic district, besides the friendly locals, is its signature apple pie, made with apples plucked from the surrounding orchards that sprouted once the gold was gone. The best apple pie in town is a hotly debated title, and the perfect excuse to visit a few shops, notably Moms Pie House and Julian Pie Company, where oven-fresh pies are served however you fancy, from plain and Dutch crumble to creative renditions mixed with berries. Ask for ‘a la mode’, then cruise downtown, where Main Street resembles a Western film set, with its pioneer-storefronts selling antiques, Native American handicrafts, local art and more. And not a stop light or fast food joint in sight.
For a taste of a quintessential Southern Californian beach town, look no further than Laguna Beach. Along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway, between Los Angeles and San Diego, this quaint, affluent enclave was once the home base of an eponymous MTV reality television series. Fortunately, there’s much more to this seaside city than teenage drama. For those craving the sound of crashing waves, whether whilst riding on a surfboard or lounging on the beach with a book in hand, you’ll find ample opportunities along Laguna’s seven-mile stretch of coastline. Prefer less people? Surfers only? Or tide pools? Each of the 20 coves, linked beneath dramatic cliffs, has its perks. Main Beach is smack dab in the middle of downtown action, making it easy to take a break from the sun for a bite and wander through the many art galleries and tempting boutiques.
Fun fact: This little frontier town in Owens Valley is sandwiched between national parks that are home to the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States – Mount Whitney (to the west) and the Bad Water Basin in Death Valley (a little southeast), respectively. While many visitors arrive with hearts set on summiting Whitney, with coveted trail permits in-hand, Lone Pine has a pull of its own. Once a supply-hub for silver miners, the town was named after a single pine tree standing at the mouth of a canyon. When looking out over the wood-fronted bars and shops downtown and the awe-inspiring rock formations stacked across the Alabama Hills, one could easily imagine cowboys on horseback, stirring up a sudden cloud of dust. Chances are that you’ve seen this unfold on screen. Over 400 films, including those by mega-stars like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp and Mel Gibson, have been filmed here since the 1920s. Outdoor activities abound, but for something different, visit nearby ghost towns, like Cerro Gordo, to witness the remains of the area’s mining past.
It’s no wonder why Trips to Discover also picked Murphys – the queen of the Sierra – as one of the best small towns in California to visit. As one local put it, the beauty of Murphys is that it lends the feeling of stumbling upon an oasis of old-fashioned, gold country charm that has yet to be found by other outsiders, yet without a shortage of modern comforts. You can wander Main Street, admiring the early 19th century stone buildings crafted by those who survived the death-defying wagon ride over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, while sipping a fancy, locally roasted coffee drink or nibbling on a tasty food truck find. For those with a hankering for more history, a guided walking tour (which includes the home of the famed physicist Albert Michelson, the first American Nobel Prize winner) runs every Saturday morning from the Old Timers Museum on Main Street. Later, savor samples at local wineries, while chatting it up with those who grew the grapes and produced the wine. A requisite for being in the Sierra is enjoying the outdoors. Not to be missed is a chance to peer up at the giant sequoia groves at the nearby Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which has drawn folks into the wild since the early 1850s (a very, very long time ago by Californian standards!).
Much like Murphys, this former frontier town in the Sierra Nevada foothills feels like a preserved relic of American history. The former gold rush town is now rich in local art, theater and foodie-delights, yet still lures travelers away from the city to escape into the humbling grandeur of the mountains and to swirl a pan in the Yuba River, one of the famed “golden rivers” where little sparkling nuggets can still be found today. In the hot summer months, dips in secret swimming holes along the river likewise feel priceless. Unlike many areas of The Golden State, summer does not last year-round in Nevada City. Here, the trees give way to the fall-rainbow of colors, snow falls just enough to make the town that much more picturesque, and the bounty of spring flowers to come (along with the lingering view of snow-capped peaks) makes the winter chill more endurable. Another perk of the winter season is the Victorian Christmas Celebration, when the streets come to life with twinkling lights, Victorian singers and minstrels, roasted chestnuts, crafty vendors, horse-drawn carriages, a live nativity and a boon of holiday cheer.
In spring, the abundance of Ojai Pixie Tangerines lends the air a sweet citrus scent that is complemented by wafts of lavender come summer; olfactory symbols of this Central Coast gem’s dedication to not just local organic farming, but also local business. Chains are legally banned here, a loyalty to “local” that also purposefully preserves its community-oriented, eco-minded charm. Ventura County’s smallest city is set in an oak-filled valley that dips into the Los Padres National Forest and has long been known as one of the best cities in California to visit for a peaceful escape. Along with its bucolic setting, Ojai boasts many retreats dedicated to rejuvenating the mind and body, including the five-diamond Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, from where you can catch a sightseeing trolley ride to the charming downtown village. Or traverse the city and beyond by way of the Ojai Valley Trail. Cruise along the Ventura River on this old Southern Pacific Railroad track-bed on foot, horseback or by bike.
San Clemente is the surfer’s paradise of Orange County; an area of former farmland turned affluent urban sprawl brought into the spotlight by The OC television series. Along with its year-round temperate weather, San Clemente is known for having consistently shred-worthy waves. World-renowned surf spots here – T-street, Trestles, Church and San Onofre – draw and produce top surf talent. Locals have their favorite beach spots, but an easy go-to for a perfect beach day is the city beach, recognizable by the San Clemente pier. A stroll down the wooden pier for a break from the sand and waves reaps rewards when looking back; the view of the beach and the hill that rises behind it is reminiscent of a Mediterranean coastal village, a puzzle of white, red-roofed apartments and a sprinkling of slim, fringed palm trees. Soak up more gorgeous ocean views from the San Clemente Beach Trail that runs alongside an Amtrak railway. Every so often, stand back and feel the whoosh of a passing train, as its rumbling wins over the roar of the waves crashing nearby.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo County was one of the original 27 counties when California became a state in 1850, after the Mexican-American War. Indigenous roots here, though, reach back thousands of years, when the Chumash people inhabited the land. The city is named after the Spanish Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa that was founded in 1772 and still draws visitors to explore its characteristically short and narrow naves. Another draw for young, curious minds is Cal Poly University, a nationally ranked institution uniquely keen on a learn-by-doing philosophy. What has earned the area’s title of the “happiest city in America” is the combination of its congenial, community vibe and bounty of hiking and biking trails, wineries, micro-breweries and famed farmers’ markets. The unique boutiques and eateries that line its historic downtown, along with the friendly chatter of locals, add to its appeal.
South of San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara, like many of its neighboring coastal cities, boasts picturesque beaches along with an average of 300 days of sunshine. Yet the “The American Riviera” has a flavor of its own, with cooler evenings and characteristic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Think slender palm trees sprinkled between white-washed buildings topped with red-tile roofs. It’s no wonder this small city was once the “Hollywood” of the silent-cinema era and continues to attract film and photo shoots. This serene setting is rich with the cultural influences of its Native American, Portuguese, Spanish and Mexican history. The historic Presidio Neighborhood provides a peek into some of the state’s oldest homes. The quaint downtown area is worth a day (or few) of wandering. Shop and taste your way along State Street. While you’re at it, enjoy the region’s wine bounty and leisurely sip your way from tasting room to tasting room along the Urban Wine Trail.
A fun way to get to this charming city-escape, while simultaneously experiencing some remarkable views, is to take the 30-minute ferry ride from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco . You can also drive, but the more adventurous may prefer a bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge before riding along the bay toward the waterfront or downtown. Grab sandwiches to-go and picnic at Yee Tok Chee Park, Viña Del Mar Plaza or Rodeo Beach, with its picturesque off-shore rock formations. Another draw to the area, besides the leisurely shopping downtown, is hiking in the Marin Headlands and amongst the towering redwoods in the Muir Woods. A sure highlight, though, are the unique house boat communities, where the floating homes range from upscale to creatively revamped to “how is that still floating?” vessels dating back to World War II. Keep an eye out for open house events that allow visitors to tour certain homes each year. You too may be inspired like Otis Redding, who wrote “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” on a houseboat here, to lose track of time, “watching the tide roll away.”
Founded in 1911, this small Danish village set in the Santa Ynez Valley is the epitome of charming, in the European sense. Think half-timbered, thatch-roofed Danish Provincial architecture. Yes, windmills too, even statues of the famed writer Hans Christian Andersen and a replica of The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen. This little world is made all the more enchanting by the scent (and taste!) of freshly baked pastries. Being in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country makes it easy to try the local wines featured at village tasting rooms. A fun way to tour the area, especially for families, is a ride on the horse-drawn trolley. The Old Mission Santa Inés is another piece of history that has survived centuries of cultural shifts and remains active in the community today.
You may have noticed that California boasts many wine regions, but the two that are the best known (for both their wines and their long-standing competition) are neighboring Sonoma and Napa Valley. While you can surely visit both in one trip, it is impossible to visit every winery: there are over 400 in Sonoma County alone, ranging from rustic family-run wineries serving out of their homes (by appointment only), to fancy wine castles. The city of Sonoma is a perfect start for any wine-tasting adventure, as the Buena Vista Winery here was the state’s first winery, founded in 1857. This California Historic Landmark, with its vine-draped stone walls, launched long before the area became a wine production mecca. For a break from imbibing, explore the enticing eateries and shops in the Sonoma Plaza, a National Historical Landmark surrounded by historic buildings like the Mission San Francisco Solano, the last of the missions to be built in California, and the nearby Sonoma Barracks, an adobe building once used by the Mexican military.
The beating heart of Sonoma’s neighbor, Napa Valley, St. Helena has been nicknamed Napa’s Main Street. The first Napa winery was built here and wine and kitchen trends continue to bloom. The farm-to-fork movement is the pulse behind the seasonal, inventive cuisine that draws foodies along with oenophiles here, where chefs’ names become well-known and those following in their footsteps are trained at the Culinary Art Institute of America. Some might argue that a side effect of the area’s popularity is that it feels less charming and more commercial. But St. Helena’s half-mile-long downtown, with its lovely shops and gourmet haunts housed in historic buildings, effuses that unmistakably inviting, small-town feel that makes you want to linger longer. That’s just what Robert Luis Stevenson did long before he wrote the classic Treasure Island. When the penniless writer brought his bride to St. Helena, they squatted in an abandoned shack on the mountain, a tale you can learn more about at his eponymous museum in town.
Finishing off our list is another High Sierra favorite. Tahoe City is a quaint mountain community that hugs the shores of Lake Tahoe. While nearby word-class ski areas like Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows and their intimate boutique resorts draw snowbirds during the winter, the area is also a treasure trove of outdoor action come summer. You can get out on the lake in a boat, kayak or standup paddle board and admire the impressive views of the surrounding mountains. Later the same day you could tackle the mountain trails on foot or on a mountain bike. Easier rides await on the paved bike paths that lead through the city and along the lake and river. The adorable downtown is perfect for strolling, shopping and snacking at the array of unique shops, art galleries, local restaurants and coffee shops. And there you have it, yet another charming Californian oasis that has tempted many a big city visitor to convert to small-town living.