California is one state that really does have it all — beaches, vineyards, deserts, delicious food…we could go on and on and we haven’t even mentioned the Golden State’s warm and sunny weather. But you don’t have to go big to have a good time.
In fact, we think California’s small towns make for some of the most memorable vacations. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up 10 of the best small towns in California with under 15,000 residents, so you can plan your next getaway.
Ojai has long been an oasis for artists and free spirits. Located about an hour and a half northwest of Los Angeles, the small town is tucked in a valley among the scenic Topatopa Mountains. The tranquil setting is prime for a mix of outdoor and wellness activities, from hiking to horseback riding to spa treatments at the renowned Ojai Valley Inn. Ojai Village, the town’s center, is home to Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and a charming assortment of New Age shops, art galleries, and the world’s largest outdoor bookstore, Bart’s Books. Pro tip: Don’t miss the “pink moment” at sunset, or you’ll have nothing to discuss over California chardonnay with the locals at dinner.
Drive or bike to the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge, and you’ll find yourself in one of the best small towns in California: Sausalito. The gorgeous bayfront location and picturesque architecture are all part of the charming package here. A stroll around Bridgeway, the town’s main drag, offers breathtaking water and San Francisco views, as well as access to quaint shops and restaurants. The Bay Area Discovery Museum, situated right at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, provides family fun and natural education. Don’t leave Sausalito without admiring Galilee Harbor and Waldo Point Harbor’s colorful houseboats. Just be prepared for a dose of water-based real estate envy.
Say goodbye to rush hour on the 101 and hello to touring the small town of Avalon, located on Catalina Island. There’s a long waitlist to have a car on the island, making it easy to explore the one-square-mile town on foot — or via golf cart. Favorite activities include snorkeling off the coast, relaxing on white-sand beaches, and hiking 38.5 miles of the Trans-Catalina Trail — the views are worth the steps. If you’re in Avalon for the world-famous sport fishing, The Lobster Trap will cook and serve your catch in laid-back, fishing-themed surroundings. Pro tip: A helicopter ride to Catalina is about $130 per person, if you want a totally memorable experience and epic views.
Solvang…California or Denmark? This postcard-perfect small town in the Santa Ynez Valley is entirely Danish in style and architecture. Danish flags hang from street lamps in the town’s center, which fully replicates a Danish village. You can shop for wooden clogs, eat Danish-style food like aebleskiver (think donut holes), and take selfies in front of the iconic windmill. And since Solvang is a gateway to Santa Barbara’s wine country, there are also some quality tasting rooms available in town.
Headed to Big Sur? Make sure to stop in one of California’s best small towns, Carmel-by-the-Sea. The name alone hints at the romantic quality of the picturesque downtown area, which has enchanting gardens and charming storybook cottages. The village used to be a boho artist colony, and it’s still home to over 100 art galleries. But these days, it’s a lot more upscale: Wine tasting, high-end boutique shopping, and chilled oyster dinners on Ocean Avenue are a typical itinerary. Cap it all off by watching the sunset at the beach. Fun fact: Carmel Beach has some of the whitest sand in California.
St. Helena is often referred to as Napa Valley’s Main Street — and that’s a good thing. Located about 20 miles north of the city of Napa, St. Helena is big on charm and small on scale. Its downtown features a half-mile of boutiques, California cuisine restaurants, and, of course, wine-tasting rooms. Napa is known for cabernet sauvignon, so start there. Many businesses are housed inside historic stone and brick buildings. In fact, St. Helena has 22 listings on the National Register of Historic Places scattered throughout its five square miles. Another St. Helena draw? Fast access to Napa Valley’s vineyards and state parks.
Even with a Four Seasons resort set to open sometime in 2021, Calistoga is still the chillest small town in Napa Valley. It’s where you go to relax, sip, and repeat. The area is best known for its natural hot springs and mud baths. Don’t miss out on Old Faithful, one of three geysers in the world with the “Old Faithful” designation. (The other two are located in Yellowstone National Park and New Zealand, though Calistoga’s geyser isn’t quite as dramatic.)
Want to experience California’s wine country on a budget? Head to Sonoma. Located about 45 miles north of San Francisco, Sonoma is cheaper and larger than Napa, but it still has small-town appeal. It’s an affordable home base to explore nearby wineries, and it stands on its own for colonial architecture, fascinating statehood history, and a picturesque town center. For hikers, the Sonoma Overlook Trail offers breathtaking views — you might think you walked all the way to Italy.
Looking for that classic California beach experience in a small-town package? Look no further than Pismo Beach. This Central Coast town has a wide sandy beach and a central pier that stretches 1,200 feet into the Pacific Ocean. There are dozens of surf stores and beach cafes to visit, but the real action is on the sand and in the surf. Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve allows horseback riding on the beach and ATV tours through the dunes. Get in the water with a kayak tour that explores sea caves at Dinosaur Caves Park. And if you must have that quintessential California surf experience, book a lesson at Esteem Surf Co. Their motto — “Not L.A. Not the Bay!” — says it all.
Tahoe City is proof of California’s diverse landscapes and small-town offerings. It’s all about lake life in the summer, and downhill skiing in nearby Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows come winter. The tranquil epicenter of Tahoe City is Lake Boulevard, where towering pine trees, beautiful Lake Tahoe views, and a smattering of local shops and restaurants await. When you’re not cruising on Lake Tahoe, visit Commons Beach, rent a bike, and head down the Truckee River Bike Trail. No boat? Dive into the lake from the pier found at the Tahoe State Recreation Area, a popular spot for camping. Tahoe City is a two-hour drive from big city Sacramento, but it may as well be a world away.