March 12, 2024 | Allison Robertson

Small Town Charm in California


Small-town Charm in Cali

California is most known for its big city life, but The Golden State also boasts several hidden gems along its diverse 1,254-mile coast.

Here are 18 hidden gems that give California a bit of that small-town charm.

tourist and house split image

Ojai

Ojai has been a long time favorite for artists and free spirits.

Located about 80 miles northwest of LA, this small town is tucked in a valley among the stunning Topatopa Mountains.

Street Photo of Ojai Downtown CaliforniaKeven Harris, Flickr

Ojai: Tranquility

Ojai’s tranquil setting is ideal for a mix of outdoor and wellness activities, from horseback riding to award-winning spa treatments at the renowned Ojai Valley Inn.

Photo of the Entrance of Ojai Valley Inn and Spa Luxury resortPeter Jackson, Flickr

Avalon

The small town of Avalon is located on Catalina Island, and it is most known for its lack of transportation. In fact, there is a waitlist to have a car on the island.

View Of Avalon Harbor From The Chimes TowerElena.laps, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Avalon: Serenity

The island is only three-square miles and can be completely seen on foot. Aside from the quiet streets, the town is known for its stunning snorkeling destinations, and the white sandy beaches, making it the ultimate hidden gem for serenity.

Historic Catalina Island Yacht Club And Casino From Avalon HarborElena.laps, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Sausalito

Just off the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll find Sausalito—one of the best small towns in California.

Sausalito Boardwalk Along Seashore with clear sky in backgroundDavid McElwee, Pexels

Sausalito: Charm

This stunning bayfront location boasts picturesque architecture and breathtaking views of the bay and San Francisco.

The little town is filled with quaint little shops and restaurants, giving it that small town charm.

Street Photo of Sausalito with palm trees an people walking, clear sky in backgroundPeter Miller, Flickr

Solvang

Solvang is a postcard-perfect small town in the Santa Ynez Valley and boasts an entirely Danish style and architecture.

Street Photo of Solvang Downtown , Main at Alisal, California USADan Lindsay, Wikimedia Commons

Solvang: Danish Delight

Danish flags hang from street lamps in the town's center, which replicates a Scandinavian village. Charming little shops sell genuine wooden clogs, and restaurants offer Danish-style food like ebleskiver (similar to doughnut holes).

Street Photo of Solvang, California with clear sky in backgroundJasperdo, Flickr

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a small town in Monterey County, located on the central coast of California. It is known for its romantic feel of the picturesque downtown area.

Street Photo of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, depicting beautiful architecture.Anna Irene, Flickr

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Carmel-by-the-Sea: Enchanting

The town has an enchanting presence of gardens and storybook cottages. The village used to be a boho artist colony, and it's still home to over 100 art galleries.

Visitors can enjoy wine-tasting, shopping at high-end boutiques, and ocean side diners.

Street Photo of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, depicting beautiful architecture.Anna Irene, Flickr

St. Helena

St. Helena is a small town with big charm, located about 20 miles north of the city of Napa. Its downtown features a half-mile of boutiques, California cuisine restaurants, and wine-tasting rooms.

Street Photo of St. Helena, California depicting beautiful ArchitectureJasperdo, Flickr

St. Helena: Historic Charm

Many of the businesses in St. Helena are housed inside historic stone and brick buildings. In fact, a three-block portion of downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places—making a trip to this little town even more interesting.

Street Photo of St. Helena, California depicting beautiful ArchitectureJasperdo, Flickr

Calistoga

Calistoga is known as a “chill” town in Napa Valley. It may have a Four Seasons resort, but it continues to be known for its small-town charm where visitors go to seek relaxation.

Street Photo of Calistoga, California depicting beautiful ArchitectureJasperdo, Flickr

Calistoga: Nature’s Beauty

The area is best known for its natural hot springs and mud baths. One of the best attractions in this small town is Old Faithful, a geyser throws about ten thousand gallons of water and steam up to one hundred seventy feet in the air.

California - Calistoga: Old Faithful Geyser of California.Wally Gobetz, Flickr

Sonoma

Sonoma is located about 45 miles north of San Francisco, and it is commonly known for its wine country on a budget. In fact, it was more wineries and appellations than Napa Valley and is considerably less expensive.

Sebastiani Theatre in Sonoma, California, USA, clear sky in backgroundBernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Sonoma: Colonial Architecture

The quaint little town is also known for its colonial architecture, fascinating statehood history, and a picturesque downtown.

The Sonoma Overlook Trail offers breathtaking views and relaxing hikes.

Street Photo of Sonoma Downtown California depicting beautiful Architecture.lifetravelandmore, Flickr

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is a charming central coast town and it is home to one of the best beaches in California—with a pier that stretched 1,200 feet into the Pacific Ocean.

View of Pismo Beach as seen from the pier with cloudy sky in backgroundDXR, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Pismo Beach: Sand and Surf

Aside from its beauty, Pismo Beach is known for its dozens of surf stores and beach cafes, as well as the Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve which allows horseback riding on the beach and ATV tours through the dunes.

Sunset at Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve, CApat1479, Flickr

Tahoe City

Tahoe City provides a different scene from California’s usual sandy beaches—which is proof of the state’s diverse landscapes. It’s all about lake life in the summer and downhill skiing in the winter.

Landscape view of the Tahoe City waterfront with cloudy sky in background.Bohao Zhao, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Tahoe City: Lake Life

Lake Boulevard, the city’s epicenter, offers towering pine trees, beautiful views of Lake Tahoe, and several local shops and restaurants.

North Lake Boulevard (California State Route 28), in Tahoe City, California — looking northeastMyName (Finetooth), CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Trinidad

Trinidad is located in Humboldt County, and is one of the least populated towns in California. Its dramatic coastline boasts 10 beautiful beaches with rocky ledges.

The coastal town of Trinidad, as viewed from a trail on nearby Trinidad HeadCoolcaesar, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Trinidad: Ocean Vistas

The quaint town of Trinidad is known for its vibrant coastal scenery and abundance of outdoor activities, making it the perfect spot for adventurers looking for an escape from the bustling city life.

Trinidad, California - southern coastline from town, overlooking Trinidad Bay with offshore rocksTrinidadMike, Wikimedia Commons

Borrego Springs

Borrego Springs is refreshingly quiet. The tiny town has no traffic lights, which is perfect the night sky views.

Downtown Borrego Springs from Christmas CirclePerdelsky, Wikimedia Commons

Borrego Springs: Wildflowers

Borrego Springs is also known for its 935-mile State Park which is popular for its spectacular spring wildflower blooms and a collection of 130 massive metal sculptures.

350' long metal dragon in the Anzo-Borrego desert near Borrego Springs CAChristian Collins, Flickr

Los Olivos

Los Olivos is In the Santa Ynez Valley, north of Santa Barbara. It’s a tiny walkable town is known for its 27 wine-tasting rooms, cafes, and art galleries.

Street Photo of Downtown Los Olivos depicting beautiful architectureDamian Gadal, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Los Olivos: Victorian-Style Views

Los Olivos’s Victorian-style inns draws visitors from all over, including the beautiful Global Gardens, where visitors can get a private olive oil tour and tasting.

Olive Trees at Clairmont Farms, Los Olivos, CAHoward Ignatius, Flickr

Moss Landing

Moss Landing is home to only about 240 residents. It’s a small fishing village in northern Monterey County, and is a favorite among nature lovers.

Landscape Photo of the Moss Landing harbor with cloudy sky in backgroundJohn Pilge, Wikimedia Commons

Moss Landing: Wildlife Wonders

The town sits at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Reserve, a tidal salt marsh that is home to 340 species of resident and migratory birds including heron, egrets, and pelicans.

You’ll also catch a glimpse of over 100 southern sea otters while kayaking, whale-watching, or hiking.

Elkhorn Slough Reserve a narrow meandering inlet located off Monterey Bay on CaliforniaNOAA's National Ocean Service, Flickr

Guerneville

Guerneville is located along the Russian River in Sonoma County, and it is known for combining the best of all worlds: rafting, river floats, hiking, and more.

Street Photo of Guerneville Downtown, California, depicting beautiful Architecture.Wayne Hsieh, Flickr

Guerneville: LGBTQ+ Friendly

The best known part of Guerneville’s small town charm is that it is completely LGBTQ+ friendly. In fact, in 1978 Guerneville’s first gay resort was opened, two years after California revoked its anti-gay laws.

Since then it has become a relaxing place where all are welcome.

Street Photo of Guerneville Downtown, California, depicting beautiful ArchitectureMARELBU, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Guerneville: Food and Fires

Guerneville is also widely known for its spectacular food scene, which includes roasted broccolini with black garlic and Moroccan chicken with preserved lemon and smoked yogurt at Boon eat + drink.

The Dawn Ranch Resort supplies guests with acoustic guitars to play around the property’s many firepits.

Street Photo of Guerneville Downtown, California, depicting beautiful ArchitectureMARELBU, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Mammoth Lakes

Nestled in the foothills of the eastern Sierra Nevadas, Mammoth Lakes has a much larger population, but still boasts that small town country charm. It’s a popular destination for winter skiing, and summer fly-fishing.

Welcome to Mammoth Lakes, CaliforniaNandaro, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Mammoth Lakes: Heavenly Hikes

Mammoth Lakes is full of scenic hiking routes, including the easy 2.5-mile loop around crystal clear Convict Lake that offers an impeccable view of Mount Morrison—which towers 12,241 feet.

Landscape Photo of Convict Lake and Mount Morrison in late springWikipedia, Wikimedia Commons

Mammoth Lakes: Rainbow Waterfall

To add to the already glorious views of the surrounding landscape, Mammoth Lake also features a 101-foot waterfall called Rainbow Falls. It is a steady up-hill climb that offers a view from the top like no other.

Landscape Photo of Rainbow Falls near Mammoth LakesFrank Kovalchek, Flickr

Three Rivers

Three Rivers is located near the Sierra Nevada foothills, and it is the perfect spot for a rugged adventure up north in the stunning giant redwoods.

Landscape Photo of Three Rivers, California with bridge in frontDavid Seibold, Flickr

Three Rivers: Adventure Awaits

Known for amazing outdoor adventures, in Three Rivers you can take the family whitewater rafting, cave exploring, and hiking (to various gorgeous waterfalls).

The charming country town offers a local brewery, local shops with handmade goods, and even an old-school candy shop.

California State Route 198 in Three Rivers, CaliforniaPatrick Pelster, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Cambria

Cambria is a low-key, small beach town that is ideal for a getaway from the city life. Not only is it close to wine country and various little antique shops, there is an incredible amount of wildlife there as well.

Landscape Photo of North residential Cambria neighborhood from the Fiscalini Ranch PreserveGnawme, Flickr

Cambria: Wildlife

Cambria is home to Elephant Seal Rookery, where you can spot over 20,000 elephant seals, along with various bird species.

Elephant Seal Rookery spreads over 6 miles of shoreline around the central coast of California.Bureau of Land Management California, Flickr

Cambria: Artistic Atmosphere

Cambria also boasts a huge artistic atmosphere, which includes The Vault Gallery—an art gallery with contemporary works from Billy Zane, and dozens of plein air paintings (art pieces completed within the landscape that is being drawn).

Burton Drive in East Village, Cambria, in San Luis Obispo County, CaliforniaSan Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conventions Bureau, Wikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2


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