11 Charming Small Towns in California


Avoid the big-city crowds and prices in these under-the-radar California locales.

Find hidden gems scattered throughout the Golden State.
As one of the largest states in the U.S., California is home to many quaint small towns, all with distinct personalities. Though travelers often flock to cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, those in search of less-crowded destinations will find multiple off-the-beaten-path spots that are no less impressive than their urban counterparts. Whether you’re traveling West for the beaches, nature, architecture or wine, you’re sure to find it in one of these California hamlets. (Getty Images)

Originally mistranslated as “nest” in the Chumash Indian language, “Ojai” (which actually means “moon”) sits in the nest-like Ojai Valley. The small town is known for its abundance of New Age boutiques and upscale spiritual retreats and spas, not to mention its variety of outdoor activities, such as tennis, golf and hiking. Located 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles, Ojai is best visited in spring or fall when accommodation prices aren’t at their summertime premium. Plus, events like Ojai Day, when Ojai Avenue closes for vendors and music the third Saturday in October, fill the calendar. (Getty Images)

Tahoe City
Nestled between Silver Peak and Lake Tahoe, Tahoe City serves as a utopia for adventure seekers throughout the West. During the winter, ski and snowboard enthusiasts can take advantage of the four ski resorts on the lake’s California side. Meanwhile, Lake Tahoe’s crystal-clear waters beckon summer travelers to Kings Beach State Recreation Area. What’s more, the state parks surrounding the city, including Emerald Bay and D. L. Bliss, make for stellar hiking and unbelievable photo ops. (Getty Images)

This postcard-worthy city sits by the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, but Sausalito is not stuck in San Francisco’s shadow. The combination of hillside and shoreline geography makes Sausalito a solid choice for outdoors-loving vacationers who want to avoid the hustle and bustle of California’s larger cities. Plus, with Muir Woods to the northwest, there is no shortage of hiking trails to take advantage of in the warmer months. (Getty Images)

Connoisseurs of everything from food to wine to art will find a place to indulge their passion in the 1-square-mile village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. During the warmer months, visitors can lounge, dive and watch for whales at the nearby Carmel Beach. As the sun sets (or when the weather isn’t conducive for sunbathing) Carmel-by-the-Sea’s emblematic cottages offer various stores to peruse. Meanwhile, culture and architecture enthusiasts can explore the historic Carmel Mission Basilica, which dates back to the 18th century. (Getty Images)

Solvang, which was settled by Danish pioneers in 1911, looks as if it came straight out of Denmark. Nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley about 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, Solvang is filled with charming Danish architecture, from replica statues to prominent windmills. When you’re not soaking up the town’s distinct heritage, check out the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum or the historic Old Mission Santa Inés. Or, sample Santa Ynez Valley wines at the more than 20 tasting rooms that fill downtown Solvang. (Getty Images)

Laguna Beach
Located 50 miles south of Los Angeles, Laguna Beach is known for its beautiful coves and wide shorelines. The best time to visit Laguna Beach is in the spring and summer when you can swim and surf in its Pacific Ocean waters. If you feel like you’ve made the most of Laguna Beach’s oceanfront amenities, you can also take advantage of a plethora of outdoor trails and top-notch public art. Start with a hike through Heisler Park, which offers amazing views of the coastline, before embarking into downtown to enjoy the more than 80 works of art displayed throughout the city. (Getty Images)

St. Helena
With 416 vineyards, the tiny town of St. Helena fits squarely in Napa Valley, a vein of California’s wine country. If you want to take advantage of the many outdoor parties and events surrounding the annual grape harvest, plan a trip for September or October. For spectacular autumn foliage, visit in November when the region is at its most colorful. Outside of enjoying the wineries, there are an array of world-class boutique restaurants and bakeries to feast at in St. Helena. The town also offers cooking classes at its Culinary Institute of America. (Getty Images)

San Clemente
San Clemente’s nickname, “Spanish Village by the Sea,” is a pretty telling description of this Southern California town. In addition to featuring distinctly Spanish-style architecture, complete with red-tiled roofs and stucco walls, San Clemente is known for its superb surfing conditions. In fact, it is called the surfing media capital of the world since most major surf magazines are published in or around town, so be sure to catch a wave (or at least hit up the beach) during your visit. Trestles Beach is especially popular with locals. (Getty Images)

Avalon is situated on Catalina Island, which is about an hour by ferry from Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point and Newport Beach, or 15 minutes by helicopter from San Pedro and Orange County. The town’s secluded location makes it a great luxury retreat for the whole family, with boat trips and eco-tours that appeal to kids of all ages. Meanwhile, visitors without youngsters can check out Avalon’s wineries and casinos. Because the town is so small, navigating its beaches, zip lines, canyon hikes and other attractions by bike is one of the easiest (and most picturesque) ways to get around. (Getty Images)

Nevada City
Tracing its origins back to the California gold rush, Nevada City gives visitors a chance to dip their toes into a unique period of California’s history with its assortment of historical buildings and activities like gold panning. The city has surprisingly robust nightlife, with live music, theater and dance performances at the Miners Foundry Cultural Center. Many of Nevada City’s bars and restaurants also feature live music. During the day, travelers can go hiking at any number of trails north and east of the city or brush up on local history at the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum. (Getty Images)

Adobe buildings and a colonial-era plaza characterize Sonoma, a town in the heart of California wine country that many consider to be Napa’s more laid-back sibling. The center of town appeals to history buffs with its 19th-century adobe structures. As visitors venture out of town, they can stop at a bevy of incredible vineyards, including the St. Francis Winery & Vineyards and the Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery. Culture hounds will also want to visit Jack London State Historic Park or time their trip for late March when the annual Sonoma International Film Festival takes place. (Getty Images)