The 6 Best Places to Live in California (Outside of the Bay Area)
Over the past year, a lot of people have left San Francisco and yeah, we get it. City life ground to a halt after COVID-19 hit, and we all started looking for more space, more affordable rents (or home prices) and more access to the great outdoors. But despite what the headlines were saying, there actually hasn’t been the mass exodus out of California that everyone seems to be talking about. In fact, according to U.S. Postal Service data, the majority of fleers actually moved closeby into other Bay Area counties. But for the purposes of this story, we’re going to check out the hot spots outside of our beloved Bay Area that former San Franciscans are now calling home. Whether you’re looking for a weekend away or perhaps the chance to relocate, here are six of the best places to live in California outside of the Bay Area.
1. SACRAMENTO, CA
The state’s capital took one of the top spots in the U.S. News annual ranking of best places to live in California, a report that takes into consideration various factors including good value, desirability, job market and quality of life. And this lively city, located about 90 miles from SF, definitely checks all the boxes for diehard San Franciscans who love their food and culture.
With a Gold Rush legacy and more than a century of history as the state capital (Sacramento was declared the state capital in 1879), the main attraction here is the grand Classical Revival-style California State Capitol and all of the government buildings situated in the heart of downtown. But this city is about much more than politics. Sacramento (AKA Sactown) is also home to a burgeoning arts scene, and its proximity to the country’s agricultural epicenter means there’s a farm-to-table food scene that rivals any famous food-centric city. While we’re on the subject of food, locals rave about Magpie Cafe for the best brunch around, while Track 7 Brewing showcases Sactown’s stellar craft brew talents.
Sacramento also enjoys a desirable location at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, meaning that there’s access to waterfront living and an incredible whitewater rafting scene. Its relative flatness also makes it a great spot for cyclists and more casual cruisers. And its median home price comes in under half a million dollars—a refreshing reprieve from the Bay Area’s cost of living.
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2. LOS ANGELES, CA
No surprise here—California’s largest city ranks high on the list of places San Franciscans are moving to in search of sun, sand and warmer temps. In fact, Los Angeles tied with Honolulu and Colorado Springs as the most desirable place to live (out of the 150 metro areas on the list) based on a SurveyMonkey survey, reports U.S. News. As much as locals might pretend the City of Angels is our arch nemesis, its draw as a second-to-none food, arts, entertainment and outdoor scene makes it a fitting choice for relocating.
While rents and home prices don’t come cheap, you can still get a lot more for your money 400 miles south of SF. According to U.S. News, the median home price is $525,762, with residents spending almost 30 percent of their income on housing, but LA’s higher than average salaries help offset the cost. And as much as we may think LA is all Hollywood and celebrities, it’s not just the TV and film industry here. Other major employers include Kaiser Permanente and the University of California.
Some things to look forward to if you visit or move here: A downtown renaissance is attracting all types of creatives, and bankrate.com notes that the city is preparing itself for the 2028 Summer Olympics by expanding its public transit system—refreshing news for those of us who can’t stomach the idea of sitting in traffic for hours on the 405. Similar to the Bay Area, there’s abundant access to coastline, hiking and every kind of outdoor activity you desire. And should you choose to make the move, you’ll even be able to toast the occasion with a glass from multiple nearby wine regions, including the Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley and even Temecula.
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3. SAN DIEGO, CA
Frequently referred to as the birthplace of California, San Diego was the first site visited and settled by Europeans on what is now the West Coast. Sunny days, ideal weather (the city averages between the mid-60s and mid-70s year-round) and proximity to the beach make this coastal city the sixth most desirable place to live in the U.S. according to U.S. News. And with big attractions like Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld, it’s also a major tourist destination. Fun fact: San Diego’s main airport is the biggest single-runway airport in the world.
In non-COVID times, locals rave about the city’s top-notch nightlife, with abundant bars and nightclubs in the downtown Gaslamp neighborhood. (Don’t miss the rooftop bar Lumi by Michelin-starred chef Akira Back once nightlife opens back up again.) These days, beaches and parks are the main draw—choose from hiking trails overlooking the Pacific at Torrey Pines State Reserve and stroll the sandy stretches at Pacific Beach, Coronado Beach and Mission Beach. You’ll also want to hop on a bike and cruise through the tony La Jolla neighborhood.
It may be pricey to live here (it’s the fifth most expensive metro area in the U.S. according to U.S. News), but bankrate.com notes that the city recently approved plans for new development along the San Diego River that’s expected to break ground later this year and will eventually add 4,300 new properties to the city’s housing supply.
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4. GREATER LAKE TAHOE AREA, CA
With crystal-clear sapphire waters surrounded by mountains on all sides, Lake Tahoe is as magical as the photos make it look. The pristine gem, the largest alpine lake in North American and second deepest in the U.S. (next to Crater Lake), straddles the state line between California and Nevada and was formed by glaciers nearly two million years ago. It’s the perfect destination for outdoor enthusiasts, with countless activities almost year-round—from skiing and snowshoeing in the winter to hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing in the spring, summer and fall.
Only three hours east of San Francisco (with no traffic), it’s uniquely situated to feel both close enough to a big city and also like a world of its own. While the North Shore is an established oasis for second homeowners, the South Shore has emerged in recent years as an up-and-coming destination for weekend warriors and a new set of locals who are relocating from places like the Bay Area. Soaring home sales amid the pandemic are proof positive that the Greater Lake Tahoe Area is one of the hottest places to relocate in the state. A Redfin report shows that second home sales have surged 100 percent year-over-year and primary home sales rose by 50 percent. Redfin lead economist Taylor Marr noted that, “The demand for second homes is particularly strong as affluent Americans work remotely, no longer need to send their kids to school and face travel restrictions.”
Some things to look forward to if you visit or move here: Donner Memorial State Park, tours of Vikingsholm and Tallac Historic Site and the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society—where you can learn about the history of indigenous populations and early settlers. And don’t forget to cheers your weekend getaway or big move with a few beers from Tahoe’s fun and growing craft brew scene with pints from Sidellis or Alibi Ale Works.
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5. SANTA ROSA, CA
A Wells Fargo post and general store put Santa Rosa on the map in the 1850s, and the charming public square in its center continues to be a main meeting point today. Located 55 miles north of SF, it’s close enough to the Bay Area for commuters (since there aren’t many big employers outside the wine industry) but far enough away to feel like a fresh start. If you’re looking for a small-city vibe in the heart of Wine Country, Santa Rosa is a great bet.
Living here means access to fresh air, a farm-to-table food scene and all the wine your heart desires. All visitors and locals flock to the Russian River Brewing Company on weekends for some of the best beer around, so keep your eyes peeled for news on reopening plans as COVID restrictions ease. And don’t miss bites from Bird & The Bottle and The Spinster Sisters. Sites include the Northwestern Pacific Railroad depot, which was featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, and the still-operating Hotel La Rose built in 1907. Jack London State Park is a hidden gem for hiking.
While it may not command the outrageous prices of Napa and Sonoma, it’s still in the heart of Wine Country, and bankrate.com ranks it as a 7 out of 10 for affordability. But if you’re used to San Francisco rents, you’ll no doubt find something that fits the bill.
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6. SANTA CRUZ, CA
Like much of California, Santa Cruz was originally a Spanish settlement in the late 1700s and wasn’t established as a beach resort community until the late 19th century. Today it’s a surfer’s paradise known for boho beach vibes, laid-back living and very liberal leanings. It became one of the first cities to approve marijuana for medicinal uses, and in 1998, the Santa Cruz community declared itself a nuclear-free zone.
A move or weekend getaway here is all about being by the beach, and a visit to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (which dates back to 1907) is a must. Outdoor games and food stalls are currently open, so grab some saltwater taffy from Marini’s Candies and try your hand at the old-fashioned ring toss. Dip your toes in the water at Natural Bridges, the city’s most picturesque beach; watch surfers ride the waves at Steamer Lane; stroll along West Cliff Drive for sweeping views of Monterey Bay; and check out local favorite Abbott Square Market for top-notch food and drinks.
Sound like too much of a fantasy? Not to worry. There’s more than just fun and games here. If you work in education or research, you’re in luck. Santa Cruz is home to UC Santa Cruz, a premier educational center and research institution. It’s also been a tech hub since the 1980s, and startup culture is very much still alive here.
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