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While the big three of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco get all the glory out west, California is loaded with small town, quirky charm up and down the diverse 1,264-mile coast. And hey, now that so many of us are no longer commuting to work, these towns are becoming more desirable for full-time living and not just a weekend jaunt.

From towns that will evoke a Gold Rush era feeling to seaside cliffs boasting world-class golf to a dessert oasis (and even a small-town nestled on an island that’s accessible only by boat or helicopter), you can have it all in the Golden State. Here are the most charming small towns in California.

Editor’s note: Please remember to mask up and follow social distancing protocols while traveling and be sure to check up on the state’s health and safety guidelines before you go.

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Healdsburg charming towns in California
Diane Miller/Getty Images

1. Healdsburg, CA

Napa Valley is a must for wine lovers but don’t skip neighboring Sonoma County near the roaring Russian River. Your starting point should be Healdsburg and the charming town square. You will be spoilt for choice with tasting rooms and cute shops selling everything from kitchen gadgets to clothing. Adding even more excitement to this rolling hill pocket of the wine country, the Montage recently opened a 258-acre resort here, where visitors can enjoy private tasting tours to Aperture Cellars winery, the zero-edge pool overlooking the vines or simply lounging in the massive spa adjacent to a Zen yoga garden.

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Carmel charming towns in California
Visit California

2. Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA

This quaint seaside village just outside of Monterey (where they filmed Big Little Lies), is known for nearby Pebble Beach word-class golf links overlooking the scenic hike around the peninsula, and its longtime famous resident, Clint Eastwood. While you can meander through the cobblestone side streets of the main town for hours on end, there is a dog and surfer-friendly stunning beach with ethereal Cyprus trees for a sunset picnic at the end of an active afternoon. Grab provisions from Bruno’s market and deli such as the tri-tip sandwich to really make your day.

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Three Rivers charming towns in California
Justin Bartels / EyeEm/Getty Images

3. Three Rivers, CA

For a rugged adventure up north amid the awe-inspiring giant redwoods near the Sierra Nevada foothills, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in Three Rivers is your spot. Great for a family adventure of whitewater rafting, cave exploration and waterfall hikes, the rustic downtown area offers big-city excitement too—and potential for living out your Virgin River fantasy. Three Rivers Brewing has a lovely patio for sipping a flight of suds surrounded by nature, Reimers Candies is the place for old-school local sweets, and you can shop for handmade crafts at Gathered in Three Rivers or Totem Market & Gift.

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Cambria charming towns in California
Visit California Mason Trinca

4. Cambria, CA

In the shadow of Hearst Castle, this is a low-key, small beach town that’s ideal for a ‘get away from it all’ break. Once you have breathed in that salty air and rejuvenated, the Paso Robles wine country is less than 30 miles away. Or if you want to stay put, try to spot the 20,000 seals at Elephant Seal Rookery or view the art of plein air painters at The Vault Gallery with contemporary works from Billy Zane, then have fun hunting for treasures at Rich Man Poor Man, Antiques on Main or Home Arts. For dinner along Moonstone Beach, check out the Sea Chest Restaurant & Oyster Bar and stay at White Water which opened last year.

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Solvang charming towns in California
Solvang USA

5. Solvang, CA

You may not be able to make it over to Scandinavia anytime soon, but this Danish-inspired town in the Central Region of the state just might satiate your urge for authentic pastry and cheese from Denmark, along with windmill sightings. It’s also the place to stock up on hand-made Christmas ornaments and gingerbread houses (if that’s your thing). While Solvang is a perfect pit-stop around the holidays, it also boasts a robust year-round biking scene, museums and missions to tour, but no trip to the region is complete without a visit to the Alisal Guest Ranch for horseback riding and gourmet BBQ cookouts with celebrity chefs.

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Los Alamos charming towns in California
Craft and Cluster courtesy of Visit the Santa Ynez Valley

6. Los Alamos, CA

Santa Barbara takes all the wine country and gastronomic glory in this area on the border of Southern and Central California, but don’t overlook the Old West agricultural community of Los Alamos where both Kurt Russel and Emilio Esteves have tasting rooms for their vino. Dine on the patio at Bell’s for French bistro fare or hit Bob’s Well Bread Bakery and Full of Life Flatbread for serious carb-loading. The city also is home to a renovated trendy motel, Skyview Los Alamos, that has been drawing a hip-artsy crowd from Los Angeles on weekends.

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Ojai charming towns in California
Visit California

7. Ojai, CA

Known as a spiritual artist haven where the late avant-garde potter Beatrice Wood called home, the cozy craftsmen and cottage architecture of the town still retains an eclectic mix of creative galleries including Porch Gallery (who also makes Beato chocolates as a nod to Wood.) The laid-back area is also perfect for hot springs, Meditation Mount or hiking trails amid the pixie tangerine groves. Farm to fork cafes, such as the Farmer and the Cook or Tipple & Ramble wine bar and shop with vintage finds are staples. Ojai is also a great place for one-of-a-kind jewelry designs using rare gemstones which can be found at Susan Cummings. Oh, and be sure to pop into Bart’s Books to peruse the largest outdoor bookstore in the world.

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8. Idyllwild, CA

Heading towards the tall mountain pines and San Jacinto Wilderness area, more hiking can be found in Idyllwild at Deer Springs Trail, along with another robust arts community. The area’s granite outcrops helped turn this region into a top spot for rock climbing decades ago and the famous Idyllwild Arts Academy (founded by Beatrice and Max Krone) helps to fill the town with local as well as nationally renowned artists and craftspeople. You will not spot any chains here but rather one-of-a-kind places like Mountain Pottery where you can take a ceramic or painting class before hitting The Red Kettle for Polish sausage or a breakfast burrito. Ahh, don’t forget to breath in that fresh mountain air.

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Temecula small towns in California
Ryan Killackey

9. Temecula, CA

California is loaded with wine country regions but this one in particular has come a long way in the past decade and there’s no better way to view the bounty of the area than from above on a hot air balloon ride. The charming town features sweet lavender and soap shops along with olive oil and spices all produced at local farms and vineyards. Up the road near the 30 wineries, Europa Village is a one-stop-shop for Gallic ambiance and boutiques. Spanish flair can be found on the patio of Bolero, where you can order large pans of mouthwatering paella and tapas. Soon, Vienza—inspired by the Italian countryside—will open with more tasting rooms, restaurants and lodging options.

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Pioneertown charming towns in California
Visit California

10. Pioneertown, CA

On your next spiritual escape for hiking and meditation to Joshua Tree National Park, turn down that dusty road off Route 88 to Pioneertown—an old-time hideaway in the San Bernardino Mountains where dozens of westerns have been filmed over the decades. The downtown area’s faux-1880s façade houses shops such as MazAmar Art Pottery and the Pioneertown General Store, but you might say that Sir Paul McCartney really put this town on the map when he performed at BBQ joint Pappy & Harriet’s. Past historical tales include Gene Autry playing poker until sunrise in Room #9 of the boutique-chic Pioneertown Motel.

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La Jolla charming towns in California
Visit California Max Whittaker

11. La Jolla, CA

One of the most upscale yet charming villages filled with galleries, shops and cafes along the Pacific Coast is located in San Diego County. The breathtaking seven miles of dramatic coastline is ideal for scenic walks, surfing in the cove and checking out the rugged terrain of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. La Jolla is also home to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and one of the best snorkeling spots in the world La Jolla Underwater Park. Children’s Pool Beach is where you can spot seals and sea lions and play in the tidepools.

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two harbors
Catalina Island Company

12. Two Harbors, CA

Accessible by a one-hour boat ride or jet-setter helicopter journey, Catalina Island is usually associated with the port of Avalon, yet the tiny rustic town of Two Harbors on the west side is also reachable by high-speed boat. Here bison roam free along seaside the bluffs and ziplining is a favorite pastime. Rent gear from Two Harbors Dive Shop to kayak, stand-up paddleboard or scuba dive. Two Harbors General Store can sell you everything from camping gear to gourmet cheese, while Doug’s Harbor Reef Restaurant is the place for burgers and brew on the outdoor patio. Spend the night at the craftsman-style Banning House Lodge or have Catalina Island Backcountry arrange for a romantic beachside picnic and camping along the shore.

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