The 20 Most Charming Small Towns in California

From Muir Woods to the Missions to the sea

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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 with the cost of living going up in so many big cities, these towns are becoming more desirable for full-time living and not just a weekend jaunt.

From towns that evoke a Gold Rush era feeling to seaside cliffs boasting world-class golf to a desert 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—plus some of the best places to stay, so you can start planning your vacation or weekend getaway.

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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 and great restaurants such as Little Saint and Matheson. Adding even more excitement to this rolling hill pocket of the wine country, you can visit the new Montage where visitors can enjoy the zero-edge pool overlooking the vines or simply lounging in the massive spa adjacent to a Zen yoga garden.

Most Charming Small Towns in California - A charming downtown in Carmel with quaint buildings.
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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, and more recently, Brad Pitt. 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.

Most Charming Small Towns in California - A woman hikes on a trail in Three Rivers. There are trees and boulders on the trail.
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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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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 chic, modern White Water.

Most Charming Small Towns in California - A European style downtown area filled with quaint buildings and a windmill.
Solvang USA

5. Solvang, CA

If you can’t make it over to Scandinavia anytime soon, 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, especially for families, 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.

Most Charming Small Towns in California - A wooden house covered in vines on the side of the road at sunset.
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 toMichelin-star French restaurant, Bell’s, and a renovated trendy motel, Skyview Los Alamos, which has been drawing a hip-artsy crowd from Los Angeles on weekends.

Most Charming Small Towns in California - A photo taken under a stone archway in Ojai.
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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, Tipple & Ramble wine bar  and newbie. The Dutchess bakery which turns into a Burmese eatery at night, are staples. Ojai is also a great place for one-of-a-kind jewelry designs 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.

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 breathe in that fresh mountain air.

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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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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. Now locals also gather down the main street dirt road at the Red Dog Saloon for tacos and margaritas. Past historical tales include Gene Autry playing poker until sunrise in Room #9 of the boutique-chic Pioneertown Motel, which is the place to stay right by the action.

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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. For a romantic retreat in town with ocean views, stay at the newly revamped, historic La Valencia hotel also known as “The Pink Lady.”

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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 the seaside 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 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.

Most Charming Small Towns in California - A stone two story house with a green balcony in front of evergreen trees.
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13. Grass Valley, CA

About an hour outside of Sacramento, Grass Valley is an historic ‘gold mine era’ destination featuring buildings and accommodations from the mid-19th century. To truly soak in the vibe, your first stop should be at the Holbrooke Hotel with its Golden Gate Saloon lobby bar perfect for sipping a smooth mezcal or tequila and Golden Gate restaurant with a Mexican-inspired menu. For a nightcap, head down to the Iron Door basement speakeasy with a secret passageway to one of the mines (as long as you’re not afraid of ghosts, that is, since it’s rumored to be haunted). Also worth checking out is the Empire Mine State Historic Park that is home to one of the oldest gold mines in California.

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14. Nevada City, CA

At the base of the Sierra foothills lies the charming old west style town of Nevada City, another ‘gold mine’ era gem. Built in 1856, The National Exchange Hotel is a historical landmark with easy walking access to saloons, restaurants, shops, and a bucolic hike down to the Yuba River suspension bridge. The Victorian-style hotel has many fascinating nooks and crannies to explore, but you’ll also want to make space in your schedule for a trip to the lush Crystal Hermitage Gardens and impressive, pine-studded Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.

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15. Old Edna, CA

Located in San Luis Obispo Country, Old Edna is a charming and historic town whose resistance to development gives it an off-the-beaten-path character. The pretty downtown is accessible by foot centered around the showpiece old Spanish mission dating from 1772. The Central California coastal climate is ideal for growing grapes, so you will find many popular vineyards in the area known in the wine industry as the Edna Valley AVA. Consider this a wine hub for learning about the region and grabbing a bite to eat or a little wine tasting at Sextant and the onsite deli before setting off again to Pismo Beach, downtown SLO or Paseo Robles.

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16. Pismo Beach, CA

This formerly scruffy beach pit stop on the way to Hearst Castle is now a destination in its own right. Pismo Beach is a top spot for surfing and also checking out the nearby Edna Valley wine trail. First, walk the pier and breath in the costal views before having a long lunch at Pequín Coastal Cocina, a new eatery house in the Vespera Resort focused on Baja California cuisine with a variety of tacos, churros and a stand-out watermelon salad. For dinner, walk over to Giuseppe’s old-school Italian institution with highly-sought-after eggplant Parmesan, Nona’s meatballs and wood-fired pizza. Drive by local Spanish Springs Vineyard and Jack Ranch Vineyard on your way to wine tasting in the area. 

Most Charming Small Towns in California - A wooden building with a giant red sign that reads Cuyama Buckhorn.
Cuyama Buckhorn

17. New Cuyama, CA

In the middle of Santa Barbara County, off Highway 33 and about a little over an hour from Ojai, lies New Cuyama. The reason to head to this oasis near Los Padres National Forrest is to truly get away from it all at Cuyama Buckhorn. Laze by the pool or wander over to the Cuyama Beverage Company for a honey mead tasting with a sunset view. At night, cozy-up by the fire pit with your s’mores kit and the outdoor movie of the night. The on-site roadside-diner-restaurant and bar specializes in Santa Maria tri-tip for dinner and farm-fresh eggs for breakfast. They also hold monthly Sunday Chuck-Wagon BBQs that are fun for the whole family—and when was the last time someone offered you a Whoopie pie?

Most Charming Small Towns in California - A photo of a lake at sunset. There are mountains and trees in the background. There is someone in a canoe in the lake.
Denise Vasquez

18. Julian, CA

This San Diego County gem is steeped in mining history, but the quaint mountain town of Julian is probably best known for its apples. Indeed, San Diegans flock to Julian (it’s just an hour northeast of the San Diego city limit) during the apple picking months to score the very best fruit at one of the numerous PYO farms and to taste the very best apple pie that money can buy. And because Julian is nestled in the gorgeous Cuyamaca mountains, the scenery is picture perfect and opportunities for outdoor activities abound. Once you’ve spent a full day on the area’s orchards and hiking trails, be sure to take a pleasant stroll down Main street, which is lined with charming boutiques, fudge shops and plenty of good places to eat.

most charming towns in california san juan capistrano
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19. San Juan Capistrano, CA

Being that San Juan Capistrano was founded by the earliest settlers in Orange County, it goes without saying that it’s rich with history. Enjoy the historic architecture, abundance of cultural artifacts and the natural beauty of the city, which has earned it the title of “Jewel of the MIssions.” Plus, if sun, sand and sea are your priorities, you will be conveniently located just five to ten minutes away from the pristine beaches of Dana Point.

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20. Sausalito, CA

Just across the Golden Gate strait, you’ll find Sausalito—an under-the-radar gem in Marin County that’s in close proximity to the big city action of San Francisco, but feels like a whole different world. Indeed, this beautiful bayside village has a small town charm; it also has a vibrant cultural scene, including many art galleries, and provides visitors easy access to a lot of natural attractions. Spend some time out on the water (or sleep out on it, since many vacation rentals are historic house boats), hike the many scenic trails that Marin County has to offer and definitely don’t miss out on a visit to Muir Woods.

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