Everyone always imagines L.A. and San Francisco when they think of California but it’s the smaller towns that really make up the heart of the Golden State. The quiet seaside villages, cozy mountain towns and charming communities of Napa Valley all have a lot to offer as well but somehow they just don’t get as much recognition. These are just ten of the many small unique towns across the state that are vastly underrated.
What’s not to love about Ferndale? This quaint little Victorian village has loads of charm only five minutes from the coast, and many well-preserved buildings that line the Main Street downtown. We recommend parking and spending a few hours to check out all of their antique shops, specialty stores, art galleries and small local businesses.
2. Nevada City
Nevada City, north of Sacramento, is an old Gold Rush town with a little something for everyone. Love the arts? You’ll find all sorts of entertainment from live theater to movies and film festivals. More of an outdoorsy person? The town’s right by the Tahoe National Forest with tons of hiking, biking and water recreation only a short drive away. But what really makes the small community special is their history – in fact, the entire downtown is recognized as a national historic landmark.
Even though it’s just outside of L.A. in Ventura County, Ojai is like a completely other world. For one it’s nestled deep in a valley in the Topatopa Mountains, with a charming Spanish-style village center including art galleries and small local shops. It’s also much more peaceful, with Los Padres National Forest to the north (and lots of great outdoor opportunities) as well as the Ojai Music Festival every June with classical artists.
Dreaming of backpacking in Europe, but don’t want to pay for a flight and hotel? Solvang, California has everything you need and more, just outside of Santa Barbara in Santa Ynez Valley. The charming little town proudly shows off their Danish roots everywhere from the building architecture to the authentic pastries in the downtown bakeries. Try tasting the local wine, shopping in the many boutique shops, and learning more about their Danish culture at the Elverhøj Museum of History and Art.
As an idyllic town in the San Jacinto Mountains, it’s not surprising that everyone loves escaping to Idyllwild for weekend camping. The town has plenty of spots to pitch a tent and fall asleep under the star-filled skies by night. There’s also a surprisingly wide selection of local dining – like the secluded Cafe Aroma, a small Italian place surrounded by trees.
Carmel is a quaint little European-style village on the Monterey Peninsula. The coastal town spans along a white sandy beach with fairy tale cottages and fun things to do for the whole family. During the day there’s museums to explore, art galleries to browse and various restaurants from fine dining to comfy cafes.
7. Fort Bragg
Fort Bragg is a quiet town along Highway 1, on the Mendocino Coast. There’s calming ocean views, locally owned shops, parks to wander and a unique glass beach where you can find old colorful bits of glass and pottery that were dumped into the ocean long ago. Just north, MacKerricher State Park offers a place to stretch your legs with scenic hiking by the beach, along coastal bluffs, and through wetlands & forest.
Gualala may be tough to pronounce (locals call it wa-LA-la) but this village north of San Francisco is easy to fall in love with. There’s fresh sea air, towering redwoods, and a huge expanse of white sandy beach and dunes. Stop by while you’re driving the Pacific Coast Highway and take the Gualala Bluff Trail at Gualala Point Regional Park for relaxing ocean views.
About an hour east of San Diego, the small town of Julian is like taking a step back in time. The historic community has roots that date back to the gold rush days, with several buildings downtown that have been standing since the 1870s. Not to mention this town deep in the Cuyamuca Mountains is famous for their apple pie – you won’t want to leave without grabbing a slice from Apple Alley Bakery or Julian Cafe.
10. Borrego Springs
Borrego Springs isn’t only unique because it’s smack dab in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It’s a one-of-a-kind town because these massive prehistoric and fantasy beasts line the roads (the amazing work of sculptor Ricardo Breceda). They’re also an official International Dark Sky community and known for their ruby red grapefruit season, which usually begins in December.
Have you been to any of these communities? What are some of your favorite small towns in California?