Visit Napa Valley
Credit: Visit Napa Valley

7 Small-Town Travel Dupes in California—No Plane Ticket Required!

Ditch the Jet lag and Visit These Internationally Inspired California Cities Instead

Travel might be back to pre-pandemic level demand, but not all of us can swing an international trip this summer. The good news? Living in California means we don’t have to because these “travel dupes” all have ambience and must-sees similar to their farther-flung counterparts. Nordic Noir fans can trade Ystad in Sweden for Kingsburg near Fresno, and oenophiles can swap wine tasting in Tuscany for a trip to Napa Valley. If the neon-lit streets of Tokyo appeal, head to Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, and should you dig Shakespeare but England is a stretch, then beach city Carmel-by-the-Sea is a fantasticand sunnieralternative.


Trade Dragør, Denmark for… Solvang

Best Small Towns in California
Credit: Bea & Txema & Alan

Harborside “hygge” fishing village Dragør is a popular and easy day trip from Copenhagen, and much like its California cousin, Solvang, there are cobblestone squares, colorful houses and a main street lined with quaint local shops, restaurants and galleries. But for a Scandi food and culture fix statesidewe’re talking design stores and traditional eats, including kringle pastries, aebleskiver pancake balls and frikadeller Danish meatballsjump in the car and head up to America’s “Little Denmark” in Santa Ynez Valley. Around three hours from Los Angeles, Danish roots run deep in this kitsch but cute town whose flower-lined streets are home to tasting rooms, authentic bakeries and the occasional windmill. Ride the trolley, visit the Hans Christian Anderson Museum and snap a selfie at the nearby Little Mermaid statue.


Trade Patmos Island, Greece for… Avalon 

Credit: Catalina Express

Famous for their aquamarine waters and sugar cube houses, dreamy Greek islands induce Instagram feed travel envy every summer. And while Patmos in the country’s northern Dodecanese island group has beautiful beaches, hiking trails and scuba sites, Catalina, just 23 miles off the Southern California coast, has all that and more. Hop on the Catalina Express to Avalon and check in at the newly renovated Hotel Atwater for an overnight stay. Stroll the shops and restaurants along Crescent Ave or get bougie with a cabana rental at Descanso Beach Club. There are over 165 miles of hiking trails to explore across the island, but a can’t-miss experience is searching for bison. And if scuba isn’t your jam, go Team Zissou instead with an Undersea Sub Expedition.



Trade Tokyo, Japan for… Little Tokyo

Credit: Anthony G. Reyes

From its peaceful Senso-ji Temple to the buzzy neon-lit Shibuya Crossing, Japanese capital Tokyo is a captivating city of contrasts that attracts travelers of all kinds, from foodies to anime fans. Founded in 1884 and one of only three Japantowns in the country, Tokyo’s unofficial SoCal twin, Little Tokyo, is a five-block stretch on the northern edge of DTLA that Angelenos and visitors both love to explore. Visit the Japanese American National Museum and Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple before browsing Poketo for home goods, beauty products at Make Asobi and vintage finds at Na Nin. When it comes to good eats, get breakfast at Azay, load up on mochi treats from bakery Fugetsu-do, dig into yakitori at Torigoya and stop by Tea Master for one of their Instagrammable matcha soft serves.



Trade Ystad, Sweden for… Kingsburg

Best Small Towns in California
Credit: Johan Bilien

Nordic Noir crime fiction series “Wallander” may have put the town of Ystad in southern Sweden on the map, but three hours north of Los Angeles, Kingsburg makes a charming day-trip destination in Fresno Countyor lunch stop if heading to Yosemite or Sequoia National Parks. Established in 1873, the lovely Swedish Village has several restored half-timber buildings with wood-shingled roofs that date to the early 1900s along its walkable downtown, where you’ll find shops (for traditional Swedish goods visit the Svensk Boutique), restaurants and a brewery. For some of the best small-batch ice cream of your life, get a scoop at Bella Creamery. Made-for-Insta-landmarks include the quaint coffee pot water tower and colorful Dala horse statues.



Trade Stratford-upon-Avon, England for… Carmel-by-the-Sea

Best Small Towns in California
Credit: Carmel-by-the-sea

Renowned for its connection to William Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon is the 16th-century birthplace of the most famous writer in the English language (we’re talking about the chap who wrote “Romeo and Juliet” here). But for a domestic vacation swap, this medieval market town in the rural Warwickshire countryside is a solid dupe for Carmel-by-the-Sea. Located on the Monterey Peninsula and one of the most dog-friendly towns in America, Carmel rewards with stunning coastal scenery (read: golden sand beaches and sunsetssomething you definitely won’t find in Stratford!) There’s also plenty of European-influenced architecture to be discoveredthink storybook cottages, courtyards and gardens. An artists’ haven for decades, explore the galleries, shops, restaurants and tasting rooms on Ocean Ave. The historic Carmel Mission Basilica is another drawing card here, as is the famous 17-mile scenic road.


Trade Tuscany, Italy for… Napa Valley

Best Small Towns in California
Credit: Visit Napa Valley

Renaissance art, medieval towns and the world-famous Chianti wine region in Tuscany draw anyone seeking “la dolce vita” to the postcard-perfect Italian countryside, but here in California, we have somewhere equally as enchanting: Napa Valley. If road-tripping doesn’t appeal, fly into SFO or OAK and rent a car to make the hour-ish drive to the famous wine-growing region. With over 400 wineries to choose from, a fun way to soak in the sites with lunch and tastings is on the Napa Valley Wine Train. There’s a thriving art and culture scene (hop on the RAD Napa Art Walk), Michelin-starred restaurants and farm-to-table cafes, plus hot air balloon rides and biking tours to check out. For places to stay, options span boutique inns and retro lodges to lavish resorts.


Trade Seville, Spain for… Balboa Park

Flamenco, tapas culture and Moorish architecture make Andalusian capital Seville a firm favorite among international travelers, but with its showstopping Spanish Colonial-revival style exposition buildings, San Diego’s Balboa Park makes it a shoo-in swap for the famous Spanish city. This enclave is home to the San Diego Zoo, gorgeous gardens filled with ornate fountains, roses and butterflies and a whopping 18 museums, including newcomer Comic-Con, plus Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) and the Mingei, whose Artifact restaurant just received a Michelin nod. For Egyptian and African dishes, try the One World Beat Cafe; for local craft beers, Panama66 at the San Diego Museum of Art is a winner. Several museums offer local resident free days, but there are a ton of fun ways to experience the park without spending a dime either if you’re visiting from afar.

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Keri Bridgwater is a freelance writer covering travel and lifestyle. Her work has been featured in Fodor’s Travel, Marie Claire, Matador Network and InsideHook, among other outlets and publications.




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