From a Gold Rush-era Outpost to a Storybook Danish Village, These Small Towns Are Full of Character
With its Hollywood stars, redwood forests, surf culture and nine National Parks, it’s little wonder the Golden State is one of the country’s most popular places to visit. But beyond major metropolises like San Francisco and Los Angeles, small towns steeped in history with stellar food scenes and outdoor adventures are drawing those eager for a different kind of weekend getaway or day trip. So pack your bags! We’ve rounded up eight California towns worth visiting—from an artsy enclave in Monterey County to a Catalina Island escape!
Destination: Old Town La Quinta
Home to chic boutiques, restaurants and galleries, this Coachella Valley lifestyle destination-meets-shopping district is not only super photogenic (think cobblestone sidewalks and lovely whitewashed adobe buildings) but is also home to a roster of weekend events, from Music in the Plaza and Art On Main Street to the Certified Farmers Market that takes place every Sunday. Beauty and wellness are also highlights—land on mats at Gather Yoga, book bridal party packages at Alankara Aveda Salon or shop coveted skincare brands at h2o Closet. Visitors will also be spoiled for choice when it comes to eating out. There’s Main Street Coffee for cappuccinos and avocado toast, TQLAS Agave Bar & Grill for mezcal, margaritas and modern Mexican dishes, plus Yes Please for superb pastries and desserts. Cruising around town on rental bikes from Pedego Electric Bikes is another must-do in this charming enclave of the Coachella Valley.
Danish roots run deep in this kitsch but quaint village in the Santa Ynez Valley. Gen up on Solvang’s history at the Elverhøj Museum, ride the trolley around town and shop Scandi design items at The Copenhagen House before grabbing a bite (aebleskiver, aka pancake balls and kringle) at one of the authentic bakeries that line its main street—Birkholm’s being the oldest. Dinner at Mad & Vin restaurant inside boutique hotel The Landsby or drinks at its swanky Lobby Bar are both highly recommended. Stop by The Good Life bottle shop tasting room for a Little Mermaid statue photo op.
Destination: Morro Bay
Whether coming to surf “The Rock,” hike the Elfin Forest Trail or look for wildlife on a kayak tour (Morro Bay has an active sea otter population and whale watching is possible almost year-round), this petite Central Coast city attracts all types of travelers but is best suited for a back-to-nature getaway. Families have fished here for generations, so the dock-to-dish dining is legit—try OG spot Dutchman’s Seafood House or the tiki-style Harbor Hut, which has postcard bay views. Museums, galleries, shops and bike trails round out the long list of things to do.
Located on pretty Catalina Island and reached by boat or helicopter, the tiny town of Avalon is the southernmost city in Los Angeles County and one of its most picturesque. There are a handful of places to stay (try Hotel Atwater in town or the historic Mt Ada on Wrigley Road) and activities for every type of traveler—from ziplining and scuba diving to a backcountry bison expedition. Get boujee with a cabana or daybed at Descanso Beach Club, tee off at the nine-hole Catalina Golf Course or set aside time for a little self-care at Island Spa Catalina.
Enchanting Carmel on the Monterey Peninsula has attracted its share of famous residents over the years, including writer Jack London and actor Clint Eastwood who once served as mayor. Its walkable downtown is filled with upscale restaurants, tasting rooms (download this handy Wine Walk Guide), independent boutiques and storybook homes. Art enthusiasts will enjoy the range of galleries (there are close to 100), tours and workshops and the historic Carmel Mission. Be sure to catch a sunset at Carmel Beach (which is dog friendly, much like the rest of town and its hotels) or drive the 17-mile scenic coast road.
Located 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, wellness seekers have flocked to this peaceful valley in Ventura County since the ‘60s for soul-recharging getaways. Hikes, horseback rides and bike trails are the main draw, although a burgeoning restaurant scene has put Ojai on the map for foodies. Visit The Duchess for cappuccinos and croissants, Little Sama inside Topa Topa Brewing Co. and the Ojai Farmers’ Market. For retro motel vibes, there’s Ojai Rancho Inn, but if a spa resort is more you, try the Ojai Valley Inn. Another must? Reservations for a self-guided sunset tour at nearby Meditation Mount.
With its historic main street, eclectic shops and tasting rooms, there’s more to this 1870s-era gold rush town in the Cuyamaca Mountains than its famous apple pie. Just over an hour from San Diego, there are hiking trails and old gold mines to explore, plus orchards and farms to pick your own fruit and flowers, depending on the season. Browse Western antiques at Julian Station or stop by for live music on Sundays. You can also learn about wild wolves at the Julian Visitor Center and Nature Store or book a tour at the nearby California Wolf Center Conservation Facility.
Destination: San Juan Capistrano
Halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego–and easily reached by train from both cities–beautiful San Juan Capistrano is the perfect day-trip destination. The main draws are undoubtedly its historic sites, including the landmark mission, museum and gardens, and Los Rios Historic District, the oldest neighborhood in California with quaint cottages and cafes (Ramos House Cafe is a popular spot for breakfast and lunch) that line the train tracks. It’s also where you’ll also find Zoomars at River Street Ranch petting zoo and nonprofit therapeutic garden Goin Native, which is on a mission to help save the monarch butterfly.
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.