Here’s Where to Hang Up the Car Keys and Explore on Foot Instead
Owning a car is considered essential in California, but there are a surprising number of accessible towns and cities across the state with easy-to-navigate neighborhoods and downtown streets—no wheels required. Because who doesn’t want to stretch their legs and soak up the sights at a slower pace every once in a while? Eliminate the stress over where to park, when to top off the meter or how to beat rush hour. Focus instead on where your feet can take you—places like a farmers market, weekend brunch, local galleries, museums and more. From San Diego to Santa Monica to Sonoma—with more than a few pedestrian-friendly places in between—these are the most walkable cities in California.
With its OG Italian heritage and buzzy culinary scene—think old-school dessert shops, urban wineries and even an Insta-famous breakfast spot—this neighborhood is one of San Diego’s most vibrant and easiest to walk. Every Saturday morning, locals and visitors flock to the Little Italy Mercato for fresh produce and gourmet goods. The central Piazza della Famiglia is a major social hub too, with live music most evenings and golden-hued peekaboo views of San Diego Bay at dusk. Pair your early-evening stroll with some gelato from the adjacent Little Italy Food Hall, but save room for dinner! Walk along nearby Kettner Boulevard (aka “Top Chef Alley”) and you’ll find loads of top-rated eateries, including Herb and Wood and Juniper and Ivy—the latter assigned Bib Gourmand status by the Michelin Guide.
Tucked between the San Joaquin Hills and the Pacific Ocean, Laguna Beach is a palm-lined slice of SoCal paradise—a famous OC enclave synonymous with artists, surfing and sun-kissed beach days. Certain sections around Main Beach, Heisler Park and the boutique- and gallery-filled HIP District are walkable, but even during winter, traffic can be notorious along PCH, and parking spaces are challenging or impossible to find. So instead, get your steps or use the free Laguna Beach trolley instead (stop No. 8 is just below the lovely Hotel Joaquin on Cliff Drive), which makes a regular loop from North Laguna to The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel.
With mountains as the backdrop and a golden-sand beach at your feet, Santa Monica is a veritable picture-perfect postcard of the Southern California coastline. The town’s walkable central district includes four pedestrian blocks called Third Street Promenade. In addition to endless boutiques, you’ll find the Wednesday morning farmers market here—the largest among several that take place each week. Take in the scenic panorama of the beach and Santa Monica’s famous pier from the walking trails and bike path. (Side note: A great way to see the city is on a guided tour with Joyride Santa Monica.) You can glide along the beautifully landscaped Palisades Park before nabbing a table on the Sunset Terrace at the recently remodeled boutique-stunner The Georgian Hotel for brunch or dinner.10/6
Famous for its artsy and eclectic hipster vibe, Silver Lake is easily one of California’s coolest cities. Enjoy green space in Silver Lake Meadow, then hit up some of the independent eateries and cool-to-discover stores like Undefeated for sneakers and Golden Age for vintage denim. When you’ve worked up an appetite, you’ll have plenty of restaurants to choose from, such as fast-casual Taiwanese spot Pine & Crane. Be sure to also stop by Café Tropical, a Silver Lake fixture since 1975, for a caffeinated pick-me-up and some delicious Cuban pastries. For dinner or cocktails, historic LGBTQ tavern The Black Cat has a great menu with an upscale yet approachable atmosphere. If you decide to stay the night, fall into bed at the Silver Lake Pool & Inn on the corner just south of Sunset Junction.
Wellness seekers and free thinkers have flocked to this peaceful valley in Ventura County for soul-recharging getaways since the 1960s. Surrounded by citrus groves, Ojai feels intimately connected with nature despite being so close to the city. Located about 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, a trek to Ojai makes for a perfect day trip or walkable weekend destination. Book a classic Airstream trailer at Caravan Outpost or a retro-cool room at the Capri Hotel, both located close to Ojai’s ridiculously quaint and super walkable downtown. Start the day with coffee and croissants at The Duchess, browse Bart’s Books and visit the Ojai Valley Museum. For retail therapy, try Magic Hour for ceremonial teas and gifts and Summer Camp for vintage finds and home goods. Just don’t forget to make reservations at Rory’s Place for dinner.11/20
Although Santa Barbara’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, State Street, is charming, you’ll want to wander a couple of blocks over to the Funk Zone for a slightly more industrial-chic and artsy vibe next time you’re passing through. Adjacent to the Amtrak station and spanning an area between the ocean and Highway 101, this zone is home to art galleries, public art installations, a slew of tasting rooms (try the self-guided Urban Wine Trail) and stellar restaurants, including Loquita, which serves up farm-fresh Spanish tapas and craft cocktails. But if you can’t decide where to eat and drink, hop on a Funk Zone Food Tour and let local guides lead you instead.
Famous for its surfer credentials—wetsuit inventor Jack O’Neill opened his first shop here, and there’s even a museum dedicated to the sport—Santa Cruz is also known for its “Coney Island of the West” boardwalk. One of the oldest amusement parks in California, the walkable Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has a historic wooden roller coaster, carnival games and rides like the G-force-inducing Fireball, all beautifully outlined by the Pacific Ocean. Dense with restaurants (try Hula’s Island Grill for pu pus and tiki drinks) and galleries, take your time strolling Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz. Conversely, you can make the 15-minute walk along West Cliff Drive to famous surfing spot Steamer Lane and watch the lineup of experienced locals and occasional pros in action.
With its well-preserved late-19th- and early-20th-century architecture, the atmosphere in Old Pasadena is nostalgic with pedestrian-friendly streets and historic alleys that are perfect for meandering and discovering the town’s authentic charm. Chic indoor-outdoor mall One Colorado is home to retailers from unique boutiques to prestigious national brands, and foodies take note! Michelin Guide announced its 2023 stars, and four Old Pasadena restaurants received nods: Union Pasadena and Fishwives won Bib Gourmand status, whereas Agnes and Perle earned Michelin Plate recognition. Located along Historic State Route 66 and a stone’s throw from the Pasadena Playhouse, those Angelenos looking for a staycation (and out-of-towners, too!) should check in at the historic Pasadena Hotel. And although it’s not technically within walking distance, you can easily hop in a rideshare to shop vintage finds at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, every second Sunday of the month.
A hot spot for arts, culture and politics, as well as being considered one of the best college towns in the US, Berkeley is a cozy city with a highly walkable and bike-friendly downtown. You’ll find excellent shops, museums, green spaces and even a sake tasting room here. Considered the birthplace of California farm-to-table cuisine, Berkeley is the perfect place to learn about food culture through an edible excursion walking tour led by local chefs and food writers. For fantastic views of the bay, head to Cesar Chavez Park at the Berkeley Marina and wander the Botanic Garden inside Tilden Park. Be sure to admire the colorful street art murals along Telegraph Avenue—this is where the ‘60s counterculture movement landed in Berkeley.
San Francisco’s newest neighborhood is located on the waterfront across from Oracle Park (home of the Giants), making it a great place to catch a game, kayak McCovey Cove or stroll the San Francisco Bay Trail along Bayfront Park. Rated the No. 1 Hottest New Hotel in the United States by TripAdvisor this year, check into the design-forward LUMA Hotel San Francisco, which features chic rooms, a wine bar and a rooftop restaurant. There’s an array of local dining options here too, including sushi and soba spot Moshi Moshi and food truck court Spark Social. Served by the new Central Subway, you can easily connect to Chinatown or make the 40-minute walk along The Embarcadero to the Ferry Building Farmers Market.
From its white-hot food scene—think Dominican eats, Southern barbecue, Asian noodles and Mexican tacos—to its myriad of completely walkable neighborhoods, Oakland is a culturally diverse counterpart to other parts of California. Browse indie shops on Temescal Alley in East Bay, join a Black Liberation Walking Tour in hip West Oakland or explore the cobbled streets of Old Oakland, which are lined with Victorian-era homes, galleries, boutiques, eateries and watering holes. We also recommend taking a self-guided dispensary tour to learn about Oakland’s trending cannabis scene while also looking for street art murals and checking out the Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt.
You might need a car to get to one of California Wine Country’s most famous towns, but once you arrive, it’s possible to explore on foot or two wheels, especially when staying in downtown Sonoma. Both the boutique Sonoma Bungalows and 19th-century Sonoma Hotel are located just off the historic Sonoma Plaza. Lined with shops, galleries, tasting rooms (check out Three Sticks Wine for crisp chardonnay and Sojourn Cellars for velvety pinot noir) and restaurants (lunch at The Girl and The Fig), it’s easy to spend a day strolling here. Sonoma’s historic state park is also home to the Mission San Francisco Solano—the northernmost mission in Alta California and birthplace of the California State Flag (aka the Bear Flag).
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.