California is well known for its big, busy cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, but it is also home to some of the most charming small towns with rich history and exciting activities. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing place to visit or a wonderful place to live, here are some of the best small towns in California.
Population: Under 14,000
Auburn began as just another gold rush town, but unlike many others, this one continued to grow and thrive. Many of the original buildings remain. This lovely small town is the perfect blend of historic charm and modern convenience. You can take walking tours of Downtown and Old Town to see many of the historic buildings and learn about the history of the city. Stop in to Auburn Drug and get a treat at the vintage soda fountain.
Must do: Cruise around town to see the Ken Fox statues, head to Auburn State Recreation Area for hiking, rafting, camping, and gold panning, take your OHVs out for the day, fish the American River, visit the Gold Rush Museum, spend a day on the golf course, hike to the falls at Hidden Falls Regional Park, shop the day away, see the 3rd highest bridge in the US (Foresthill Bridge), go boating at Lake Clementine.
Population: About 3,800
This mountain community on Highway 395 is south of Mammoth Lakes at the north end of Owens Valley and is a great place to experience a California meets country community. You can go all the way to Mammoth if you’d like, but Bishop is also worth a visit.
Must do: Go see the oldest living things on the planet at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, take a dip and relax at Keough’s Hot Springs, step back in time at Laws Railroad Museum & Historical Site, experience cultural heritage at the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center, go rock climbing or bouldering, go fishing at Owens River, try your luck at Wanaaha Casino, go camping at one of the many nearby campgrounds, hit the trails at Lake Sabrina to explore alpine lakes and mountain peaks, and stop at Schat’s Bakkery to stock up on goodies and sheepherder bread.
Population: Just over 5,000
Calistoga is a small town in the Napa Valley area known for the wineries, hot springs, and even a medieval style castle. There’s plenty to do and enjoy here for both residents and visitors.
Must do: Old Faithful Geyser of California, Castello di Amorosa, Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, Calistoga Hot Springs, the Petrified Forest, Sharpsteen Museum, explore downtown and view the murals, watch the races at Calistoga Speedway, visit Pioneer Park, go wine tasting, visit the art galleries, visit Villa Ca’Toga, take a drive on the Silverado Trail.
Population: Under 7,000
Crescent City is a tiny town with the Northernmost lighthouse in the state of California. The lighthouse at Battery Point was lit in 1856 and survived the Tsunami of 1964 undamaged. It is still active today. The quaint beachside town has colorful murals throughout the downtown area telling stories of its history. Crescent City is the perfect destination for a laid-back getaway with outdoor adventures.
Must do: Crescent Beach, Kellogg Beach, Pebble Beach Drive, Crescent City Harbor, Castle Rock Wildlife Refuge, B Street Fishing Pier, Point St. George Beach Trails, visit the redwoods at Jedediah Smith State Park, Battery Point Lighthouse, Ocean World Aquarium, Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, explore downtown, have a beer at SeaQuake Brewing.
Half Moon Bay
Population: Just over 11,000
Half Moon Bay is located south of San Francisco and west of of Silicon Valley. Predominantly beach and agriculture, this charming coastal city is a great place to live or visit. The California Coastal Trail spans the length of the city (11.5 miles), and is open to walking, biking, horses, and on-leash dogs. Take this trail to enjoy coastal views, creek crossings, and eucalyptus groves. If you’re visiting, there are a number of resorts and bed & breakfasts including the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. For surf lovers, this is the place to find Maverick’s, one of the most famous and dangerous surf breaks in the world, located just off Pillar Point.
Must do: Half Moon Bay Golf Links, dinner and drinks on Main Street (and take the historic walking tour), beach horseback riding with Sea Horse Ranch, explore Pillar Point Harbor, have a bowl of chowder at Sam’s Chowder House, take a walk in the redwoods just outside of Half Moon Bay at Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve, spend a day at Half Moon Bay State Beach.
Population: Under 1,400
Julian is a little town nestled in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego and is designated as a California Historical Landmark. Julian dates back to the gold rush, and many of the existing structures are historic buildings from the 1870s. Today, the towns hottest commodity is its apples. While the town is popular any time of the year, it gets a lot of visitors come apple picking time!
Must Do: The Eagle Mining Co., Historic Walking Tour, Pioneer Museum, Fort Cross Old Timey Adventures, Julian Mining Company, Julian Farm & Orchard, visit art galleries, attend a Dark Sky event, attend one of the annual community festivals.
Population: Under 1,000
Klamath is a taste of old California where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by Redwoods and steeped in Native American History. Whether you’re fishing for salmon or taking a treetop gondola ride, you’ll find something lovely in this peaceful small town in California.
Must do: Trees Of Mystery, suspension bridges on the Redwood Canopy Trail, Klamath Tour Thru Tree, Old Douglas Memorial Bridge, paddle the Klamath River with Yurok Redwood Canoe Tours, Radar Station B-71, Prairie Creek Redwoods National & State Park, False Klamath Cove, Yurok County Visitor Center.
Located just outside of Palm Springs, this artsy desert community is a great place to live and play. There are a number of things to do including golfing, relaxing at the many spas and resorts, shopping the downtown area, and attending some of the many festivals.
Must do: Shopping at Old Town, camping, hiking, and fishing at Lake Cahuilla, golfing at the PGA West courses, spending a day at the resorts.
Population: Under 11,000
Known as the Gibraltar Of The pacific for the large volcanic mound jutting out at the shoreline, Morro Bay is a quiet coastal community surrounded by lagoons, marshes, and wilderness preserves. This is a great destination for boating, kayaking, surfing, golfing, hiking, biking, and other outdoor recreational activities. You can also do plenty of shopping or enjoy the craft breweries and wine bars.
Must do: Try Morro Bay Oysters, attend the annual Avocado Margarita Festival, attend the Winterfest and the lighted boat parade, Morro Beach, Morro Strand State Beach, Mural Mile, horseback riding on the beach, whale watching, explore downtown.
Population: Under 2,000
Another small town that got its start with the gold rush, Murphys is rich in history with a splash of modern life and is known as Queen Of The Sierra. Murphys is a wine lovers dream with over 20 wineries and tasting rooms. Stay at the Murphys Historic Hotel and Lodge, once visited by the likes of President Grant, Mark Twain, and the notorious Black Bart.
Must do: View stalagmites and stalactites at Mercer Caverns, see a performance at Murphys Creek Theater, make the short drive to Moaning Caverns Adventure Park for more cave exploration, go hiking or camping in the Sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, visit in March to attend Murphys Irish Day, in October for the annual Grape Stomp, or in December to welcome in the holiday season with Murphys Open House.
Population: About 3,100
Nevada City is considered one of California’s best preserved Gold Rush Towns, is surrounded by forest, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s the perfect place to visit if you’re looking for a slower pace with the experience of old time California, but it’s a full-service city with all the modern conveniences and is also a great place to live!
Must do: Explore downtown, Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum, Nevada Theatre, Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, Deer Creek Tribute Trail, Fire House Museums, National Exchange Hotel, Nevada City Winery, go fishing and hiking at Scott’s Flat Lake, take a Haunted Nevada City Ghost Tour.
Population: About 5,500
Oakhurst is the gateway to Yosemite National Park and the southern terminus of Highway 49 (for those of you who are heading out to explore the gold rush towns along the Golden Chain Highway). Within Oakhurst proper, you can enjoy local wine tasting, homemade desserts and ice cream at Reimer’s, or shop some of the local boutiques. Because of it’s location, you can take a quick and easy drive to some of the local hiking trails, enjoy lake recreation at Bass Lake, or head in to Yosemite National Park.
Must Do: Take a stroll through Oakhill cemetery, Idle Hour Kitchen & Winery, hike the Lewis Creek Trail to Corlieu Falls, visit Yosemite and Wawona.
Population: About 7,500
Ojai is located northeast of Ventura bordered by Los Padres National Forest. The downtown village area is full of unique boutiques, art galleries, specialty stores, and dining options. Ojai is also well known for the annual Ojai Music Festival featuring many classical music performers. If you’re visiting, check out the Ojai Retreat and the Ojai Valley Inn.
Must do: Boating, camping, and fishing at Lake Casitas, hit the trails at Ojai Valley Land Conservancy or Los Padres National Forest, go wine tasting at one of the local tasting rooms, do a tour and tasting at Ojai Olive Oil, pick your own lavender at Frog Creek Farm, attend a full moon meditation at Meditation Mount, learn about the local area at the Ojai Valley Museum.
Population: About 8,000
Set on the central coast south of San Luis Obispo, Pismo is both a great place to live and play. It has all the amenities of city life at the slowed down pace of a beachside community.
Must do: Go shopping at the outlets, ride a buggy on the sand dunes, go walking at the Pismo Preserve, visit the Monarch Butterfly Grove, check out Dinosaur Caves park, soak in the tubs at nearby Avila Hot Springs or Sycamore Mineral Springs, enjoy a day at the beach.
Population: Under 64,000
More populated than most of the small towns on our list, but this one makes the cut, because it has a small town feel more so than other SoCal coastal cities. There’s not as much hustle and bustle here in this beachside city, but there’s so much to enjoy.
Must do: San Clemente Pier and Avenida Del Mar, Casa Romantica Cultural Center, San Clemente Beach Trail, surfing at Trestles, San Onofre Bluffs, visit the Surfing Heritage & Culture Center, go shopping at the Outlets at San Clemente, dine at award winning restaurants like Nick’s San Clemente or Vine Restaurant & Bar, hike the Forster-Ridgeline Trail.
San Juan Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano may be one of the more populated towns on our list, but it’s still small compared to its neighbors, and it has an old town, country charm. Home to Mission San Juan Capistrano, Los Rios Historic District, and a large equestrian community, it’s the perfect blend of city meets country.
Must do: Visit the Mission, take a tour of Los Rios Historic District, attend the Swallow’s Day Parade, see a live show at the Coach House, make friends with the animals at Zoomars at River Street Ranch, take a hike at Caspers Wilderness Park.
San Luis Obispo
Population: About 48,000
San Luis Obispo is a great little city on the Central Coast, just minutes from the beach but set a few miles inland separated mainly by Montana de Oro State Park and other open space preserves. It is predominantly a college town with Cal Poly SLO students frequenting downtown, but it’s also a great family town with all the modern conveniences but a slightly slower pace than the California city centers.
Must do: Add a piece of gum to Bubblegum Alley, visit Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, see a movie at the Sunset Drive-In Theater, stay overnight and have dinner at the super quirky Madonna Inn, hike Madonna Mountain on the trails of Cerro San Luis Natural Reserve, explore architectural design by Poly students in the Poly Canyon Design Village then hike to the serenity swing, spend a day in Avila Beach and visit the Point San Luis Lighthouse on the north side of Port San Luis Harbor, take a soak in the outdoor mineral tubs at Sycamore Mineral Springs, catch a performance at the Performing Arts Center.
Population: Under 25,000
Seal Beach is a small community in Orange County, and though it is still a modern urban city, it still has a small town feel in many spots here. Great for both living and visiting, Seal Beach has plenty to offer from the historic pier and sandy beach to the well-manicured neighborhoods and plentiful shopping and dining.
Must do: Downtown Main Street, pier, and beach, walk the trails at Gum Grove Park, shopping at The Shops At Rossmoor, dinner at Mahe. For more adventure, you can head to one of the bigger nearby beach cities.
Population: Under 13,000
Solana Beach is a laid back coastal community tucked between Encinitas and Del Mar just north of San Diego. It’s the perfect city to be in if you want a small town beach feel but still be near all the big city amenities.
Must do: If you want a day out in nature, head south to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and enjoy the trails and the beach, bet on the horses at Del Mar Racing, spend a day on the green at a nearby golf course, or just do some local shopping.
Population: About 2,700
There’s nothing quite like a lakeside town, and Tahoe City is one of the best. There is something here for everyone to enjoy any time of the year. Whether you’re hitting the nearby slopes for skiing or heading to the lake for on-the-water activities Tahoe City has an adventure to embark on. Or, you can opt to relax and enjoy the slower pace of this mountain town.
Must do: Gatekeepers Museum & Dam, take a risk at Tahoe Treetop Adventure Park, go kayaking or paddleboarding on the lake, head to South Lake Tahoe for a trip to Emerald Bay State Park or hike to Eagle Falls, go snowmobiling at Blackwood Canyon SNO-PARK, go swimming at Commons Beach, explore balancing rock nature trail at DL Bliss State Park, go sledding and ice skating at Tahoe City Winter Sports Park, cruise the lake on Tahoe Gal.
More Great Small Towns In California
- Avalon (Catalina Island)
- Bodega Bay
- Carmel By The Sea
- Crestline and Lake Arrowhead
- Grass Valley
- La Jolla
- Los Olivos
- Soquel & Capitola
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Heidi Deal is the author of the Newcomers Handbook to Living In Los Angeles & Orange County, and a children’s book author specializing in history and human rights.