You could join the hordes angling for a selfie in front of the Hollywood sign on your next California adventure . . . or you could venture off the beaten path and hit one of the Golden State’s sweet small towns instead. With so many unique destinations to explore, your biggest struggle may be deciding which direction to drive. But any of the small towns below (all with populations under 8,000) would be a California dream.
It’s tough to think of a quirkier California town than Guerneville. From the retro vibe of Main Street to the plethora of street art, the long-standing LGBTQ-friendly destination offers broad appeal to travelers. It’s home to some of Sonoma County’s cutest shops and awe-inspiring redwood trees. The must-hit spots include the Farmhand gourmet deli and Stumptown Brewery, which overlooks the Russian River. And it might be illegal to exit the town without a mandatory stop at Big Bottom Market (home of Oprah’s favorite biscuits).
Chef, proprietor, and Food Network star Crista Luedtke’s boon eat + drink is one of Guerneville’s best dining destinations, featuring everything from decadent mac-n-cheese to brioche bread pudding.
Where to stay
Book now: The Stavrand
Out-of-towners and locals will appreciate the 21 highly coveted rooms at the Stavrand, a six-acre estate that offers an easy stroll to Guerneville’s Main Street and several activities and amenities (like a pool and hot tub, lawn games, complimentary evening wine, and s’mores kits) for all ages.
See our full guide to Guerneville.
Seven miles north of downtown San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito is renowned for its Mediterranean aesthetic, shops selling local jewelry, novelty gifts, toys, and more, as well as memorable views of the city, Alcatraz, and both the Golden Gate and Bay bridges.
With a population of 7,199, the city is a haven for gourmands, gallery connoisseurs, and R&R aficionados. Sushi Ran, Bar Bocce, Copita, and Poggio are among the city’s most beloved dining destinations, and Scrimshaw Gallery and Daniel Merriam’s Bubble Street Gallery are musts for art enthusiasts. There’s also easy access to Marin County’s best hiking areas, including the 3.4-mile Tennessee Valley Trail, which is easy enough for a variety of ages and includes opportunities for bird-watching and horseback riding.
Where to stay
Book now: The Inn Above Tide
A true Sausalito weekend includes a stay at the 33-room luxury boutique hotel the Inn Above Tide, which provides elite amenities and some of the best views of the Bay, the city skyline, Angel Island, and beyond.
Physically, Ojai is situated about two hours north of Los Angeles; energetically, it’s about a thousand worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the major metropolis. With a population of 7,590, Ojai provides an intimate sense of community and connection, thanks to an active art scene, an array of wildlife preserves, waterfalls, gardens, and hiking trails, and opportunities for spiritual experiences.
Bibliophiles flock to Bart’s Books, deemed the world’s largest outdoor bookstore and purveyor of 130,000 used and new titles. The Casa Barranca Tasting Room is where visitors will find an array of award-winning organic wines, and the Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market has fresh fruits, veggies, pastries, and more.
Originally inhabited by Chumash Indians (visitors will want to visit the Ojai Valley Museum for more of the tribe’s history and culture), the area of Ojai has long been considered a “spiritual vortex,” and there continues to be no shortage of enlightenment retreats and healing centers. One of the area’s most well-known spiritual sanctuaries is Meditation Mount, a nonprofit dedicated to events and programs rooted in group meditation practices aiming to better “humanity and the world.”
Where to stay
Book now: Ojai Valley Inn
To truly get an immersive experience, book a stay at the Ojai Valley Inn, which offers everything from a 31,000-square-foot spa to an artist cottage and apothecary.
Anyone who tuned into HBO’s Big Little Lies is more than likely obsessed with its dreamy coastal setting—and Carmel-by-the-Sea is at least partially responsible for those scenic shots. The small beach town in Monterey County is known for white sand, attractive shop-filled streets, and world-class dining.
Aubergine, located at L’Auberge Carmel, is the city’s true culinary pride and joy, earning a coveted star in the 2019 Michelin Guide and serving seasonal dishes from executive chef-director Justin Cogley. Lucia Restaurant & Bar located at Bernardus Lodge & Spa (in nearby Carmel Valley) offers a quintessential upscale California experience, with the option for alfresco dining when the weather cooperates (which it often does in Carmel). And Chez Noir’s chefs create French- and Spanish-inspired dishes sourced with seasonal, local ingredients. Although the town itself is just one square mile, Carmel is jam-packed with culture, boasting more than 80 art galleries, including Galerie Plein Aire and Winfield Gallery.
Where to stay
Book now: L’Auberge Carmel
Located a few blocks from Carmel Beach, L’Auberge Carmel dates back to 1929 and features distinctly European architecture and design details. Following a complete restoration and subsequent million-dollar remodel, the hotel offers all the modern must-haves (hello, high-speed WiFi) while retaining its Old World charm.
This Santa Barbara County town, with a population of 6,126, is known for its Danish-style architecture and extensive wine offerings. Dubbed “the Danish Capital of America,” Solvang dates back to 1911 when Danish immigrants purchased nearly 10,000 acres of Santa Ynez Valley land and established a community far from home. Residents have meticulously preserved the founders’ original vision, with European influences in every street, shop, and cellar in sight.
The 700-seat Solvang Festival Theater is the main venue for major concerts, and there are over 120 vineyards to visit. After all, the 2004 film Sideways was filmed almost entirely on location throughout Solvang and the rest of Santa Ynez Valley (Alma Rosa Winery is one of the fictional characters’ favorite spots). Recently, celebrities from Kim Kardashian to Billie Eilish have visited family-owned Solvang Bakery and the cast of Vanderpump Rules (#TeamAriana!) stayed at the Landsby, a Scandinavian-inspired boutique hotel that’s perfect for a group trip. Solvang visitors will also have easy access to plenty of other inviting small towns in the area, including Los Olivos, Los Alamos, and Buellton.
Where to stay
Book now: Corque Hotel
The town’s newest hospitality boutique, Corque Hotel, is an updated take on Solvang’s sweet sensibilities, with modern rustic decor and easy access to all of the local attractions.
For a truly uncommon small town experience, California locals and visitors alike flock to Avalon, the only incorporated city on Catalina Island, about 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles. While Catalina is also home to the village of Two Harbors (a great spot for mountain biking, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding), Avalon is the place to find dining destinations, theaters, and one-of-a-kind gift shops. Families can spend the afternoon bowling and vying for bragging rights at Three Palms Avalon Arcade or partake in a Haunted Catalina ghost tour. Those seeking relaxation will have their pick of spa destinations, including A Touch of Heaven and Avalon Massage Therapy. Also worth investigating: a cruise session with Catalina Island Sailing or a hike along the Garden-to-Sky trail.
Where to stay
Book now: Avalon Hotel
The aptly named Avalon Hotel prides itself on thoughtful details (like handmade soaps in every bathroom) and wrap-style balconies that offer panoramic ocean views.
See our weekend getaway guide to Catalina Island.