The Sweetest Small Towns in California

Look beyond the Golden State’s bustling cities and explore these nine appealing towns on your next visit.

Main street in Guerneville

Guerneville has been a favorite vacation spot for San Francisco residents for over 100 years, but more are discovering its charms.

Photo by Jake Stangel

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 charming small towns below (all with populations under 12,000) 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.

Waterfront Sausalito San Francisco Bay Marin County California Usa.

Sausalito is just across the bridge from San Francisco but feels very different.


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 various ages and includes bird-watching and horseback-riding opportunities.

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.

Bart's Books & Mediation Mount at sunset

Bart’s Books is an essential Ojai stop.

Photos by Michelle Heimerman


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 7,540, 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 a few years back 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 of 3,146 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.

Solvang California at sunset

This Santa Barbara County town is known for its Danish-style architecture.

Iv-olga / Shutterstock


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 nearby 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.

Los Olivos

It may only occupy two and a half square miles, but the nearby Santa Ynez Valley town of Los Olivos (population: 1,020) makes the most of that sparse space with an impressively dense concentration of 27 wineries. Aside from the town’s multitude of grape-based attractions, Los Olivos has a rich history dating back to 1861, when the Overland Coast Line Stage Station was established just south of the destination. With a stagecoach route running through Los Olivos, originating in San Francisco, and traveling all the way to San Diego, the site became an important piece of California lore. Thanks to the town’s storied past, the historical walking tour is one of the best ways to explore the surroundings while taking in some of the area’s renowned architecture (like the first Protestant church in the valley, Berean Baptist, and the 121-year-old Los Olivos General Store). The culinary scene is also a big draw, led by the elegant Bar Le Côte, which celebrates local seafood with influences from Spain and Portugal. The perfect time to plan a visit? Book a stay in early summer to enjoy the annual Jazz and Olive Festival or late fall to coincide with the annual Taste of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Where to stay

Book now: Fess Parker Wine Country Inn

There’s no better retreat from reality in Los Olivos than the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn, a quiet, 19-room boutique hotel perfectly outfitted for weekend getaways and romantic escapes. The inn’s Nella Kitchen & Bar is also a dining destination for Italian-inspired cuisine concocted with local ingredients.

Boast on water near Avalon

Catalina Island is an hour by boat from both Long Beach and Orange County.

Photo by Mike Kitchen/Unsplash


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.


This San Diego mountain town has historic roots in the 1870s gold rush, and the destination’s sweet, small-town appeal still feels magical in the modern day. Known nowadays for its abundant apple orchards, Julian (population: 1,377) is home to a huge selection of apple pies. Along with that classic American staple, local haunt Julian Café & Bakery serves old-school dishes like roast beef with mashed potatoes and country fried chicken and waffles, while the 1950s-themed Miner’s Diner specializes in nostalgic milkshakes, malts, and hand-mixed sodas. Main Street also features a string of art galleries, antique shops, jewelry stores, and more for afternoon shopping excursions.

The town occupies a prime location within the Cuyamaca Mountains, which makes it an ideal spot for outdoor activities including horseback riding, road biking, and hiking. Campers will appreciate the plentiful options at Lake Cuyamaca, which has cabins as well as space for RVs and tents. Here you can spread out a picnic, go boating, and more.

Where to stay

Book now: Butterfield Bed & Breakfast

A true Julian experience involves a cozy stay at Butterfield Bed & Breakfast, which features five homey guest rooms and a daily two-course breakfast.


Out-of-state visitors tend to think of Napa as California’s shining star of wine culture, but Healdsburg is where the locals head to enjoy world-class vino, along with Michelin-star cuisine, handmade wares, and one-of-a-kind antiques. Home to a population of 11,709 residents, the Sonoma County town sits at the juncture of three major wine regions: Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley. A pro tip before heading out for a day of tasting: Visit the historic Oakville Grocery, founded in 1881, which is best known for delicious grab-and-go pastries and hearty, signature sandwiches (like Rocky’s Reuben and the cheesy Wagon Wheel). Then visit any of Healdsburg’s 92 wineries or 26 tasting rooms for some flavor, ambience, and relaxation. A few of the top spots include the 1,200-acre Jordan Vineyard and Winery specializing in cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and dazzling views, and the charming, family-owned Wilson Winery, featuring an array of award-winning pours and laid-back patio seating. Restaurants, including the 3-Michelin-star SingleThread Farms, serve seasonal, decadent multicourse meals to round out the experience.

Where to stay

Book now: Hotel Healdsburg; Montage

Combining modern luxury with country simplicity in the heart of town, Hotel Healdsburg features contemporary decor and a must-visit spa. The Montage, meanwhile, is set on a large estate surrounded by vineyards and offers exception French-inspired dining at its Hazel Hill restaurant.

This story was originally published in April 2023 and was updated in April 2024 with new information.

Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco–based freelance journalist, marketing specialist, and ghostwriter. An alum of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, she’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech for outlets such as Vogue, Scientific American, Wired, Medium, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, and more.
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