The Cutest Small Towns in California (2024)

California is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world! Cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego draw travelers from all over the world, but some of the best-kept secrets are found in the small towns in California. From historic gold rush towns to coastal communities and stunning mountain towns, California’s smaller communities offer a unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty that’s hard to find anywhere else. In this article, we’ll take a look at 20 of the cutest small towns in California and what makes them so special.

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From the towering Redwood National Forest in the north to the girthy beast of Sequoia National Park in the south, California is a true gem! The cities and small towns in California are pretty stellar too! Check out our full list of California scavenger hunts, bar crawls, and urban art walks for a few fun activities to add to your Golden State itinerary!

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The Cutest Small Towns in California

For those who are not from California, some of these “small towns” aren’t very small. However, in comparison to Los Angeles or San Diego, they are teeny! For those living in or traveling through California, who are feeling a little overwhelmed with all the people, an escape to one of these amazing smaller towns will feel rejuvenating. We have included small towns that retain that chill vibe, but also have plenty of things to do on a day trip or a weekend getaway. Let’s roam!

*Population estimates are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s official 2020 Census when available, with Data Commons as a secondary source.

1. Ojai

Population: 7,637

Ojai is a picturesque town located in Ventura County. Known for its natural beauty and spiritual vibe, Ojai is a popular destination for artists, writers, and wellness enthusiasts. It tends to draw the hippie crowd with its crystal shops and New Age vibe, but even if drum circles aren’t your thing, you’ll love the charming, relaxed atmosphere.

Take a stroll down Ojai Avenue, where you can find a variety of boutique shops and eateries, or visit the Ojai Valley Museum, which showcases the history of the town. If you need a good book for your California road trip, Bart’s Books is a quirky outdoor bookstore with a large selection. Nature lovers will enjoy the arid trails, with Topatopa Mountain views, in Los Padres National Forest. Oenophiles will have no trouble finding a good tasting at the many wineries in town, and campers will love the accommodation at the Caravan Outpost!

We voted Ojai the number one small town in California on our list of “The Best Small Towns in Every State.”

Explore the art and culture of historic Ojai on our “Oh My, Ojai” scavenger hunt!

2. Julian

Population: 1,768

Located in the mountains of Southern California, Julian is a charming town that’s known for its apple orchards and delicious pies. Since 1949, it has hosted the Julian Apple Days Festival, and the town is a California Historical Landmark—a status that protects its Victorian architecture. If you’re a hiker, gold-rush history buff, or foodie, you will love a day trip to Julian.

Take a stroll down Main Street to peruse the adorable shops and cafes. Visit Volcan Mountain Winery for a tasting or the Volcan Valley Apple Orchard for some fresh road trip treats. The Julian Pioneer Museum is a small showcase of the town’s history. Visit the historic one-room Julian Jail, learn all about the wild dogs in the area at the California Wolf Center, or take in the stunning panoramic from Desert View Park. Don’t leave town without a slice of pie from Julian Pie Company!

3. Calistoga

Population: 5,228

Calistoga is a small town located in California’s world-famous wine region, Napa Valley. Known for its natural hot springs and wine-country charm, this town is a popular destination for tourists looking to unwind. Take a dip in the hot springs at the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, or visit the Sharpsteen Museum, which showcases town history.

Being located where it is, it comes as no surprise that the little town is loaded with wineries and tasting rooms. From the fortress-like Castello di Amorosa to the rustic Brian Arden Wines, there’s a tasting room for every kind of wine lover. Hikers will enjoy a day at Petrified Forest in next-door Sonoma County, and a visit to the Old Faithful Geyser of California is a must. Bring a picnic and a bottle of wine and wait for the show. The park also boasts a petting zoo with goats and llamas and a small geology museum.

Want to explore this region in a fun and unique way? Check out our “Calistoga Dreamin’” scavenger hunt!

4. Solvang

Population: 6,126

Solvang, California, is a laid-back, Danish-style village located in the heart of Santa Ynez Valley. It’s a place where you can enjoy the beauty of European architecture while sipping on a glass of local wine and munching on a delicious Danish pastry. If you’re looking for a unique destination to relax, Solvang is ideal.

Visit the giant windmills, stroll around the colorful streets, or take a horse-drawn carriage or trolley tour with Solvang Trolley & Carriage Tours. For some authentic Danish food, you should definitely try the Aebleskivers at Solvang Restaurant, which are fluffy Danish pancakes served with raspberry jam and powdered sugar. If you’re into arts and crafts, visit the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, which houses an impressive collection of his works. If you’re feeling adventurous, rent a bike and explore the scenic countryside. History lovers will enjoy the Elverhøj Museum of History and Art which showcases the history of the Danish settlers in the area and the Old Mission Santa Inés, a Spanish outpost dating back to 1804.

5. Ferndale

Population: 1,393

Ferndale, California is a hidden gem located in the heart of Humboldt County. Surrounded by dairy farms and waves of flowing pasture, “Cream Town” is a place where you can escape the hustle and bustle of city life and soak up the small-town charm. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you walk through the Victorian-era homes and storefronts that line Main Street.

If you’re looking for something fun to do, head over to the Ferndale Repertory Theatre, where you can catch a show. Explore the merchandise at the general store, Golden Gait Mercantile. Ferndale has one of the largest collections of painstakingly restored Victorian homes in California, many of which are available for tours. For those looking for a bit of adventure, hike the nearby trails of the Lost Coast, where the mountains of California tumble down to the Pacific Ocean creating a stunning and dynamic coastline.

6. Avalon

Population: 3,453

Avalon, California, is a beautiful town located on Catalina Island. It’s a place to soak up the sun, swim in crystal-clear waters, and enjoy island life. Little Avalon boasts a surprising array of attractions too!

Visit the iconic Catalina Casino, which is not actually a casino but a beautiful Art Deco building that hosts events and exhibits. If you’re feeling brave, you can take a zip-line tour of the island and get a bird’s-eye view of the stunning coastline. For some fresh seafood, you should definitely try the Lobster Trap, which serves up some of the best lobster rolls and chowder around. If you’re into water sports, you can go kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, or take a guided snorkeling or submarine tour of the underwater kelp forests. And, if you’re feeling a bit lazy, you can simply relax on the beach and soak up the California sun or enjoy a sunset at Green Pleasure Pier.

Pro Tip: While on the peninsula, make sure to check out the tiny rustic town of Two Harbors as well!

Check out the best of this seaside beauty on our “By the Beaches of Avalon” scavenger hunt!

7. Nevada City

Population: 3,114

Nevada City, California, is a quirky Old West town located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s a place to enjoy the beauty of nature while exploring the rich history of the gold rush era. Stroll down Broad Street, which features a wide array of boutique shops, galleries, and restaurants. Visit the Nevada County Historical Society and the Empire Mine State Historic Park to learn all about the Gold Rush history of the town. Pop in the National Exchange Hotel, a gorgeous Victorian-era historical landmark. If you’re feeling adventurous, go hiking or mountain biking along the Yuba River. Take a stroll through Crystal Hermitage Gardens and Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.

For some delicious cheesecake, you should definitely check out the Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Company, which offers mouth-watering pastries, bread, and craft beer. If you’re into the arts, you can attend the annual Nevada City Film Festival, which showcases some of the best independent films from around the world, or catch a show in the town theatres. And, if you’re feeling a bit spooky, you can take a ghost tour of the town and hear about the haunted history of some of the historic buildings.

8. Los Alamos

Population: 1,275

Los Alamos, California, is a cute small town located in Santa Barbara County. It’s a place where you can experience the beauty of wine country while enjoying the unique charm of this old-western town. In fact, both Emilio Esteves and Kurt Russel have their own tasting rooms in Los Alamos. With Michelin French restaurants and high-end wineries, Los Alamos has become a popular weekend escape for artsy Angelinos.

Visit the historic Union Hotel, which was built in 1880 and is now a popular spot for wine tasting and dining. If you’re feeling adventurous, take a hot air balloon ride over the neighboring vineyards. For some delicious cuisine, you should definitely check out Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, which serves up some of the best artisanal bread and coffee around. If you’re into antiques and vintage finds, browse the eclectic selection of shops and boutiques along Bell Street. While Los Alamos is a historic destination, most visitors simply choose to enjoy a glass of vino and take in the natural surroundings.

9. Sutter Creek

Population: 2,645

Sutter Creek, California, is an absolutely adorable community located in Amador County. The town offers the beauty of the Sierra Nevada foothills and small-town charm and hospitality. Sutter Creek is a unique destination featuring Knight Foundry, one of the last remaining water-powered iron foundries in the United States. The foundry offers fascinating tours and demonstrations.

Foodies will want to stop by the Sutter Creek Cheese Shoppe, which offers a wide array of artisanal cheeses and gourmet snacks. Adventurers will love the nearby Black Chasm Cavern. History buffs can visit the Amador County Museum, which features exhibits on the gold rush era, local mining history, and the lives of the pioneers who settled in the area. Take a stroll, exploring the cute selection of shops and boutiques, while photographing the post-card-worthy Old West architecture. Sutter Creek is also home to a host of cute wineries. The town is small, but it exudes massive charm!

Learn all the Gold Rush trivia you ever need to know on our “Rush Through Golden Sutter Creek” scavenger hunt!

10. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Population: 3,216

Carmel-by-the-Sea is the quintessential Californian beach town located on the Monterey Peninsula. It’s a place where you can unwind and indulge in the beauty of the California coast. Little Carmel is home to several celebrities including Clint Eastwood, Brad Pitt, and John Steinbeck, to name a few. It’s also the film location of Big Little Lies. It’s known for its gorgeous beach and world-class golf courses, as well as iconic coastal hiking trails. The one-square-mile town is lined with adorable seaside cottages and gnarly cypress trees, giving it a unique ambiance.

Visit the iconic Carmel Beach, which is known for its pristine white sand and stunning sunsets. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can go kayaking or paddleboarding in the Pacific Ocean. For some delicious food, check out the Mission Ranch Restaurant. It also boasts some incredible views from its outdoor dining deck. If you’re into art, visit the famous Carmel Art Association, which showcases works by local artists and hosts art shows throughout the year. Couples can take a romantic stroll through the fairy-tale cottages and gardens. Carmel-by-the-Sea is also very close to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve for epic hiking. Golfers will want to get in a few swings at Pebble Beach Golf Resort, and the kiddos will love Monterey Bay Aquarium. Carmel Mission Basilica Museum is a must-visit spot for history lovers. As you can see, Carmel-by-the-Sea isn’t just beautiful, it’s chalked full of fun things to do!

11. Mendocino

Population: 707

This charming small town is known for its stunning Northern California coastline, breathtaking scenery, and vibrant art scene. Start your day off with a visit to Mendocino Headlands State Park, where you can hike along the trails and take in the panoramic ocean views. Once a town for lumber industry workers, Mendocino is now mostly an artist’s colony. Most of the coastal portion of the community is designated as a Historic District.

Check out the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, where you can climb up to the top and enjoy the picturesque vistas. If you’re feeling adventurous, why not try kayaking in the Big River Estuary, take a horseback ride along the beach, or go hiking at Mendocino Headlands State Park? After a day of exploring, head to the Mendocino Art Center, where you can browse through galleries featuring works from local artists. Wrap up your day with a delicious meal at one of the town’s many seafood restaurants, and watch the sunset over the Pacific. Sounds like a perfect day to us!

12. Lone Pine

Population: 1,484

This one is for adventurers! Located in Owens Valley, East California, and surrounded by mountain peaks, Lone Pine is a hiker’s paradise. Serious hikers come to the Lone Pine to access the Whitney Portal to summit Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet. Amateurs will love the forest trails of Golden Trout Wilderness, the boulder fields of the Alabama Hills, and the Mobius Arch Loop Trail.

The town itself is lovely too and has served as a popular Hollywood film destination. Don’t miss the chance to explore the Museum of Western Film History, which showcases artifacts and memorabilia from some of Hollywood’s most iconic Western movies. History buffs will want to visit Manzanar, one of the ten American concentration camps where Japanese Americans were held during WWII. Wrap up your day with a hearty meal at one of the town’s many western-themed restaurants and take in the stunning views of the night sky. Lone Pine is the perfect destination for anyone looking to experience the rugged beauty of the Wild West.

13. Half Moon Bay

Population: 11,768

Half Moon is known for its stunning beaches, quaint shops, and delicious seafood. It’s just 45 minutes from San Francisco, but the Golden Gate Bridge crowds don’t seem to descend on lovely Half Moon. Start your day off with a visit to Half Moon Bay State Beach, Poplar Beach, or Gray Whale Cove State Beach, where you can take a stroll along the gorgeous shoreline and explore the tide pools. Don’t miss the chance to visit the historic Point Montara Lighthouse and climb to the top to take in the breathtaking views of the ocean. If you’re feeling adventurous, Half Moon Bay is famous for big-wave surfing.

Don’t forget to try the famous clam chowder at Sam’s Chowder House or grab a beer at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company. Wrap up your day with a romantic sunset horseback ride along the beach at sunset with Sea Horse Ranch. Half Moon Bay is the perfect destination for anyone looking to unwind and enjoy the natural beauty of the Bay Area without huge crowds.

14. Dunsmuir

Population: 1,700

Dunsmuir is nestled in the shadow of the majestic Mount Shasta, along the famous Pacific Crest Trail, and is known for its awesome outdoor activities. Start your day off with a visit to Mossbrae Falls and Hedge Creek Falls. Explore Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens, go fishing in the Sacramento River, or kayak in picturesque Lake Siskiyou. Hikers should head for Shasta-Trinity National Forest or Castle Crags State Park. After a day of exploring, head to Railroad Park Resort And Dining Car Restaurant and enjoy a meal in a historic railroad depot. Dunsmuir is the perfect destination for anyone looking to reconnect with nature and explore the great outdoors.

15. Morro Bay

Population: 10,757

Morro Bay is one of the larger towns on the list, but it still retains all the small-town qualities we crave for relaxation. Located in San Luis Obispo County, this West Coast beauty is known for its picturesque harbor and iconic Morro Rock.

Take a kayak or paddleboard out to get a closer look at Morro Rock. Don’t miss the chance to visit Morro Bay State Park, and hike the stunning trails, with panoramic views of the Pacific. Surfers will certainly want to hit the waves at Morro Bay, and shopping enthusiasts should plan some time on the bustling Embarcadero. Visit the Morro Bay Maritime Museum, or learn about watershed conservation at Morro Bay National Estuary Program. Finally, wrap up your day with a sunset stroll along the harbor, and watch the colors of the sky reflect on the water. The perfect end to a perfect day!

Final Thoughts

These 15 cutest small towns in California offer something for every kind of traveler. Whether you’re looking for beautiful beaches, picturesque vineyards, or stunning natural scenery, you’re sure to find something that you love. So pack your bags, hit the road, and get ready to experience it all in California’s best small towns!

For more California goodies, check out our travel guide “The Most Romantic Getaways in California.

Add a little flair to your California road trip by choosing some accommodations from “The Most Unique Places to Stay in California.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any villages in California?

Absolutely! Check out the cute small towns of Mendocino, Carmel-by-the Sea, or Sutter Creek for tiny-town charm and a perfect escape from the city.

What are the best small towns in California?

Some of the best small towns in California include charming Calistoga, the outdoor haven of Lone Pine, and historic, teeny Mendocino.

Is there a rural California?

Actually, a lot of California is desolate desert, quiet mountain villages, and rural farmland. Check out the small towns of Nevada City, Solvang, and Ojai.

Where can you get off the beaten path in California?

While California has great coastal cities, to get away from the crowds, head for the wine country of Los Alamos or the charming seaside town of Avalon.

What is there to do in small-town California?

Small-town California is loaded with hiking, watersports, and vineyard visits. Hikers will love Lone Pine, and oenophiles should visit Los Alamos or take a tour of Ojai.

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The Cutest Small Towns in California (2024)

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