Gorgeous coastlines, redwood forests, and national parks are all surrounded by charming towns in California. Each California town has its own culture and unique atmosphere that is so different from the next.
I have lived in California for 26 years and grew up in a small mountain town just outside of Los Angeles. I am a California expert and have traveled to the best destinations in California from north to south and everything in between.
As a result, this list features my top picks for California towns that you should add to your itinerary immediately.
Table of Contents
- 21 Best Towns in California
- FAQs About the Best Towns in California
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21 Best Towns in California
South Lake Tahoe
A Northern California resort city with an array of water activities and hiking trails
South Lake Tahoe is a resort city in Northern California with mountain shops, cafes, and lake rentals. Families visit this resort town from all over the United States to enjoy a peaceful escape from city life.
The best activities to do in Lake Tahoe are simply lounging on the lake shore and going for a dip in the water. You can also rent a boat from one of many rental shops and take the family to wakeboarding or skiing.
If you like hiking, you’re in luck in Tahoe. Choose from one of many hiking trails in Lake Tahoe like the 16.4-mile Rubicon Trail or the 10.5-mile Mount Tallac trail.
One of the fanciest Southern California beach towns
Laguna is one of the biggest California cities on the west coast. Known for fine dining restaurants, having some of the best Southern California beaches, and top-of-the-line shops, Laguna attracts tourists who admire the finer things in life.
Laguna beach has volleyball courts and small beach areas to lounge on with nearby tidepools that are full of sea anemones.
Enjoy the Thursday night art walk with over 40 participant galleries and free trolley rides from 6-9 pm. For a bigger art selection, the Sawdust Festival in Laguna is held every summer and hosts over a thousand local artists.
A peaceful mountain escape from the big cities below
Go for a refreshing lake swim to cool off from the summer heat or lace up your hiking boots and hit one of the many Big Bear trails. You can also rent a cabin and celebrate a birthday or anniversary among the San Bernardino National Forest pine trees. For more activity ideas, see our list of the best things to do in Big Bear.
Don’t know which Big Bear hikes to choose? Try this guided hiking tour in Big Bear to explore otherwise unknown trails.
The gateway town to Sequoia National Park
Three Rivers is one of the most underrated California cities. Known as the gateway to Sequoia National Park, towering trees surround this California town.
Three Rivers rests at the edge of the San Joaquin Valley and lies between the Sierra Nevada mountains. The town has a population of only 2,700 people but boasts plenty of restaurants and breweries.
This sleepy town is full of hidden gems that are waiting to be discovered by wandering tourists. Locals will tell you to check out the Slick Rock watering hole and to go whitewater rafting on the Kaweah River.
📚 Related Reading: Want to explore the hiking trails at Sequoia National Park? Make sure to bring the hiking essentials.
A hip small town burrowed in between the Topatopa Mountains
Ojai (pronounced oh-hi) is a small mountain town in Ventura County, California. With the beautiful Topatopa Mountains as a backdrop, the major Ojai attractions are centered around hiking and the outdoors.
The Ojai Valley View Preserve sits on 195 acres of “saved land” that now serves as a recreational park complete with hiking and waterfall trails.
Ojai is also known for its wine tasting. Spend a day in Ojai trying delicious, locally-made wine then relax in the town’s hot springs in the evening for ultimate relaxation. Or, if you’re feeling artsy then take this 2-hour potteryworkshop tour and let the creative juices flow!
A San Jacinto mountain town with cute downtown shops
Idyllwild is a lesser-known mountain town in California. It is located in the heart of the San Jacinto mountains and receives thick snowfall in the winter months.
The sleepy Idyllwild town sees its fair share of tourists in the summer but is completely quiet in the off-shoulder months. This is an ideal time to visit for a more authentic experience and few crowds at the best Idyllwild attractions.
There is a pizza restaurant, a brewery, cafes, and all sorts of quirky shops in downtown Idyllwild. Go prepared to spend a whole afternoon in the crisp mountain air.
The most popular activity in the area is hiking to the San Jacinto summit via the Marion Mountain trail. There is 5,000 feet of elevation gain in 6 miles up, making it a challenging yet rewarding hike.
A charming small town right on the San Francisco Bay
You do not want to miss a trip to Sausalito while you’re in Northern California. This picturesque small town is a tourist favorite.
You can bike 2.5 hours to Sausalito from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco for a great morning workout. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can always bike back to the big city but taking a ferry from Sausalito is the more favored option.
Sausalito looks like a Mediterranean fishing village on a sunny day. Don’t forget to bring your professional camera to capture the essence of the town.
Enjoy breathtaking views of shattered cliffs and crashing waves
Only 2 hours from San Francisco, Monterey California is a marine life haven. This quintessential beach town in Northern California has things to do for the whole family.
Enjoy the sweet ocean scent while you visit the heart of downtown Monterey, Cannery Row Historic District.
Another must-see attraction in Monterey is the old Fisherman’s Wharf. Although the fish market stopped operation in the 1960s, the building still bustles with life inside. Shop from one of many stores and reserve a table at a historic seafood restaurant inside.
🏘️ Read Next: Best Places to Live in California
One of the most underrated California beach towns
Northwest of LA, Ventura is a coastal city with a beautiful main street and incredible surf. Exciting things to do in Ventura include relaxing on the sand, swimming in the ocean, kayaking, surfing, and paddle boarding.
You can also rent a boat from Ventura Harbor and cruise the ocean looking for whales or a golden sunrise out on the water.
There are plenty of art studios in the area and a musical arts theater for you to enjoy performing arts classics. If you prefer a more adult-friendly nightlife scene, hit the bars and clubs on the main street for a night to remember.
Mission Basilica San Buenaventura is open to the public every day from 6 am-5 pm and will entertain the whole family. Visit the mission’s botanical gardens and historic museum that dates back to 1782.
The closest town to Joshua Tree National Park
Yucca Valley is a town in San Bernardino County with a population of almost 22,000 residents. It is only 11.5 miles from Joshua Tree and 27 miles north of Palm Springs.
Many visitors choose Yucca Valley as their base for visiting Joshua Tree National Park. The town is less crowded than the Joshua Tree city and offers just as many amenities.
Hike the Black Rock Canyon trail in Yucca Valley or bring a sleeping pad and sleep under the stars at night to maximize your experience.
San Luis Obispo
Home to the San Luis Obispo mission and Bubblegum Alley
San Luis Obispo (SLO for short) is the perfect travel destination with sunny beaches year round. The city was built around Mission San Luis Obispo in 1772.
If you are traveling with your family, Bubblegum Alley is a must-see. A wall with other people’s old gum may not sound appealing at first but it is a SLO tradition. Get indoctrinated into the city’s culture by creating art with your own piece of gum.
Are you a wine connoisseur? Check out this San Luis Obispo guided winery tour and have a private driver take you to the best wineries in the area.
A small desert town with natural hot springs
Just outside of Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms is a desert oasis. Enjoy natural desert hot springs and beautiful sunsets during your stay in this California town.
There are many chic and hipster places to stay in Twentynine Palms and some accommodations even come with private hot springs.
A Joshua Tree National Park entrance can be accessed from Twentynine Palms as well. Once inside the park, you can choose from hundreds of hiking trails like Ryan Mountain, one of the highest points in the park.
Take a 20-minute day trip from Twentynine Palms to Pioneertown, a restored ghost town with a popular biker bar/ underground concert venue.
The most popular place for wine tasting in Southern California
Located in Riverside County, Temecula is part of Southern California’s Inland Empire. The main attractions in Temecula are centered around wine but there are also things to do with the whole family.
You can fly among the birds in a sunrise or sunset hot air balloon ride over the vineyards or go horseback riding through rolling Temecula hills.
Visitors 21 years old and over can enjoy Pechanga Resort & Casino. Get ready for a night of poker, blackjack, food, and entertainment at this 24-hour Temecula casino.
Mount Shasta’s snowy volcano summit is seen from nearly everywhere in the town
Many Mount Shasta residents believe the town is a spiritual vortex. There are many crystal shops, hip cafes, thrift stores, and a grocery Co-Op in the downtown area. If you are a nature lover, you must take a trip to Mount Shasta.
Shasta Lake provides beautiful views of the overtowering Mount Shasta mountain. A climb to the 14,179-foot summit is a serious feat that should only be tackled by experienced climbers.
If you are looking for an easier climb, Lake Siskiyou trail is an easier, 7.3-mile day hike that takes you around the perimeter of the lake.
Cliffside homes define this coastal town
Malibu is a coastal city in the Santa Monica mountain area. Only a short day trip from Los Angeles, Malibu is home to many celebrities and top athletes.
Visitors have access to some of the most perfect waves and pristine coastlines in Southern California. Point Dume is a spectacular gray whale spotting lookout in the winter and Surfrider Beach is great for catching waves year-round.
Zuma is the biggest Malibu beach with 1.5 miles of coastline. You can find many activities at Zuma including yoga, street vendors, and occasional concerts on the beach. For more, read our guide to what to do in Malibu.
Put on your best dress and visit the Getty Villa in Malibu to view over 1,200 antiques from the Mediterranean. After, treat yourself to a fresh, locally sourced meal at Malibu Farm Restaurant.
👉 Need an adrenaline fix? This Malibu paragliding tour will give you what you were looking for.
A college town surrounded by redwood trees
Arcata is an incorporated city in California, meaning it has a charter from the state to elect its own officials and make its own rules within reason. It is one of the last major cities before Redwood National Park and receives many national park visitors (Redwood is one of the most popular national parks in California, after all).
Downtown Arcata feels like a trip to the past with its old-timey buildings and charming main street square. Arcata is also home to Humboldt State University, nestled in the redwoods.
Redwood Community Forest is only a few blocks from downtown Arcata and has many great hiking trails and picnic areas. Make sure to also visit Clam Beach County Park during your Arcata trip to bring back some clam souvenirs.
A hilly city surrounded by the Long Beach municipality
Signal Hill’s Hilltop Park is a reminder of the city’s past. The smoke signal in the center pays tribute to the old Native American inhabitants.
Make sure to bring your bike or skateboard with you to Signal Hill because the nearby Long Beach Shoreline Bike Path is one of the main attractions in the area. Share the path with local bikers and soak in the Long Beach environment.
A California hot spot for wineries and eateries
Sonoma is a hot spot for wineries in Northern California. It is also known for its downtown art galleries and the colonial-era plaza.
Tourists can travel to Sonoma on a day trip from San Francisco or stay in one of the thousands of luxury accommodation options. Sonoma is a small town in between major surrounding cities and offers peace, relaxation, and quiet.
After you’ve gone wine tasting at some of Sonoma’s 425 wineries, take a hike in the nearby redwood forest. You can also unwind with a massage at a top Sonoma spa to restore your mind, body, and spirit.
Bike over the Golden Gate Bridge or eat delicious sourdough bread at Fisherman’s Wharf
San Francisco is a California classic. It’s one of the most traveled cities in California outside of Los Angeles and San Diego.
Famous for the Golden Gate Bridge and picturesque residential areas, this California city has so much to offer that you will need a few days to explore it fully.
Year-round activities include:
- Biking over the Golden Gate Bridge
- Eating a delicious ice cream cone from Ghirardelli
- Watching the sleepy sea lions on the Fisherman’s Wharf Pier &
- Driving down the windy Lombard Street
Visitors also love taking a day trip to South San Francisco to escape the busy city crowds. If you like city nightlife, you must take the local BART subway to the Castro district to enjoy an iconic night on the town.
The largest city in California with thousands of things to do and see
No trip to California is complete without visiting Los Angeles. This is the largest city in California with almost 4 million residents.
There are thousands upon thousands of things to do in LA. Most tourists visit the city with hopes of running into a celebrity in Hollywood. Others visit LA for the nightlife in the NOHO or SOHO districts.
You can enjoy world-class entertainment in LA at one of the many performing arts theaters or sports arenas. Be sure to check out local sports games like The LA Lakers at Crypto.com Stadium or the LA Rams at Sofi Stadium.
📚 Related Reading: Where to Stay in Los Angeles
The best spot for Spanish-style architecture and authentic Mexican food
Only 17 miles from the Mexican Border, San Diego is a California city full of culture and Spanish-style architecture. It is also one of the best places to surf in California.
San Diego was one of the first towns established in California and is rich with culture. Old Town San Diego is a lovely Spanish-style small town with authentic Mexican restaurants and hand-made tortillas.
La Jolla Beach draws surfers and beach-goers of all ages to its enticing coastline. Situated near downtown San Diego, enjoy the relaxing beaches and fine dining restaurants at La Jolla Beach.
A trip to San Diego isn’t complete without a visit to the Gaslamp Quarter to experience the best nightlife in the city. See Ashleigh’s local guide to what to do in San Diego for more activity ideas.
FAQs About the Best Towns in California
How many towns does California have?
There are 482 towns in California.
What is the best small town in California?
Ojai is the best small town in California. You won’t run out of things to do in Ojai including hiking, shopping, and browsing art galleries.
What is the cheapest town to live in California?
What is the coolest town in California?
Idyllwild is the coolest town in California. There are hipster cafes and beautiful art sculptures lining the streets. There are also tall mountains to hike and places to sled in the wintertime.
You’ve made it to the end of my list of the 21 best towns in California! To make the most out of your trip to California, check out my Best Time to Visit California guide and plan your trip accordingly.
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