overview shot of a mountain with a highway surrounded by greenery in Santa Barbara

California is a big state with a lot of flashy, well-known cities. No doubt you’re well acquainted with the rolling Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles, contemplated boogie boarding and fish tacos in San Diego, or have grand ideas about poking around San Francisco’s Lombard Street and iconic Golden Gate Bridge. 

But what about the small towns in California that don’t get quite as much time in the limelight? These petite respites promise a ton by way of award-winning meals, easy sights for tired eyes, and quaint and calming atmospheres. From the towering redwoods to the glittering coast to wine country to dry desert towns packed with charm, The Golden State promises a little something for everyone. Whether you’re seeking a quick weekend getaway, want to briefly venture off the main roads during a stint in a well-known California city, or are simply scoping out tiny towns across the United States worthy of spending an entire vacation, consider booking yourself a stay in one of these incredible small California towns. 


an outdoor balcony with a dining set and fire pit surrounded by trees at montage healdsburg
Courtesy of Montage Healdsburg

Calling foodies and winos. Sonoma and Napa are major destinations in California, but the smaller California town of Healdsburg rivals them both. Located in Sonoma county, charming Healdsburg is not only prime for wine sipping, but has established itself as one of the state’s most exciting culinary hotspots. 

Healdsburg is home to Michelin star-winners SingleThread and Charlie Palmer Collective, as well as J Vineyards & Winery, which recently established an innovative “Shifting the Lens” program to celebrate diverse chefs. 

Where to Stay: Montage Healdsburg


 ojai valley inn in ojai
Courtesy of Ojai Valley Inn

If you’ve been craving a getaway to the mountains, pencil in a trip to stunning Ojai in the heart of California and surrounded by the Topatopa Mountains. This eclectic tiny town has a bohemian spirit, promising tranquil vibes via nature’s beauty; experience spiritual solace at Meditation Mount or enjoy a hike through the incredible Matilija Canyon. It’s also buzzing with eclectic boutiques, art galleries, and farm-to-table eateries. 

Where to Stay: Ojai Valley Inn


If your heart is pining for an escape into the forested mountains, Idyllwild  might just sate your wanderlust. This small California town is located in the eastern part of the state — equidistant between Los Angeles and San Diego — among the pine-speckled San Jacinto Mountains. 

Idyllwild is known as an artistic haven, brimming with eclectic art galleries and quaint streets decorated with vibrant murals. The town also has some great food options; try Ferro for elevated Italian or Cafe Aroma for quick and tasty bites. And, of course, it’s an idyllic (pun intended) retreat for those seeking respite in the heart of Southern California’s captivating wilderness. 

Where to Stay: The Grand Idyllwild Lodge


carmel by the sea california
Image by Y S via Unsplash

Those craving a picture-perfect seaside getaway in a teeny town should look no further than dreamy Carmel-by-the-Sea. With its cobblestone streets, blooming gardens, and sparkling shoreline, this small California town is straight out of a fairytale. Book yourself a Wine Walk (wine-tasting tour), pop into art galleries featuring local and international artists, and stop off at one of the town’s many well-known eateries. 

While there, take an hour or two to explore the iconic 17-Mile Drive and take in dazzling vistas, sit under the sun on Carmel Beach, or get your heart rate up with a nature hike to nearby Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. 

Where to Stay: L’auberge Carmel


There’s something magical about the desert with its dry air, bristly cacti, and never ending sunshine. Pioneertown, located just outside of Joshua Tree National Park, sits in the state’s High Desert. It was founded in 1946, and has been dubbed a “living, breathing movie set” where golden actors Roy Rogers and Gene Autry literally filmed their classic westerns.  

Don’t miss the best BBQ in the desert (that’d be Pappy & Harriet’s), and make sure you swing by the storied Red Dog Saloon where Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger, were once regulars. 

Where to Stay: The Rimrock Ranch

Santa Barbara 

downtown santa barbara california
Image by Jackie Chou via Unsplash

With a population of just under 90,000, Santa Barbara is a “bigger small town” in California that packs a ton of culture and charm into its 42 square miles. This beachside destination boasts a year-round Mediterranean climate, and some of the most beautiful beaches in the state, including Butterfly Beach, East Beach, and Leadbetter Beach. 

It’s a college town — home to UC Santa Barbara — which spells a thriving nightlife and tons of eateries. Walk through the town’s La Arcada plaza and downtown to enjoy food, shopping, and Santa Barbara’s iconic ‘20s Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. 

Where to Stay: The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara, or Rosewood Miramar Beach

Half Moon Bay 

Set along California’s coast about 45 minutes south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay enchants with its wow-worthy coastal magic. Stroll along the historic, storybook-esque Main Street which is spotted with quaint shops, tasty restaurants, and easy cafes. Sam’s Chowder House is the place to go for ocean-fresh seafood or head to Pasta Moon for seasonal Italian.

The town is also home to expansive lavender flower fields that stretch from the foothills straight to the coastal bluffs, and you can embrace outdoor adventures via coastal hikes or horseback riding along the town’s pristine beaches. 

Where to Stay: The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay or Oceano Hotel Spa Half Moon Bay Harbor


Tucked into the mountains of San Diego County, Julian is a historic gem with a petite population of about 2,000. It is famous for two key things: its historical 19th-century architecture (which you can easily see on Main Street) and its thriving apple orchards, making it the perfect place to go for delectable apple pie or cider. You can also explore the town’s antique stores, visit its gold mine, or take a scenic drive through picturesque landscapes. It’s especially fun to visit during autumn, but Julian makes for a great year-round destination, too. 

Where to Stay: Orchard Hill or Julian Gold Rush Hotel

Tomales Bay  

tomales bay california
Image by Thomas Ciszewski via Unsplash

Home to just under 200 people, Tomales Bay is easily the smallest town on our list. Located about 40 miles north of San Francisco, this tiny hamlet within West Marin County offers a chill and simple getaway ripe with outdoor adventures, agricultural charm, and culinary experiences.  

Sign up for the Food & Farm Tour for a first-row seat to taste the area’s variety of local cheeses, oysters, and wine, and make sure to rent a nighttime kayak on Tomales Bay to see a lightshow shimmering bioluminescence in the water. Make sure to look up, too. Thanks to minimal light pollution and its tucked away location, Tomales Bay is prime for astro-tourism star peeping. 

Where to Stay: Lodge at Marconi or Nick’s Cove


If it’s nostalgia you’re after, look no further than the tiny California town of Cayucos, a hidden gem located on California’s central coast. It’s known for its laid back atmosphere, sweeping coastal views, and charming downtown center that’s brimming with a treasure trove of antique shops. 

Savor the catch of the day — and enjoy it al fresco under the warm sun with sparkling ocean views — at Schooners Wharf, dig your toes into the sandy beaches, or head to the Estero Bluffs for some hiking or water activities. 

Where to Stay: On The Beach Bed & Breakfast or Cayucos Shoreline Inn

Featured image by Brandon DesJarlais via Unsplash