Carmel-By-The-Sea and More! The Best Small California Towns to Visit

If you've never explored some of the charming, small towns in California, you're missing out.

Sure, a big city can be exciting and full of new adventures, but small towns are hidden gems. They give a sense of history, community, and uniqueness that you can discover. Just look at Carmel-by-the-Sea, a charming town in the Monterey peninsula. This quaint little village is full of fairytale-like magic and history.

If you've never traveled to California before, consider weaving small towns into a road trip itinerary so you get a cross-section of the state. Or, if you've been here a bunch, think about doing a trip where you set up in a small town and just relax. From North To South, here are some of the best small towns to visit in California:

Cliffside Mendocino California

Must-Visits Small Towns In California 

Vineyards and Eccentrics: Mendocino

In the heart of the "Lost Coast" — a stretch of Northern California coast that weaves through Mendocino and Humboldt counties, you'll find Mendocino. This small but vibrant town proclaims itself as a haven for mavericks, misfits, and makers so you'll be sure to meet some interesting characters here.

With over 90 miles of coastal beaches, you'll need to dedicate at least one day to swimming and lounging in the sun. After that, explore Montgomery Woods and revel in the majestic nature of the Redwoods and the Mendocino and Headlands Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Taste some unique wines on the Coro Mendocino Wine Trail and enjoy French food at historic Cafe Beaujolais. If you love quality rosé, visit Roederer Estate. They're known for their sparkling wines!

And, of course, Mendocino is smackdab in the Emerald Triangle — a region of Northern California known as being the biggest cannabis-producing region in the United States — so you'll come across plenty of cannabis culture. 

Luxury Wine Experience: St. Helena

When we say Napa, you think wine, right? St. Helena is located in the famous, wine-producing Napa Valley. But this isn't your typical wine tasting experience.

St. Helena is an upscale and luxurious wine destination. For those who want the most luxe amenities, book a room at ALiLa Napa Valley. Also, don't miss a visit to Beringer Vineyards. Located on historic Main Street, Beringer provides an exquisite mix of high-quality wine and Victorian architecture.

Farm-To-Table Wine-Tasting: Sonoma

Sonoma is synonymous with wine. If you're a wine-lover, we're sure it's already on your bucket list. With over 500 wineries to choose from, everyone can find something they love here.

A short, one-hour drive from the Bay Area, Sonoma is a perfect day trip. But you'll inevitably fall in love and want to stay here longer! The rolling hills, majestic redwoods, and gorgeous coastline will have nature lovers over the moon.

And foodies, rejoice! Sonoma is a food lover's paradise with tons of vegetarian and vegan options. But some of the best restaurants in Sonoma are farm-to-table. 

Truckee California Donner Lake Winter

Historic Lake Tahoe: Truckee

Looking for where to stay on Lake Tahoe? Truckee is an adorable, small town with rich history tucked between Lake Tahoe, the Tahoe National Forest, and the Truckee River.

Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountains, Truckee has outdoor activities for the whole family. Do a hike at Donner Memorial State Park and get your blood flowing. Or try whitewater rafting and kayaking at Truckee River.

Avid skiers, as well as beginners, will find everything they're looking for in Truckee. With over seven ski resorts within an hour's drive, this tiny mountain town is a great jumping-off spot for skiers. Some of the best resorts are the closest by, including Palisades TahoeNorthstar California Resort, and Sugar Bowl, home to the first chair lift in California. 

For food, locals head to Best Pies Pizzeria for classic slices, calzones, and pasta. Brew lovers need to check out Fifty Fifty Brewing Co. A winner of the Great American Beer Festival, this craft micro-brewery offers lots of fabulous options!

For Fairytale Village Vibes: Carmel-By-The-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a magical little town on the Monterey Peninsula set just south of Pebble Beach. You won't be able to stop snapping photos for your Insta feed because of fairy-like cottages and stunning ocean views.

Dotted with wine tasting rooms, independent restaurants, and art galleries, there is a lot to explore. Head here for our pick of local restaurants to try from Italian food to a chic California-style steakhouse.

Carmel is also home to history with the famous Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo or the Carmel Mission. Built in 1770 and carefully restored in the 1940s, the Mission is a prominent part of the city. Visit in October when they host Taste of Carmel, a bohemian harvest celebration.

Cambria California Moonstone Beach

Chill Beach Scene: Cambria

But, beyond Carmel and Santa Barbara, California is home to many a relaxing little seaside town. Take, for example, Cambria, which is full of adorable artisanal shops and cafes, surrounded by beautiful beaches. Get a massage, go horseback riding, and take in the stunning sunset.

For something truly unique, book an experience with Cayucos Picnic Company. They provide luxury picnic events for all occasions. Imagine gauzy white linens, candles, and macrame pillows on the beach. And, a visit to Cambria wouldn't be complete without a stop in the nearby Paso Robles wine region. You'll find over 200 wineries here for your wine-tasting needs. Make a trip out of Cambria and Paso Robles or stop through there while driving California Highway 1

Parks and Culture: Los Alamos

Set in Central California between the Santa Ynez Valley and San Luis Obispo, it could be easy to drive right past Los Alamos. But then you've been missing out on one of the quaintest hidden gems on the California Central Coast. 

This historic town has the nickname "Lost Almost" because people used to mistakenly stumble upon it while on the way to Paso Robless. But these days it's known as a center of hip, creative culture in this corner of California. From the modern motels to well-curated antique stores and tasting rooms, there is a lot to see in this town with just 2,000 permanent residents.

For breakfast, head to Bob's Well Bread Bakery. Although you might find a very long lineup queuing for brunch, the almond croissants are worth it. and be sure to stop by Bell's, which serves Franch (aka French + Ranch) food.

Artsy Vibes: Ojai

Ojai is a gorgeous creative haven framed by stunning mountains. Be sure to check out the Ojai Art Center and Valley Museum to get a dose of culture.

Love festivals? Ojai is the perfect place to visit. Check out the Storytelling Festival and Art in the Park to nurture your creative side. For nature lovers, the Ojai Lavender Festival is a must-do! Or head there in June, when the famous Ojai Music Festival fills the night with melodies.

If you want to sample Ojai's local specialty, visit Friends' Ranches to try the famous Pixie tangerines. Or book the Eating Ojai food tour, where you'll get to try local artisanal products.

Pioneertown California

Time Travel: Pioneertown

Tired of modern city life and want to step back in time? Pioneertown is an 1880s-themed community that'll impress history buffs and movie lovers. Some of the most famous Westerns were filmed in this little town between Joshua Tree and Rim Rock.

Head to Mane Street to check out all the excitement. This famous promenade is full of vintage shops, restaurants, and fake Western storefronts. Keep your eyes open for a gunfight on summer weekends. And head to renowned Pappie + Harriet's for live music and BBQ. 

After you work up an appetite exploring this historic gem, head to Pioneertown Pantry. There, you'll be able to pick up soup mixes, bread starters, and preserves so you can eat just like the cowboys did. Do yourself a favor and grab a jar of their famous Yucca Valley honey.

Oceanside California Pier

True SoCal Vibes: Oceanside

O'side, as locals call it, is the movie version of Southern California. Quaint neighborhoods filled with bungalows, a historic pier, and long stretches of beaches set the scene.

Learn about surf culture at the California Surf Museum and then hop on your own board down at the beach. Check out the lighthouse and look for vintage cars downtown.

Oceanside's proximity to San Diego makes it the perfect base for exploring Hops Highway. Beer lovers need to travel this holy grail road of breweries, pubs, and taprooms!

Weekend in the Mountains: Julian

Set in the beautiful Cuyamaca Mountains, Julian has that quintessential small-town feeling. Friendly locals, family-friendly events, and historic vibes are everywhere.

Love camping? Julian is the place to do it! Pitch your tent in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and go exploring. This gorgeous park is perfect for bird-watchers and nature lovers alike. If you want something a bit more rustic, historic, and a little luxurious, rent the Big Cat Cabin. It's a beautifully restored 1929 Craftsman cabin on a whole lot of forest land. You'll be able to hide from the world in this secluded paradise.

Before heading to your next stop, you need to try Julian's famous apple pie! With tons of apple orchards in the area, you'll want to grab a basket and pick some yourself as well. Buy a copy of the official Julian Apple Cookbook to recreate it at home.

Head Out on the Open Road!

Now that you know where to stay, what to eat, and how to have some fun, it's time to start planning. The best part of a road trip is getting out on the highway, wind in your hair, feeling excited for what's to come. 

Not a planner? No worries, we've got your back. Check out our California travel planning service. 

More California Getaways On Salt & Wind Travel

Photo Credit: Mendocino by Thomas Barrat; Truckee by hkalkan; Oceanside by Jon Bilous; Pioneertown by Flystock; all other photos by Christopher Kalima