The 10 Most Beautiful Towns and Villages in California

The Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Carmel, California
The Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Carmel, California | © SiliconValleyStock / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Marcelina Morfin
29 November 2018

When thinking of California, you may think of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, but the Golden State is also home to some smaller towns and villages that are equally picturesque. Here’s a list of the top 10, from coastal charmers to mountain beauties.

Avalon, Santa Catalina Island

Avalon harbour | © Alun Reece / Alamy Stock Photo
Avalon Harbour | © Nik Wheeler / Alamy Stock Photo
Avalon Harbour | © Nik Wheeler / Alamy Stock Photo

Located on Catalina Island, which has a rich history that dates back thousands of years, Avalon will remind people of the Mediterranean with its lush vegetation, hillside homes and beautiful, clear waters. The only incorporated city on the island, Avalon was first developed into a resort town by George Shatto. More than a million people visit Avalon each year for its outdoor activities, small shops and art galleries on palm-lined streets, restaurants with incredible views of the water and much more. Featuring a temperate climate year-round, it is a great place to explore any time of the year.

Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey County

Beach views | © Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo
Church bell tower Mission San Carlos de Borromeo | © Witold Skrypczak / Alamy Stock Photo
Houses by the sea | © Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo

Carmel-by-the-Sea, also known simply as Carmel, is a European-style town on the Monterey Peninsula popular with tourists. Because of its size, it is a great area to explore by foot whether to hike down to the white, soft, sandy beach or stroll along the streets to marvel at the charming architecture. A must-visit for any Carmel guest is the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission – founded in 1771 by Father Junípero Serra – a compound that comprises a basilica church, several small museums and beautiful grounds. Home to many creative types over the years, the village also hosts a number of annual festivals, including the Carmel Bach Festival.

Dunsmuir, Siskiyou County

Brown Trout Café, Dunsmuir, California | © Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo
California Theatre, Dunsmuir | © Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo

A historic railroad town in Northern California, Dunsmuir – named after Alexander Dunsmuir, a coal baron from British Columbia – is a serene mountain retreat known for its peaceful ambience. Its location makes it a prime destination for lovers of the outdoors, as there are many adventures waiting to be had, from fishing to hiking to mountain climbing. For visitors who would rather take in the scenic beauty from a distance, the downtown historic district, with buildings dating back to the early 20th century, is a lovely place to wander around and discover boutiques and tasty treats. If visiting during the summer, be sure to visit the city’s Botanical Gardens for a colorful display of flora.

Ferndale, Humboldt County

Main Street, Ferndale, California | © Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo
Old truck at the pumkin patch, Ferndale | © JosefChristoferWalkerofNorCal / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo
Gingerbread Mansion | © Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo

A charming Victorian town nestled in between two redwood forests, Ferndale offers visitors the chance to step back in time. A dairy and agricultural community, the town blossomed in the late 19th century and is as charming today as it was back then. Take a leisurely walk along Main Street, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, to absorb the beauty of the colorful Victorian buildings that now house a variety of art galleries and specialty shops. Those wanting to explore nature will want to visit the nearby Lost Coast, a stunning section of coastline that has been left the way nature intended, or Russ Park, a closed-canopy Sitka-spruce forest that acts as a bird sanctuary.

Julian, San Diego County

Julian pie company | © California California / Alamy Stock Photo | Left
The Old Julian Garage | © Michael Robertson / Alamy Stock Photo
Eagle and High Peak Mine | © Stephen Saks Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Founded after the Civil War by fortune seekers, Julian is a historic mining town nestled among oak and pine forests in the Cuyamaca Mountains of Southern California. Today, the town is known for its historic sites and apple orchards, which produce sweet varieties that are in turn made into mouthwatering pies, ciders and other delicacies. From specialty stores to outdoor adventures, Julian has something for everyone. To learn more about the history of Julian, stop by the Julian Chamber of Commerce to pick up a History Hunt card, which will guide you to various places, including the Pioneer Cemetery and Julian Jail.

Nevada City, Nevada County

Nevada City | © Scott Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo

A California gold-rush town located in the Sierra Nevada’s western foothills, Nevada City, a historical landmark, is an idyllic town brimming with charm. Proud of their history, locals have been very careful to preserve the Victorian buildings for visitors and future generations. Park the car and walk along the narrow streets to see the beautiful buildings up close and discover art, handmade jewelry, clothes, books and tantalizing cuisine. Many events take place throughout the year as well, including the Nevada City Bicycle Classic, First Friday Art Walks and Victorian Christmas. Nevada City is also a popular destination for those seeking a base from which to explore the great outdoors.

Ojai, Ventura County

nik wheeler / Alamy Stock Photo
Ojai Valley | © Nina Andrews / Alamy Stock Photo
Ojai Valley | © Nik Wheeler / Alamy Stock Photo

Located 90 miles north of Los Angeles, Ojai is the perfect spot to escape hectic city life and enjoy a relaxing retreat. Settled in the 1800s, the town features wonderful Spanish Mission Revival architecture – as seen in the Arcade Plaza, which is filled with shops, restaurants and art – with scenic backgrounds provided by Los Padres National Forest and the Topatopa Mountains. An artsy town, Ojai is bursting with galleries and other arts and culture venues, including the Ojai Valley Museum and Ojai Art Center, along with other must-visit destinations such as Libbey Park, which hosts the famous Ojai Music Festival each year, and the area’s stunning vineyards.

St Helena, Napa County

St Helena Vineyard | © Nik Wheeler / Alamy Stock Photo
Grapes at St Helena Vineyard | © George Oze / Alamy Stock Photo
St Helena Vineyard | © Universal Images Group North America LLC / Alamy Stock

Known as Napa Valley’s Main Street, St Helena is a charming Californian town surrounded by beautiful, hilly vineyards. Known as a wine lover’s paradise, it is also the home of the Culinary Institute of America. The town features a historic, picturesque downtown with architectural gems housing a variety of boutiques, galleries and dining establishments sure to impress anyone. The terrain around St Helena also offers a plethora of activities from hiking to biking, making it an ideal destination for outdoor enthusiasts as well.

Solvang, Santa Ynez Valley

Horse drawn carriage, Solvang | © Shutterstock

Solvang is a scenic Danish community found in the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country. Located in the Santa Ynez Valley, this cultural gem, whose name means ‘sunny field’ in Danish, was settled in 1911 and boasts delightful architecture, including the Bethania Lutheran Church. Visit the Elverhøj Museum of History and Art and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum for more insight on the history of this quaint village, or search through over 150 shops for unique gifts and tasty authentic treats. Solvang is also home to several restaurants and wine-tasting rooms plus the historic Old Mission Santa Inés.

Sonoma, Sonoma Valley

Cannons outside of Holy Trinity St. Nicholas Chapel, Fort Ross State Historic Park, Sonoma County, California | © Jason O. Watson (USA: California photographs) / Alamy Stock Photo

Another wine-country gem, Sonoma is a pretty town in California planned around a central plaza and surrounded by rolling hills lined with vineyards – it is known as the birthplace of California’s wine industry. Home to the last Spanish mission built in California – Mission San Francisco Solano, erected in 1824, which is now part of the Sonoma State Historic Park – the town is another great place to discover California’s past. Other areas of interest include the aforementioned plaza, which is home to many unique shops, fine-dining establishments and incredible art, and the area’s famed wineries. There is something of interest here for everyone from history buffs to wine lovers.