The Most Beautiful Towns and Villages in California

The Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, one of the star attractions in the European-style town of Carmel
The Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, one of the star attractions in the European-style town of Carmel | © SiliconValleyStock / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Marcelina Morfin
27 May 2021

Exploring California? Then follow our list of the best places to visit, from coastal charmers to mountain beauties (with handy tips on the best places to stay, all bookable with Culture Trip).

When thinking of California, you may think of San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego, but the Golden State is also home to some smaller towns and villages that are equally picturesque, whether it’s the seaside town of Carmel or the epicenter of the Californian wine industry, Sonoma.

Avalon, Santa Catalina Island

Natural Feature
Map View
Avalon, California, USA - May 31, 2017: The boardwalk in Avalon (Santa Catalina Island) with shops on the left. People strolling around. W148DX
© Michael Rosebrock / Alamy

Avalon, on Santa Catalina Island, just might remind you of the Mediterranean, thanks to the lush vegetation, hillside homes and beautifully clear waters. The only incorporated city on the island, it was first developed into a resort town by George Shatto. Droves visit Avalon each year for the outdoor activities, small shops, art galleries, restaurants with incredible views of the water, and more. Thanks to the temperate climate year-round, it’s a great place to explore whether it’s June or December.

Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey County

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Exterior of the Carmel Mission, or Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo at Carmel by the Sea in California. 2AP61MH
© AlexGImagery / Alamy

Carmel-by-the-Sea, also known simply as Carmel, is a European-style town on the Monterey Peninsula popular with tourists. At just 680 acres (275ha), it’s a great area to explore by foot, whether you’re hiking down to the white beach or strolling along the streets to marvel at the charming architecture. The village also hosts a number of annual festivals, including the Carmel Bach Festival. A must-visit is the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission: a compound that comprises a basilica church, several small museums and beautiful grounds.

Looking to make a full trip out of it? Check out the best hotels in Monterey.

Dunsmuir, Siskiyou County

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Mossbrae Falls near Dunsmuir Siskiyou County California B0TDF3
© Gary Crabbe / Enlightened Images / Alamy

A historic railroad town in Northern California, Dunsmuir is a serene mountain retreat with a peaceful ambiance. The location makes it a prime destination for lovers of the outdoors; there are many adventures waiting for you, from fishing to hiking to mountain climbing. If you want a dose of history, the downtown district has buildings dating back to the early 20th century. It’s a lovely place to wander around, where you can discover boutiques and tasty treats. If you’re about during the summer, be sure to visit the Botanical Gardens for a colorful display of flora.

You won’t have to travel far if you want to sleep overnight – stay at the Travelodge.

Ferndale, Humboldt County

Historical Landmark
Map View
Victorian architecture home at Ferndale, California, USA.
© David R. Frazier Photolibrary, Inc. / Alamy

Ferndale is an agricultural Victorian community that 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 buildings that now house a variety of art galleries and specialty shops. If you want to explore nature, visit the nearby Lost Coast, a stunning section of coastline that’s been left the way nature intended. There’s also Russ Park, a closed-canopy Sitka spruce forest that acts as a bird sanctuary.

Julian, San Diego County

Natural Feature
Map View
Julian California San Diego county California
© John Crowe / Alamy

Founded after the Civil War by fortune seekers, Julian is a historic mining town in the Cuyamaca Mountains of Southern California. Today, the town is known for historic sites and orchards; locals apples are made into mouthwatering pies, ciders and other delicacies. To learn more about the history of Julian, stop by the Chamber of Commerce to pick up a History Hunt card, which will guide you to various places, including the Pioneer Cemetery and Julian Jail.

Plan on staying? Find out the best places to stay in San Diego.

Nevada City, Nevada County

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Sidewalk cafe on Commercial Street in the old gold mining town of Nevada City, Northern Gold Country, California, USA
© Ian Dagnall / Alamy

A California gold-rush town, Nevada City is brimming with both charm and history. Locals have been careful to preserve the Victorian buildings for visitors and future generations. Park the car and walk along the narrow streets to see the beautiful architecture up close, then discover the art, handmade jewelry, clothes, books and tantalizing cuisine. Many events take place throughout the year, including the Nevada City Classic bike race, First Friday Art Walks and Victorian Christmas.

Ojai, Ventura County

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Barts Corner Bookshop Ojai California USA
© Witold Skrypczak / Alamy

Located 90mi (145km) 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. Scenic backgrounds are provided by the Los Padres National Forest and 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. Also, Libbey Park hosts the Ojai Music Festival each year, and stunning vineyards.

The rooms and suites of the Valley Inn have the feel of a Spanish hacienda; find out our other favorite places to stay in Ojai.

St Helena, Napa County

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Greystone, Culinary Institute of America, St. Helena, Napa County, California 2BK3TA1
© Matthew Kiernan / Alamy

St Helena is surrounded by hilly vineyards. Not only is it a wine-lover’s paradise; it’s also the home of the Culinary Institute of America. There’s a historic, picturesque downtown with architectural gems housing a variety of boutiques, galleries and dining establishments. 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.

Fancy treating yourself with a boutique stay in Napa County? Check out our picks.

Solvang, Santa Ynez Valley

Natural Feature
Map View
Main Street and Windmill in Solvang, a City in Southern California's Santa Ynez Valley. City Has Known for its Traditional Danish Style Architecture
© Hanna Tor / Alamy

Solvang is a scenic Danish community in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country. With a name that translates to sunny field, this gem was founded in 1911 and hsa delightful architecture, including the Bethania Lutheran Church. Visit the Elverhøj Museum of History and Art and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum for more insight into this quaint village, or search through more than 150 shops for unique gifts and authentic treats. Solvang is also home to several restaurants and wine-tasting rooms, as well as many great hotels.

Sonoma, Sonoma Valley

Natural Feature, Winery
Map View
Sonoma Valley vineyard in Spring, California
© Terry Smith Images / Alamy
The birthplace of the Californian wine industry, Sonoma is surrounded by rolling hills lined with vineyards. It’s another great place to discover the local past, since it’s home to the last Spanish mission built in California, Mission San Francisco Solano, which was founded in 1823. Other areas of interest include the central plaza, which is home to unique shops, fine-dining establishments and incredible art – not to mention the wineries.

Be sure to browse the best hotels in Sonoma.
These recommendations were updated on May 27, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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