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10 Most Overlooked Towns in California

by Staff

California is teeming with destinations worth visiting! From the picturesque beaches along the West Coast to the stunning peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the Golden State brims with charming tourist spots ready for exploration. However, certain places capture more attention than others, particularly the big cities with their glitz and glamor. While Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego attract millions of visitors each year, many under-the-radar towns across California remain overlooked and deserve more recognition.

Sausalito

Street view in Sausalito, California, via f11photo / Shutterstock.com

It’s easy to overlook Sausalito, especially when considering its proximity to the bustling city of San Francisco, which is only 25 minutes away. However, this small town in Marin County boasts a unique charm, stemming from its Bohemian spirit. Sausalito is renowned for its distinctive floating homes, constructed on Richardson Bay after World War II by artist squatters. Visitors can explore Waldo Point Harbor to see the town’s famous houseboats up close or enjoy a laid-back kayak excursion on the calm waters. One of the city’s most fascinating attractions is The Bay Model Visitor Center, which features a massive scale model of the San Francisco Bay and regional waterways, demonstrating water flows and tides.

For spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and surrounding landscapes, head to Battery Spencer scenic overlook. Perched on this historic 19th-century fort, visitors can enjoy expansive views of the bay. Outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate a stroll along Sausalito’s historic boardwalk, taking in the beautiful water vistas.

Ferndale

Street in Ferndale, California
Street in Ferndale, California, via mikluha_maklai / Shutterstock.com

Ferndale, affectionately nicknamed “Cream City” due to its once prosperous dairy industry, offers more than just a glimpse into its agricultural past. Surrounded by redwood forests, Ferndale provides an ideal escape for outdoor enthusiasts. Hikers can explore scenic trails winding through Russ Park, with opportunities to observe diverse bird species thriving in the dense woodland. Families will enjoy live entertainment at the Ferndale Repertory Theater, which stages musicals, plays, concerts, and comedic acts.

For a bit of history, the Ferndale Museum presents a vast collection of artifacts documenting the area’s colorful past, intertwined with the California Gold Rush era. Additionally, many tourists are drawn to the breathtaking Fernbridge, which spans 1,320 feet across the Eel River, offering a remarkable photo opportunity.

San Simeon

Pacific Ocean view from Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California.
Pacific Ocean view from Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. Editorial credit: Evan Meyer / Shutterstock.com

While beachgoers flock to famous destinations like Laguna Beach and Cayucos, the modest coastal gem of San Simeon in San Luis Obispo County remains largely untouched. Home to fewer than 1,000 residents, San Simeon offers the perfect escape from the crowds, with pristine sandy beaches for leisurely strolls and picturesque water vistas enjoyed without the hustle and bustle. William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach serves as a popular recreation hub in the town, inviting hikers, swimmers, anglers, and sunbathers to enjoy the beauty of nature. The outdoors in San Simeon beckon, and an easy trek to Elephant Seal Vista Point rewards visitors with up-close encounters with a charming seal colony, observed in their natural breeding and birthing activities.

For those inclined to indoor attractions, the historic Hearst Castle is a must-see. Built in the early 1900s by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, this magnificent estate captivates with its intricately designed interior. Visitors can discover the Hearst Castle Theater within the castle, where a short film about the history of this grand venue is shown on a 5-story screen.

Cambria

Downtown Main St. West End in Cambria, California
Downtown Main St. West End in Cambria, California, via randy andy / Shutterstock.com

Cambria may not frequently come up in conversations about California destinations, but travelers who venture to this charming seaside village are often impressed by its relaxed beach atmosphere, quaint art galleries, and vibrant food scene. The sublime Fiscalini Ranch Preserve highlights Cambria’s stunning natural scenery. Here, visitors can find gentle walking trails winding through lush pine forests and along scenic oceanside bluffs. Cambria Nursery and Florist offers a family-friendly environment with a beautiful selection of plants, a gift shop, and garden decor, ideal for those with children.

Beyond its picturesque landscapes, Cambria is celebrated for fostering a strong sense of community through its festivals and events, such as the highly anticipated Cambria Wine & Art Festival. This event offers an excellent opportunity to indulge in delicious food, refreshing wine, and exceptional art within a lively atmosphere. For those unable to attend the festival, the local cuisine can still be enjoyed at places like Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill.

Half Moon Bay

Street view in Half Moon Bay, California
Street view in Half Moon Bay, California

Although not as well-known as its neighbor San Francisco, Half Moon Bay provides an idyllic Pacific Coast setting for a relaxing getaway. Situated just south of the big city, this coastal haven is renowned for its pristine beaches, including Half Moon State Beach, Poplar Beach, and Miramar Beach. These locations offer outdoor enthusiasts a chance to immerse themselves in nature’s splendor, with activities such as swimming, surfing, hiking, and horseback riding. Inland, Lemos Farm offers pure fun for all ages, with attractions like pony rides, a petting zoo, and train rides.

The town’s dining scene thrives with a variety of restaurants serving a mix of local and international flavors. Pasta Moon, for example, provides an upscale dining experience where guests can enjoy fresh pasta and seafood dishes. Additionally, the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company is a great spot to sample refreshing local craft brews.

Solvang

Solvang is a City in Santa Barbara County, California
Solvang is a City in Santa Barbara County, California

Solvang’s enchanting old-world Danish charm ranks it among the best towns in California for tourists seeking a culturally enriching experience. Situated in the Santa Ynez Valley, this quaint community celebrates its European heritage through distinctive architecture, traditional cuisine, and cultural institutions. The Elverhoj Museum of History & Art displays cultural artifacts that illuminate the town’s Nordic heritage. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum pays tribute to the celebrated author by showcasing various aspects of his legacy.

History enthusiasts will enjoy exploring local stories from the early 19th century at Old Mission Santa Ines, one of California’s most enduring historical landmarks from that era. Moreover, Sunny Fields Park offers outdoor enjoyment for families, with amenities such as play areas, picnic sites, and barbecue pits.

Julian

Historic old town of Julian, California.
Historic old town of Julian, California.

An outdoor adventurer’s paradise, Julian draws visitors with its picturesque alpine charm and a wealth of hiking opportunities set against its old western backdrop. Nestled in San Diego County, this town offers numerous natural escapes for full immersion in the surrounding wilderness. The expansive Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve boasts a vast network of isolated trails winding through dense woodlands and hidden meadows. Nearby, William Heise County Park provides additional recreational activities with its hiking trails, camping sites, and scenic picnic areas.

No visit to Julian is complete without exploring the town’s thriving wine scene. Home to locally-owned wineries, outdoor enthusiasts can enhance their adventures with tastings directly from the source, including at establishments like Menghini Winery, the county’s second-oldest winery.

Solana Beach

Aerial view of Solana Beach in San Diego County, California.
Aerial view of Solana Beach in San Diego County, California.

For those seeking a seaside retreat far from urban hustle and bustle, Solana Beach offers a laid-back coastal atmosphere with beautiful scenery. The town is ripe for exploration, thanks to numerous trails that crisscross the area. Fletcher Cove Beach Park, an excellent destination for hikers, features secluded paths along the picturesque shore and offers family-friendly amenities, including a playground and basketball courts, under the watchful eyes of lifeguards.

The walkable downtown area buzzes with arts and culture, showcased through various art venues. Theater lovers can enjoy compelling live performances at North Coast Repertory Theater, while music enthusiasts groove to live tunes at the eclectic Belly Up Tavern. The vibrant Solana Beach Farmers Market is also a great place to mingle with locals and immerse in the local culture.

Los Gatos

Vasona Park is a park located in Los Gatos, California
Vasona Park is a park located in Los Gatos, California

Los Gatos enchants with its serene natural beauty, set against the backdrop of the Santa Cruz Mountains. This tranquil town in Santa Clara County invites outdoor enthusiasts to explore, starting with the 5,000 acres of Castle Rock State Park. With nearly 35 miles of trails, adventurers will find stunning landscapes and breathtaking views of the Santa Clara Valley. For those interested in aquatic activities, Vasona Lake County Park offers peaceful picnic spots by the water.

Apart from its captivating outdoor attractions, history enthusiasts will enjoy the New Museum Los Gatos, which explores the area’s history through a diverse collection of artifacts. Wine aficionados can also delight in tasting award-winning local wines at venues like Regale Vineyards & Winery.

Idyllwild

The quaint town of Idyllwild, California
The quaint town of Idyllwild, California. Image credit: APK, via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite its modest size, Idyllwild offers a surprising array of attractions that rival those of more well-known destinations. This picturesque alpine town in the San Jacinto Mountains wins over visitors with its natural splendor and cultural offerings. Mount San Jacinto State Park, covering over 13,000 acres of wilderness, provides ample opportunities for hiking, camping, bird watching, and even hunting.

Those interested in the town’s history can delve into its past at the Idyllwild Area Historical Society, which houses a comprehensive archive collection. Culinary enthusiasts should not miss Café Aroma for delicious American cuisine, complemented by refreshing craft beer from the Idyllwild Brewpub.

Final Thoughts

When planning a California travel itinerary, it’s crucial not to limit your focus to major cities like Los Angeles and overlook the hidden gems in the state’s more rural areas. These small towns offer unique experiences that are often missed in metropolitan settings. The towns highlighted here represent just a fraction of the underrated gems scattered throughout California. While they may lack the glamour of urban centers, the true spirit and diversity of the Golden State are best discovered by venturing beyond the main highways and into these worthy yet underrated towns.

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