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13 Small Towns in California to Visit for a Weekend Getaway

by Staff

In California, from tamed to rugged oceanic landscapes and beaches with golden to sugary white sands, the scenery is diverse and inward-looking. With stunning coastal redwoods, wine country, and the Sierra Mountains, California might seem overwhelming for a weekend getaway, but the small town scene is manageable!

Experience local hospitality and unique attractions like the world-famous Victorian architecture in Eureka, the heart of the U.S. Redwood Coast, or the vibrant Carmel by the Sea. The Europe-tinged Santa Ynez Valley, also in the wine country and more affordable than Napa, is a must-visit while in Sonoma.

Arcata

Arcata Plaza in California, By Jss3255 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, File:Arcata McKinley Statue Wide.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

Arcata, a quiet beachside town in the summer, transforms with a lively student atmosphere amid beautiful redwood forests. It’s where scenes from the movie “Jurassic Park” were filmed! Enjoy outdoor activities under the sun, such as kayaking, canoeing, or boating at the family-friendly Mad River Beach County Park. Just a half-hour drive north through the towering redwoods, Fern Canyon offers trails, climbing, and open spaces for outdoor recreation, picnics, and photoshoots in a serene environment.

The Arcata Farmers’ Market offers a selection of local produce, perfect for a family outing. The Humboldt State University Natural History Museum provides kid-friendly adventures and educational programs. In the evenings, the historic Arcata Theater Lounge shows classics and new releases. For accommodation, the top-rated Hampton Inn & Suites is ideal for couples and families, and the Blue Lake Casino Hotel, near Essex’s Murphy’s Markets, offers convenient access to the town and Arcata Community Forest.

Carmel by the Sea

Carmel, California: shopping on main street with luxurious boutiques all around
Carmel, California: shopping on main street with luxurious boutiques all around, via oliverdelahaye / Shutterstock.com

Carmel by the Sea, within a one-square-mile area, boasts a rich architectural history and over 80 art galleries like Galerie Plein Aire and Winfield Gallery. The 18th-century Carmel Mission, second-established along El Camino Real Highway 101, showcases stunning Spanish architecture. Carmel is a must-visit, especially for fans of HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” Known for its attractive storefronts and world-class waterfront dining, this small beach town in Monterey County appeals to more than just shopaholics.

Stroll the pine-shaded streets lined with Tudor Revival, Spanish Revival, and Arts-and-Crafts architecture. Stay in style at the Normandy Inn, with its pool and European flair. Nearby Carmel Valley offers upscale experiences at Bernardus Lodge & Spa and alfresco dining at Lucia Restaurant & Bar. Chez Noir serves French- and Spanish-inspired dishes with seasonal, local ingredients, and Aubergine, the city’s Michelin-starred restaurant since 2019, is led by Justin Cogley.

Carpinteria

Rods and Roses classic holiday car show in Carpinteria, California
Rods and Roses classic holiday car show in Carpinteria, California, via L Paul Mann / Shutterstock.com

This lesser-known town, nestled in the southern Pacific and overshadowed by nearby Santa Barbara, boasts both city and state beaches along its coastline. Linden Avenue leads directly to Carpinteria City Beach, while Carpinteria State Beach Park is conveniently located near Palm Avenue. Rincon Beach Park, accessible via Bates Road, offers a range of amenities, including playgrounds, picnic areas, and trails through a unique salt marsh. Historically home to the Chumash tribe, who crafted canoes sealed with natural tar on these beaches, the area’s rich history is still evident in tree markings and the town’s array of shops, arts, and crafts.

Easy to access in Central California, Carpinteria offers a laid-back atmosphere with charming beaches, making it an ideal spot for living, playing, and working away from the crowds. Its stunning mountain views and vibrant downtown elevate it to a coveted escape. Enjoy a relaxing or active getaway along its sandy shores—perfect for walks, surfing, and lounging next to seals, especially in the spring. The Sandyland Reef Inn, surrounded by flowers and greenery, offers a home-like ambiance for visitors.

Coronado

Sunset on Coronado Island Beach, California
Sunset on Coronado Island Beach, California

Why settle for city life when Coronado offers paradise all year round? With winter temperatures averaging around 70 degrees through February, outdoor activities and seasonal celebrations are always within reach. From surfing and jet skiing to exploring Victorian homes, quaint boutiques, and manicured gardens, the town’s picturesque coastline and golden beaches provide a sensory retreat. Seasonal activities include The Del’s cookie decorating, the beachside annual Jingle Roast with s’mores, oceanfront ice skating, beachside yoga, and Polar Bear Tea for kids.

Coronado is a must-visit SoCal destination at any time of the year. Don’t miss playing a round at the Coronado Municipal Golf Course with its stunning San Diego Bay views. The town is easily accessible from San Diego via one of the state’s most beautiful bridges, offering Instagram-worthy views from Point Loma and opportunities to spot dolphins and sea lions. Consider a day trip to San Diego Zoo, a stroll through Balboa Park, and then return to relax at the historic Hotel del Coronado on this sun-drenched barrier island.

Eureka

Historic buildings in Eureka, California
Historic buildings in Eureka, California

Eureka, home to 26,500 people and known as the heart of the US Redwood Coast, is the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland. It’s replete with amenities, making it an ideal stopover and starting point for exploring the Pacific Northwest. Eureka, surrounded by the nationally protected world’s tallest redwoods, the “redwood curtain,” is designated as a California Cultural District City. It boasts unique Victorian architecture, a vibrant creative culture, and thriving small businesses. The town features one-of-a-kind shops, delightful restaurants, artisans, larger-than-life murals, and a variety of exciting events, including fine and performing arts in the evening. For a tranquil experience, serene hiking and biking trails through the Redwoods are just minutes away within the city limits.

Be sure to explore the 6-mile Eureka Waterfront Trail, which offers wildlife viewing and waterside recreation along Humboldt Bay. The in-city Sequoia Park and the Redwood SkyWalk, suspended 100 feet above ground, provide a bird’s-eye view of the towering trees over Sequoia Park Zoo. Just outside the city, the 25-mile Lost Coast Trail offers stunning hikes around pristine beaches and serene tidepools, home to sea lions, bobcats, and deer. For an alternative, bike through Sequoia Park Garden or take a scenic drive along the Redwood Highway on rainy days. After your adventures, indulge in Eureka’s food, drink, and cannabis scene before retiring to iconic lodgings like the Humboldt Bay Social Club.

Goleta

Beach side in Goleta, California
Beach side in Goleta, California

Goleta, nestled along the hills and scented with abundant lemon trees, is a charming town just off Highway 101. Known as “The Good Land,” Goleta offers an authentic and local experience of Santa Barbara County, ideal for a weekend getaway or longer stay. Easily accessible via Amtrak Goleta or a short drive, the town is home to three major shopping centers, hotels for every preference, and an impressive collection of brand-name stores, alongside unique local retailers and multiple farmers markets.

Nature is never far away in Goleta. Start your day with a coffee stroll through Calle Real Shopping Center, lounge along the ten-mile stretch of Central Californian beauty, or enjoy refreshing brews at Hollister Brewing Co. The next morning, head out from Camino Marketplace and launch a paddleboard off Goleta Beach for close encounters with dolphins and sea lions. Alternatively, explore the Ellwood Mesa’s network of trails along the coastal bluff. Don’t miss the beautiful, 78-acre eucalyptus Monarch Butterfly Grove. After your adventures, relax and recoup at your favorite brewery or another cozy spot in town.

Guerneville

Johnson's Beach, Guerneville, California, on the Russian River
Johnson’s Beach, Guerneville, California, on the Russian River

Guerneville, once a quiet forested retreat along the winding Russian River amidst majestic redwoods, exemplifies the West Coast vibe. Located just 90 miles north of San Francisco and home to fewer than 5,000 people, Guerneville offers the best of Sonoma with cutting-edge dining, wineries, and adventures. The eco-chic Boon hotel + spa, under the direction of chef-entrepreneur Crista Luedtke, a Triple Grand Champion on Guy Fieri’s Grocery Games, is a must-visit. Luedtke also oversees the farm-to-table bistro Boon Eat + Drink, the modern Mexican cantina El Barrio, and the Big Bottom Market, known for Oprah’s favorite biscuits. Additionally, Brot, a modern Bavarian beer hall, is not to be missed. The town’s blend of unique taverns and art galleries creates a welcoming atmosphere for modern drag queens and alternative lifestyle enthusiasts, earning it the nickname “the Gay Riviera.”

The romantic Mission Revival-style Applewood Inn features a firelit restaurant with an impressive wine list. For a unique experience, consider staying at Highlands Resort or Autocamp along the river, offering a blend of nature and retro chic. Explore the forest-bathing canopy of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve or the foggy trails of Austin Creek State Recreation Area. Johnson’s Beach, beneath the entryway bridge, offers water vessels and lounging equipment for a relaxing day. Alternatively, canoe down the gentle Russian River. Luke Bass’ Porter-Bass Winery, known for its certified biodynamic vintages, is a delightful spot to visit, complete with heritage chickens and adorable dogs.

Mendocino

Victorian-style houses in Mendocino, California during winter
Victorian-style houses in Mendocino, California during winter, via cdrin / Shutterstock.com

While Southern California attracts beachgoers, Northern California’s Mendocino County offers a unique, wine-drenched getaway. Tucked along the rugged Pacific coastline, Mendocino provides the ideal setting for a restorative retreat focused on well-being and soulful living. Enjoy quiet, misty morning strolls along the shore or romantic dinners with ocean views. Known for its coastal redwoods, Mendocino offers tours featuring strolling musicians at Mendocino Headlands State Park, extending to Big River Beach, where the signature coastal fog adds to the area’s mystique.

Mendocino is the perfect city escape for those seeking simplicity and a return to basic pleasures, with no chain stores in sight. The town’s historic buildings, local crafts, and art-decorated streets offer a glimpse into a bygone era. Explore the shores teeming with iridescent jellyfish and sailing ships, or relax at the elegant MacCallum House Inn. The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens provide a serene backdrop for a leisurely stroll. With skygazing opportunities and “babbling” brooks reflecting the wild coast, Mendocino offers a deeply reflective experience, further enhanced by locally grown, award-winning cannabis for those inclined.

Ojai

Street view of Post Office in Ojai, California
Street view of Post Office in Ojai, California

Located just two hours north of bustling Los Angeles, Ojai offers a serene escape, a world apart from the hustle of the major metropolis. With a population of just over 7,500, this intimate town is deeply connected to nature, reflecting this bond in its local art, aesthetic gardens, and landscaping. Find your own source of inspiration through treks in wildlife preserves, waterfalls, and hiking trails. Ojai is known for its uncrowded and spiritual atmosphere, ideal for those seeking healing or meditation at various centers, spas, and stays, such as the authentically designed Blue Iguana Inn.

The town, nestled in a desert environment, boasts mineral springs along the Matilija River in Los Padres National Forest, a trendy spot especially after hiking trails like Rose Valley Falls. Book lovers will enjoy Bart’s Books, the world’s largest outdoor bookstore, housing over 130,000 used and new titles. Casa Barranca Tasting Room offers award-winning organic wines, perfect for a leisurely sip, while the Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market provides fresh ingredients for impromptu picnics. Art enthusiasts should not miss the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, known for its eccentric collection and picturesque setting.

Paso Robles

Downtown Paso Robles at sunset, Central California
Downtown Paso Robles at sunset, Central California

Strategically located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along coastal Highway 1 and the 101, Paso Robles is steeped in history. This dynamic town, set among rolling hills and celebrated wineries, showcases its character, reflecting the diverse passions of its community since its pioneering days. Many travelers stop here during scenic drives for the ultimate beach experience and find themselves staying for the Michelin-starred cuisine, outdoor adventures, and the unique blend of cowboy and innovator spirit. The town’s rich agriculture, a collaboration of local effort and nature, offers indulgence in restaurants, stunning views, and unique outdoor activities.

Whether your interest lies in world-class food, wine, or art, Paso Robles delivers authenticity in all experiences. Explore craft breweries, artisan distilleries, and the impressive Studios on the Park. Take a selfie against the Paso Robles mural wall and visit the world-famous Hearst Castle. The great outdoors beckon for horseback riding, like with Central Coast Trailrides through vineyards, or head to Lake Nacimiento for boating and fishing. Adventure seekers can enjoy ziplining at Castoro Cellars or playing a round of golf. With 40,000 acres of vineyards, there’s plenty to explore for each of the town’s 37,000 residents and visitors alike!

Sausalito

Colorful wooden house boats reflected into the still water of Richardson Bay in Sausalito, California.
Colorful wooden house boats reflected into the still water of Richardson Bay in Sausalito, California.

Sausalito, known for its Mediterranean ambiance, feels like a different world, yet it’s only a short, scenic drive north of downtown San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge. With a population of around 7,000, Sausalito offers a peaceful setting with stunning views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, San Francisco’s skyline, and Alcatraz. It’s an ideal destination for those seeking relaxation and enjoyment, including gourmands, art lovers, and wine connoisseurs.

Explore a range of dining options from Sushi Ran to Bar Bocce, Copita, and Poggio. Enjoy a leisurely walk through Scrimshaw and Daniel Merriam’s Bubble Street Galleries, or along Liberty Dock, admiring the mural-adorned floating homes. The 3.4-mile Tennessee Valley Trail, suitable for families and even horseback riding, winds through a bird habitat. This bohemian houseboat community, where Otis Redding famously wrote “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” offers a unique experience. Enjoy spectacular views from a ferry of this eucalyptus-scented corner of Marin County. With its idyllic waterfront promenade, Sausalito offers a chance to live the European lifestyle for a weekend, whether on a houseboat in Richardson Bay or at the stylish Hotel Sausalito & Suites.

Solvang

Street view of Solvang, California in December
Street view of Solvang, California in December, via HannaTor / Shutterstock.com

Solvang, nestled in the sun-soaked Santa Ynez Valley, has been a tourist hotspot since 1947. This “Danish Capital of America” showcases charming half-timbered homes and statues reminiscent of Denmark’s waterfront capital. Visitors can explore the town via the Solvang Trolley, browse through unique boutiques, and enjoy quirky entertainment. The town’s dedication to its Scandinavian roots is evident in traditional crafts, vibrant festivals, and the golden backdrop of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Blending the best of California and European styles, Solvang is the perfect place to spend a weekend immersed in Danish culture under the California sun. Stroll along Copenhagen Drive for authentic experiences, including cozy bakeries serving Aebleskiver and other Danish treats. The local hospitality and picturesque sights, such as windmills, add to the charm. Just a 45-minute drive north of Santa Barbara, this Danish microcosm with West Coast weather invites visitors to stay in cozy places like Hotel Corque, conveniently located near the highly-rated Elverhøj Museum of History & Art.

Sonoma

Famous and historic Sebastiani Theater and Building in downtown Sonoma, California
Famous and historic Sebastiani Theater and Building in downtown Sonoma, California. via Lynn Watson / Shutterstock.com 

Sonoma is not only synonymous with California wines; it is also the birthplace of the wine-making industry on the West Coast. Nestled just west of Napa, this town, situated between the moody Pacific and the verdant Mayacamas Mountains, is more charming, laid-back, and affordable than its famous neighbor. With over 400 wineries in the surrounding valley, choices for a wine getaway are abundant, but the crème de la crème of wineries is within easy reach. Recognized as one of the world’s premier wine regions, Sonoma, just an hour north of San Francisco, offers more than just wine.

This former Spanish mission village, rich in colonial heritage, features winding streets and diverse architecture converging on a leafy, eight-acre central plaza. The surrounding square is dotted with restaurants, shops, and over 20 tasting rooms – perfect for relaxing and soaking in the ambiance. From Buena Vista Winery to the family-owned Iron Horse Vineyards, visitors can stock up on fine wines and explore the California Cheese Trail for the perfect savory pairing. Take a cheese-making class at Sonoma’s historic Vella Cheese, and enjoy top-notch dining or dessert back at Sonoma Plaza before concluding your visit.

California Adventures

California offers diverse landscapes, from the coastline and lowlands to the Sierra Nevada, catering to every taste. Consider an escape to Coronado, where January consistently boasts sunny weather, and experience the beautiful beaches of Southern California. Every getaway in California is unique, with no need for repeated experiences, unless desired, and the only blues you’ll encounter are the varying shades of the Pacific Ocean.

Even a short weekend trip can cover significant ground. Visit the San Diego Zoo from Coronado, easily accessible across the spectacular Coronado Bridge, or explore Santa Barbara from Goleta. While in Sonoma or Solvang, you can savor the best of the Santa Ynez Valley, but in Solvang, you might find yourself too immersed in Danish culture to venture far!

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