Renowned for beautiful beaches, hub cities, and world-sought attractions, Southern California is also endlessly beautiful, so the experience is like candy in a pretty wrapper with layers of flavors to get through! Its hidden gems, the small towns, offer relaxed vibes while discovering the state’s deep roots and connections to the nation’s early beginnings.
Solvang remembers the most remarkable storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen, in the wine-drenched Santa Ynez Valley. At the same time, another town at the heart of the valley is largely unchanged along its 1800s buildings with an Old West vibe. Ojai’s aesthetics veil a dark past, while Hermosa Beach, the first beautiful town on the list, was not always as pleasant as it is now along its white sand dunes! For travelers headed west, these Southern Californian towns have rich cultural heritages waiting to be explored.
Hermosa, or “beautiful” in Spanish, is a breathtaking beach town with under 20,000 residents. Featuring nearly two miles of ocean frontage and 94 acres of public beaches, City Beach faces Santa Monica Bay and King Harbor. Offering rich heritage in plain sight, visitors can enjoy strolls along the high and beautiful historic Hermosa Beach Pier in the warm sunset glow reflecting off the darkening waters and grand, palm-lined Boulevard, Pier Ave., behind. Among colorful buildings, the Lighthouse Cafe is a great place to mingle with locals along the sands, which were not always so pleasant. Part of the 1784 Rancho San Pedro Spanish land and the 10-mile ocean frontage of Rancho Sausal Redondo, with sweeping ocean views to one side and rolling grain fields on the other, the town thrived with agriculture and sheep ranching.
Named only in 1900, the frontage of primarily white dunes with harsh winds was pretty miserable for the early pioneers. Only after 500,000 feet of installed Oregon pine along most of the strand and cemented by 1914 did the wooden pier extend 500 feet into the ocean. Growing slowly but steadily, the 3,000-person community in 1930 was five times larger by the 1950s, with an aircraft industry and building boom after World War II. Soon, a desirable resort town and an expensive place to live, Hermosa, attracting 3 million annual tourists, comes alive in the summer. With pleasant year-round temperatures, its famous residents include Jimmy Kimmel, Vince Vaughn, Zoey Deschanel, and Kendrick Lamar, while sports fans will recognize several names of the Kings, Lakers, and Clippers.
Los Alamos casts spells on first-time visitors with its vibrant cultural heritage on a silver plate and a glass of red or white, as any self-respecting wine country town would! Nestled in the heart of the rich grape-growing Santa Ynez Valley, not far from Santa Barbara, some three hours from LA, the picturesque town, translating as “cottonwoods,” nods at the fringe of giant trees along the San Antonio Creek. Offering immediate access for blissful strolls in the shade and through the beautiful valley for picnics, it was once a hideout for the rich escapees from the public limelight.
Today, the idyllic SoCal destination blends the Old West vibe from its early founding in 1876 with fancy boutique shops and restaurants in old architecture. As a sought-after culinary destination, its ravable hotspots like Bell’s, a French-inspired bistro, pair ideally with the regional wines! Don’t miss the popular Los Alamos Depot Antique Mall and Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, a local favorite at breakfast in repurposed grain storage and gas stations, respectively! Lo-Fi Wines pours local wines to live music, while the central Los Alamos Mercantile Building is a unique place to spend the night at a former store or go for the historic Victorian Mansion Bed & Breakfast!
Just south of the state’s center along the coast, Monterey takes every experience of a humble fishing village and amplifies it tenfold against the lush and dramatic oceanfront. From fascinating history to the seaside cliffs overlooking pristine beaches with sea otters and overhead waterfowl, whales migrate offshore. Monterey, the first capital of Alta California and home to the iconic Carmel Mission, harbors stories of Spanish missions and famous writers once fascinated by the geography. Its most popular attraction, the ambient Cannery Row, is a historic cannery hub from the turn of the century. Now filled with waterfront dining, entertainment, and tasting rooms, the cultural touchstone perks up the coastline in the easygoing, colorful town—a blend of adventures, sightseeing, and unforgettable flavors!
Visitors can enjoy hiking and kayaking, heritage sights, and award-winning food and wineries, all at stunning sea vistas. Fort Ord National Monument, an old military base, is the starting point of trails to explore the surrounding rolling hills on horseback! With Spanish talk on the streets and dizzying beach beauty, Highway One weaves along the rocky coastline to Big Sur, where the historic 17-mile stretch features palatial estates, The Lodge on Pebble Beach, and one of the world’s best golf courses. Enjoy 36 breathtaking waterfront parks with wooded trails and wildlife on a morning run or a daytime hike to meet the spectacular sunset. With rich wildlife in between the wild ocean and a pastoral paradise, the oceanside Monterey Bay Aquarium features “Life on the Bay,” with the Giant Pacific octopus, a kelp forest, and local penguins in natural habitat.
This small, elegant town in the majestic Topatopa Mountains charms summertime crowds with a unique cultural vibe and natural sights! Formerly home to the indigenous Chumash peoples, 10s of thousands lived through the area’s over 150 independent communities. During Spanish rule and the California Genocide, Spanish troops removed many from historical home villages to Spanish missions, leading to a 90% death toll of the Chumash population. Some still live in this region that they domesticated and called Ojai, but pronounced Awhay, for the “Moon.” Featuring great weather and eye candy along the streets today, pay respects to its unfortunate past at the Ojai Valley Museum of History and Art around the impact, and don’t miss the jaw-dropping Ojai Olive Oil and Ojai Vineyard.
Visitors enjoy the serenity of Ojai Valley, complete with 360 mountain views for scenic relaxation and numerous adventures. Commune with nature along the fanning trails for hiking and biking, including the Rose Valley Falls Trails, and the paved, nine-mile Ojai Valley Trail along the former railroad, a heritage trek through nature. Prevailing with spiritual rejuvenation, Ojai’s offers various retreat centers for meditation and yoga, while the unique Emerald Iguana Inn and Ojai Valley Inn & Spa are more than a great stay but a glimpse into culture! A number of organic farms and farmers’ markets fit the local wellness theme with a bounty of the region’s produce. Even the eclectic Bart’s Books from 1964 is outdoors, while Treasures of Ojai offers marketplace-style shopping for handcrafted gifts by local artisans.
San Juan Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano is a historically rich town in between Los Angeles and San Diego. Its destination centerpiece, the Mission San Juan Capistrano from 1776, offers a fascinating glimpse into its significance through the state’s early history. Weaving rich history and modern-day vibrant culture in a naturally rich area, San Juan Capistrano is a popular romantic escape with foreign vibes! Featured in the first of Johnston McCulley’s Zorro stories, The Curse of Capistrano, in 1919, the town spellbinds history buffs and architecture lovers with structures like the oldest Great Stone Church, finished in 1806, and scenic ruins following the earthquake of 1812.
It is imperative to take in the views over an architectural stroll along the 31 historic structures in the Los Rios District—the oldest neighborhood in California—that will highlight your trip with Instagram-worthy shots around each corner, historic homes, and retail outlets. The Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano is a flashy Autograph Collection hotel near the namesake, most significant historic attraction mentioned above! Blending Spanish, Mexican, and American influences from the change of rules, San Juan Capistrano offers attractions from each culture in sites, cuisine, and local handcrafts for gifts.
Santa Ynez pairs local history with culinary delights for an epic tourist escape at the heart of the namesake valley, where its wine-drenched fame started. The views along the rolling hills are largely unchanged along the 1880s-era building facades, perhaps just more orderly rows of grape vines. From charming art galleries to historic sights dating even further to the Chumash peoples, they were some of the county’s earliest Spanish settlers! Having first tasted the generosity of rich land, you too can savor the wines of the Central Coast in a dreamy setting with country-style feasts and harvests. Just a hop from Santa Barbara, visitors can discover Old West connections on an epic bike ride through town, vineyards, and hills.
Heck, take it all in on the most memorable hot air balloon float or the top-of-the-mountain hike at Manzana Schoolhouse and Dabney Cabin, one of the area’s turn-of-the-century homesteads. Art Spot on Wheels offers a popular two-hour painting session in the vineyard with a glass of wine and a paintbrush to cultivate your experience on paper. At the same time, the nearby Chumash Casino Resort is a fun, risky cultural experience with slot machines, table games, and likely live entertainment during your visit. The sumptuous S.Y. Kitchen, a five-star establishment, serves Italian with fresh ingredients indoors or in the heated outdoor lounge over a cocktail or local wine from the surrounding hills.
Solvang, a small town in California’s picturesque Santa Ynez Valley, takes its Danish heritage, founded in 1911, and runs with it! Offering a nearly euphoric atmosphere, visitors can get a deep insight into the town’s history on a plain stroll, with colorful Scandinavian-style buildings, museums, art, and cultural spots. From replicas of notable monuments and sculptures in Copenhagen, the annual Julefest is a vibrant celebration in December with food, drink, and hidden gnomish creatures of Danish folklore, called nisse. The Elverhoj Museum of History and Art is unmissable in a historic home, while the Hans Christian Andersen Museum has stories for all ages about the greatest storyteller, who was from Denmark!
Solvang is like Disney for adults, pairing fine wines from the valley with uniquely inspired European cuisine flavors against a natural backdrop! Sample some traditional Danish pastries with your morning coffee, like aebleskiver and fresh stroopwafels at St. Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery or Birkholm’s Bakery and Café, ending the night at one of the exquisite wineries after a vineyard stroll! The authentic architecture, windmills, homes, and businesses adorned in colorful flowers under thatched roofs replicate the overseas charm. In September, the Danish Days festival explodes the already-hyped theme in a heritage celebration over traditional music, dancing, and cuisine—a truly unforgettable experience!
California is the land of hidden gems, and some of the most memorable experiences are rooted in the town’s cultural heritage. For example, meaning “cottonwoods,” Los Alamos, along the San Antonio Creek with huge trees and a rolling valley, was an escapee-destination for the rich from the public limelight. Whereas Solvang’s culture is steeped in Danish history. So choose what interests you most to draw significant connections to the state’s beginnings and various cultures, with all the benefits of small towns. Blending Spanish, Mexican, and American influences, San Juan Capistrano, a Spanish mission from 1776, was also featured in the first Zorro books! These towns are sure to educate and amuse simultaneously.