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It’s easy to take a break in California. Whether it’s an ocean getaway, a mountain retreat, a small historic city outing, or a spa pause, there are plenty of exciting places to choose from. The inhabitants of the Golden State are blessed with a diversity of terrain and comfortable distances that make exploring pleasant. This list is about the destinations that are on the more tranquil and peaceful side, those that offer an easygoing refuge from big city life. We invite you on a journey to the best places to visit in California if you hate crowds and would like to experience the real and authentic side of California.
When it comes to California wine, Napa Valley usually takes all the headlines. But there’s much more to it. One of the coolest and most underrated destinations in California would be charming Temecula, the gem of the Inland Empire. The Temecula Valley Wine Country, with more than 40 wineries and a myriad of tasting opportunities, is an epicurean dream come true. The underdog status also helps, as there are fewer people and more space to explore the wonders of this corner of California that has a certain Mediterranean flair to it. Be also sure to check out the local Old Town with the interactive family-friendly Pennypickle’s Workshop and historic Temecula Valley Museum. And there’s a local competitor to Turkey’s Cappadocia: the annual Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival, the time of year when the drink of Gods is flowing and the sky fills up with many colorful balloons. The proximity to both San Diego and Los Angeles makes this small town an easy day trip to get the taste of the Cali countryside.
Dive into the rich history of Humboldt County in picturesque Ferndale. With well-preserved Victorian houses dotting cozy streets, it is the ultimate place to visit if you’d like to exchange the big cities full of skyscrapers for a 19th-century atmosphere full of charm. The whole city is recognized as a landmark, so you have many fascinating things to explore, like the Victoria Gothic Shaw House, Ferndale Museum, the Methodist church-turned-music hall called The Old Steeple, and the beautiful Ferndale Arts Gallery. And don’t forget that the city is one of the gateways to the wonderful Lost Coast; Centerville Beach County Park can be reached in just 9 minutes by car.
Tucked away from civilization, the small town of Bishop is a gateway to the stunning Owens Valley. Here you’re surrounded by the mighty peaks of the White Mountains on one side and the Sierra Nevada on the other. This Inyo County destination is perfect as a base for further natural exploration that includes unlimited hiking, climbing, backpacking, and camping in one of the parks that surround the city. And the crowds are not an issue here where you have miles and miles of space to truly connect with the California’s grand outdoors. Be sure to go to Bishop Creek Canyon with its lakes, forests, and rivers, explore the cinematic history of the city that has been a setting for many Hollywood westerns, and conquer the grandiose Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.
The most populous town of the Inland Empire and part of Greater LA, Riverside is a refreshing destination that has lots of quirks and houses a number of attractions you won’t find anywhere else. The most famous one is the splendid Mission Inn, an eclectic architectural masterpiece that is an absolute must-see when you’re here. But then there’s also the world’s largest paper cup monument (an obligatory stop for a fun photo-op), a Concrete Railway Viaduct (that is among the planet’s largest), and open-air California Citrus State Historic Park (taking visitors on a journey through citrus production history in the state). Apart from that, Riverside boasts plenty of Victorian houses, as well as the Riverside Fox Theater where the first showing of Gone with the Wind took place in 1939. If you’re here for the outdoors, Mount Rubidoux is an essential California hike with magnificent views and the photogenic World Peace Bridge.
Morro Bay is one of those places along the northern California coast that will immediately take your breath away. The long sandy beach sits under the shadow of the gargantuan volcanic Morro Rock—an ultra-photogenic sight. This small town is the heart of Morro Bay State Park, which boasts lagoons, marshes, and lots of bird-watching spots. Remoteness definitely adds to the allure of this destination, as you can really feel like you’re escaping here no matter where you stay. Visit the picturesque harbor dotted with fishing vessels, try the seafood at one of several restaurants next to the waterfront, test the Pacific waters at Morro Strand State Beach, and get away from it all by camping on one of the campgrounds of the state park.
Fancy a relaxing family trip from San Francisco but don’t want to go far? Take a look at Danville, a quiet small town just 30 minutes from Downtown San Francisco, with everything to have quality time with your kids. The pretty streets in the center of town are dotted with parks and historic buildings. Plenty of restaurants and cafes will keep you busy with gastronomic exploration. There are some great local history museums, like the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, and the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site. Danville is that ideal sleepy town that has plenty of things to do without the hassle, just what is needed when you want to get a short break from the Bay life.
The small town of “gold rush” fame, Sonora is among the most developed tourist destinations in the Gold Country. Very compact and easy to explore, the town boasts a fine collection of museums, historic buildings, and dining spots to keep you busy for a weekend. Also, Sonora is a good base to venture further into the outdoors, both High Sierra and Yosemite are close by. Moreover, the Tuolumne County, where the city is situated, is a fantastic area to explore in its own right, especially the renowned Tuolumne Meadows with idyllic creek panoramas and towering mountains in the distance. Overall, coming to Sonora is discovering a quieter, gentler part of California where you don’t have to rush anywhere and can just give in to the slow way of life.
Sonoma County’s finest, Bodega Bay is where you go for easily accessible, awe-inspiring beach panoramas. This village may be small, but it is surrounded by fantastic parks and can offer many wonderful natural attractions. Follow the Bodega Bay trail to find the spectacular cliff panoramas, enjoy the sound of the waves at expansive Bodega Dunes Beach, and camp next to the water at the placid Westside Regional Park. Also, don’t miss a scenic road trip from Bodega Bay to Duncan’s Landing Overlook for truly exceptional northern California coastal vistas. This destination is ideal for nature lovers and those who enjoy remoteness and vastness. And Hitchcock fans will be delighted to find the locations from the director’s famous (and quite harrowing) movie Birds here.
The only city in nature-heavy Del Norte County, Crescent City is the one, if you’re looking for a quiet destination in the impressive outdoors. This outpost of northern California is Pacific mightiness in a nutshell. Here you can literally feel the power of the ocean while observing the waves crashing onto the iconic 18th-century Battery Point Lighthouse and rolling over numerous rocky formations that rise up from the water like teeth. Also, the city is famous for gray whales that grace its shores with their presence. What’s even cooler is that you don’t have to go far to spot these spectacular animals. The whale watching can be done on foot by standing at one of the spotting points like Pebble Beach Drive, Klamath Overlook, or Crescent Beach Overlook. Add a wide array of great seafood eateries, small port town allure, and the proximity to the incredible Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and you’re getting an ultimate northern California destination without the crowds.
At times when you don’t want to go too far from LA but still would like a change of scenery, Claremont is there to help. This suburban oasis of calm is just 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles and technically part of Greater LA. In practice, it’s a world apart from the noises and the rhythms of the megalopolis. Designated as one of the best places to live in the US, it can offer much more than simply comfortable living. Here you can find a cool selection of restaurants, cafes, boutique shops, breweries, parks, and museums. If a day trip is what you’re looking for, Claremont would be ideal just for that. The numerous terraces of the historic part of Claremont, called The Village, are calling your name, offering a calming experience under the shade of the trees. For more greenery, head to the exceptional California Botanic Garden that houses thousands of plants.