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When California comes to mind, you probably think of places like sunny San Diego, star-studded Hollywood, legendary Venice Beach or San Francisco and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. However, this diverse state is home to a wealth of small charming towns too, from historic gold rush towns to coastal cities and picturesque mountain getaways. If you’re looking to get off the beaten path, consider these small-town gems in California.
Columbia is not only one of the best-preserved historic gold rush towns in the state, it’s a historic park. This was California’s second-largest city at the peak of the Gold Rush. Costumed docents lead tours through the town, and actually live and work here in a variety of period-appropriate shows and trades. Visitors can admire the 19th-century architecture, sip a locally-made sarsaparilla soda in an Old West saloon, grab a tasty ice cream cone at an old-fashioned parlor, take an authentic stagecoach ride, feel the heat in a working blacksmith’s forge, or even try their hand at gold panning. If you dare, you can spend the night in the purportedly haunted historic Fallon Hotel. Built in 1859, guests and staff alike have reported numerous unexplained incidents, including voices coming from empty rooms, objects moving around, and the ghost of a mischievous young boy who likes to play with guests’ children – some say that if you bring toys, he’ll move them around.
Northern California’s towns are far different than what you’ll find in the southern region of the state. The area’s beaches are wilder too, with rugged, lush cliffs that plunge directly the crashing waves of the Pacific while soaring redwoods nearby offer a perfect place for getting lost among giants. The town itself is incredibly charming and is the only one on the California coast designated as a historical landmark. Established in the 1850s, grand Victorian buildings and saltbox cottages line its streets. Mendocino is also famed for its art galleries, breathtaking surrounding scenery and as the fictional home of the popular television series, “Murder, She Wrote,” which featured exteriors of the town and also used a Victorian B&B as the home of Angela Lansbury’s character, Jessica Fletcher. Diners and shoppers will be pleased as well, with lots of unique shops and eateries, including everything from quaint cafes to fine dining with ocean views.
A popular weekend getaway in California, Ojai is a valley hideaway in Ventura County surrounded by the Topatopa Mountains. Often referred to as a “mecca for artists and thinkers,” it’s famous for its culture that’s focused on organic agriculture, healthy, fitness, spirituality, music, and art. It’s so pretty that its picturesque hills, groves and ranches stood in for the iconic Tibetan utopia of Shangri-La in the 1937 classic “Lost Horizon.” Located about 15 miles from the Pacific, it enjoys a wonderful Mediterranean climate, and also boasts spectacular pink sunsets that draw countless visitors to witness what’s called the “Pink Moment.” Here, you can do nothing at all, or you’ll find a wealth of things to keep you busy, from hiking and biking in the mountains to boating on Lake Casitas.
Murphys has been increasingly making its way onto lists of America’s best small towns. Located in California’s Gold Country in Calaveras County, famous for its annual frog jumping contest, the “Queen of the Sierras,” boasts an alluring historic Main Street that’s lined with all sorts of interesting independent shops, fantastic eateries, candy stores and even wine tasting rooms. In fact, what surprises visitors most, is its rich wine culture, which many say is like stepping back into the Napa Valley of 30 years ago. There are a wealth of award-winning small production estate wines as well as plenty of tasting opportunities with the actual winemakers. In the surrounding area, there are historic sites to visit from the town’s Gold Rush days as well as a host of outdoor adventures, including cave exploration, zip-lining, and hiking.
Ferndale is a picturesque Victorian village tucked between two redwood forests that truly feels like a step back in time. Take a stroll down Main Street, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and you’ll half expect to bump into Sheriff Andy Griffith or Aunt Bea. This dairy and agricultural community may not be home to those fictional characters, but it does host quite a few of its own quirky inhabitants. One of the main draws is its beautifully preserved Victorian architecture, with the Gingerbread Mansion being the most popular of all, painted in an extravagant orange shade that seems to exemplify Ferndale’s uniqueness. The colorful buildings house quaint inns, art galleries, specialty shops, and eateries. And, just a short drive away, you can be at one of the most magnificent stretches of coastline on the planet, the Lost Coast.
San Juan Capistrano is an appealing ranch town and the oldest community in Orange County. It’s justifiably famous for its beautiful mission, Mission San Juan Capistrano, which is today a historic landmark and museum. It was founded over 200 years ago as the 7th of 21 missions statewide and features a chapel still standing where Saint Serra once celebrated Mass. It serves as a monument to the state’s multi-cultural history. Visitors can expect to see one-of-a-kind artifacts, treasures and paintings as well as what’s considered to be the American Acropolis, ruins of the Great Stone Church. Stroll the charming Los Rios historic district, where you’ll find magnificent architecture and history at every turn, and you’ll also discover lots of distinctive shops and restaurants of all sorts.
Niles is actually a district in the sprawling Bay Area city of Fremont, but stepping into it is like stepping into a totally different world. It will feel as if you’re hundreds of miles away from the rat race of Silicon Valley, but in reality, it’s just a short drive away. The main drag of this little railroad town is about four blocks long, hosting historic buildings that are filled with dozens of antique stores, museums, artist shops and eateries, and along its alluring side streets are attractive residents that date back to the turn of the 20th-century. Niles may best be known for hosting the Niles Silent Film Museum, one of the most important museums of its kind in the world. Charlie Chaplin himself used to make films here, and the community also hosts a film festival in his honor. Visitors can also take a scenic ride on the Niles Canyon Railway, which makes a 13-mile round trip from Niles to Sunol for sightseers.
The quaint town of St. Helena sits in the heart of the Napa Valley. It’s known for its many outstanding wineries, excellent restaurants, and lovely shops that line picturesque Main Street. The very same Victorian-lined street that Robert Louis Stevenson and his new bride once made their way down in a horse and buggy. Those same beautiful buildings remain today serving as stores for all sorts of products from hardware and bath items to designer clothing and everything in between. While you’re here, you can also visit one of the oldest buildings in Napa Valley. Bale Grist Mill Historic State Park, named for the old mill that was built here in the 19th-century, is now the last surviving water-powered mill in the state. You can Take a tour of the historic mill and find out more about the interesting history of the property. Wine lovers won’t want to miss the chance to taste vino in a cave at Anderson’s Conn Valley, where atmospheric reserve tastings are held in cool, oak-scented winery caves.
Occidental is a small town along the Bohemian Highway in Sonoma County. Its houses are nestled into the hillsides, dotted with steeples and dense foliage, and is reminiscent of New England village in the fall. A cluster of Victorians line its main street, while an array of shops sell items like herbs, handmade soaps and crystals. The oldest existing business in this five-block town is the 1879 Union Hotel, circa 1879. Come in for the chance to dine family-style, where customers sit around the large tables covered with red-and-white-checked tablecloths and popular dishes like homemade ravioli, bruschetta and bowls of minestrone are served from communal pots.
Temecula sits at the southeast tip of the Inland Empire and also enjoys an ideal Mediterranean climate. It’s a great place to go for outdoor adventures like hot air balloon rides, while wine enthusiasts can enjoy touring award-winning wineries. Old Town Temecula is a popular place to visit, around since 1882 and anchored by a large stretch of Old Town Front Street which is lined with a collection of historic late 19th-century buildings. You’ll find a unique list of things to do here, as it’s also an antique lover’s paradise, with countless antique stores, and there is also an abundance of specialty food retailers, boutiques, and art.