Discover our favorite small towns in California, where charm and beauty are on display.
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A 90-minute drive north of San Francisco on Highway 1, past lazy sheep meadows and clapboard cattle ranches, this small fishing village charms with its sea-weathered candy shops and surf shacks welcoming visitors with hand-painted wooden signs.
Dana Point, a once-sleepy town put on the map among the surf-minded set in the 1950s. Since then, Dana Point's appeal has reached far beyond wave worshippers: A bustling harbor, locally owned restaurants, and more than 30 specialty shops attract thousands of visitors each year. Walk the palm tree- and succulent-lined pathways overlooking the water and you might catch a fisherman hauling in the day's fresh catch, a family out for an afternoon sail, or a trio of sea lions basking on the harbor's rocky perimeter.
As the sun rises above the brightly painted cottages on Capitola's sandy beach, you may feel like you're waking up in a coastal village in Italy. This laid-back town has an air of endless summer; couples linger over espresso in waterfront cafés while bronzed beach-goers stroll past Mediterranean-style bungalows on their way to the sea.
Solana Beach may be mini, but it maximizes its four square miles by the sea. Emerald green polo fields border the southeast side of town, a bustling design district and sprawling San Dieguito Park bolster the east, and surfers rule the big blue Pacific waters to the west. Even with downtown San Diego 25 minutes away, most residents say they thrive within the "Solana bubble," where a slower lifestyle rules.
Built in the 1920s as a “Spanish Village by the Sea” by former Seattle mayor Ole Hanson, San Clemente has about 300 sunny days annually and some of the best surf on this coast. The town was largely home to hard-core surfers and military personnel from Camp Pendleton, but many of the military folks have moved out, replaced by a wave of young professionals (some 20,000 new residents in the past decade).
Encinitas sits in the sweet spot 25 miles north of San Diego and 95 miles south of Los Angeles. But the vibe here is decidedly more San Diego chill. The view? California bungalows and blue waves being carved apart by surfers.
Sunset Boulevard snakes up the Santa Monica Mountains, winding away from the Pacific Coast Highway. Among the wild-haired palms and tall evergreens, the small community of Pacific Palisades is tucked back into the landscape overlooking the water.
There aren’t many communities west of the infamous San Andreas Fault north of San Francisco, but the town of Bolinas, California, is one of them. It’s actually located on a completely different tectonic plate from the rest of the state; even the vegetation is different across the dividing line. This peninsula is one of the area’s best-kept secrets—and people here want to keep it that way.