10 of the Most Picturesque Small Towns in Northern California
Looking for a spring getaway? No need to shell out the big bucks on airfare or the high price tags of bigger cities. Northern California has some of the most charming small towns right in its own backyard, from the mountains to the coastline. There’s nothing like discovering a quiet gem away from the hustle and bustle of the state’s more well-known destinations. Whether you’re into history, outdoor adventure, wine tasting or great food, these towns are worth a position on your travel bucket list.
Dunsmuir is a hidden mountain town in Northern California known for its peaceful atmosphere and stunning geography. At the base of Mount Shasta, the town is situated along I-5, making it easily accessible from anywhere in the state. The historic downtown features buildings from the early 1900s housing quaint boutiques and local eateries. There are no stoplights, no parking meters, no traffic and no worries! World-class fishing is just minutes away, as is the scenic Hedge Creek Falls and Castle Crags State Park.
Ferndale is a well-preserved Victorian village on the way to California’s scenic Lost Coast. It has a quaint downtown that makes you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. In fact, its strollable Main Street is included on the National Register of Historic Place. The historic buildings now house art galleries, shops and local eateries. When in town, check out Tuya’s, an art-filled eatery that serves modern Mexican cuisine and Spanish wine. Be sure to explore the Redwoods National & State Parks nearby, which have miles upon miles of hiking trails.
Half Moon Bay
A good bet for a coastal getaway is Half Moon Bay. Just 30 miles south of San Francisco, the tiny town has everything you’d expect from a seaside destination: sweeping views of the Pacific, great seafood restaurants, and long stretches of beach to unwind and relax. Along Main Street, you can wander through shops and galleries or stop by a tasting room to sip local wine. You can visit the bustling docks at Pillar Point Harbor and sample the freshest seafood. Or, you can bike or hike along the Half Moon Bay Coastside Trail for amazing ocean vistas.
With a population under 1,000, Mendocino certainly is a tiny town. This quiet coastal oasis is known for its natural beauty, with rocky seaside cliffs, picturesque vineyards and towering redwood forests. There are seaside cottages and Victorian inns, plus seafood restaurants with great views of the vast ocean beyond. You can take a horseback ride along the beach, sip local wine, or go whale watching. Hidden coves, secret beaches and miles of bluff-top hiking trails are waiting to be explored at Mendocino Headlands State Park.
Murphys is another hidden gem in the Sierra Foothills. Its bustling downtown core retains all the charm of the Gold Rush era, with original architecture and cobbled alleyways. Murphys is a wine town, and dozens of tasting rooms and bars line the stroll-worthy downtown, not to mention great restaurants and adorable shops and boutiques. For those looking to work off their indulgences and get out into nature, there’s hiking at the nearby Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
Located in the Sierra foothills, Nevada City is a quiet Gold Rush town just an hour from Sacramento. Originally settled in 1849, the city retains its 19th-century charm, with period architecture. Walk along the narrow streets of the downtown area where you can explore art galleries, shops, tasting rooms, and restaurants. Nevada City also plays host to several notable community events, including First Friday Art Walks and Victorian Christmas. Best of all, Nevada City is surrounded by forest, meaning outdoor adventures such as hiking, biking, boating and fishing (plus skiing in winter) are within reach, as is the South Yuba State Park.
Just a few miles north of San Francisco at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito is a bay-side town that makes for a great escape from the busyness of the city! The waterfront is the place to be, with waterfront seafood eateries and views galore. Sausalito is home to a floating houseboat community founded in 1945, and you can explore these maritime gems with a self-guided walking tour. If you prefer a more active visit, you can rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard and take in the views from the water. Back on land, you can check out the many art galleries, boutiques and tasting rooms.
St. Helena is the perfect home base for those visiting the many wineries throughout Napa Valley. This picturesque town is often regarded as Napa Valley’s Main Street, with quaint shops and boutiques along its strollable downtown. There are several art galleries here as well. Home to the Culinary Institute of America, it’s no wonder St. Helena is a foodie’s paradise, with restaurants showcasing local ingredients, often paired with regional wines. The surrounding landscape is popular for hiking and biking as well, making it an ideal destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
For Zinfandel lovers, there’s no better wine-growing region in the state than Amador County, and there’s no better place to sample them than the town of Sutter Creek. The town has nearly a dozen tasting rooms, and it makes a great base for exploring the surrounding wineries and vineyards. The strollable downtown area has raised boardwalks along its collection of 1800s-era buildings. In fact, many of the town’s original brick buildings are still standing, and a number of mansions have been constructed by wealthier residents in hills surrounding Sutter Creek. There are plenty of shops and restaurants to check out as well.
Just 30 miles from Sacramento, Winters is a charming small town with a quaint, historic city center. The downtown area has charming 19th-century architecture, with eclectic shops, boutiques, restaurants and tasting rooms hiding behind the brick facades. Some spots to check out include the laid-back Turkovich Winery, IPA-centric Berryessa Brewing Company, and Patio 29 Spirits Company, which produces vodka, gin, rum and whiskey. For dinner, a good choice is Preserve, a farm-to-table eatery that showcases the abundance of the surrounding farms.
Category Local Events
Elizabeth Penney is a content writer for Lyon Real Estate and the Lyon Local blog. A Sacramento native with a marketing background, she shares her insider knowledge on restaurants, attractions and outdoor activities throughout the greater Sacramento area and beyond.