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11 Most Underrated Towns In California That You NEED To Visit

California is a gorgeous state with so much to explore from the stunning beaches and epic national parks to the big cities, you’ll be totally spoiled for choice on where to visit.

One downside to these popular places though is that they tend to be super busy!

That’s why, in this guide, we want to share with you the top 11 most underrated towns in California that you should visit.

These towns are still largely undiscovered by tourists meaning they don’t get super busy and you’ll be able to find some peace and quiet.

From charming mountain towns to scenic coastal hidden gems, this list has something for everyone.

1. Solvang

Solvang is a picturesque town that stands out for its charming Danish-inspired architecture and delightful European atmosphere. 

Located just 45 minutes from Santa Barbara, Solvang features windmills, half-timbered buildings and cobblestone streets that make visitors feel like they’ve stepped into a European village. 

Visitors can explore the town’s unique shops which offer everything from Danish pastries to chocolate and even Danish-style gifts. 

Solvang also features several wineries which makes it a great place to sample some local wines. 

You can also visit the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, ride horse-drawn trolleys or simply take a leisurely stroll through the town pretending you’re in Europe.

2. Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay is a coastal town that is known for its natural beauty and relaxed beach atmosphere. 

Located just 45-minutes south of San Francisco, this delightful town offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and a scenic coastline. 

Visitors can visit the historic Main Street with its charming shops and dine on fresh seafood at local restaurants. 

Half Moon Bay is also famous for its annual Pumpkin Festival which attracts visitors with giant pumpkin weigh-offs and pumpkin-themed events. 

You can also explore the beautiful beaches, go horseback riding or enjoy hiking and biking along the coastal trails. 

In fact, the California Coastal Trail runs through Half Moon Bay.

3. Nevada City

Nevada City is a charming town located in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California that is surrounded by lush forests. You’ll find it just 60 miles northeast of Sacramento.

It’s known for its historic streets as it is one of the best preserved Gold Rush towns.

This small but lively city is famous for its Gold Rush heritage and you’ll be able to see numerous well-preserved Victorian buildings, antique shops and bell towers. 

It even features California’s oldest operating structure, the Nevada Theatre, which dates back to 1865.

Visitors can explore the unique boutiques, museums, art galleries and delicious restaurants that line its picturesque downtown. 

Other popular activities include hiking along the Buttermilk Bend Trail and exploring the nearby Tahoe National Forest or enjoying the scenic views of the South Yuba River.

4. Idyllwild

Idyllwild is a peaceful town nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains of California, just 2 hours from both Los Angeles & San Diego.

This charming mountain retreat is known for its natural, scenic beauty and wildlife. It’s surrounded by tall pine trees, cedars and huge rock formations.

Visitors can explore the picturesque downtown area with its art galleries, boutique shops and cozy cabins for rent. 

It has a real ‘small town’ feel to it and is much quieter than other popular mountain towns like Big Bear.

Idyllwild also offers a variety of outdoor activities including hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and birdwatching in the nearby San Jacinto Wilderness. 

The Idyllwild Nature Center features a range of easy hiking routes perfect for the whole family.

You can even camp outdoors if you’re feeling up to it!

5. Julian

Nestled in the Cuyamaca mountains, Julian offers a delightful blend of history and nature. It’s just a one-hour drive from San Diego.

Visitors can stroll through its charming streets and explore the historic buildings from the Gold Rush era, most of which date back to the 1870’s.

It truly feels like you’re stepping back in time.

The town is especially known for its apple orchards and tourists can pick apples, taste freshly baked pies or even enjoy apple-themed treats at local shops. 

Julian is also a gateway to outdoor adventures with nearby hiking trails and the beautiful Lake Cuyamaca for fishing and boating. 

If you’re up for the challenge then you can even hike the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve. Be warned though, this hike is moderate to difficult and has some steep inclines.

If you make it to the top, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views all the way from the desert to the coast.

Julian is also one of California’s best stargazing locations so be sure to head out after dark as you might be able to spot the Milky Way.

6. Avalon

Avalon is a small city located on Santa Catalina Island which lies just off the coast of California, just south of Los Angeles. 

You can easily reach it by taking a high-speed ferry from Newport Beach.

Avalon is known for its Mediterranean-like atmosphere, stunning landscapes and vibrant marine life which makes it a unique getaway spot. 

What sets Avalon apart is its small-town feel combined with a huge range of outdoor activities. 

Visitors can explore the island through hiking, snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters or taking a glass-bottom boat tour to see the rich underwater ecosystem. 

Make sure to look out for sea lions who love to bask on the rocks surrounding the island!

The town itself is super picturesque with cozy streets lined with boutique shops, cafes and restaurants that offer a taste of local cuisine. 

The iconic Catalina Casino, not a gambling house but a cultural center, is a must-visit for its historic architecture and the Avalon Theatre.

7. Morro Bay

Morro Bay is a picturesque coastal town, famous for its dramatic natural landmark, Morro Rock, which rises 576 ft from the ocean. 

This ancient volcanic mound, which lies at the harbor’s entrance, is not only a stunning sight but also a sanctuary for birds and marine life. 

Visitors can enjoy kayaking through the lagoon, fishing and surfing in the waters around Morro Rock, or exploring the miles of beautiful trails that offer panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. 

I’d highly recommend hiking up to the top of Black Hill for breathtaking views of the city and bay below.

The town itself has a laid-back vibe with waterfront restaurants serving fresh seafood as well as tons of unique shops and art galleries. 

Morro Bay’s Embarcadero is a bustling waterfront area where tourists can find boat tours including whale watching expeditions, giving them a chance to see marine wildlife up close. 

8. Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is a lovely coastal town that stands out for its beautiful beaches, wineries and fresh seafood. It sits halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Situated along the Central Coast, Pismo Beach offers a relaxed and friendly atmosphere that’s perfect for a seaside vacation. 

Visitors can stroll along the scenic pier, build sandcastles on the sandy shores or try their hand at surfing, kayaking and boogie boarding. 

The beach itself is absolutely stunning with soft, white sand and even sand dunes which make for some pretty epic photos.

One unique attraction is the annual Monarch Butterfly Grove, where visitors can witness thousands of butterflies during their winter migration. It’s pretty spectacular to say the least.

If you love seafood then you’re in for a treat as Pismo Beach is well known for its restaurants that serve up mouthwatering clam chowder and other ocean-inspired dishes. 

9. Ojai

Ojai is a serene town in Ventura County, located just 83 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

This beautiful place is nestled in a valley surrounded by majestic mountains, making it the perfect place to relax and take part in outdoor activities.

Ojai is famous for its charming downtown that is filled with local craft shops, book stores, art galleries and cafes. 

The town also has a thriving art scene so visitors can also spend time visiting local art studios.

You can also go hiking in the nearby Los Padres National Forest or biking along scenic trails. The 9-mile Ojai Valley Trail is one of the most popular.

Another highlight is taking a scenic drive to witness the “Pink Moment” which is a mesmerizing natural phenomenon when the mountains turn shades of pink during sunset. 

10. Mendocino

The delightful coastal town of Mendocino stands out for its breathtaking views and Victorian charm.

If you didn’t know you were in California, you’d think you were in New England.

Located along the coast just a few hours north of San Francisco, Mendocino features stunning cliffside trails that overlook the Pacific Ocean and beautifully preserved historic buildings from the 19th century. 

Visitors can take leisurely walks along the dramatic coastal bluffs, visit art galleries that feature local artwork and enjoy scenic picnics by the sea. 

Mendocino is also an excellent place for whale watching at certain times of year as migrating whales often pass by the area. Between November and April is the best time to see them.

Another highlight is the nearby Mendocino Headlands State Park which covers 347-acres and features 2 secluded beaches, interesting rock formations and the Big River.

You can also take a ride on the famous Skunk Train to experience the region’s natural beauty. 

11. Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree is a small town in California that is known for its desert charm and proximity to the famous Joshua Tree National Park.

Located in the Mojave Desert around 130 miles east of LA, the town is surrounded by unique rock formations and the iconic Joshua trees, which can’t be found anywhere else in the world!

Did you know that the Joshua trees aren’t technically trees? They’re actually a type of succulent.

Visitors flock here to explore the national park’s stunning landscapes including hiking trails, rock climbing opportunities and stargazing spots that offer breathtaking views of the night sky. 

But there’s so much more to Joshua Tree than just the national park!

In town, visitors can browse art galleries, enjoy the local cuisine and even visit the local farmers’ market.

And that’s it!

Those are all of California’s most underrated towns that you should visit.

From stunning coastal towns to hidden gems in the mountains, this list features something for everyone.

Sophie Davis

Born and raised in the Bay area of California, Sophie is a California native. She joined our team in 2023 to create travel guides on California.

Learn more about the Traveller's Elixir Team.

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