California has always been a special place. Hundreds of years ago, pioneers and settlers chased its coastline in search of a better life, new opportunities, and famously — gold. All these years later, travelers from around the world are still seeking out all that glitters. But now, that means sun-soaked beaches, renowned food and wine destinations, and a diverse landscape that stretches from the majestic redwoods in the north to the wild desert expanse down south. Our readers have crisscrossed California and shared their favorite towns to visit. Here they are, in no particular order. Because let’s face it: They’re all golden.
If you want a feel for old town, historic California, Ferndale needs to be on your radar. The town was founded in 1852 in the thick of the Gold Rush. Situated about 2 and a half hours south of the Oregon state line, Ferndale gives off Main Street, USA vibes. But this town has deep roots as an agricultural epicenter for California since the 1800s. You’ll still find small, historical family-run farms and creameries. Dairy products from Ferndale are still in demand today, hence the nickname “Cream City.” For more, check out Mary Charlebois’s 9 Fantastic Things To Do In Charming Ferndale, California.
2. Fort Bragg
For a glimpse of world-famous, gorgeous California coastline, look no further than Fort Bragg. Glass Beach — famous for the smooth little gems that wash ashore — is a must-see these days. But in the 1950s and ’60s, it was actually used as a trash dump. Talk about a glow-up. If you prefer to stay on dry land, Fort Bragg is also well-known for its picturesque trails, unique art galleries, and historic sites. Check out Julie Diebolt Price’s 14 Best Experiences In And Around Fort Bragg.
Bound by the Pacific Ocean to the west and redwood forests to the east, Mendocino is a stunner. Hollywood agrees: the village has been a filming location for 43 movies and counting. Even if you aren’t a movie star, you’ll feel right at home here. It’s a tiny village and something of an artists’ colony. And if you consider yourself a foodie, Mendocino definitely belongs on your bucket list. Local restaurants are known for using local seafood, meat, and produce — and pairing it all with fantastic wine and beer. Read Mary Charlebois’s 12 Favorite Restaurants To Experience in Mendocino.
Speaking of wine, what’s a trip to California without a visit to wine country? Healdsburg is a charming and picturesque town nestled right in the heart of Sonoma County. It sits right at the juncture of three appellations, right along the Russian River. You can try some of California’s very best wine in any of the several tasting rooms in Healdsburg — oftentimes not far from the vineyards that grew the fruit that ended up in your bottle. How cool is that? Check out Wendy Lee’s 7 Fantastic Things To Do In Healdsburg, California During Winter.
If jaw-dropping scenery is your thing, you’ll love Sausalito. It’s a small seaside community with postcard views aplenty, just a stone’s throw from San Francisco. In fact, my favorite way to visit is by bike — you can rent one from Fisherman’s Wharf and come in across the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s an easy ride and takes less than an hour, depending on how often you stop for photos. If you want a break from terra firma, check out the 30-minute seaplane rides, where you can fly over downtown San Francisco and the island prison of Alcatraz. For more ideas, read Jill Dutton’s 15 Fantastic Things To Do In Beautiful Sausalito.
6. Half Moon Bay
Just 35 miles south of San Francisco, you’ll find a coastal gem with jaw-dropping vistas: Half Moon Bay. As you might have guessed, the town is named for the bay’s crescent shape. Tourists love it for the craggy cliffs and pristine beaches. Surfers love it for the Mavericks, a renowned surf location famous for its huge waves. If your vibe is less “hang ten” and more “hang out,” check out the glass-blowing classes at Half Moon Bay Art Glass or do some horseback riding at Seahorse Ranch. And that’s just the beginning. Read more in S.J. Morgensen’s How To Spend A Long Weekend In Gorgeous Half Moon Bay.
If tiny, upscale towns are your speed, make time for Danville. It’s only about a 35-minute drive from San Francisco but feels a world away. The quaint downtown is peppered with cool restaurants, unique art galleries, and trendy boutiques. Travelers can get off the beaten path at the nearby Mount Diablo State Park, Las Trampas Wilderness Regional Preserve, and Iron Horse Trail — all easily accessible in Danville. Read more in Judy Karnia’s 8 Amazing Things To Do In And Near Beautiful Danville.
8. Mammoth Lakes
Mammoth Lakes is as majestic as its name implies. Located in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, travelers flock here for the crystal clear lakes and volcanic vistas. The skiing is top-notch, but don’t feel obligated to hit the slopes. Stop by the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center Yurt for snowshoeing lessons, or just enjoy the free 10-minute gondola that takes you right over the area’s private cabins. Hop off and enjoy the people-watching — and maybe a hot toddy. Read more in Christy Karsten’s 8 Things To Do In Mammoth Lakes If You Don’t Ski.
Chances are, you’ve heard of Monterey and Carmel — crown jewels of California’s gorgeous Central Coast. But just 2 and a half hours south of those towns, you’ll find Cambria: a breathtakingly beautiful and serene beachside village waiting to welcome you. Take a relaxing walk along the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk, a mile-long trail where you could spot dolphins or whales. During low tide, you can hunt for “moonstones” — rocks that get their name for the way they shine in the light. Head a little further north to see the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery and Light Station, where you can observe elephant seals and pups as they’re bred and born. Read more in Wendy Lee’s 17 Fantastic Things To Do In Picturesque Cambria.
Cayucos is beautiful, just like so many of central California’s coastal towns. But it’s history that makes Cayucos truly unique. Its 950-foot-long fishing pier dates back to the 1870s shipping trade, and the town is named for the canoes or cayucos used by the Chumash people who originally inhabited the area. If you go, a stroll along the pier is a must: it’s part of California’s Whale Trail, and visitors often see whale spouts. Don’t miss the charming downtown, either. It’s full of historic buildings dating back to the town’s founding. Read more in Cindy Barks’s How To Spend A Perfect Day In Beautiful Cayucos.
11. Morro Bay
Morro Bay has it all: a beautiful coastline, a wealth of state parks and state beaches nearby, and incredible sea life. There’s even an iconic (and totally Instagrammable) rock formation. Morro Bay is the perfect pit stop for anyone making the trek from Los Angeles to San Francisco (or vice versa), as it’s about halfway between the two cities. But really, Morro Bay is worth a trip on its own. Whether you want an outdoorsy, athletic weekend away or a relaxing stroll along the beach and time for some souvenir shopping, Morro Bay has what you’re looking for. Read more in Cindy Barks’s 9 Amazing Experiences in Beautiful Morro Bay.
12. Pismo Beach
Just 3 hours north of Los Angeles, you’ll find Pismo Beach, or just “Pismo,” as the locals call it. Pismo Beach is a sort of quintessential California beach town. Think lots of sunshine, lots of surfing, and sunsets you’ll remember long after your trip ends. The vibe here is all about relaxing. Mostly outdoors. A visit to the breathtaking Pismo Preserve deserves to be at the very top of your to-do list — a 900-acre conservancy featuring 11 miles of trails with unmatched views of the Pacific Ocean. Read more in Wendy Lee’s Beautiful Pismo Beach: Where to Eat, Stay, and Play.
13. Two Harbors, Catalina Island
Ready to get off the beaten path? Look no further than Two Harbors on California’s Catalina Island. “Catalina,” as the locals call it, is about a 30-minute ferry ride off the coast of Southern California. Most tourists check out Avalon, the largest town on the island. But trek a little further to Two Harbors, and you’ll be glad you did: You’ll find a tiny village untouched by major development and full of natural wonder. Need a spot to disconnect, get away, and feel truly at peace? Two Harbors is the place. Read more in Wendy Lee’s This Quaint Island Town In California Is Perfect For A Romantic Weekend.
14. Pacific Beach
This San Diego neighborhood is funky, hip, and oh-so-cool. Sun worshipers, surfers, and college students flock here. And, to be honest, free spirits galore. As you might guess, the people-watching is unmatched. If you enjoy an eclectic atmosphere, Pacific Beach is worth checking out. The area is well-known to locals, but definitely a little under the radar for tourists. “PB” also has a great reputation for its restaurants — seafood, pizza, tapas — there’s something for everyone in Pacific Beach. Read more in Wendy Lee’s 6 Favorite Restaurants To Experience In Pacific Beach.