Quirky small towns in California to visit this summer
It’s now nearly June, and that means summer is here — the perfect excuse for a road trip or quick getaway to explore quirky small towns.
Given that California is bigger than many countries, there are plenty of options to choose from. I grew up here and spent many childhood weekends sandwiched between two brothers on family car rides throughout the state. Although I try to avoid the nausea-inducing middle seat these days, I still love to explore California’s various destinations — with a preference for the weird and charming small towns. Here are some of my favorite California towns that you should consider this summer.
Find your zen in Ojai
There’s nowhere more hippie-cool than Ojai, an artists’ colony, spiritual-retreat town and Zen paradise. The town of 7,500 is centered around a picturesque village filled with art galleries, restaurants that serve healthy food, yoga studios, spas, aromatherapy stores, crystal shops…you get the idea — all arranged along a historic California-mission-style main street. This sun-soaked little town is a great place in which to escape. Personally, I decided Ojai was one of the coolest places I had ever seen back when I was 12 years old, and after traveling to about 15 countries, I still agree with that assessment.
Although many people come down to Ojai to relax at spas, there are a lot of activities in this little town—like going for a bike ride among the citrus trees or taking in the nightly “pink moment” just before sunset, when the light bounces off the Topatopa Mountains and the entire valley is awash in pink. Some residents believe Ojai has a special spiritual vortex. As for places to stay, there a lot of beautiful little inns, like the mission style Su Nido Inn or classic B and B’s like the Lavender Inn. The food in this organic-obsessed oasis is also incredible; try smoothies, tea and vegan treats at Hip Vegan, or enjoy tapas and local craft beers and wine at Spanish-style Azu.
Reason to go soon: During the first weekend of June, Ojai holds an annual music and wine festival with concerts and lectures; the local wineries all participate and pour. Ojai is a haven for artists and creatives, and the festival is a celebration of its Bohemian spirit.
Favorite quirky things to do: Make sure you check out Bart’s Books, the city’s outdoor bookstore with shelves of literature arranged around a courtyard instead of a traditional building. Also, make a visit to Dharma & Dog, Ojai’s self-described “pets and people emporium,” which sells a combination of metaphysical supplies, such as singing bowls and eco-sourced yoga clothes, in addition to toys and raw pet food.
Hide out in Jenner
The tiny village of Jenner, with fewer than 200 people, is calm and friendly and a little weird. The town does have a twilight-zone feel, given the thick fog that often completely envelops it. The area is a quick drive from the metropolis of the Bay Area but couldn’t feel farther away from the bustle of downtown SF; it’s ideal for an unplugged weekend with spotty cell service at best.
Take the weekend to hike along the beach; eat some clam chowder at Cafe Aquatica (or just stop in for their locally roasted organic coffee); kayak on the ocean; and enjoy the stunning vistas that make Northern California’s coast so magical. You can also drive over to the Sonoma Coast State Park to immerse yourself in the area’s remarkable nature. The Jenner Inn is a sweet place at which to spend the night, serving homemade dishes and local wines. The River’s End Restaurant & Inn is also a good option, with a seasonal menu and beautiful ocean views. Adventurous travelers can also camp in Jenner.
Reason to go soon: The wildflowers are in bloom through June, covering the coast in a riot of color.
Favorite quirky thing to do: Visit Patrick’s Salt Water Taffy, a roadside pink-and-white-striped shop with hundreds of colors and flavors of taffy to choose from (I highly recommend the orange creamsicle). Patrick’s is an institution, and it’s about only 20 minutes from Jenner on the way to Bodega Bay.
Enjoy Good Food and Good Views in Point Reyes
While the Point Reyes National Seashore brings tourists from all over the world, most of them never even see the quaint town of Point Reyes Station, home to awesome farm-to-table restaurants, beautiful views and a tight-knit community of about 850 residents. Although there’s high-end dining here if you want it, I highly recommend the small and intimate Side Street Kitchen, a stepped-up, locally sourced diner that serves incredible dishes in a bright, cozy yellow space. I love the seared bratwurst and the roast chicken (my reward after a 10-mile hiking day recently). Point Reyes is also famous for the cheesemaker Cowgirl Creamery, which sells incredible cheese out of a restored barn in downtown Point Reyes called Tomales Bay Foods.
Reason to go soon: The Point Reyes Lighthouse, known for its dramatic vistas and vertigo-inducing downhill hike, is currently closed for repairs. This is actually good news, because it leaves the road to the lighthouse completely empty of the usual scores of tourists. Read on to find out why.
Favorite quirky thing to do: Along the road to the lighthouse is one of the weirdest and coolest parts of Point Reyes: the Marconi RCA Station. Built by Gugliemo Marconi, an Italian man who received the first-ever patent for radio technology in 1899. He went on to build transmitting stations all over the world, including this one, which is believed to be the only Marconi-era station left in North America. On weekends and holidays, you can still hear the signal over the radio thanks to efforts to preserve it as a heritage experience. The road leading to the station is lined with Cypress trees that form a sort of tunnel over the path, which makes for a beautiful and stunning photo opp — especially without the crowds.
Get nostalgic at Hermosa Beach
Hermosa is a nostalgic and lovely city on the Santa Monica Bay that maintains a laid-back ’70s surfer vibe that most of Southern California lost years ago. It’s unpretentious and just as bright and happy as you’d imagine a place with 200 days of sun a year might be.
You can enjoy the restaurants and shops along the town’s Pier Avenue, which runs for several miles along the ocean and is closed off to cars at the base to allow for safe and fun beach revelry. Try Palmilla for great Mexican food and tequila drinks, or the Hook & Plow for seafood and delicious craft beers. You could also lounge on the beach, which is much more chill than Santa Monica or Venice Beach, and maybe catch some live music — the town has a stacked schedule of festivals and outdoor concerts. If you’re looking for an oceanview stay, the best beachfront hotel in Hermosa is the Beach House; Hotel Hermosa is also a good option - it’s courtyard has firepits and pool tables.
Reason to go soon: Summer is a great time to visit, especially Fourth of July weekend, which the town takes extremely seriously. The whole village becomes a blur of red, white and blue for days. There is a classic parade down the main street featuring both impressive official floats and, even better, DIY ones (a few years ago, I saw an older man blazing through town on a bedazzled electric scooter wrapped in bunting and sporting no fewer than four American flags).
Favorite quirky thing to do: Hermosa has a long greenbelt that connects all the way to nearby Manhattan Beach. Walking or biking along the path is the best way to get a sense of the Peter Pan culture of Hermosa beach. Along with the usual joggers and baby strollers, the path is also popular with wetsuited surfers and roving bands of skateboarders of all ages.
Visit the monarchs in Pacific Grove
Pacific Grove is my personal favorite alternative to the often crowded towns of Monterey and Carmel. Affectionately called “Butterfly Town USA,” it’s a stop on the route of thousands of monarch butterflies, which arrive in October of every year on their way to Mexico for the winter. The town’s monarch sanctuary is magical during the butterflies’ visit; the bright monarchs carpet the trees and fill the air. Their influence can be felt all year in Pacific Grove, though; images of them are painted on street signs and store awnings, and the residents are quick to tell you how much they love them.
Reason to go soon: Although the butterflies won’t arrive until fall, early summer is a perfect time on the Central Coast, with consistent sunshine and blooming wildflowers.
Favorite quirky thing to do: Make a stop at the Mindshop, run by the Center for Spiritual Awakening. It has just the right level of new-age charm to please any traveler looking for a touch of weird—plus, there’s a beautiful Zen garden in the back.
Experience Danish Solvang
If you can’t afford a trip to Denmark, Solvang is the next best thing. It’s a Danish village complete with tulips, windmills, warm pastries and a lot of kitsch. Founded in 1911, Solvang was the brainchild of a group of Danes in Ohio who couldn’t hack the Midwestern winters. That was good news for us, since today it’s a time warp that’s perfect for travelers. Solvang is a little bit bizarre, but that’s part of its appeal. It’s a little bit like Disneyland—suspend your disbelief, and you’ll have a lot of fun.
I recommend starting with the gastronomical. Embrace the theme and try some ableskiver, a decadent Danish dessert with powdered sugar and strawberry jam. Then indulge in some Danish meatballs. Because my motto is that dessert should always come first on vacation. The most popular place at which to try ableskiver and other Danish specialties in town is Solvang Restaurant, beloved by both locals and visitors for its mastery of the pastry. For delicious locally sourced fare, try Mad & Vin inside the Landsby, a beautiful Scandinavian-inspired boutique hotel close to downtown. Don’t miss the duck-fat fries. If you’re looking for somewhere a little campier to stay to embrace the full Solvang experience, try the Royal Copenhagen Inn; its buildings are an exact duplicate of a street in Copenhagen.
Reason to go soon: If you really want to dive into Danish culture, drive down to Solvang for Danish Days, the annual festival of patriotism, pastries and clogs that takes over the down during the third weekend of September. But the weather in the Santa Ynez Valley, the larger area that encompasses Solvang and five other wine-country towns, is lovely all summer. The local wineries offer a summer tasting pass, which gets you tastings at 14 participating wineries for $55, including five in Solvang.
Favorite quirky thing to do: Once you’re satisfied with Danish treats, the real adventure can begin: ostrich petting. That’s right—Solvang has its very own Ostrichland. You can get acquainted with 50 emus and ostriches, up close and personal.
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