It's not just your imagination: San Francisco has never been this crowded. After watching the city grow by 32,000 people between 2010 and 2013 alone, it’s only natural to feel like pulling the escape cord, preferably landing somewhere quiet and small. Lucky for us, there are hundreds of towns in California inhabited by fewer than 7,000 people, or less than 1 percent of S.F.’s 800,000-plus souls. Even luckier, plenty of these hamlets are truly spectacular, with down-home charms and, in some cases, big-city amenities (Third Wave coffee chief among them). Herein, a ruthlessly culled collection of the state’s 25 sweetest spots, from idyllic farm towns to obscure coastal sanctuaries. The biggest one (Winters) maxes out at 6,900 people; the smallest (Marshall) sits at 50; and the combined population of all 25 is 41,800—fewer than live in the Mission district. Consider these the underdogs of vacationland—and a reminder that sometimes small trumps large.
The Sun-Kissed Coast
Santa Barbara County
Summerland is like a half-mile-long, shabby-chic bungalow: Palm fronds, succulents, and bougainvillea vines cover the Craftsman houses lining Lillie Avenue, one block from the beach. It’s retained the coastal nonchalance that’s been lost from its celeb neighbor, Montecito—cruisers spin down the road and chipped, bubble gum–hued houses populate the hills. And yet it’s sophisticated: Just Folk displays untraditional art in an airy gallery, utilizing the elevator as an exhibit space; Botanik sells SoCal–meets–Southeast Asia decor for shelter buffs; and sun-kissed ladies at Summerland Winery pour rosé. You’ll find surfers munching on fish ’n’ chips at the sailor-themed Stacky’s Seaside (2315 Lillie Ave.) or brunching at Summerland Beach Café (2295 Lillie Ave.) and Cafe Luna (2354 Lillie Ave.). Beyond the buzz, the mellow Inn on Summer Hill (From $239) has unobstructed views of the Pacific for miles.
San Mateo County
Day-trippers have been flocking to this seaside agrarian colony since forever. You’ve probably been one of them, dining at the beloved but dusty Duarte’s Tavern or lined up at Arcangeli for artichoke bread, but now there are a few unexpected draws. Downtown Local (213 Stage Rd.), a voguish café that could’ve been plucked from Valencia, features Sightglass coffee, kombucha on tap, vintage motorcycle paraphernalia, and a 12-seat silent movie theater tucked in the back. Next door, Chikken Revolution (213 Stage Rd.) sells specialty local provisions, and closer to the beach, the Highway 1 Brewing Company has brought the craft beer scene to town. Maybe the next time you pull into Pescadero, you’ll decide to stay the weekend.
San Luis Obispo County
California’s lost golden era of longboards and melodic surf rock lives on in this scruffy coastal village. Surfers crowd the takeaway window at Ruddell’s Smokehouse for creamy house-smoked salmon tacos with crispy apples, while kids with rainbow snow cones stroll the 953-foot pier that’s poised to get a multimillion-dollar facelift. Drop by Brown Butter Cookie Company to watch bakers hand-roll seasonal fall spice cookies, or catch the local lore from old-timers around the shuffleboard table at Old Cayucos Tavern. Every night, an eclectic mix of spruced-up farmers, surfers, and visitors fills the only swish spot in town, the Cass House (From $185), for the single 14-course tasting menu with fare pulled from the onsite garden and local farms. In autumn, the warm fall colors of the crockery play off the golden hills as seasonal country highlights take the spotlight—heirloom apples, pig roasts, and housemade pinot. Cozy up in one of the five rooms with a bit of history—the hotel was originally the estate of the town’s seafaring founder, Captain James Cass.
Of all West Marin’s picturesque fishing villages, Marshall is not only the smallest, it’s the most charming (sorry, Inverness). Iconic Nick’s Cove just upgraded with the opening of the Croft, a garden for its restaurant and bocce ball courts that’s open to the public. It’s still one of the best places to sample West Marin’s edible bounty, with ingredients from Straus, Bellwether Farms, and Cowgirl Creamery. An alfresco raw bar for tossing back oysters and a Tomales Tonic (botanical gin and house-made tonic) overlooks the bay, while colorful stilted cottages hover above the water (From $349). Meanwhile, the Marshall Store smokes its own beef jerky, and local outfitter Blue Waters Kayaking whisks adventurers onto the waters under starlight for otherworldly bioluminescence tours through the winter.
After braving the tangled road that connects Highway 101 to the Lost Coast, entering Shelter Cove can feel like dropping into a Hitchcock film. Large estates have been worn raw by the salt air, and dense fog often filters out the sun, but the initial chill is only temporary—this is a friendly sliver of the rugged northern coast. Shelter Cove Deli (492 Machi Rd.) is a must-stop bait shop that dishes out the best fish ’n’ chips in the county, slathered in a house tartar sauce. The Cove Restaurant (10 Seal Ct.) is the town gem, serving upscale fare and the best view of sunset after a day of combing the tide pools or Black Sands Beach (Beach Rd. at Humboldt Rd.). The seafoam-green Inn of the Lost Coast (From $160) has 18 updated ocean-view rooms (hint: request room 6, 7, or 8 for a Jacuzzi with a view) and serves as the base camp for adventurers setting out on the 25-mile Lost Coast Trail.
The Farm-Fed Burgs
Santa Barbara County
Lush arbors, enchanting country markets, and Adirondack chairs behind white picket fences make this bucolic hamlet feel like a slice of Martha’s Vineyard drifted into California. Offerings on the menus and wine lists are virtually all sourced from nearby Santa Ynez Valley farms and vineyards. Mattei’s Tavern, a 19th-century stagecoach stop that has been through many incarnations, is currently an upscale farmhouse-style eatery where locals break between courses to drink rhubarb juleps and toss bocce balls around the backyard. On the main drag, Enjoy Cupcakes serves flights of cupcakes—with flavors like chocolate blackberry syrah—out of recycled egg cartons. While nearly every other white-trimmed storefront is a wine-tasting room (there are more than 40, and counting), the enclosed courtyard at Carhartt is the rowdiest. Across the road, Saarloos + Sons is one of the chillest, decked out with beachy sentiments and balanced by chandeliers for a touch of surf country chic.
San Diego County
Julian is a bit like San Diego’s Napa: It’s all about growing one crop really well—in this case, apples. When fall sets in and the surrounding trees begin to turn, you can find apples in a variety of renditions—simmering beneath crumb-top crusts as they cool on the shelves at Julian Pie Company and pressed into crisp hard cider (made from a colonial recipe dating back to the 1600s) that flows from the taps at Julian Hard Cider’s watering hole, Miner’s Saloon. Trace the apples back to their source at Apple Starr’s sprawling orchards, where you can grab a red wagon and pluck nearly a dozen varieties of ripe apples and pears through the beginning of fall. Locals send off the celebrated season in style with the annual Apple Days Festival, a fixture in the town since 1909. The next one happens on October 4 and 5, with music, dancing, and farm games.
Often overshadowed by its more Instagrammed neighbor, Boonville, Philo has finally made a rep for itself as Anderson Valley’s culinary mecca. A Gary Danko protégée now lights up the live-fire kitchen at Stone & Embers, churning out inspired local cuisine, including chocolate pudding with crushed almonds that mimic the consistency of sand on the nearby Mendocino coast. The conundrum is in choosing between that and Coq au Vin (1810 Hwy. 128), a yellow Bordeaux-esque cottage just off Highway 128. Before dinner, wine tasting is in order in the mid-century modern room at Baxter Winery. Look closely at the wood bar—bullets are embedded in it. You’ll sleep well in the cottage that has just been converted into five new rooms at the Madrones (From $195). Or catch a Philo Apple Farm culinary weekend now through November.
For decades Yolo County has been exporting much of the quality organic produce from its 983 farms to the San Francisco Farmers Market and high-end restaurants. But recently the residents of Winters, a small brick-lined burg in the center of farm country, have claimed their share, and the town is seeing new restaurants and bars that offer the local bounty. At the town watering hole, Preserve Public House, packaged nuts have been supplanted by seasoned local almonds and walnuts, cured olives from trees down the road, and local cheeses and fruits. Just outside of town, the seasonal brews from Winter’s first craft brewery (it stocks only 20 barrels), Berryessa Brewing Company, flow straight from the casks. The best news? You can work it all off by riding the Happy Trail bike loop around Lake Solano.
What could a town of just 56 people offer high-maintenance urbanites? For starters, Freestone has become a micro epicurean nexus in West Sonoma’s vast universe of empty hills—its cluster of frontier buildings is experiencing a boom unseen since its self-proclaimed glory days as a railroad stop. There are the cult breads of Wild Flour Bread Bakery, including fig fougasse and ginger-pear scones—made with ingredients from its backyard and baked with eucalyptus in a brick oven. Order a loaf to go and pair it with Sonoma cheeses and honey from the gouda-yellow Freestone Artisan Cheese company for an ultra-local picnic in the small redwood grove out front. Wash it down with Sonoma coast pinot from the tasting room at Joseph Phelps, and top off the day with a relaxing cedar enzyme bath at the Japanese-style Osmosis Day Spa.
The Woodland Art Scenes
Dunsmuir is one of those endearingly rusty railroad junctions that many believe are extinct—yet here it is, hidden just a mile off Highway 5 in Mount Shasta’s shadow. Its locomotive history is heavily reflected in the architecture, like the aptly named Railroad Park Caboose Motel (From $120), which takes the form of railroad cars. There’s enough flannel to let Mission baristas blend in with the crowd, and cicerones will feel right at home at Dunsmuir Brewery Works, which serves drink-me-if-you-dare micro-ales like Rusty Spike alongside street-style tacos. Visit on October 11, when upwards of 30 artists open their doors for the Dunsmuir Art Walk. The other half of the appeal of this alpine village lies in the woods that surround it—cascading waterfalls at Hedge Creek Falls, easy walk-and-wade fishing in the Sacramento River during the fall, or dogsledding through the Mount Shasta Wilderness in the winter.
Tucked behind Humboldt County’s “redwood curtain” is a microcosm of San Francisco: ornate Victorian mansions (known as butterfat palaces to the locals) and artisans who flocked to Ferndale in the great hippy migration of the ’60s. The main drag is a testament to the arts, boasting the Ferndale Arts Gallery, with its collection of forest-inspired arts, the Ferndale Repertory Theatre, and Artisan Alley, where craftspeople whittle away on detailed wood carvings. Watch the couple behind BeAnn’s Jams (606 Main St.) turn foraged blackberries into a gooey preserve inside their matchbox store, or sip Lost Coast ale with a group of friendly (and rowdy) locals at the Ivanhoe Hotel and Bar. The Victorian Inn (From $105), an updated Dickens-era mansion, has boutique rooms and one of the town’s best restaurants.
You wouldn’t be out of line to call this free-spirited enclave the Santa Cruz of SoCal (minus the boardwalk). Tucked into a woodsy pocket of soaring pine and cedar trees, it’s an artsy Shangri-La with a spritz of patchouli. By day, locals paint and tinker away in their studios or seek divine inspiration in the surrounding forest. For the best overview of their work, enter the storybook cottage Café Aroma. If that’s too civilized for what you have in mind, Mount San Jacinto State Park is at the town’s doorstep, with massive granite rocks known for epic bouldering and dozens of miles of twisty mountain biking trails. A recently spruced-up bed-and-breakfast, the Grand Idyllwild Lodge (From $255), boasts mountain-chic decor with a wraparound porch and panoramic views of the jagged mountains.
Santa Cruz County
This downtown gushes Main Street America on the surface, but its true self shines every Saturday, when small-scale chefs, bakers, and farmers sell their homespun goods at the Boulder Creek Farmers’ Market. Snag a loaf of coveted pumpkin bread from I Rise Bakery, try perfectly blistered wood-fired pizza from Farm to Fork, and hear tunes from local bands. Fall is the best time to visit nearby Big Basin Redwoods State Park, with over 80 miles of trails through lush canyons to expansive ridgelines. Then convene at the local hiker hangout, Boulder Creek Brewery and Cafe, for a pint of its fitting Redwood Ale, some deep-fried avocado, and tales from the locals.
Let Healdsburg have its fancy cupcake stores—Sonoma’s best-kept secret prefers more bohemian charisma. Surrounded by redwoods, the three-block downtown strip started getting attention as a dining destination when a chef couple who met while working for Thomas Keller opened Backyard. Now their country house–style restaurant is a popular spot to linger over family-style fried chicken and strawberry cream puffs. Across the street, Wine Guerrilla began pouring around a dozen styles of zinfandels last year. Nightingale Breads (6665 Front St.) attracts a Tartine-long line for its fresh foccacia and inventive spins on different loaves, but the wait is worth it. You’ll find your own hideaway a few blocks from the main drag in one of the guestrooms or a garden cottage at Case Ranch Inn (From $195).
The Purveyors of Funk
San Bernardino County
In the 1950s, Rimrock Ranch (From $83) was a cloak-and-dagger getaway for Hollywood stars like Roy Rogers. Now it’s a refuge for city dwellers looking to do a different kind of stargazing—a timber observation deck invites watching the night sky before settling into one of the knotty pine cabins furnished with desert eclecticism. Splash in the “cowboy plunge pools” filled with mineral water. Or relive the town’s early days as a Wild West motion picture set as local group Gunfighters for Hire conducts live shoot-’em-up skits on the main street. For modern-day culture, check out one of the original sets, Pappy & Harriet’s, a bar and music venue that draws an impressive list of performers: Its Desert Stars Festival on October 3 and 4 is bringing in the Dandy Warhols. On the 15th, the New Pornographers are due in.
Though Isletown may have fondly referred to itself as the Little Paris of the Delta once upon a time, these days you probably won’t mistake it for a landing along the Seine. Now people visit for its eccentric backwater charm and kitschy vibe. A short walk through town is like a viewing a flipbook of its quirky character: fishermen reeling in sturgeon and catfish at the marina, sailors clinking gaudy tropical cocktails at Busaba on the Delta, old- timers throwing down a royal flush at the restaurant-bar-casino Rogelio’s Dine & Sleep, and Hawaiian shirt–sporting locals getting down to live music at the nautical Spindrift. The big news around town is the anticipated reopening of the iconic Delta Daze Inn.
Guerneville might claim to be the Russian River’s most visited hub, but Duncans Mills has off-the-beaten-path appeal. On the far west shore, it’s a fossil of the 1870s—and that’s how the locals intend to keep it. Get a formal introduction to its charmingly old-guard persona at the Depot Museum—which houses the hamlet’s history in three century-old railroad cars—and the antique store–meets–flower shop Antiquarian/Florabunda (25195 Hwy. 116). Indulge in a country-style lunch at Cape Fear Café (25191 Hwy. 116), then mosey downriver to Sonoma Coast State Park. Around sunset, join the locals lingering over sprawling cheese plates and wine flights on the sunny patio at Sophie’s Cellars.
San Diego County
When an artist began installing hulking metal sculptures of dinosaurs in Galleta Meadows, surrounded by the tumbleweeds and cacti of the Anza Borrego Desert, it was merely the beginning of this town’s outré-art boom. Skirting the edge of Christmas Circle, the town’s central roundabout in lieu of a main drag, is the new Borrego Art Institute, a striking modern arts complex that sells troves of local art and hosts classes. The population of the zero-stoplight town swells on January 15 to 19, when film buffs flood in for the Borrego Springs Film Festival. Down the road, La Casa del Zorro (From $135) offers a relaxing oasis in the midst of forbidding canyons and dunes.
Bridgeport sits on a lonely stretch of highway between Mammoth Lakes and Tahoe, in a region that’s primarily known for its ghost towns. But you won’t find gold-panning here. Locals and visitors use Bridgeport as a base camp for exploring the surrounding wilderness. Trailblazers at Hunewill Guest Ranch host autumn foliage rides, or you can follow the unpaved road to Travertine Hot Springs, where granite boulders surround warm blue pools with views of the Sierras. Come winter, backcountry snow sports kick off in the 500 miles of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and dogsledding trails—no lift ticket required. Fuel up at High Sierra Bakery, which makes doughnuts from scratch using a secret family recipe.
If you’re not looking for Volcano, you’ll never find it—two miles off Highway 88, it has maintained a neglected charm that other nearby hubs (Pioneer, Pine Grove) have lost to commercialization over the years. In this crater-shaped valley (hence the name), locals flaunt similar against-the-grain grit, sometimes trading their chicken eggs for a drink at the town canteen (though you should probably bring your wallet). The unofficial town hall is in the backyard of the surprisingly stylish saloon-style Volcano Union Pub + Inn (From $119), where locals huddle around pints of fizzing local Irish red ale and burgers are served pierced by a steak knife. Upstairs, the four bright rooms of the hotel are filled with photography by local artists, and a stroll down the old wood sidewalks reveals more arty soul: The Volcano Theater Company casts locals in classic plays like Robin Hood.
Nevada City likes to proclaim itself the Carmel of the Sierra foothills—and true enough, it has long drawn artists and performers seeking small audiences, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and even Mark Twain back in the day. The main drag is lined with 19th-century brick buildings that house shops with boutique mountain flair (Kitkitdizzi), third-wave coffeehouses (Curly Wolf, 217 Broad St.), and restaurants that can hold their own against any other in the Sierras. It’s the type of place that visitors stop by for a weekend and stay for 20 years. If you don’t have that kind of time on your hands, you can catch the best acts passing through town at the Miners Foundry Cultural Center, a gold rush landmark that also hosts craft fairs. Bons vivants will want to check out Matteo’s Public for its local pub fare and live music.
Yosemite is just an hour away, but based upon the Coyote Ugly–style karaoke that fills the Iron Door Saloon on Thursday nights, you’d think you were in Austin. But no, it’s just Groveland—bursting with enough festivals and energy to qualify as a city even if the population is only in the triple digits. Across the street, the boutique Hotel Charlotte (From $129) was revived by a young couple who switched out its doilies for local art and mod chandeliers while preserving its funky Western feel. Pull up a stool at the remodeled Charlotte Bistro & Bar, lean on the reclaimed oak bar crafted by a local woodworker, and order the crisp Sierra Pack Mule—a local spin on a Moscow Mule.
By fall, the summer crowds have thinned out, leaving the cobblestoned corridors for you to explore. Though Murphy is one of the best gold country spots for soaking in history, zero in on the newer draws: grenache at Black Sheep Winery, fancy grilled cheese at Roquefort, raspberry-filled cupcakes at Lila & Sage, contemporary art at Art on Main, and Calaveras-harvested herbs at the Spice Tin.
Don’t let the antique gas pumps in front of Smithneck Farms Café fool you: Inside, gregarious chef (read: illustrious yodeler) Dwight “Honky-Tonk” Brooks serves modern frills like drip coffee and peach-basil jam. The most social spot in town is the, gulp, clothing-optional natural hot springs housed in geodesic domes at Sierra Hot Springs Resort (From $88). Soak your legs in the springs after a day of cross-country skiing. Note: Ask for the Purple Room, unless you prefer the hostel. (Didn’t think so.)
Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco
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