10 Underrated Small Towns in California That Are Great Alternatives to Carmel by the Sea


  • Sausalito, California offers a bohemian spirit and stunning Bay Area views, making it a great alternative to Carmel-by-the-Sea.

  • Ferndale, California is a historic Victorian town with no coastline, but still full of excitement and charm.

  • San Simeon, California is known for its fairytale castle, Hearst Castle, and its coastal landmarks and beautiful beaches.

Surrounded by the waters of the Pacific Ocean, Carmel-by-the-Sea is the jewel of California’s Central Coast. The square-mile village boasts beautiful white-sand beaches, making it a popular seaside getaway. But it’s also one of the state’s most unique destinations; There are a lot of fun facts about this town, including that it doesn’t have any street addresses or streetlights and boasts fairytale country houses, which only adds to its European aesthetic.

Have you experienced the quirky small town charm of Carmel and crave equally tempting vacations? Fortunately, there are a number of underrated cities in the Golden State that serve as a great storybook setting, too. Here are some of the most beautiful small towns in California you can visit that are great, underrated alternatives to Carmel-by-the-Sea.

RELATED: From beachside vacations to desert oases: Discover 10 unique small towns in Southern California

Sausalito, California, for its bohemian spirit

Visit Sausalito’s lively houseboats via the Golden Gate Bridge.

San Francisco Bay and Hill in Sausalito, California

Sausalito is one of California’s underappreciated small towns that offers great alternatives to Carmel-by-the-Sea. It is known for its stunning views of the Bay Area and its houseboats in Richardson Bay.

This laid-back beach town’s bohemian lifestyle and vibrant arts scene make it a popular tourist area, especially for its amazing lodging options.

Ferndale, California, for its Victorian buildings

You can step back in time with a trip to this beautiful and historic California city.

Street in Ferndale, California, USA
Connor B. Fitzgerald via Shutterstock

Street in Ferndale, California, USA

Located about 260 miles north of San Francisco, Ferndale differs from Carmel-by-the-Sea in that it is landlocked and does not have a breezy coastline. Even though it only covers one square mile, it’s just as action-packed.

Founded in 1852, the Victorian village has stunning architecture and an undeniably cozy feel.

San Simeon, California, because of its fairy-tale castle

Relax and unwind at this beach destination located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, USA
Image by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay

Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, USA

Perhaps best known for its stately and historic property, Hearst Castle, Sam Simeon is another one of California’s underrated small towns that is a good alternative destination to Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Like its famous counterpart, it’s also packed with coastal attractions, from dramatic cliffs and stunning views to sandy beaches and massive sea stacks.

RELATED: 10 small towns in Northern California that are off the beaten track

Cambria, California, for its historic gems

This charming city has it all: historic architecture, lush greenery, and stunning ocean views.

Shutterstock: Joe Josephs

Founded in 1866 and officially incorporated four years later, Cambria is a charming little California town worth visiting instead of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

This city features gorgeous Victorian architecture and countless historical landmarks, including the Guthrie Bianchini House, one of the oldest homes in the city.

Mendocino, California, because of its beautiful rocky cliffs

Enjoy a peaceful respite in Mendocino County’s wine country.

Shutterstock: Picchu Productions

From the old-world Victorian architecture to the many wineries, Mendocino is a bucket-list adventure.

The city is also filled with natural gems, including a 7,400-acre wildlife corridor.

Pismo Beach, California, for its homey, small-town feel

This small California town offers stunning coastal scenery.

Pismo Beach Coast, California, USA

Similar to Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pismo Beach is another one of California’s under-the-radar small coastal towns.

This beautiful place is nothing less than a coastal wonder. Explore tide pools or walk along ocean cliffs for panoramic sunset views.

Half Moon Bay, California, for its amazing waves

This coastal town is home to a series of attractive beaches, ideal for surfers of any level.

Beach bar in Half Moon Bay, California, USA
Image by 12019 from Pixabay

Beach bar in Half Moon Bay, California, USA

From the Half Moon Bay Jetty, perfect for beginners or intermediate surfers, to the massive waves of Maverick Beach, this small town is the perfect place to surf.

However, Half Moon Bay is more than just a pretty beach town; It’s great for wildlife viewing and hiking too.

  • population: 11,176
  • Things to do: Half Moon Bay State Beach, Half Moon Bay Coastal Road

RELATED: These are the most unique small towns you can visit in California

Ojai, California, for its stunning sunset views

Head to this Southern California city to watch the most beautiful sunsets.

shutterstock_1089887840 (1)
Shutterstock: Joseph Sum

Ojai is known for many things: its green forests, hiking trails, shops, and eclectic artistic side.

It’s also a great place to watch the sunset, or what locals refer to as the “pink moment,” which is when the Topatopa Mountains are lit up in gorgeous shades of pink.

For the best views of the “pink moment,” look east instead of west. Visit the phenomenon’s website for the best time to see it and other helpful tips on how to spot this dazzling display.

Solvang, California, for its old-world Danish charm

Visit the “Danish American Capital”.

Danish Street in Solvang, the perfect fall destination for families in California
fox_lei via Shutterstock

Danish Street in Solvang, the perfect fall destination for families in California

Founded by Danish immigrants in 1911, Solvang is a truly charming Danish town, from its Northern European-style buildings to its many artisan shops.

Be sure to visit the many authentic bakeries for some delicious Danish pastries.

Avalon, California, for its natural wonders

Visit the only incorporated city on Catalina Island.

Shutterstock: DavidDiaz_Official

No trip to beautiful Catalina Island in California would be complete without a visit to Avalon.

The resort is located on the southeastern tip of the island, and visitors can enjoy stunning views of Avalon Bay as well as a variety of water activities such as snorkeling, kayaking and diving.

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