Quirky Small Towns in California to Visit This Summer

Road trip, anyone?

Zen out in Ojai // Photo courtesy of the Ojai Visitors Center

Sick of waiting for late BART trains and paying $15 for a sad salad lunch? Same, same. It’s now May, and that means summer is here — the perfect excuse for a road trip or quick getaway from the drab aspects of our dearly beloved city life.

Given that California is bigger than many countries, those of us living in the Bay Area have 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 over the big metropolises. Here are some of my favorites that you should also consider this summer.

1) Find Your Zen in Ojai

Photo courtesy of the Ojai Visitor’s Center

Town: Ojai

How to get there: Located about six hours south of San Francisco down Highway 101, Ojai is situated in Ventura County a little north of Los Angeles. You can also fly into Burbank or LAX, then drive about an hour north.

The rundown: 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 Karl the Fog without running into LA traffic (or smog). 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.

2) Hide Out in Jenner

Photo courtesy of CaliforniaBeaches.com

How to get there: Jenner is located on the Sonoma Coast. Just drive about an hour and 45 minutes (depending on traffic) north of San Francisco through Marin County.

The rundown: Jenner became nationally famous years ago after a young couple was slain while camping on its foggy beach in the early 2000s, but despite this disturbing claim to fame, the tiny village of fewer than 200 people is calm, friendly and virtually crime-free, which is what made that freak incident so shocking. That being said, Jenner does have a twilight-zone feel, given the thick fog that often completely envelops it. The area is a quick drive from the city 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.

3) Enjoy Good Food and Good Views in Point Reyes

Photo courtesy of Point Reyes

Town: Point Reyes Station

How to get there: From SF, head over to Marin, and take Highway 101 to Lucas Valley Road. From the East Bay, take I-80 to CA-37. It’s about an hour’s drive from both downtown San Francisco and downtown Oakland.

The rundown: Even closer to home than Jenner is Point Reyes Station. While the Point Reyes National Seashore brings tourists from all over the world, most of them never even see the quaint town, 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 and 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, but these days the Art Deco–style station is a historic site. 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 minus the crowds.

4) Get Nostalgic at Hermosa Beach

Photo courtesy of Los Angeles County

Town: Hermosa Beach

How to get there: It’s easiest to fly into LAX or Burbank and drive about 20 minutes to Hermosa, situated southwest of downtown Los Angeles. You could drive from the Bay, but it’s a long drive for a weekend—close to seven hours.

The rundown: 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, with a great courtyard with 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, with a classic parade down the main street with 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.

5) Visit the Monarchs in Pacific Grove

Photo courtesy of Pacific Grove

Town: Pacific Grove

How to get there: Shoot down the 101, then switch to 156 when you reach Monterey before eventually taking Highway 1 to Pacific Grove. The drive is about two hours south, depending on traffic.

The rundown: 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.

The butterflies aren’t the only draw to Pacific Grove. Make sure to stop by BookWorks bookstore and coffee shop, which has delicious signature drinks, including a lavender latte. Once you pick out something to read, enjoy your purchase at the Lovers Point beach, just a short stroll from the shop. Pacific Grove has plenty of hotels and B and B’s to choose from for an overnight stay, like the sweet Victorian-style Gosby House Inn and the cozy Pacific Gardens Inn, which is within walking distance to the beach.

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.

6) Experience Danish Solvang

Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara

Town: Solvang

How to get there: Solvang is about 40 minutes from to Santa Barbara, which has an airport, but it’s small. You can also fly into LAX and drive north for about two hours or drive directly from SF for about four and a half hours via the 101.

The rundown: If you can’t afford a trip to the Netherlands, Solvang is the next best thing. Just outside Santa Barbara, 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 or Safari West—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, usually in the low 80s. 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.