California is a huge state. Trying to only choose 5 cities to visit is close to impossible. For this post, I’m going to skip some of the bigger California cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles and introduce you to a few must see places you may not have heard of. Here are five cities we think make great places to visit whether you are a tree hugger, a star struck celebrity lover, or simply a stargazer.
1. Mendocino Village, California
I cannot tell a lie, Mendocino Village, more than any other California city, tugs at my heartstrings. Not only can you watch gray whales swimming from its shorelines, you can also taste amazing wines at local vineyards and commune with giant redwoods in nearby forests. The unique beauty of this small Victorian village is the perfect backdrop for a relaxing yet adventurous vacation and makes a great home base from which to explore Mendocino County.
Mendocino Village is a coast lover’s dream come true. It is surrounded on three sides by ocean bluffs, called the Mendocino Headlands. The headlands are full of trails so exploring the rugged coastline, discovering secluded beaches and being surprised by hidden grottos and sea arches are must dos. Nature lovers should not miss the nearby Montgomery Woods which is home to the tallest living tree in the world.
If you’ve looked at a few pictures of Mendocino Village, you may be thinking it looks familiar. You are right! Not only can you love nature to your heart’s content in Mendocino, but you can explore Murder She Wrote’s setting (A.K.A Cabot Cove). Exterior shots of the village make up the imaginary Maine setting.
And if that is not enough to convince you, well you just have to like a place that has a webpage featuring interesting locals.
2. Carmel, California
Eccentric & charming, Carmel By-The-Sea (yes that’s its official name) is known for its inspiring natural beauty, dog friendly establishments and rich artistic heritage. It also has some strange laws like a ban on wearing of high heels without a permit, but that’s a story for another time.
Arts, great food & shopping – add some nature loving to the mix and you have a recipe for Carmel By-The-Sea. The town abounds with interesting little stores, bakeries and restaurants. Be prepared to do without house numbers though, this bohemian community never quite got used to the idea of those. Art lovers can spend their days touring over 80 art galleries. Outdoor adventurers can get their surf on or if you don’t have great balance (raises hand sheepishly) spend some time boating or scuba diving in the gorgeous Monterey Bay or strolling the one mile long pure white sandy beach.
If celebrity sighting is your thing, you are in luck, stars such as Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood, Beverly Cleary (my kind of celebrity) and many more have homes in Carmel.
Make sure that you do not miss the 17 mile drive or a side trip to Big Sur if you are in the area. The 17 mile drive is a toll road that takes you past some of the most spectacular views in California including a view of the famous lone Cypress, a single cypress that has been perched on a rocky cliff for over 250 years. As for Big Sur, just look at these pictures & you will understand.
3. Truckee, California
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, Truckee is an amazing vacation destination for outdoor lovers and history buffs. Truckee is a small town with old school charm mountain style, that kind of town that takes your breath away but also makes you feel right at home.
The rich history of Truckee is still evident today. The downtown area is filled with historic buildings including the old jail which dates from 1875 and the rocking stone, a 17 ton stone once used by Native Americans for drying food. There is a historic downtown Truckee map available for those who want to explore Truckee’s history deeper. Those interested in the harsh realities of life as a pioneer can visit the The Donner Memorial State Park which houses the Emigrant Trail Museum and the Pioneer monument.
Where Truckee really shines is in the natural playground that surrounds the town. Not only is Truckee a short drive from the magnificent Lake Tahoe, but it has also become a skiing meca with eight ski areas within 15 miles. National Geographic even rated it one of the World’s best Ski Towns (and that list was short).
Milkyway From Truckee California
Downtown Truckee, California – A Great Spot for Photography
4. Solvang, California
Have a yearning to visit Denmark? Why not go to California? That’s right – Solvang is little piece of Denmark in the United States. The name itself is Danish for sunny field and it was founded in 1911 by a group of Danish teachers. Solvang has retained its Danish charm and is a picturesque town with its roots deep in Danish culture making it a unique stop on your California travels.
Quiet tree lined streets host horse drawn wagons here. Visitors can eat Danish pastries while exploring Hans Christian Andersen Park or looking at the towns windmills. Flower lined streets make the walkable downtown area as inviting as it is interesting. Did I mention that there were over 150 one of a kind shops in Solvang? From arts to antiques, perfumes to old world Christmas decorations, Solvang is a shopper’s paradise.
5. Death Valley Junction, California
There really isn’t a lot to do in Death Valley Junction. So why you ask am I including it on this list? Because it’s awesome, that’s why & it makes a great base for exploring Death Valley National Park and the Mojave Desert.
A little bit about Death Valley Junction – it is tiny, I mean super tiny like having a population under 20. It’s a near ghost town, and yet… it is home to the amazing and unique Amargosa Opera House where Marta Becket has created a one of a kind experience from the dust of an old Borax company building. Marta restored the building and created her own unique theater here and performed for over 35 years. She even painted an entire audience on the walls so that theater goers could sit with kings and queens, bullfighters and monks. It is an unexpected oasis of artistic vision in the middle of a great desert.
Sadly Marta preformed her final show in February 2012, but the Hotel is still open and also features rooms that were painted by Becket. I have heard rumors that some visitors have been able to tour the opera house by asking at the hotel – worth the try I say.
And then there is Death Valley National Park. California is a diverse state and Death Valley Park itself is just as diverse. It is the hottest and driest of the national parks in the United States yet also boasts snow covered peaks. It has one of the darkest night skies in the United States so it is a popular place to go star gazing. And then there is the beauty of it, from the singing sand of the Eureka Dunes to the spectacular view from Zabriskie Point, Death Valley is nature at it’s best.
Amargosa Opera House and Hotel: Life After Death (Valley)
Zabriskie Point (Death Valley)
Death Valley National Park, California USA
Get out of the Damn Car: An Illustrated Death Valley Road Trip (the soundscape is great)
Do you have a favorite city in California? Let us know why you love it and what the must see spots are!
About the Author: Kate is a travel junkie at heart. She lives for exploring cultures, food, history and local life and is currently scheming ways to get enough time free to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Get Trip Logic Updates by Email.