Friday, December 11, 2009

Best Small Towns in Northern California

The town of Mendocino, California

I love it when travel magazines publish lists of the best small towns to visit, because exploring such towns is one of my most enjoyed past times. Yet it’s always disappointing when one of these tempting little towns turns out to be, say, in the Catskill Mountains of New York, or the heart of Montana. Like I’m going to travel all the way there to visit a remote village! I understand that a magazine must appeal to a wide geographical range of readers.

But, since most of my readers are in the West, and more particularly concentrated in Northern California (and those who aren't hopefully intend to visit me soon!), I will share my personal list of best small towns to visit. In no particular order, they are:

1) Mendocino: With gorgeous views of the coast, this former hippie colony has maintained the laid-back vibe, lovely architecture, and environmental consciousness that was present when it was first established. Mendocino boasts lots of B&B’s; more organic restaurants and stores than you know what to do with; Mendocino Jams, offering housemade jams, mustard and marmalades; and Gallery Bookstore, a wonderful independent establishment where the sun shines in through the multitude of ocean-framing windows, and the soft sound of waves crashing on the cliffs across the street lull you into a state of nirvana. I hope to spend my birthday here this year... (December 28th, people!) :-D

2) Sebastopol: Not on the coast but near enough that you can smell the salty fresh ocean in the breeze. Features utterly quirky stores, such as East West Café - completely organic, largely vegetarian and bohemian as all get out. I dare you to find one local eating there who wears makeup! There's also an adorable pie shop on the outskirts of town specializing in pies made from locally grown Gravenstein apples. (Apparently, Gravensteins are an endangered species of apple. Poor little guys. The local are trying to save them from extinction by feeding them to tourists.)

3) Sutter Creek: In Amador County, this is my favorite stop. With relatively affordable B&Bs, quirky home decor shops, loads of antique stores, and the ever wonderful Susan’s Place for lunch or dinner, this town makes a great weekend getaway.

4) Nevada City: A wonderful town where gorgeous Victorian-style houses still abundantly dot the local neighborhoods. Fantastic shopping, including Degroot’s Truffles and Desserts, where one may procure the most sinfully pleasureful chocolate truffles ever created by human hand. The truffles alone are worth the trek, but there’s also a great café for lunch and toy store that will entertain kids and adults alike.

5) Marysville: This town hosts the Peach Festival every summer. Grab some tri tip sandwiches, enjoy the local musician performances, snag a piece of fresh peach pie with peach ice cream, and don’t leave without a few bags of locally grown white and yellow peaches to eat or freeze for peach cobbler later! Also has a very unique specialized bookstore that made for fascinating browsing and a much-needed respite from the summer heat. If you head back to Sac-town, make sure to stop at Stephen’s Farmhouse for the ollalieberry pies, jams, and handmade crafts! (If you’re full from the peaches, they offer frozen pies.)

6) St. Helena: Perhaps the least pretentious town in the Napa area, St. Helena has some lower-key spas, creative cafes, local olive oil, a chocolate store that is the equivalent of Tiffany’s for chocolatiers, an awesome bakery, and of course the famous burgers from Taylors Automatic Refresher (featured on the Food Network’s "Drive Ins, Diners and Dives).

Any other ideas or suggestions? I’m itching to discover someplace new...


  1. Sausalito - jsut a ferry's ride from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, but world's apart. Great little shops and restaurants.

  2. Mendocino is a family favorite. We go there every summer to camp in Van Damme State Park and every few days after Christmas. It's nice to know that others know and love of our own heaven on earth ;)

  3. I will mark Sausalito down as a future destination. And yes, I think I could be quite content to stay indefinitely in Mendocino. I'm dying to try one of the B&Bs there. Maybe for an anniversary...

  4. Stacy, do you have any idea of very small towns in No. Cal where my husband and I could live on his limited social security and whatever teaching/tutoring I can pick up?

  5. Hi, my husband and I live in Paris France and are interested in exploring northern CA small towns close or on the beach as we would eventually want to consider finding a very small place to live part time in this area. Do you know of particular places to stay that you could recommend?

  6. I've found Bolinas and Fairfax in Marin County to be perfect. Go to Fairfax first. You can enjoy fresh coffee at the roastery or plenty of small eateries. Don't miss the live music at 19 Broadway, where some of the best musicians in the world grace this small venue! You can take the Fairfax to Bolinas route across a rustic dam/reservoir and through redwoods to Bolinas bay. Otherwise, you may not get there, since the towns folk are notorious for removing the road signs marking the town. It's like tumbling into Brigadoon! Watch out for the kids riding bareback from the school house and then the big yellow lab sitting in the middle of the road to the beach. Of course it has become a bit "yuppified" since I was last there...but still quite worth the stay.

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Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me!