Cities Journal

Top 15 Small Cities In California

California’s big cities get plenty of love, but it’s a huge state with hundreds of miles of coastline; so, what about other, not world famous living areas? Coastal fishing villages pepper the state’s northernmost beaches, with quiet towns nestled into central mountains and valleys.

Communities close to major cities (such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego) tend toward the upscale or the impoverished, but the majority of California is made up of smaller, humbler towns that combine the beautiful outdoors with a friendly neighborhood feel. Learn about fifteen standouts on the California Energy Commission’s list of towns with fewer than 20,000 people.

1. Arcata

Arcata is home to Humboldt State University; the college’s hilly, laid-back campus is technically part of California State University, but HSU feels like its own, mellow universe, and so does Arcata. It’s the rare college town that’s also very safe, family-friendly and wholesome; according to the relocation tool Find Your Spot, the whole town is known to gather together to watch the Humboldt Crabs, Arcata’s very own minor league baseball team.

According to Frommer’s, part of Arcata’s appeal lies in its diverse and scenic ecosystem, which includes a redwood forest and a marshland full of birds, as well as its mild-to-cool temperatures and quaint downtown square. Arcata even placed sixth on Hardie House’s annual list of America’s “Ten Most Enlightened Towns”; the literary publication called it a walkable and green town.

The San Francisco Gate assured readers that Arcata more than makes up for its rainy, foggy weather. The town continues to stand out for its vintage charm, beautiful redwood forests, and easy-access beaches that are never crowded and always beautiful. The City of Arcata makes a special effort to preserve that native landscape.

Its official website keeps residents updated on volunteer opportunities, such as creek clean-ups and efforts to replace invasive plant life, and lets the whole community decide on eco-friendly initiatives such as a proposed public toilet and a system of bicycle lanes called Arcata Bicycle Boulevards.

Other local efforts to protect the environment include HSU’s solar-paneled dormitories, as well as the work of a local recycled glassware company, Fire & Light Original. According to its website, the company was the first to distribute tiles, decorative décor, and dishware composed of 100% recycled glass.

Arcata might appeal to so many Californians because it represents a microcosm of the state itself. Neither urban nor rural, its diverse population and comfortable climate fosters a sense of community and understanding that isn’t easy to find in the state’s bigger cities.

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  • Abraham Nader Ammar

    Pretty sure Benicia was the 3rd capital unless you include Monterey. Not a very well written article considering 2 or 3 of the cities are basically Los Angeles. Try to think outside the box.

  • ecb97068

    and if you ever had a nightmare that you died and went to the worst type of tourist town in the world, it was probably South Lake Tahoe

  • nick

    What you failed to mention(and I really mean lied about) the water in Avalon, which is home to one of the most polluted beaches in the entire country. 6 sewage spills into the ocean since 2005? And the water STILL isn’t clean after “remediation” ? That’s unacceptable.

    • Megan

      You guys have clearly not spent enough time in Arcata.

    • BlueLaker54


  • nigel

    Hmmm … if I read this and traveled to Arcata to spend a few nights, I’d feel a bit mislead. The “traveler” (aka homeless) element — there cannot be many other places with a higher per capita concentration of the stoned homeless in the nation — sets a significant and undeniably tone – affecting texture for visitors, certainly worthy of at least brief mention in a blurb aspiring to capture place for the uninitiated … Makes me wonder about other towns mentioned.
    I love Arcata, but also value objectivity and accuracy in travel writing…

    • nick

      Pieces of shit like you are unimportant and that’s why they didn’t mention it, because not every is a douchy asshole like you. Homeless people need help, not to be alienated by assholes like you who think they’re better than people who have nothing. Prick.

      • Kaiser Derden

        by definition they are better than people who have nothing … and most of those people have chosen to have nothing … they are simply lazy … period … and you know it …

    • Meh

      I’m sorry but I totally agree with this statement…Arcata is a party town for the college students and a chill place for homeless people to sit on their ass all day on the plaza. They ask for money or try to steal from you so they can smoke weed and get drunk. Nothing really appealing about that.

    • susanp

      I tried living in Arcata and got tired of almost stepping on human shit on my way to the store in the morning..

  • CrazyB

    I guess if you like cold, rainy and foggy weather throughout the year, this is the place for you. Which is one of the reasons the beaches are never crowded. And it is full of homeless people and punks. Aside from nature itself, all the towns in Humboldt are garbage.

    • Frumboldt

      Thank goodness for people like you. Your misleading comments keep this town nice and small, keep the beaches pristine and beautiful, and the outdoor opportunities uncrowded. Keep believing that the weather sucks in Humboldt buddy – You are helping keep this place the way I like it!

      • CrazyB

        I lived in Humboldt for 5 years, I know the weather. A bunch of hippies, punks and homeless people hanging out at the Arcata square. Did I mention the foul stench as well? Yeah wonderful place to live! SMH.

    • Dumboldt

      The weather allows for the awesome environment including redwoods. It’s not for everyone! I second your comment about towns in Humboldt, though. There appears to be a lack of standards and common decencies! Great place to live if you like giant diesel trucks, camouflage clothing, zero diversity, and complete lawlessness.

      • Bigweezy

        that sounds like a great place

  • skihuntr

    It’s true….. Arcata sucks…. I live next door in a community to the north.. Lived in Arcata and had nothing but problems with students puking in your yard and dumping their trash after partying. The homeless problem is in your face on most corners and especially on the plaza…….Parking sucks HSU does not have enough parking for itself which forces cars into the surrounding neighborhoods …. There is a lack of good dining establishments,… Not to say there aren’t a couple though, but not that reasonably priced… And most of the year the weather sucks, go inland just a few miles to get sun. There are far better places to live in Humboldt than Arcata… The plus side beer.. Arcata sits in the middle of 6 micro breweries

  • FormerArcadian

    The City of Arcata has an ordinance prohibiting more franchises then the nine already existing ones! A very progressive achievement.

  • Susan A

    What “Arcata” are you referring to in this article?

    Certainly not the one I grew up in.

  • Yasmedic

    Whoever wrote this must be from the San Francisco area. Most of the towns are up north. There are a lot of amazing little towns in SoCal that didn’t make the list. I’m surprised the Ojai made it. Towns such a Julian, just to mention one, can give any of those other small towns a run for their money. Small but beautiful with a wonderful energy about it.

    • BlueLaker54

      Don’t know why you have your panties in a wad. While you are correct, most of the towns listed are north of San Francisco…by 1. 8 north of San Francisco and 7 south of San Francisco. You say, “Towns such a Julian, just to mention one, can give any of those other small towns a run for their money.” I doubt you’ve been to most of the towns mentioned so you have no reference. I’m not saying Northern California is better. I grew up in So Cal and my family is still there and I enjoy visiting often.

  • Greg

    Love that El Segundo made the list

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