If there’s one word that best describes California, it’s diversity. The Golden State boasts the kind of economic and cultural diversity that makes it the envy of most other states -- and most other countries.
Naturally, the first things that come to mind when one thinks of California are Hollywood, Disneyland, Silicon Valley, Napa Valley and Yosemite National Park. But residents are more likely to highlight the plethora of outdoor recreation opportunities, the great beaches, and how little effort it takes to find great food, with delectable fresh fruit, inexpensive Mexican fare and In-N-Out Burger among the most appreciated delights.
Of course, California is much more than iconic attractions and the big cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Residents of small towns across the state enjoy many of the same amenities (like lots of sunshine) that city dwellers do, coupled with their own unique added benefits. Using more than 40 data points that range from commute time to population density, we’ve identified the top 5 small towns in California, beginning with a charming seaside town in northern San Diego County.
5. Solana Beach
Solana Beach, just 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego (and pictured above), is an idyllic place to live and raise a family, boasting picture-perfect weather, 1.7 miles of coastline, and the Cedros Design District, which features an intriguing mix of unique shops, art galleries, boutiques and restaurants just a short walk from the beach. The town’s high-quality elementary and middle schools hold particular appeal for parents, with local schools earning a 10 out of 10 GreatSchools rating. The median home price is $959,000, while median household income is $90,579.
For its part, Auburn (population 13,500), located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, made our 2015 list of the Top 100 Best Small Towns, thanks in part to its lower than average median home prices and strong healthy-lifestyle indicators, including low rates of obesity and excellent access to health care. Fittingly, the region is home to an assortment of challenging endurance races, which explains why Auburn bills itself as the “Endurance Capital of the World.” The Auburn State Recreation Area is popular with casual outdoor enthusiasts, while more sedentary residents can be found in historic Old Town Auburn, which features more than 50 shops and restaurants. Eighty-three percent of residents own their own homes, and the median household income is just north of $65,000.
Picturesque Carpinteria is a small oceanside city in Santa Barbara County that boasts the “world’s safest beach,” which benefits from the absence of riptides. Fittingly, Carpinteria is also an exceptionally safe city, with low crime rates and high home values (the median sale price is $705,000). The downtown area is vibrant, with more than its share of unique restaurants, galleries, shops, a weekly farmers market and numerous merchant events. Thirty-eight percent of residents are single, and the median household income is $88,117. Carpinteria is also home to the annual California Avocado Festival, a free, three-day festival that attracts more than 100,000 visitors each October.
2. San Anselmo
Sunny San Anselmo, a town of close to 13,000 people in Marin County, is revered by residents for its cafes, fine dining, and hiking and biking trails, while visitors are drawn in by the galleries, boutiques and San Anselmo’s reputation as a great place to go antiquing. The population is exceptionally well educated (two-thirds of all residents have a B.S. degree or more), and the level of civic engagement is high. The local schools are also highly regarded, earning a 10 out of 10 rating by greatschools.org.
Last but not least is rural, yet sophisticated, Sebastopol, already well-known to readers of Livability as it was rated ninth on our list of the 100 Best Small Towns 2015 and third on our list of the 100 Best Small Towns 2016.
Statistically speaking, 38 percent of residents are single and 71 percent own their own homes, while median household income is $67,641. The city’s most distinctive feature is the “junk art” that decorates the front yards of homes up and down Florence Avenue—with the distinctive metal sculptures contributed by local artist Patrick Amiot. But what really makes Sebastopol a great place to live is the abundance of cultural events, the unique shops, the great farm-to-table restaurants, and the relaxed atmosphere created by the surrounding vineyards and wineries, attractive to both residents and visitors alike.