California’s smaller towns offer big attractions
California’s golden cities—los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego—are celebrated around the world, and rightly so. But the Golden State boasts an engaging range of things to see and do in less-well-known locales, as well. In cities ranging in size from 5,000 inhabitants to nearly 400,000, a surprising, eclectic menu of food and drink, art and architecture, history and sports is available to visitors.
OAKLAND: Overshadowed No More
Few California cities are as surprising as Oakland. Long in the shadow of glamorous San Francisco, the East Bay city of 391,000 has a mix of vibrancy, energy and diversity all its own. The recent influx of technology companies and tech workers from Silicon Valley and San Francisco is helping to turbocharge Oakland. Jack London Square is a hive of restaurants, shops and bay ferries and home to premier jazz club and Japanese restaurant Yoshi’s. Right nearby, Ninth Street’s lovingly renovated Victorian buildings are destinations for food, independent retailers and vintage architecture. City center’s Lake Merritt offers boating, waterside walking and jogging and a cluster of cafés, bars and shops, plus the engaging Oakland Museum of California and gloriously old-school Grand Lake Theatre movie palace. For nightlife, head to the Uptown district’s colony of restaurants and bars, the gorgeously restored 1928 Middle Eastern fantasia the Fox Theatre and 1932 Art Deco Paramount Theatre, which book headline performers. More great cuisine can be found in foodie favorite Rockridge at accomplished eateries such as Wood Tavern, and in the Rockridge Market Hall in North Oakland, near Berkeley.
SAN LUIS OBISPO: Mission, Vineyards & the Outdoors
Nestled between the Pacific Ocean 11 miles to the west and the Santa Lucia Mountains just to the east, this central-coast city of 46,000 is located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Easily accessible by train on Amtrak or via U.S. Highway 101 and famously scenic California Route 1, the historic core of the city clusters around the 1759 Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. This is the place to find restaurants, cafés and shops. Music and theater productions are mounted on the campus of California Polytechnic Institute (“Cal Poly’’). Outdoorsy visitors and locals hike and bike the Nine Sisters hills. The marine-minded head to the sometimeschilly, foggy coast with their wetsuits for surfing, kayaking and windsurfing. South of the city is prime territory for winery touring and tasting: the expansive Edna Valley wine-producing region.
BUELLTON: Santa Barbara Wine Country Getaway
Tucked away in the Santa Rita Hills in gorgeous Santa Barbara County, this instantly likeable small town offers an abundance of attractions. Among them: two famed restaurants, Pea Shop Andersen’s, long-known for—yes— its flavorful pea soup, and the Hitching Post II, featured in the 2004 movie Sideways, filmed in Santa Barbara County’s Wine Country, and now a cult favorite. If you’re a golfer, check out the 9-hole, par-3 Zaca Creek municipal golf course smack in the center of town. Buellton’s Santa Ynez Botanic Garden offers close-up looks at native plants in River View Park. Local lodging is recently revamped, with an extensive renovation of the Marriott and the Sideways Inn; scheduled to open in spring 2017 is a new Hampton Inn. Buellton is located on U.S. 101 just north of Santa Barbara.
BAKERSFIELD: Buck Owens & Basques
Calling all honky-tonk angels: Bakersfield may just be a must-stop. Once home to the late country-music legends Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, this San Joaquin Valley community’s workaday, unpretentious facade masks a city of surprises. Located inland and northwest of Los Angeles, Bakersfield is reached via California routes 99 and 58. The city of 347,000 is home to one of the largest and most vibrant Basque communities in the United States. Family-style Basque restaurants like Wool Growers Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge and the Pyrenees Café add diversity to the downhome cooking of Bakersfield’s truck stops and roadside diners. Fans of country music can drop by Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, with its mementos of Owens and his band, the Buckeroos, and catch a show by contemporary country musicians. It’s a fine place to listen to a swooning steel guitar by the light of the jukebox.
LA QUINTA: Golf, Hiking & Desert Sun
This desert town of 40,000 is a favorite destination for golfers, especially in winter when La Quinta is winningly warm but not hot. The combination of golf and fine weather makes it a strong draw for snowbirds temporarily fleeing less salubrious climes. Located 130 miles east of Los Angeles and 130 miles east of San Diego on Interstate 10, La Quinta is in the Coachella Valley, flanked by the rocky Santa Rosa Mountains. The city offers no fewer than five public golf courses of championship caliber and is a host city for the PGA Tour’s Career Building Challenge, formerly the Bob Hope Classic. Silver Rock Resort features an Arnold Palmer Classic Course, while refurbished circa-1926 La Quinta Resort likewise offers a classic course. A prime getaway for early Hollywood celebrities, including populist everyman film director Frank Capra, La Quinta Resort is perhaps the best-known local hotel. Don’t play golf? Hiking and biking are also popular choices.
EUREKA: Redwoods & Victorians
In the northwestern corner of California, Eureka, 270 miles north of San Francisco on Humboldt Bay, has the largest deep-water port between San Francisco Bay and
Washington’s Puget Sound. The city of 27,000 also serves as the unofficial capital of the state’s Redwood Empire. Once famed for its timber, mines and fisheries, Eureka is a leading West Coast purveyor of succulent farmed oysters. Most significantly for visitors, Eureka offers an attractive preserve of Victorian architecture such as the grand 1886 Carson Mansion at 2nd and M streets. Shops, restaurants and B&BS occupy some of a staggering 1,500 Eureka buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One-million-acre Six Rivers National Forest is a near neighbor.
SONOMA: Wine & a Whole Lot More
Laid out around a traditional Mexican plaza bordered by heritage buildings, this city of 11,000 an hour north of San Francisco grew up around Mission San Francisco Solano. The northernmost and last of the Roman Catholic missions built by Franciscan friars along the north-south spine of California, the 1823 adobe with its historic olive groves is still a focal point of spiritual and cultural life. Sonoma was home to the 25-day Bear Flag Revolt and “Republic of California’’ of 1846, an American uprising against Mexican authorities that led to California statehood in 1850. The plaza’s mid 19th-century buildings now comprise Sonoma State Historic Park. Contemporary Sonoma is a familyfriendly getaway and jumping-off point to Sonoma Valley wineries and the Sonoma County coast. A variety of appealing restaurants and one-of-a-kind shops thrive on and near the plaza, as does the 1931 Sebastiani Theatre cinema. The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is a popular resort hotel with a respected fine-dining restaurant in Sante, while the Basque Boulangerie Café on the plaza draws visitors and locals alike.
TRUCKEE: Classic Western Mountain Town
An atmospheric Nevada County hub of 16,000 on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, Truckee is a classic Western mountain town. As a frontier settlement in the mid 19th century, it played a key role in American westward migration along the Emigrant Trail. Historically a lumber and ice production center, contemporary Truckee is an urban base for exploring the Sierra and visiting Lake Tahoe. Some 200 miles east of San Francisco and 12 miles north of Lake Tahoe, Truckee, with an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet, receives an average of 200 inches of snow, making it a winter destination for skiers, snowboarders and ice skaters. The easily walked downtown, just off Interstate 80 and also served by Amtrak, claims pride of place on the National Register of Historic Places.
MISSION SAN FRANCISCO SOLANO, Sonoma, left; wine tasting at Sanford Winery in the Santa Rita Hills near Buellton, below; the Apple Farm Inn, San Luis Obispo, bottom left; the Bakersfield Californian Building is home to the local daily newspaper, and is on the National Register of Historic Places, bottom right.
THE SIERRA TAVERN is one of many historic buildings in downtown Truckee, right; the Old Church Plaza, Bakersfield, bottom; tall ship Hawaiian Chieftan with the Carson Mansion in the background, Eureka, opposite top.