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The 11 Best Downtowns with California Charm

The 11 Best Downtowns with California Charm

By California.com
March 23, 2021

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

Historical buildings, charming boutiques, and a dynamic lifestyle—the best downtowns in the nation are found in California. Here, you get the best of everything. Scenic landscapes, fantastic dining options, and plenty of shopping opportunities make the area the ultimate place to hang out. Oh, and entertainment opportunities are a short stroll away. Whether you’re visiting a new county or brushing up on history, here are the coolest cities with the best downtowns. 

California Cities With The Best Downtowns

Besides being the central business district of the city, Downtown Los Angeles boasts a diverse neighborhood.

Los Angeles

L.A. is home to one of the best downtown cities to live in. Here, you’ll find the historic Union Station and the five-story Bradbury Building. The Grand Central Market is the most prominent feature of the area, offering the most diverse mix of cuisines. Spend your weekend exploring the many museums and stop for a lovely picnic at the 12-acre Grand Park.

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With countless boutique stores, you’re destined to go on a shopping spree. Not to mention, the cityside beaches found in the South Bay. Experience the summer sun while sunbathing at the iconic Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo Beaches. Stroll the pier and ride your bike along the Strand. After a fun L.A. weekend getaway, you just might move here—the beaches and bustling city life make it hard to resist.

The downtown district is the heart and soul of San Diego. Spend a day and meander away.

San Diego

Looking for an urban vibe situated near the shoreside? If so, Downtown San Diego is the place for you. The historic Balboa Theatre (open under normal circumstances) is the heart and soul of the district. Luxurious and grand, the theater hosts a variety of comedy shows and musical performances. 

You’ll never run out of places to visit in Downtown San Diego—Seaport Village, the Spanish Village Art Center, and the 12-acre Japanese Friendship Garden are must-sees.

No getaway to Downtown San Diego is complete without checking out the Gaslamp Quarter—the perfect place to spend an afternoon. The lively downtown neighborhood offers a plethora of both affordable and high-end seafood restaurants. Fogo de Chão is the place to go for sizzling steak and Brazilian barbeque. Encompassing the perfect balance of bustle and tranquility, San Diego offers one of the best downtowns to live in

Downtown Napa is colorful, exciting, and as picturesque as it gets. Bring your camera, because it's time to get the photoshoot started.

Napa

Located in the heart of Napa Valley, this oak-studded paradise is one of the finest cities with the best downtowns. Your weekends here are spent golfing, fishing, and hiking. Basically, you’re never bored. A wide range of boutique stores makes this scenic city the best for shopping.

From cozy authentic cafes to upscale dining experiences, you’ll find it all in Downtown Napa. Indulge in the best English Muffins from the Model Bakery, located in the heart of the district. The area also hosts some of the best musical performers and headliners in the country.

The Best Small Town Downtowns

Pretty blue skies, electric green fields, and west coast charm...is there anyplace better than SLO?

San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo is known for its charming downtown.  Thanks to the abundance of must-see places and must-do activities, you won’t have a minute to spare. Museums, galleries, art studios… Downtown SLO has it all. Get your weekly dose of retail therapy and enjoy authentic clam chowder at Splash Cafe. Indulge in mouthwatering Spanish cuisine from Luna Red. For year-round great weather and a peaceful coastal lifestyle, make Downtown San Luis Obispo your home.

Folsom

Located in Sacramento County, Folsom is a wonderful spot for living and vacationing. The city boasts a small-town vibe with friendly residents and plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities. Downtown Folsom is often referred to as “the place where the west came and stayed.”

The warm California sun makes the outdoors irresistibly inviting. Here, you’ll never get enough of the charming cafes and contemporary restaurants. Folsom’s historic buildings add to the town’s character. If you’re feeling adventurous, head over to Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park—one of the first alternating current hydroelectric power stations in the country is preserved here. 

The Best Downtowns to Live In

This not-so-hidden gem in the OC is a must-visit whenever you're in San Clemente.

San Clemente 

San Clemente is heaven to those who love hitting the beach all day, every day. The zoo, art galleries, shops, and scenic pier sound like nothing but a good time. As the heart and soul of the city, the downtown’s palm tree-lined streets invite visitors to enjoy a day well-spent. The many must-try restaurants in the district will leave you craving more. Both Los Angeles and San Diego are just a couple of hours away, so whenever you get the chance, plan a getaway to San Clemente. 

Santa Cruz

Home to endless fun, Santa Cruz is among the greatest cities with the best downtowns. Tree-lined alleys, diverse entertainment scene, free music performances, great outdoor dining options—the list goes on. Fashionistas, renowned designer shops and boutiques await you. Abbott Square Market has all the coffee, pastries, and delicious meals you crave. The exhilarating outdoors and endless amenities make Downtown Santa Cruz a captivating attractive destination and a stunning place to call home.

The Best Small Town Main Streets

University Avenue is Palo Alto's main street, lined with upscale restaurants and boutiques.

Palo Alto 

Welcome to the perfect combination of urban and suburban lifestyle—Palo Alto. A short walk from Stanford, Palo Alto has premium dining and shopping locations to keep its residents and visitors happy. It’s also home to one of the best small-town main streets featuring endless entertainment opportunities and stunning vistas. 

University Avenue offers some of the most diverse dining options. Rooh Palo Alto is the go-to for exquisite Indian dishes. Onigilly’s delicious bites are perfect for a quick and affordable lunch. After enjoying a satisfying meal, head over to the Stanford Theatre (open under normal circumstances) to catch a classic flick.  

Pasadena

Colorado Boulevard is Pasadena's main street. Featuring an eclectic combination of modern and historic architecture, the boulevard gives the city a unique vibe. Shop ‘til you drop and indulge in a feast every time you find yourself on main street. As one of the best cities to live in the downtown neighborhood, Pasadena also is home to several hiking trails for nature lovers. 

The Best Suburban Downtowns

Downtown Sausalito features fantastic views of San Francisco and the historic Richardson Bay houseboat community.

Sausalito

The historic downtown of Sausalito looks like a Mediterranean coastal town. Ocean views and idyllic homes stacked on the hills sweep you off your feet immediately. All that and more make Sausalito one of the best suburban downtowns in California. 

The annual Sausalito Art Festival takes place every Labor Day weekend and attracts thousands of visitors to the quaint district. The downtown boasts some of the best seafood restaurants in the state. Fish Restaurant offers sustainable seafood and tastes like heaven. If you live in San Francisco, you’re just a ferry ride away.

Monrovia

Featuring swaying vistas, this Los Angeles suburb has one of the best small-town downtowns. Set among the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Monrovia has the best of everything—natural landscapes, proximity to a metropolitan area, and an affordable lifestyle. The otherwise quiet downtown gets busy during street fairs. 

Whether you’re shopping, dining, or catching a movie, the downtown district is the place for it all. Bibliophiles head over to the Monrovia Public Library, where educational events are frequently hosted. So, if you’re looking for somewhere both peaceful and entertaining, Monrovia it is.

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