Travel

Got to Get to California

The state’s stunning beauty is on full display in these pastoral midsize cities

Sunset over an ocean viewed from a field of vibrant wildflowers in a California destination, with a footpath leading towards the shore.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

Just like the 1987 Seattle Supersonics, California has a Big Three. Xavier McDaniel, the “X-Man,” is Los Angeles, flashy and often spectacular. Dale Ellis is the Bay Area, polished, poised, and cool under pressure. Tom Chambers is San Diego, kind of boring but dependable, and capable of going off for a big night at any time. But just like those Supersonics, California has a deep bench.

With 75 cities of more than 100,000 residents, and 24 commercial airports, travelers have near-limitless choices for visiting the Golden State. The farm-to-table movement, foodie revolution, and craft wine, beer, and spirits make getting a spectacular meal almost anywhere feasible. And California’s midsize cities are making a real effort to attract visitors by investing in unique offerings.

So, when the Big Three need a rest, sub in any of these three key players for relaxation, stimulation, and the thrill of the new. Here are tips for enjoying a perfect long weekend in these midsize cities.

San Luis Obispo County, aka SLO CAL

Population: 283,159
Key strengths: Wine country, culinary, beaches
Sub them in: For any overexposed wine destination

Famous for its world-class wines, Michelin-star cuisine, historic Madonna Inn, and polytechnic university, San Luis Obispo offers all of the above in a relaxing, rural environment. The SLO CAL vibe is “wine country farmlands meets Old World hospitality,” with a beach-like California twist. Time to SLO down.

Jump on a direct flight to tiny San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport and land in time for lunch with a glass of Pinot Gris in hand. Dine al fresco at the Gourmet Deli at Old Edna, with its award-winning Sextant Wines. You’ll want to rent a car: The attractions of SLO CAL are spread evenly over the cities of SLO, Paso Robles, Avila Beach, and others.

Check in to the newly renovated Petit Soleil in downtown SLO, a boutique bed and breakfast with oodles of French charm. Or, for a more summer pool floatie vibe, check out the brand-new River Lodge in Paso Robles, at the retro-chic site of a former motel. Groups and parties will, of course, seek out the Madonna Inn, a kitschy treasure with 110 totally unique rooms.

Among numerous excellent foodie choices, have a long lazy lunch at Thomas Hill Organics Bistro & Wine Bar in Paso Robles. The menu includes fine examples of local farm-to-table produce, grass-fed meat, and local wine pairings. For “old country” ambiance in a modern setting, don’t miss Etto Pastificio, and Etto Pasta Bar, which make and serve their own fresh pasta using classic Italian techniques.

SLO CAL promotes sustainable practices through its local farmers, producers, and crafters with its “SLO CAL Crafted” badge, which certifies high quality local businesses that are based in and shape the community. Keep an eye out for Surf Gems, where founder Abby Ahlgrim creates colorful jewelry from upcycled surfboard resin.

Continue the sustainable sojourn with a visit to RE:FIND Distillery in Paso Robles, which reuses grape distillate as part of its process to produce gin, vodka, and whisky. SLO CAL also promotes a brewery trail in addition to wine and spirits, and a trip to The Rock SLO Brew will put smiles on hop-lovers’ faces.

Avila Beach beckons on the coast. It is a picturesque gem ideal for a lazy beach day. After a warm afternoon on the sand, order fish and chips and a drink at Mersea on the pier. Enjoy dinner at Blue Moon Over Avila, the charming French bistro with epic water views, and toast the setting sun after a perfect California day. Finish with a unique visit to outdoor spa Sycamore Mineral Springs, where relaxing outdoor soak tubs climb the hill beneath the stars.

Collage of three images: a rocky California coastal scene, mussels with toast on a plate, and an elegant restaurant interior with blue chairs.

Clockwise: Visit the Arch Rock at one end of East Anacapa Island. The mussels are a popular option at Ox & Ocean
in Oxnard. The Petit Soleil in downtown San Luis Obispo exudes French charm.

Clockwise from top left: Photo by Lee Rentz / Alamy, photo courtesy of Ox & Ocean, photo by Blake Bronstead

Oxnard

Population: 201,879
Key strengths: Laid-back beach vibe, Taco Trail
Sub them in: For any too-crowded beach town

For years, Oxnard has been that place you drive through to shuttle between Malibu and Santa Barbara on Highway 1. Now travelers and even longtime residents of adjacent Ventura and Camarillo are discovering that Oxnard has become a destination of its own.

Let’s start with the game changer: Zachari Dunes on Mandalay Beach. The property, part of Hilton’s upscale Curio Collection, opened in late 2022 to become the state’s first all-suite oceanfront resort. Now it’s possible to book a California beach vacation on vast golden sands without crowds or parking hassles. Rent complimentary surfboards, bodyboards, or SUPs from the hotel and hit the waves. The resort has everything you could ever need to amuse the crew, from video games to vinyl record players.

With a spa and swimming pool, and onsite restaurant Ox & Ocean, you may be tempted to never leave the property. But Oxnard’s Taco Trail awaits. Consider yourself a taco-ficianado? Download the Taco Trail app and bring a hearty appetite. To sample the local seafood, order the fish tostada at House of Tacos, made from fresh ceviche cooked in lime juice. Don’t miss Tacos La Bonita across from Plaza Park — the burrito la bonita made with fried, handmade tortillas is otherworldly. Or try the tacos los vampiros (vampire tacos) for a Sinaloa street treat: the corn tortillas are fried to a crunch in shredded cheese. Que bueno!

Then it’s time to get outdoors: Oxnard has several unique activities for enjoying the coast and water. Channel Islands Harbor isn’t just for pleasure boats, so feel free to kayak or SUP in the crisp, still water. For a romantic evening, take an authentic Venetian gondola ride with Gondola Paradiso in Seabridge Marina. That’s amore! For a spectacular day trip, hire a boat to tour the sea caves of Anacapa Island with kayaks and snorkels.

A person in a striped shirt rows a red canoe on a calm blue water surface in California, viewed from above.

Enjoy a traditional ride with Gondola Paradiso in Oxnard.

Photo by Mark Schooling

For the less ambitious, just grab beach cruisers and coast along the strand. There are few beach bars more legit than the infamous Rudder Room, less than 10 minutes south at the mouth of the channel. You could lie in the sand with a cocktail next to you.

For a night on the town, visit the well-curated historic district, which features dozens of historic Craftsman and 100-plus-year-old houses, lovingly restored to their original grandeur. Have a burger or spring rolls and a craft cocktail in the speakeasy at The 1901 in Heritage Square before returning to your coastal retreat.

Anaheim

Population: 345,940
Key strengths: local culture, ethnic cuisine, and craft breweries
Sub them in: When you need a break from the Happiest Place on Earth

There’s no denying that the Mouse has turned this formerly unassuming Orange County town into a worldwide tourist phenomenon. But though it’s possible to do nothing but Disney in Anaheim, it is also possible — and for some, preferable — to explore the town on its own. We can’t guarantee that you won’t see the Matterhorn staring back at your hotel room from across “The 5” freeway, because you will. But Anaheim rewards urban adventurers who regard travel as something that doesn’t include theme parks.

A vibrant amusement park in California, featuring a ferris wheel and roller coaster, reflected in a calm waterfront at sunset.

Paradise Pier in Anaheim boasts a bevy of rides, including a ferris wheel and roller coaster.

Photo by James Kirkikis / Shutterstock

For starters, Anaheim has a surprising amount of culture that doesn’t involve pencil drawings of Steamboat Willie. The Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center is a small but beautifully curated space inside the Carnegie Building, a 1908 former library. Look for upcoming sculpture and photography exhibitions.

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts, with national touring plays and concerts, and the Orange County Art Museum reside next door in Costa Mesa. The expansive Bowers Museum in adjacent Santa Ana contains more than 100,000 objects, specializing in pre-Columbian and Native American art, and California plein-air painting.

The sheer variety of ethnic food worth seeking is reason alone to visit Anaheim. Lola’s By MFK is one of a number of excellent Filipino restaurants — go there for its memorable and satisfying brunch. The Little Arabia neighborhood teems with excellent choices: feast on traditional Yemeni food at House of Mandi, Turkish grilling at Koftegi, or Lebanese fare at Zait & Za’atar. Okayama Bakery serves perfectly baked, whimsical Japanese treats. Or opt for legendary Vietnamese food in Little Saigon in nearby Garden Grove.

And of course, you didn’t think we would leave out Mexican food? Tacos Los Cholos serves tangy tacos al carbon (skirt steak) at its buzzy indoor/ outdoor Anaheim location. It’s like a giant neighborhood barbecue. For contemporary Mexican and craft margaritas, surrounded by Dia de Los Muertos murals, head to Urbana in the Anaheim Packing District.

Suds-loving Seattleites in search of sun should fly south to Anaheim for a Beercation. Anaheim has maintained a proud craft beer tradition for years, with The Bruery appearing on many beer tasting bucket lists. The Packing District is also the ideal location to start a brewery crawl. Just jump on the FRAN for Free Rides Around the Neighborhood.

Two very fun brewery stops are the comic book-themed Unsung Brewing Co. and Villains Brewing Co. less than a block away. Villains recently opened in a beautiful, giant space with outdoor tables, Austin-style barbecue and, of course, a villain perched atop every tap handle. For a big laugh and a great beer, order a Brethren of Filth West Coast Double IPA, “brewed with villainous intent.” And it’s hard to conceive of anything more SoCal than “BrewGa,” which is yoga, while drinking a beer. Check with Brewery X for upcoming dates to further your “practice.”

For fine dining and craft cocktails in a beautiful greenhouse inside Farmer’s Park in the center of town, make a reservation at Poppy & Seed. Dine on branzino, diver scallops, and wagyu hanger steak in a setting so delightful and tranquil you will forget your worries.

California dreamin’ indeed.

People enjoying drinks at an outdoor brewery in California with colorful, striped walls and hanging plants under a tent.

Brewery X is in Anaheim on the La Palma Beer Trail.

Photo courtesy of Brewery X

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