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Visiting California but missing the charm of Europe? Read this guide to find out about 10 places resembling California’s European towns.
California is a popular West Coast destination mostly known for Hollywood stars, beach volleyball, and endless sunshine. Besides the beaches and celebrities though, there are 10 charming places you should visit, and they resemble European towns in California.
I’ve lived in Southern California for 7 years and truly love the beach lifestyle, but I tend to dream of European castles and cobblestone streets whenever I am home. I’ve put together a road-trip itinerary to share some of my favorite places to visit when I want to pretend I’m overseas.
These places include cities, vineyards, and even a museum. This local’s guide will help you plan your route and give you useful information about all of the sites listed.
Charming European Towns in Southern California
You need a lot of time to drive through California so, I suggest starting your trip in Southern California and ending in Northern California (or vice versa). These Southern California destinations make great road trip ideas even if you are not looking for charming European towns.
1. San Clemente- One of the European Towns in California
Feels like: Spain
The first place on our list is San Clemente, a small town in Orange County. It borders San Diego County and is a quintessential California surfer town.
San Clemente History
A man named Ole Henson founded San Clemente in 1925. He dreamed of building a Spanish village, even though no one wanted to move to a town so far away from Los Angeles and San Diego. After months of marketing and meetings with free food (say no more), he finally convinced real estate investors to buy land.
Every home ownership deed mandated that residents agree to strict Spanish Colonial Revival style guidelines, requiring Mediterranean red tile roofs and whitewashed stucco walls.
Due to Henson’s guidelines, a tile and wrought iron foundry was established in town to meet the needs of the new community. If a home was built that didn’t comply with Hanson’s guidelines, he would either pay for its remodeling or purchase it himself to rebuild in accordance with the guidelines.
Thanks to Hanson’s Spanish village dream, a quick trip to Spain is doable for anyone in Southern California. Walk around downtown to do some shopping or head to the San Clemente Pier to watch the sunset.
San Clemente Hotels
If you are staying in San Clemente overnight, the Best Western Plus Casablanca Inn is walkable to town and offers affordable prices.
2. Temecula Vinyard
Feels like: Italy
Not far from San Clemente, lies the town of Temecula. Temecula is about an hour inland but is located in wine country. Yes, there is more to California wine country than Napa, although there is a must-see castle in Calistoga (Keep reading to find out more).
Most of the vineyards and tasting rooms in Temecula are located off of Rancho California Rd, and they are situated close together. With that said, it is very easy to wine-hop the day away here.
Visit Europa Winery
If you are looking for European influence, you must visit the Europa Village Winery. I honestly felt speechless the first time I stepped into the courtyard and thought I accidentally teleported to Tuscany. There were beautiful rolling hills and vineyard views from the tasting area.
Not only was it stunning, but I also really enjoyed their wine selection. If you like red wine and want to splurge, I highly recommend the 2015 Counoise.
After a day of winery hopping, I definitely recommend staying the night in Temecula. If you want a full spa day, stay at the South Coast Winery Resort & Spa. Other options include the Gaia Inn and the Villa Inn & Spa.
3. Santa Catalina Island- One of the European Towns in California
Feels like: Spain
For such a small island, Catalina has quite an interesting history. It was previously owned by the Spaniards and Mexicans but became a part of California in 1846. Its had several wealthy owners who all wanted to turn Catalina into a resort destination.
The most notable owner, William Wrigley Jr, bought almost every share of the Santa Catalina Island Company and invested millions of dollars into the island. He built some of the most popular attractions on the island, like Hotel Atwater, Bird Park, and the Catalina Casino.
Catalina became the home of the Chicago Cubs spring training from 1921-1951. Descendants of Wrigley Jr still own the Catalina Island Company and maintain this world-class resort.
Getting to Catalina
The best way to get to Catalina is by ferry boat, and the main harbor is in Long Beach. Take the Catalina Express, which has 30 daily departures to and from Catalina Island. A total round-trip ticket for an adult is $84.
One of the best parts of the trip to Catalina is sailing into the harbor at Avalon. Downtown Avalon is quite cute and filled with shops and restaurants. It is essentially the only city on the island.
From the Avalon pier, book several types of excursions, including a glass bottom boat, an undersea sub expedition, and a flying fish voyage.
On the island, visitors can walk around downtown, rent golf carts to explore parts of the island and visit the Descanso Beach Club for a relaxing day at the beach.
The golf carts cost $50 per hour and are available for 2-3 hours during the day. I definitely recommend renting a golf cart and driving up the cliffs for a panoramic view of Avalon. Stop at the Buena Vista Point Scenic Overlook for the best views of the island.
There aren’t many hotels on this island, but if you would like to stay the night, consider Hotel Atwater or Pavilion Hotel. You could also plan a day trip to Catalina and take an evening ferry back to Long Beach.
Feels like: Italy
Venice Beach is an eclectic town on the Westside of Los Angeles. It’s known for its artists, funky boardwalk, and hip skateboard park. Without traffic, it is a 45-minute drive from Long Beach.
Most of this town feels like a modern US city, but there is a little slice of Italy reminiscent of the canals, waterways, and pedestrian bridges. This is known as the Venice Canal Historic District.
Canal Historic District
The Venice Canal Historic District was built in 1905 by millionaire Abbot Kinney. He wanted to recreate the feel of Venice, Italy in coastal Los Angeles. Several canals weave through the residential area of Venice and are accessible from Dell Ave and Venice Blvd.
The New Abbot Kinney
Walk along the canals in Venice and then check out some of my favorite restaurants and shops in the area- Abbot Kinney Blvd is a trendy neighborhood in Venice full of hip eateries and popular stores like Toms, Adidas, and Aviator Nation.
The Butcher’s Daughter is a famous vegetarian restaurant from Brooklyn and a classic spot for brunch or lunch. Eat dinner at Gjelina, an exclusive New American restaurant and a “scene” for celebrities and influencers.
Venice/ Santa Monica Hotels
If you want to stay the night on the Westside, consider hotels in Venice or Santa Monica. Hotels here are not cheap but are newly renovated and nicely styled.
Hotel Erwin is a popular hotel in Venice and also has a nice rooftop bar. The Palihouse Santa Monica is a hip boutique hotel located close to downtown Santa Monica. If you want to splurge, consider The Viceroy Santa Monica.
5. Getty Villa
Feels like: Italy
The Getty Villa is a 30-minute drive from Venice and the next stop on this list. This is not a charming European town in California but a historic museum replicated from a real Italian villa.
About Getty Villa
The Getty Villa is located in Pacific Palisades near Los Angeles and is an extension of the Getty Museum. The Getty Villa is dedicated to the study of the arts and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.
While you take a break from looking at the art, wander around the huge courtyard and pool. The entrance is off of Pacific Coast Highway and perched on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
This museum is modeled after a Southern Italian villa named the Villa of the Papyri. Villa of the Papyri was considered one of the most luxurious villas of the Roman world and is known for its massive library filled with papyri aka paper scrolls.
The real villa was decorated with beautiful artwork and bronze Greek statues. Unfortunately, a volcanic rupture devastated the area, and only certain parts of the villa have been excavated.
Things to Know About Visiting the Museum
Tickets to the Getty Villa are free, but you must reserve a time ticket in advance from their website.
If you get hungry, there is a snack and coffee shop for visitors. Unfortunately, you need to park on the premises, and the parking fee is $20. Despite the parking fee, I promise this museum makes up for the cost.
6. Malibu- El Matador State Beach
Feels like: Portugal
The Getty is close to another popular California beach town, Malibu. Keep driving down the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) from the Getty Villa, and you enter this coastal city. The beach you should visit is 19 miles from the museum and a 20-30 minute drive.
El Matador State Beach
While the shopping area and restaurants in Malibu feel cosmopolitan, the rugged beaches further from town resemble beaches off the coast of Portugal.
I visited beaches around Lisbon and Sintra, and even our tour guides mentioned that the Portuguese coastline resembled California. One of the best beaches worth mentioning is El Matador State Beach.
El Matador State Beach is located off of PCH, and there is limited parking in the lot across from the beach. You must drive down the highway and look for open spots along the road. Street parking is a little tricky but worth the effort.
Once you park, you must walk down wooden stairs. Look up for a beautiful view of the ocean and beach caves. There are a few caves located on this stretch of sand and are perfect for exploring or taking photos.
The beach is beautiful for sunset, but remember to check the high tide start time. If you want to explore other sea caves nearby, check out Leo Carrillo State Beach and La Piedra State Beach.
7. Santa Barbara- One of the European Towns in California
Feels like: Spain
Wake up early to see the next charming European town on this list, Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is a well-known beach town that resembles Spain due to its red Mediterranean roofs, its Spanish Missions, and Spanish tilework.
Without traffic, the drive to Santa Barbara from LA takes 1 1/2 hours. It is north of LA and also located off of the PCH.
A popular thing to do is drive the highway from LA to Santa Barbara to admire the ocean from the drive. If you don’t have a car, consider riding the Amtrak train to relax and see gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean.
History of Santa Barbara
The history of Santa Barbara is complicated due to European colonization. First, Spanish settlers discovered this land in the 1500s and worked hard to turn it into a territory.
Later, in the 18th century, they completely occupied the area and tried to convert the natives to Christianity. It became a part of Mexico during the Mexican War of Independence, but it finally became a part of the US after California was won during the Mexico-American War.
Due to the Spanish influence, Santa Barbara buildings were built with white stucco and Mediterranean tile in the 1920s. Walk around Main St. to admire the architecture, and visit the cute shops and restaurants to see what makes Santa Barbara unique. Because of its proximity to the Santa Ynez Wine Valley, there are also several tasting rooms in town.
Santa Barbara Attractions
Visit the Santa Barbara mission to tour a real Spanish mission. It is available from 9-5 for a tour, and it is the nicest mission in California.
The Santa Barbara Zoo is also a fun experience, and if you get there early enough, you can feed a giraffe. After a fun day of touring the town, head down to Leadbetter Beach to experience the wonderful California sunshine.
Santa Barbara Hotels
8. Solvang- One of the European Towns in California
Feels like: Denmark
After a night in Santa Barbara, visit a cute Danish town called Solvang. Solvang is only a 40-minute drive through the mountains from Santa Barbara.
Solvang is located in Santa Barbara County and was modeled after a Danish village. A group of Danish immigrants founded Solvang in 1911 to escape the Midwestern winters.
Due to its cultural influence, this city is filled with several Danish bakeries, restaurants, and shops. They are mostly located in the main square. You really will feel like you walked into a European town in Solvang.
Danish Author Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen is really influential here, with a park and museum dedicated to the famous Danish author. There’s even a bronze statue dedicated to Andersen and a replica of his mermaid statue located downtown.
Visit the Hans Christian Andersen Museum to learn more about his life and see some of his most popular work. The museum is small, so it doesn’t take long to walk around. It is located downtown next to the historic windmill.
Santa Ynez Wineries
While the town is pretty small, the Santa Ynez Valley (where Solvang is located) is known for its wine. Nearby in Los Olivos and Los Alamos, lies endless tasting rooms and vineyards. Some of the best wineries include Bridlewood Estate Winery, Sunstone Vineyards, Rusack Winery, Foxen Vineyard, and Barbieri Winery.
Charming European Towns in Northern California
Most of the places that resemble European towns in California consist of stops in Southern California, but there is still a lot to see in Northern California.
Besides my European-inspired suggestion, visit Big Sur and camp, or drive through San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge. Feeling really adventurous? Drive out to Yosemite National Park.
9. Capitola- One of the European Towns in California
Feels like: Italy
Drive north from Solvang for 3 1/2 hours to reach the next European town in California, Capitola. Capitola is a coastal city located south of San Francisco near Santa Cruz and Monterey.
Since it is located near the water, the coastal views from this city are amazing. Italian immigrants settled Capitola in the 1800s, and beautiful Venetian-style cottages were built along the wharf.
If it’s warm outside, spend the day at the beach and walk along the pier. Try the popular restaurant Shadowbrook, famous for its charming trolley that leads up to the entrance. After sunset, walk along the Riverview Walkway and find a beautiful patio spot to eat and sip wine.
If you like hiking, climb the Depot Hill stairs to get a birdseye view of the city. Next, walk over to the Capitola Cliffs and get another amazing view of the deep rocky cliffs.
10. Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley
Feels like: Italy
The last place on this itinerary also happens to be my favorite winery in California. This winery is located in northern Napa Valley and was designed after a 13th-century Tuscan castle. It is called Castello di Amorosa and requires reservations in advance.
Castello di Amorosa is located in Calistoga, which is 3 1/2 hours from Capitola. San Francisco is in between both cities and could cause traffic delays. If you are not in a hurry, consider spending some time in this popular Golden State city.
About Castello di Amorosa
Castello di Amorosa was established by Dario Suttui, a 4th generation winemaker and great-grandson of an Italian immigrant. His great-grandfather established St. Helena Wine Cellars in Napa Valley. The winery closed due to prohibition in the 1920s, and Dario dreamed of reviving the family business.
He traveled around Europe after college and became obsessed with medieval architecture. Dario originally launched V. Sattui winery in St. Helena but wanted to open another winery to showcase his Italian heritage.
He waited for the perfect opportunity to find his dream property in Napa Valley to open Castillo deiAmorosa. After a lot of searching, he finally bought land in 1993.
Construction began in 1994, and the project turned into a 121,000-square-foot Tuscan castle. Castillo di Amorosa needed to be authentic, so only old, hand-made materials were used to build it.
As a result, the same construction methods from 700-800 years ago were used to build this castle.
Driving Up to the Castle
While I consider myself a European history and wine fanatic, Dario really put his heart and soul into this project. Construction took 15 years, and the winery finally opened in April 2007. Besides an impressive moat and wine cellar, I think this winery is worth visiting just for its history.
“You can’t fake something like this. You either do it right or people will know it’s not authentic.”Dario Sattui
You need a car to wine hop in Napa Valley (or a pass on the train). Park along the grounds and peek at a view of the massive medieval castle. Walk along the sides of the property and take in vineyard views with colorful flowers lining the walkway.
The views from the castle alone are jaw-dropping really make you feel like you are at a vineyard in Tuscany.
Visiting the Castle
Visiting this winery feels like Disneyland because it gets crowded, but you are greeted by a tour guide. On my visit, we toured the winery in a group and learned about the history of the castle and vineyard.
The tour takes approximately 2 hours and includes a walk through a torture chamber. No, not for use just decoration 😉
The tour ended in the immaculate wine cellar, and guests choose which types of wine to sample. It’s hard to decide between options, but any wine you pick will be flavorful.
Napa Valley Hotels
If you are looking to stay nearby, consider Hotel Calistoga Spa Hot Springs. It’s not a budget-friendly hotel, but it has a beautiful pool overlooking the hills of Calistoga and a phenomenal spa with a mud bath.
If you are wanting to stay in Napa on a budget, consider the Chardonnay Lodge or the Cabernet House, an Old World Inn. They are quaint bed-and-breakfast-type accommodations and are close to vineyards.
10 Charming European Towns in California- Conclusion
If you love wine and historical villages, visit these 10 charming places that resemble European towns in California. From wineries to coastal getaways, this itinerary shares the best local insider recommendations. If you live on the West Coast and desperately want to visit Europe, consider traveling through California instead.