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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 ten charming places you should visit, and they resemble European towns in California.

I’ve lived in Southern California for seven 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 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

Photo by Tomas Martinez on Unsplash

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 shop or head to the San Clemente Pier to watch the sunset.

San Clemente Hotels

If you stay in San Clemente overnight, the Best Western Plus Casablanca Inn is walkable to town and offers affordable prices.

2. Temecula Vinyard

Feels like Italy

europa village winery

About Temecula

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 Temecula’s vineyards and tasting rooms are located off Rancho California Rd. and are close together. With that said, it is very easy to wine-hop the day away here.

Visit Europa Winery

You must visit the Europa Village Winery if you are looking for European influence. I honestly felt speechless the first time I stepped into the courtyard and thought I had accidentally teleported to Tuscany. There were beautiful rolling hills and vineyard views from the tasting area.

It was stunning, and I also really enjoyed their wine selection. If you like red wine and want to splurge, I highly recommend the 2015 Counoise.

Temecula Hotels

After a day of winery hopping, I definitely recommend staying the night in Temecula. Stay at the South Coast Winery Resort & Spa if you want a full spa day. 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

Photo by Emma Svalstad on Unsplash

Catalina History

For such a small island, Catalina has quite an interesting history. It was previously owned by Spain and Mexico but became a part of California in 1846. It’s 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.

Catalina Activities

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.

Book several excursions from the Avalon pier, 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 daily. 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 island’s best views.

Catalina Hotels

There aren’t many hotels on this island, but if you want 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.

4. Venice

Feels like Italy

Photo by Viviana Rishe on Unsplash

About Venice

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 Venice feels like a modern US city, but a little slice of Italy is 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 Venice or Santa Monica hotels. Hotels here are not cheap but are newly renovated and nicely styled.

Hotel Erwin is a popular hotel in Venice with 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

getty villa in los angeles
Photo by Hester Qiang on Unsplash

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 studying 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 must park on the premises, and the parking fee is $20. Despite the parking fee, I promise this museum will make 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. You should visit the beach 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.

Malibu Hotels

After a long day exploring Italian villas and Portuguese cliffsides, stay the night at The Surfrider Malibu or the Malibu Beach Inn. These hotels are pricey but conveniently located in town.

7. Santa Barbara- One of the European Towns in California

Feels like Spain

santa barbara, one of the charming places that resemble european towns in california

Wake up early to see the next charming European town on this list, Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is a well-known beach town resembling Spain due to its red Mediterranean roofs, Spanish Missions, and tilework.

The drive to Santa Barbara from LA takes 1 1/2 hours without traffic. 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 Mexican-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 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

Hotel Santa Barbara is an iconic hotel located in the middle of downtown. Other nice hotel options include Orange Tree Inn, Lemon Tree Inn, and La Quinta by Wyndham.

8. Solvang- One of the European Towns in California

Feels like Denmark

solvang bread shop

After a night in Santa Barbara, visit a cute Danish town called Solvang. Solvang is only a 40-minute drive from Santa Barbara through the mountains.

About Solvang

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 walking around doesn’t take long. 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.

Solvang Hotels

Some of the best hotels in this area include the Solvang Inn and Cottages, Mirabelle Inn, and the M Solvang. They are located close to downtown and look like old Danish bread and breakfast hotels.

Charming European Towns in Northern California

Most places resembling 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

colorful capitola, one of the charming places that resemble european towns in california
Photo by Beau Barnett on Unsplash

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.

About Capitola

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 for a birdseye view of the city. Next, walk over to the Capitola Cliffs and get another amazing view of the deep rocky cliffs.

Capitola Hotels

Capitola is pretty small, but consider staying at the Seacliff Inn Aptos or the Fairfield Inn & Suites. There are also several hotel options in nearby Santa Cruz.

10. Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley

Feels like Italy

castello di Amorosa fortress, a charming place that resembles european towns in california

The last place on this itinerary also happens to be my favorite winery in California. This winery in northern Napa Valley 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

castello di amorosa vineyard

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 castle’s and vineyard’s history.

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 want 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 want 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

Photo by Michael Glazier on Unsplash

If you love wine and historical villages, visit these ten charming places resembling California’s European towns. This itinerary shares the best local insider recommendations, from wineries to coastal getaways. If you live on the West Coast and desperately want to visit Europe, consider traveling through California instead.


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