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5 Quirky Small Towns to Visit on the West Coast

By Fiona Mokry
Read time: 4 minutes

While the serene scenery and windswept beaches of the West Coast attract visitors far and wide, this region of the U.S. also lays claim to some unique small towns that march to the beat of their own drums. In these towns, you can feel as though you’re in Europe without leaving the country, appreciate fascinating historic architecture, or perhaps even get lost due to a suspicious absence of street signs. Check out these five of the quirkiest and most charming West Coast towns that are sure to steal your heart.

Bolinas, California

Highway along coast of Bolinas, California
Credit: jul3s83/ iStock

This small coastal community located one hour north of San Francisco is a well-kept secret, and that’s no accident. It’s rumored that, in an attempt to keep tourists away, Bolinas locals once resorted to stealing street signs to keep their town under wraps. But if you can overcome the navigational diversions and conquer the winding mountain pass leading into town, this quirky Northern California town promises to enchant the moment you arrive. 

With a population of roughly 1,600, Bolinas has a tight-knit community of surfers and artists, and the town was once even a haven for celebrities. Artistic touches and bold colors are splashed on buildings and homes, and the eclectic atmosphere is further felt when walking down the main drag adorned with brightly painted fishing buoys. Cafes, restaurants, art galleries, and historic 19th-century structures line the town streets, while the main attraction — Bolinas Beach — beckons sun worshippers, wave riders, and families with its meandering sandy coastline and consistent swell. 

Capitola, California

Sandy beach and colorful homes of Capitola, California
Credit: Lux Blue/ Shutterstock

Another quaint California beach town, Capitola is situated on Monterey Bay, about an hour south of San Francisco in Santa Cruz County. One of the biggest draws here is the colorful beach houses of Capitola Village. These painted abodes have provided a gorgeous backdrop for many vacation pictures since their construction in 1925 — and you might just think they resemble something more likely to be found along the Mediterranean than in California. 

Many of the other buildings in Capitola were constructed in the early 1900s, giving the town a quaint, old-fashioned feel. Despite its petite size, Capitola has long been a popular beach retreat. The town welcomed its first guests in 1874, making it one of California’s oldest beach communities. The storied history of Capitola can be explored at the modest but highly recommended Capitola Historical Museum

Leavenworth, Washington

Charming Bavarian architecture on main street of Leavenworth, Washington
Credit: drmartinis/ iStock

One could easily mistake Leavenworth, Washington, for a charming Bavarian village — and that’s by design. Founded in 1890, Leavenworth was a typical Old West town until the 1960s, when local leaders decided to revamp the town’s appearance to make it more enticing to tourists. Surrounded by the Cascade Mountains (reminiscent of the German Alps), Leavenworth was remodeled after the three German towns of Bemalte Fassaden, Leipzig, and Munich. 

Several unmistakable features make this town feel distinctly German, including the Bavarian-style architecture, the Nutcracker Museum (home to 7,000 nutcracker dolls), a European chocolatier noted for its Belgian truffles and beer-infused chocolates, and an authentic German beer hall, Stein Leavenworth. In addition to these German staples, Leavenworth also enjoys year-round German festivals, including Oktoberfest, Winter Karneval, and Maifest. 

Tillamook, Oregon

Tall coastal cliffs and bay off the coast of Tillamook, Oregon
Credit: Jennifer Bosvert/ Shutterstock

When you think of quirky cities in Oregon, Portland often first comes to mind, but the Beaver State houses plenty of smaller, lesser-known towns with just as much offbeat appeal. Tillamook is one such charming town, located a 90-minute drive west of Portland along Oregon’s stunning coast. 

Dairy lovers, in particular, should check out the renowned Tillamook Creameries, which produce around 170,000 pounds of cheese daily and offer tours complete with gourmet cheese samples. Tillamook is also home to the Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint, a serene place where visitors can admire a lighthouse and walk along the elevated coastal path that hug the Pacific Ocean while looking for whales, dolphins, seals, and seabirds. The park’s standout feature is undoubtedly the Octopus Tree, a Sitka spruce named for its uncanny number of bulbous branches resembling the eight-legged invertebrate. Tillamook also appeals to history lovers — the Tillamook Air Museum (a former WWII blimp hangar) houses an impressive collection of rare aircraft.

Olalla, Washington

Sunset over coastline of Olalla, Washington
Credit: AL Friend/ Shutterstock

Nestled on the Kitsap Peninsula midway between Seattle and Tacoma, Olalla is an unincorporated waterfront community of less than 5,000 people. But this tiny town draws plenty of visitors when it hosts the popular Polar Beach Plunge and the highly anticipated Olalla American Music Festival each summer. Olalla is also known for its famous, non-human, residents — an ever-present population of chickens who often stop traffic to cross the road, and its many horses, which are still used as old-fashioned modes of transport around town. 

This once-bustling ferry hub and agricultural center declined into the sleepy town it is today after the construction of several commuter bridges led to a decline in ferry service. However, the hamlet has since turned into a hidden gem for tourists and locals alike with its 140-year-old general store, locally owned Olalla Valley Winery, kayaking trails, and Olalla Community Club, which hosts a monthly concert series combined with a potluck dinner. 

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