From the beaches of San Diego to the Redwood forests of Northern California, the Golden State is a dream home. Sure, you’ll find plenty of people who say it’s too expensive and lacks culture. However, we challenge you to walk under the palms in Santa Monica, look out over the Pacific, and not dream about what it would be like to live there.
California is massive. With a population of 40 million and an economy the size of France’s, the state is a lot to navigate. How do we determine the best places to live? Well, we’re looking for a balance in the cost of living, strong public schools, excellent employment opportunities, and, since it’s California, natural beauty and plenty of sunshine. With all that in mind, here are our top picks for the best places to live in California.
1. San Diego
You just can’t beat San Diego. With some of the best weather in the world, home prices lower than those in LA and San Francisco, some of the state’s best beaches and the activity and buzz that comes with a large city, San Diego has to be our top pick. Whether you choose to be in the city itself or in one of the surrounding suburbs you’ll get the staple benefits that make San Diego so special.
While it may lack the unmistakable landmarks of LA or San Francisco, San Diego lets you skip much of the nonsense that comes with more “famous” cities. Like we said, home prices drop, traffic doesn’t make you want to jump off a bridge, and you don’t have to deal with same thick tourist crowds. That’s a dream combo if we’ve ever heard one.
2. Santa Monica
Moving northward up the beautiful Southern California coast, Santa Monica is the kind of place you dream about in the thick of a northeast winter. Gorgeous beaches, the boardwalk lit up at sunset, a vibrant downtown, and a suburban feel with access to the big city LA right next door — the city has a lot going for it, to say the least.
Home prices are intimidating (median price comes in around $2 million), but we’re decidedly in the “it’s worth it” camp. Also, while many expensive coastal communities lack class and racial diversity, Santa Monica is actually pretty mixed and kids growing up in the city are exposed to a lot. Santa Monica manages to strike a nice balance.
3. Santa Rosa
California’s wine country is one of the state’s most beautiful regions and Santa Rosa is one of the area’s gems. Located North of San Francisco, Santa Rosa is a medium-sized city known for excellent food, a laid-back vibe, happy, active residents, and beautiful scenery. Not bad, right?
Another plus is that you won’t be hit with the impossible prices of more centrally-located Bay Area cities. Further south, it’s nearly impossible to find solid suburban options below $1 million. In Santa Rosa, the median home price comes in at a more manageable $600,000. Still expensive, but a deal in the Bay. You’ll also find strong public schools as well, which always helps the equation.
Irvine may very well take the cake as the most well-rounded city on our list. Located in Orange County, it provides all the perks of Southern California, while acing the public school and local economy tests. Ninety-seven percent of Irvine’s graduating high school students will go on to college and the city plays host to a strong group of Fortune 500 companies.
Naturally, home prices aren’t cheap (the median price is around $700,000) but you certainly get what you pay for. The crime rate is also one of the region’s lowest, so safety is almost never an issue.
5. Mountain View
Okay nerds (we say that affectionately), this one’s for you. Mountain View is at the heart of Silicon Valley and plays host to giants like Google and LinkedIn, so you can be certain that the city is pretty darn smart. Residents zip back and forth from tech campuses in their Teslas and downtown bars buzz with the latest tech chatter. There’s certainly something exciting about being at the center of that world.
Now Mountain View usually gets overshadowed by Palo Alto, it’s famous neighbor. We’re going for Mountain View, however, because it’s cheaper and has more of a community feel than its bigger neighbor. Downtown is full of a fantastic mix of restaurants, and the Mexican population (roughly 20 percent of the city), contributes some excellent taquerias. Public schools are top-notch as well.
6. Santa Barbara
When the typical East Coaster or Midwesterner closes their eyes and pictures California, they most likely see something that looks just like Santa Barbara. Gorgeous beaches with big, crashing waves, palm tree-lined streets, and mountains providing an absolutely striking backdrop. Go ahead and google image it. The city is downright beautiful.
Cost of living is high, of course, but if you want a place that will chase away memories of the freezing winters and motivate your family to get outside every day and explore, Santa Barbara is at good as it gets.
7. The Oakland Hills
Now before we dive into how cool Oakland is and how often it gets underrated, we’re going to stop ourselves. Yes, it’s cool in many parts, but the city still struggles with extremely high crime rates and poor public schools. Bad combination. For that reason, we’re throwing the Oakland Hills on the list exclusively as a neighborhood. Sorry, the rest of Oakland. Your time will come.
Let’s begin with the view. The Oakland Hills look out over the Bay Area and provide some of the most incredible views of the region. Watching the Bay Area light up below you is pretty sweet. Combine that with decent housing prices (for the Bay Area), excellent parks and nature areas, good local schools and direct access to the cool stuff in the city below, the Oakland Hills is a sleeper pick for those thinking of moving to California. We recommend you give it a look.
Let’s move away from the coast and show California’s farmland a little love. Davis is the home of the University of California-Davis and has the attractive vibe of a small college town. Sort of an oasis in the middle of Northern California farmland, the city’s downtown area is vibrant with plenty of cool eateries and bars offering some of the region’s best.
Public schools in Davis are strong and you can expect much more of a small town community vibe than what you might find in other cities on the list. People also love to get outdoors so expect parks to be active and the roads to be full of cyclists looking to go for a spin.
One of the most common “let’s move to California shoot-downs” is home prices. It’s a fair concern. California truly is expensive. But for those willing to do their research and sacrifice the cool breeze and waves of the coast, places like Folsom are a dream come true.
The city of Folsom is located just east of Sacramento and passes nearly every test. Public school graduation rates are some of the highest in the entire nation and the local economy is strong. Finding your dream home won’t break the bank either as the median home value comes in at just above $400,000. Folsom is definitely a gem.
10. Manhattan Beach
We’re headed back into expensive territory (the median housing price is around 1.5 million), but Manhattan Beach has to be among the top choices for those who can afford it. Schools are absolutely outstanding, the beaches are at a similar level, and the small town community found there can be a hard thing to get in the LA area.
On top of all that, the crime rate is exceptionally low and the weather will force the kids to be out playing all day, whether it be in the street or at the beach. Just slap on some sunscreen and try to find some food stores that won’t demand your paycheck and you’ll have a dream set up.