What Are The Best Places To Live In California? Top 5 Communities Most Recommended By Travel Experts

With sun-kissed beaches, towering redwoods, and the allure of Hollywood, California beckons with a kaleidoscope of possibilities. But whether you crave bustling cityscapes, charming coastal towns, or serene mountain getaways, finding the perfect Golden State locale can feel like searching for a grain of gold in a glittering sandcastle. Fear not! This guide sifts through the California dream, unearthing gems from bustling San Francisco to laid-back San Diego, highlighting hidden havens for families, artists, and everything in between. So, buckle up and prepare to discover your own slice of paradise with the best places to live in California.

On one hand, you’ll find the unmistakable presence of Hollywood, which has made California synonymous with the global entertainment industry. This part of the culture is characterized by glitz, glamour, and the pursuit of dreams in the entertainment world. Moving away from the entertainment epicenter, California is a melting pot of ethnicities, with significant Hispanic, Asian, African American, and Indigenous communities. This cultural diversity is celebrated through festivals, cuisine, art, and traditions, adding layers of depth and richness to the state’s identity.

And did you know that some wealthier California towns top the list of America’s happiest cities. If you are wondering, does money buy happiness, this study shows, it’s not always the case — but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Just one more reason that settling in California would be a good decision. 

Why live in California?

Sunshine-kissed shores and cityscapes:

  • Over 840 miles of coastline with vibrant surf scenes (Los Angeles) and quaint charm (Carmel-by-the-Sea).
  • Cultural hotspots and world-class dining in San Francisco with its iconic Golden Gate Bridge and Michelin-starred restaurants.
  • Laid-back vibes in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter or buzzing activity at Santa Monica’s pier.

Beyond the coast – mountains, deserts, and wine country:

  • Yosemite National Park’s majestic granite cliffs and cascading waterfalls for the adventurous soul.
  • Napa Valley’s rolling vineyards and charming towns for the oenophile.
  • Starkly beautiful Mojave Desert with its otherworldly landscapes and star-studded skies.
  • Idyllic escapes in charming mountain towns like Lake Tahoe and Big Sur.

A tapestry of communities and lifestyles:

  • Melting pot of cultures and cuisines in bustling metropolises like Los Angeles and San Diego.
  • Slower pace and strong sense of community in smaller towns like Santa Barbara and Ojai.
  • A place for everyone, from artists seeking inspiration in Venice Beach to tech entrepreneurs aiming for Silicon Valley’s heights.

Now that we know the allure of life in Cali, back to our main question at hand. In our search for the best places to live in California, we examined 11 expert websites and pinned down the most suggested places. Of course, you may entirely disagree with this — and that’s fine! Let us know which one is your favorite place or the one that is on your bucket list. 

USA and California flags
Californian and American flags (Photo by Drei Kubik on Unsplash)

The List: Best Places to Live in California, According to Experts

1. San Diego 

Out of all the ten sites we reviewed, San Diego was the most recommended by all. “Located in southern California lies the picturesque city of San Diego. Only 20 miles from the Mexican border, San Diego is as far south as you can get in California. This coastal city is famous for its warm and sunny weather, fabulous beaches, and scenic views. Blending a mixture of urban, suburban, and coastal living, life in San Diego is perfect for any lifestyle. Raining less than 12 inches of rain a year, San Diego is the go-to destination for those wanting to experience a Mediterranean climate all year round,” says Uphomes.

San Diego, California, downtown skyline.
San Diego, California, downtown skyline. (© SeanPavonePhoto – stock.adobe.com)

The Crazy Tourist writes: “The Weather Channel rated it as having the most ideal climate in summer in America, while Wallet Hub ranked it seventh-happiest place to live in America. The nightlife in this global tourist centre is world-famous, especially in the Gaslamp Quarter.”

Budget Travel Buff adds, “The cost of living in San Diego is high if you decide to stay in the posh areas. However, if you choose to stay in suburban areas the price can be curtailed a lot. A medium home price in San Diego is around $878,058 and if you think of renting a medium apartment it will cost you a minimum of $2,682 per month.”

“Adults also love the abundance of restaurants, shopping, and nightlife in the area. San Diego is a beautiful city and highly coveted among California locals. The only downside, however, is that the cost of living is on the high side,” says Travel Lemming.

Bankrate notes: “You don’t have to wait for those to be complete to call San Diego home, though. With a large naval base, the government is one of the city’s biggest employers, and Kaiser Permanente, General Dynamics and SeaWorld all have big operations here as well, so newcomers (or boomerang residents) have an assortment of professional opportunities. The city’s nightlife is top-notch, with plenty of bars and nightclubs in the downtown Gaslamp neighborhood, and during the day, the ocean will be calling your name.”

2. Sacramento

“You might be surprised to see Sacramento on our list of best places to live in California,” writes Zumper, “but if you’re looking for an affordable place to live in California, Cali’s inland capital is the spot for you. Sacramento is within close proximity to wine country, Lake Tahoe, and the coastline, but is located in a spacious, sprawling area…It gets a bad rap because it’s smaller and flatter than its more glamorous beachside counterparts, but young families, millennials, and artists are flocking to Sacramento for its reasonable cost of living, art scene, nightlife, healthy job market, and diverse population.”

a bridge over a river in Sacramento
A bridge in Sacramento (Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash)

Forbes ranks Sacramento first on their list. “Sacramento is also an excellent gateway to the splendors of temperate northern California, while also being two hours from San Francisco. For local leisure activities, there are several professional sports teams, a 32-mile bike trail, breweries and coffee shops”.

New Home Source adds, “If you want to live close to the capital city without dealing with the crowds, check out suburbs like Davis, Folsom, and El Dorado Hills.”

According to Bankrate, it all comes down to money when putting California’s capital high on their list. “Sacramento tops our list of the best places to live in California for one big reason: It’s actually affordable by California standards. The median home price was $460,000 at the end of 2021, according to Redfin, making the capital of California significantly more budget-friendly than many of the other major cities in the state.”

Finally, Nomad lawyer points to the city’s ability to prep families for a strong, successful future: “It provides numerous educational opportunities and is quite affordable compared to other places, making it one of the best places to live in California for families. There are plenty of activities to indulge in, with a 32-mile bike trail, beach sports options, and clubs. If you’re a foodie, you’ll love to explore the farm-to-fork restaurants here that use organically sourced ingredients.”

3. Los Angeles

If the big (and we mean big) city life is for you, you shouldn’t look any further than The City of Angels“Los Angeles is a truly one-of-a-kind city, which is why it’s the largest in the state. However, it does feature a high cost of living and social issues like crime and homelessness,” writes Property Club. “Like any major city, Los Angeles has major strengths and also major weaknesses. It’s great for ambitious young professionals who are hungry for opportunity. It also features plenty of great suburbs for families and retirees. But it’s not for everyone, and the quality of life in the city is radically different depending on where you live.”

bus on road in Los Angeles
Downtown Los Angeles (Photo by Olenka Kotyk on Unsplash)

Says Travel Lemming: “Los Angeles is one of the best places to live in California and is the most popular destination to visit in the United States. The big city has everything you need with an overabundance of public and private schools, nightlife, entertainment, tourist attractions, public parks and libraries, and the list goes on…You will find cheap places to live in LA, but these often compromise a strong sense of security. You may want to spend a little more to live in a safe community in Los Angeles. Or, opt to live on the outskirts in a small town like Claremont or Azusa.”

Bankrate adds: “If Long Beach is too long of a trek for you to get to Los Angeles, then it’s time to figure out what part of the city you can afford to call home. According to Redfin, the median price of home in Los Angeles was $950,000 near the close of 2021, so you’ll either need a.) a lot of cash or b.) the ability to qualify for a jumbo mortgage.”

4. Irvine 

Irvine is considered one of the best places especially to raise a family because it’s one of the safest cities in the country, with great schools to boot. Travel Lemming says, “Many people moving to California consider Orange County for their forever home. Irvine is in the perfect location, near the beach but centrally located near schools and metropolitan shopping centers. Irvine is a heavily populated city in Orange County with great city life, an accredited university, and a huge job market. Many people who move to the golden state consider Irvine due to its proximity to major businesses.”

irvine spectrum center
Ferris wheel in Irvine (Photo by Andrea Arana on Unsplash)

Property Club adds, “It’s an amazing city for families or students of all levels working toward a degree. It doesn’t offer as much unique culture as other California cities, but it does offer a relaxed pace of life, great weather, and access to opportunity.”

“The education quality from kindergarten to college is top-notch, and people especially come from far and wide to attend such notable institutions as the University of California, Concordia University and Irvine Valley College. Almost 97% of high school graduates make it to university,” writes The Crazy Tourist. “Irvine has also received national recognition for its enduring commitment to a cleaner environment, something that has seen it named one of the greenest cities in America. It’s tough to afford Irvine, with its homes, averaging $688,200, being some of the most expensive around. Most single-family homes are in the seven-figure range, but properties here in general remain hot cakes among foreign investors.”

5. San Francisco 

This one may surprise people because it’s certainly well-known these days for its extremely high cost of living, but it’s also a center of the tech world, which means some of the most amazing jobs in the country are there too. Property Club says, “San Francisco is the best place to live in Northern California. It is a global center of the tech industry and the cultural epicenter of Northern California. Many even consider it to be the crown jewel of the state. It has a robust job market, especially for those in the tech industry, with Silicon Valley providing a wealth of opportunities nearby in San Jose.”

San Francisco Golden Gate bridge at daytime
Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (Photo by Natalie Chaney on Unsplash)

“Those looking for a bustling urban environment, top restaurants and a thriving job market will find it in San Francisco. Recently, the City by the Bay was named the fourth happiest place to live in America, and the 34th best city in the U.S. for job seekers. AreaVibes also gives high marks to San Francisco for its stable housing market, high income per capita, weather and A+ amenities,” notes Moving.com

Uphomes adds, “While living in the area is fantastic, San Francisco also happens to be the most expensive city to live in California. Home prices here are very high, so much so that it was calculated that in order to make ends meet in San Francisco, residents need to be earning an annual salary of at least $92,139. Due to these high prices, it is no surprise that San Francisco happens to be the city in California with the most millionaires and billionaires.”

Where do you think is the best place to live in California? We invite you to leave your respectful thoughts in the comments below!

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Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations. This post may contain affiliate links. 

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About the Author

Saloni Ordia

Saloni is a freelance B2B SaaS writer who excels at creating in-depth product-focused content. When she is not writing, you can find her in the kitchen whipping up new recipes or curled up with a rom-com novel.

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  1. That San Francisco and Los Angeles are anywhere near this list completely nullifies the least bit of credibility that any of the listed sources may have ever had.

  2. Temescal Valley, CA. A growing area with single family homes plus great family area. Low crime rate and great community involvement.

  3. What an idiot ! Omg LA, San Francisco, Sacramento!?!?!? Seriously? I bet the author has neven been living in those of cities even 1 day. FYI those of cities are just for visit, that’s it, not for living cuz of so many reasons.

  4. I have lived in every city mentioned in this article with the exception of Sacramento. All of the cities require a big income to live life well to enjoy what each city has to offer.
    My kids were raised in coastal North County of San Diego, where now as young adults they most likely will not be able to live just blocks from the beach. The article is not representative of the true nature of the COLA in each city. Not one is an affordable option to the average income of Americans .

  5. Irvine? “Great city life”.. dafuq are you talking about? Irvine is the most sterile, dead-behind-the-eyes “City” I have ever spent time in. Calling it a city is a joke.. it’s a bunch of master planned villages with Disneyland-Esque town squares separated by arterial roads. There is no downtown.. Only shopping centers made to resemble real cities with history and culture. It’s a college town with out college life. I guess it appeals to Asians though or anyone looking for an insular life where conformity is king. I’d rather live in Santa Ana and that’s saying a lot.
    Long Beach ought to be on this list. It’s more affordable than other coastal cities, it’s bike friendly and super diverse. You get the perks of being closely tied to Los Angeles but with a slower pace, less traffic, and none of that west LA vapid industry pretentiousness.
    SF is stunningly gorgeous but the homeless and it’s in your face intolerance of different perspectives makes the cost of living hard to justify.
    Sac is underrated. The weather SUCKS .. summer heat is brutal . Lots of homeless but lots of great jobs working for the state
    LA is too big to make sweeping generalizations. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in LA you aren’t looking hard enough.

    I know almost nothing about San Diego other than Pendleton, jar heads, hella Mexicans and beaches.

  6. They were just trying to scare people away from Irvine because they’ll think it’s grouped into their category now. I heard Irvine Police drop off homeless at their city limits…. Smart

  7. Honestly, just 10 mins southeast of Irvine, Ca. Is a little town called Lake Forest, Ca. It’s near the canyons and the Saddleback mountain range. It’s set off by itself. A clean, quiet community. Low crime, good schools, shopping and only an hour from San Diego and 40 mins from Los Angeles. Its green and has beautiful views. Only 20 mins from Newport & Laguna Beaches, and 90 mins or so from skiing in Big Bear. Its lovely, great place to raise a family. A little pricey, but worth it!! I love being a Lake Forest, California resident!

  8. Hahaha! I would NEVER live in ANY of those cities! I’ve lived in California my whole life and DREAD having to go to any of those cities….SO much crime and traffic and weird people. Not to mention their homeless problems. Just Ew!

  9. Riverside is a versatile small city with a beautiful downtown area. Great art galleries, museums, restraunts and lounges. Yes it’s hot in the summer, but we are 1 hour away from the city L.A. the desert Palm Springs, the mountains Big Bear Lake Arrowhead area and the Ocean. We have affordable housing and lots of traffic. Come see for yourself

  10. One thing you appear to have gotten right is leaving Santa Monica off your list! It’s one of the most violent and unsafe cities in California and the nation, with an ineffective and lazy police department. California has a lot of unsafe areas but Santa Monica is one of the worst! A shame really. It used to be a safe community where people could go to enjoy the beach, but no more. The waters are polluted with warning signs posted in clear sight to stay out of the water. And the city prides itself at doing nothing to make things better!

    1. You can thank your governor!!! Ever nice place in CA has gone down hill!!! Dictating to all of California!
      He is not governor but a dictator! Doesn’t matter what we voted in! And a typically politician rules don’t apply to them!

  11. Irvine is way up there, in terms of safety and medicracy. Literally everything else on this list I’ve been to and it’s all you really wish you had a second lock on your car door stuff. Whoever wrote this list is a romantic dreamer because these are garbage. SF?! I paid $300 a night at a hotel with a camp site out front of the hotel with homeless. Oh and the hotel was locked doors you had to flash a badge and be escorted in. Walking distance from China Town. So no.

  12. I lived in San Francisco for a decade back in the early 90’s and it was great but wouldn’t recommend it now as it is a total mess. I live in San Diego now and am glad it’s listed as #1 but San Diego is outrageously expensive!
    As for L.A., I would leave CA before ever moving there. Crime, homeless, cost to live there, intense traffic 24/7, terrible public transportation, and actors everywhere pretending to be something they aren’t. No way!

  13. I’m not sure where this writer got her information (err, “study”), but as California natives, we can confirm – with confidence – every single one of these locations is outrageously expensive, crime ridden, drug infested and sadly, the unhoused population is off the charts. In addition, we pay almost 10% in taxes.

    Do better.

  14. All of you writers, bloggers, influencers, and whatever else you want to call yourself these days. Please stop telling people about places to go. We don’t want people to move to California, we don’t want people going to our outdoor destinations and off-road areas. This also goes for every other. Area. Stop telling people about how nice it is in places. Also, the taxes are ridiculous in California because we have to pay for everything, and everyone. I can’t believe that you put Los Angeles on the list. The only difference between Los Angeles, and any other metropolis is the weather. That is a seriously gang infested, smog, polluted city. And the worst part is, most of the people there really aren’t even from California just like a lot of these cities. Please stay in your Midwestern cities, and states, and please stop telling people about destinations, because they used to be so fun and now they’re cluttered with trash and horrible people, because people like you like to tell them it’s cool in order to get popularity.

  15. I moved out of California 30 years ago and have never looked back. Sure, I miss ‘home’, but even back then high prices, gangs, drugs and corruption in government were bad. We lived in the central valley and used to go to these cities to play. There is no ‘home’ anymore. It’s all gone to h#((

  16. One of the really cool services that the city of San Franciso provides is that they print and provide actual maps of the area sidewalks where the largest concentrations of human feces can be found, so as to either provide an alternative route or to prepare for what’s coming up very soon. Being that so many people do walk due to the lack of parking availability (people pay upwards of $300+ per month just for permission to park on the street in front of their own homes) this is a welcome and quite real service.

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