The 12 Best Places to Live in California Right Now

published Jan 25, 2020
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As the third-largest state in the country, it’s no surprise that one of California’s biggest draws is its variety. From the glamour of Los Angeles to the quirkiness of San Francisco—and all the gorgeous beaches, dramatic coastlines, and mountains in between—the Golden State has something for everybody. 

How’s a West Coast dreamer supposed to decide where to live in a state so beautiful? We rounded up the 12 best places to live in California beyond its major cities, based on affordability (informed by median home values), the local job market (illustrated by median household income), location, and desirability. Ahead, 12 noteworthy cities and towns, ordered from most to least populous.


The presence of California State University at Fresno (better known as Fresno State) adds a collegiate vibe to this mid-sized city in central California, which is a center for agriculture and banking. Affordable housing, cultural attractions, and a recently renovated city core draw residents from more expensive cities to this inland metropolis.


Sactown isn’t just the place Lady Bird wanted to escape. The capital of the Golden State has a healthy job market, a reasonable cost of living, and a diverse population. Located in the northern part of the state at the base of the Sierra Nevada, Sacramento is growing by leaps and bounds, with strong economic development and a real estate market on the upswing.


This mid-sized agricultural and industrial town in south central California may be a bit sleepy— but that’s what residents love about it. (In addition to the bountiful local produce from the fertile San Joaquin Valley). In fact, L.A. refugees are flocking here for the slower pace and the improving economy. While summers are hot, the city experiences mild winters.


Like most northern California towns, Stockton is surrounded by vineyards and farms, providing farm-to-table fare for residents. The small city has grappled with financial struggles in the past but is making a comeback, thanks to a revitalized downtown area offering arts and nightlife. The multicultural community benefits from being close to Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose.

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In southern California’s posh Orange County, Irvine is well-maintained and quite aesthetically pleasing, with beautiful neighborhoods and parks. The city is also home to several colleges and universities as well as corporate headquarters. Other highlights include great schools and plenty of recreation opportunities.


A mix of urban and suburban amenities—and its proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley—draw families and young professionals to Fremont, on the northern California coast at the head of San Francisco Bay. Added perks include a temperate year-round climate, a vibrant arts and culture scene, and ample restaurants and parks. Fremont was one of the earliest cities in historic Alameda County and one of the first California communities where movies were shot and produced.


A central California town with a rich agricultural history and culture, Modesto embodies the best of both worlds. Quiet neighborhoods are ideal for raising families, while the thriving city center offers plenty of entertainment options, from comedy to live music. Outdoorsy types will love being close to Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe.


Best known for its annual California Strawberry Festival, Oxnard grows about a third of the state’s strawberries not far from its famed soft-sand beaches. The city west of Los Angeles is also home to the Carnegie Art Museum, which exhibits contemporary Californian works in a former library, and serves as a gateway to Channel Islands National Park from the town’s harbor. Three huge perks for prospective residents.

Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa is an economic hub in the middle of wine country, surrounded by farmlands, vineyards, orchards, and more. That natural abundance is a major draw for visitors, who flock there from around the globe, as well as residents interested in the healthy, farm-to-table lifestyle. Fine dining and high-end shopping add to the city’s allure.


Legendary author John Steinbeck would be proud of his hometown—and not just because libraries, museums, and festivals are named after him. Located along the Pacific Coast (but not directly on the water) Salinas doesn’t allow any chain businesses within its Oldtown or Main Street. The northern California city calls itself the “Salad Bowl of the World” due to the varied agriculture in the area.


Every day could feel like vacation in Vacaville, where leafy parks and recreation areas abound. There’s Browns Valley Open Space Preserve, filled with 50 huge boulders to climb, Lagoon Valley Park, a wide-open green space, and Andrews Park, a 17-acre gathering spot in town with a playground. Vacaville is just 55 miles from San Francisco, and straddles the border of the Bay Area and the Sacramento Valley, making it a convenient, comfortable spot to settle.


Adrenaline junkies, come ’round. Redding boasts waterfall-adjacent hiking trails at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, not to mention plenty of opportunity for swimming, biking, and more. The town is known for its Sundial Bridge, a suspension bridge over the Sacramento River that actually functions as a sundial. You’ll find many more quirks and pockets of unspoiled natural beauty in this sliver of northwestern California, up and away from the hubbub of the coast.