Nothing sparks that holiday spirit quite like shopping your way through a charming part of town—one that’s decked out with twinkle lights, ringing bells, and unique stores. California’s big cities and small towns are dotted with such stroll-and-shop hotbeds, populated with small, local businesses that deserve extra support these days. Another bonus? You’ve got an excellent chance of happening upon a local bakery, coffeehouse, or wine tasting room along the way.
Here’s a small sampling of such districts, listed north to south, where you can easily make a day—or a whole weekend—out of merry holiday shopping.
The Arcata Plaza, Arcata
This downtown hub in Humboldt County pulls out the stops during the holiday season with lights, weekend art markets, and Santa meet-and-greets. Browse its brick-and-mortar shops that lean toward vintage, antiques, and hippie-hearted gifts—like pottery and jewelry at Caravan of Dreams, the throwback fashions at Bang Bang Vintage, and skateboards at Ampt Skate Shop. Check out the vendors inside Jacoby’s Storehouse—famous for once being the only fireproof building in town—and recharge with lunch at its third floor Plaza Grill.
Donner Pass Road, Truckee
Walk Truckee’s quaint main street to experience the mountain town’s mix of fresh-air fun and Old West heritage. Start by stocking up on Tahoe-themed hoodies and candles at California 89, which is named after the nearby state highway (and where some of the proceeds go to the nonprofit Tahoe Fund). Pick up Native American–made jewelry, pottery, and rugs at White Buffalo, then add some gourmet goodies from Tahoe Oil & Spice, located in a renovated gas station next door to the California Welcome Center.
City Plaza, Chico
Conduct your own walking tour of this Butte County downtown that dates back to the 1860s, then pick up some present-day treasures. Local flavor runs strong among the arts, crafts, and jewelry at Made in Chico, and the area’s cowboy spirit is available for purchase at Diamond W Western Wear. Don’t miss Bird in Hand, with its Santa’s-workshop-worthy selection of toys, kites, puzzles, and yo-yos (indeed, the shop is also the home of the National Yo-Yo Museum). Stock up on candy at Sweet Chico or, for a different kind of treat, take the short drive to the Sierra Nevada’s Gift Shop and Tasting Room Bar.
Downtown Nevada City
The Gold Country town decks all of its proverbial halls during the holidays, upping the Dickensian vibes with its street-fair style Victorian Christmas on select days in December. On any day, though, you can fill out your list by shopping for cool outdoor art at Ginny Davis Metal Garden Art; books, toys and travel gear at J.J. Jackson’s; and sustainably made clothes and housewares at Mama Madrone’s Eco Emporium. Stop in for the artisan cheeses at Dedrick’s Cheese—and maybe grab a creamy snack for yourself.
This downtown-adjacent area blends state-capital street cred with local community heart. Start at the Capitol Books & Gifts in the Capitol Museum for wine glasses bearing the official state seal of the Golden State, bear-flag blankets, or fun socks emblazoned with the state flower. Head to Kulture for an eclectic array of art, bags, and antiques with Mexican flair, or browse Big Brother Comics for vintage toys and the latest graphic novel. Get a bag of artisanal coffee beans, and an espresso for yourself, at the K Street branch of Temple Coffee Roasters.
Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga
Explore this laid-back Napa Valley town by shopping your way through its charming downtown. Browse the volumes at Copperfield’s Books and the chess boards and pretty soaps at Blackbird of Calistoga, then pick up a few boxes of hand-painted sweets from Flourish Chocolate. Stop in for a local wine tasting at Picayune Cellars, where you’ll also find a selection of French and American art, purses, and blankets.
Noe Valley, San Francisco
Feel like a local when shopping 24th Street in this lovely enclave of San Francisco—a neighborhood lined with Victorian homes. You can’t beat the clocks and gardening gadgets at Wink SF, the sweet stocking stuffers from Covered in Chocolate, and the playful kids fashions (like baby trucker hats) at Small Frys. For a seasonal pick-me up, pop into Noe Valley Bakery for some stollen (German fruit bread) or a Christmas cupcake.
Walk the Central Valley city’s old-school Main Street to browse shops like Joshua Tree, featuring earthy fashions, and the woman-owned Letter & Grain, stocked with Turkish towels, dried flowers, and candles. Pick up vinyl records from Velouria, then grab lunch at Orange Works Visalia, where the sandwiches and even the house-made ice creams are made with local produce.
La Arcada Plaza, Santa Barbara
Located in the heart of downtown, this cluster of buildings dates back to 1926 and embodies Santa Barbara’s red-tile-roof charm. Its shops put an emphasis on local artisans: Peruse the jewelry, ceramics, and books at Santa Barbara Arts and the unique ornaments and housewares at Lewis & Clark Ltd. Pick up at least two bottles (one to give, one to keep) at Barbieri & Kempe Wines. Soak up the plaza’s history by taking this treasure hunt of its notable details.
Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Venice
Shop this mile-long street dotted with independent and cult brands, with Venice’s quirky beach scene in the background. Choose from sleek Scandinavian housewares and sweets at Huset; plants-as-art at Grow Venice; or old-school bicycles at Linus. If it’s Saturday, be sure to browse the new and vintage treasures at Artist & Fleas. Recharge with pizza, charcuterie, and a glass of red at South End, then take a pic with the illuminated Venice sign, the community’s nod to a holiday tree.
Downtown Arts District, Los Angeles
Make a day out of art and culture-vulture shopping in this part of Downtown Los Angeles, home to The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and galleries like Art Share L.A. Browse art books at Hennessy + Ingalls; comic books at A Shop called Quest; and bath products and candles at Malin & Goetz, where you’ll find unique scents like Dark Rum and Leather. Take a break with a pint of White Nite Ale at Angel City Brewery.
Uptown Design District , Palm Springs
You’ll find the essence of Palm Springs design along the city’s North Palm Canyon Drive, between Vista Chino and Alejo. The style mavens on your list will love anything from the Trina Turk flagship, the vintage pieces from Iconic Atomic, and the retro glassware and cuckoo clocks at The Shag Store. Grab a gourmet sandwich at On the Mark Fine Foods & Provisions, and throw in some house-made fancy mustards or small-batch balsamic vinegars for your favorite foodie.
17th Street Promenade Shops, Costa Mesa
The Orange County town of Costa Mesa offers several days’ worth of shopping options, from the upscale South Coast Plaza to The Lab Anti-Mall and its neighbor The Camp. Don’t miss Costa Mesa’s charmingly old-school option, though—a collection of little shops around 17th St. and Newport Boulevard such as surf shop Almond Surfboards, the tabletop gifts of Fleur De Lys, and the women’s fashions at No Rest for Bridget. Sit down for a wine tasting and pick up some stemware or old-fashioned pipes at Hi-Time Wine Cellars, which has been here since 1957.
Old Town Temecula
Temecula’s horseshoe-shaped town square channels a lot of 19th-century ambience—after all, it was largely built in the 1880s to support the Southern California Railroad. Browse the antiques and vintage pieces in Ford & Elm, located inside the 1891 Hotel Temecula, then pick up samples of local crops from Temecula Olive Oil Company and Temecula Lavender Company. Carve out some time to take a spin around the seasonal rink at Main Street’s Temecula On Ice.
Cedros Design District, Solana Beach
Park the car and explore this design-centric district in north San Diego County. Choose from artsy picture frames, throw pillows, and other home decor at Solo and TaDah, or the succulents and gift-ready veggie plants at outdoor pop-up Grange Gardens. Don’t miss Muttropolis, for toys, treats, and fashions for the fur babies. Finish the day with a sunset beach walk followed by a holiday-worthy feast at new steakhouse Rare Society.