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Best Places To Live In California

Molly Grace15-Minute Read
September 08, 2020

With its plentiful beaches, year-round sunshine, star-studded streets and “surf’s up” mentality, California is the dream for many who are thinking about where their next big move might take them.

If the Golden State is in the cards (and the budget) for you, here are some of the best locales to call home, including a few great places for families and some honorable mentions.

10 Top Cities In California

These 10 spots are our top picks for best places to live in California (in no particular order):

Business and financial district aerial view of Irvine, California.

1. Irvine

  • Population: 287,401

  • Median Household Income: $100,969

  • Median Home Sale Price: $859,941

  • Median Gross Rent: $2,259

Often described as safe, clean, friendly and diverse, this idyllic Orange County community is home to lots of happy families, young professionals and outdoors-loving individuals. Irvine consistently earns high-up spots on a variety of “best of” lists, making it one of the happiest, safest, fittest, greenest, most family-friendly cities in the country.

Irvine is packed with parks, sports fields and plenty of other open spaces, including trails for hikers and bikers alike. Speaking of which, if biking is your preferred method of transportation, this is the place to be: Irvine has just over 300 miles of on-street bike lanes.

Demographically, Irvine has seen a noteworthy influx of new residents in the last decade; between 2010 – 2019, the population increased 35.5%, well above California’s average increase of 6.1% in that same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Check out homes for sale in Irvine or explore Irvine real estate trends.

Cable car in San Francisco CA.

2. San Francisco

  • Population: 881,549

  • Median Household Income: $104,552

  • Median Home Sale Price: $1,200,000

  • Median Gross Rent: $1,805

If you’re looking to live the bohemian lifestyle in a culturally rich, diverse, vibrant city, San Francisco is it. Whether you’re interested in art, history, tech, music, food, coffee, nightlife or the outdoors, you’ll never be bored in SF(quick tip: the locals never call it “San Fran”).

San Francisco residents are an eclectic bunch, and they love their city, even its less-than-perfect parts. Take, for example, the ever-present fog that hangs above the city, which they’ve affectionately named “Karl.” (Karl the Fog even has his own Twitter account.)

San Francisco is also one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in the country, and is steeped in history as an epicenter of the LGBTQ rights movement.

However, it’s hard to talk about the livability of the crown jewel of the Bay Area without acknowledging its cost of living. The city’s housing costs are particularly high.

Due in part to strict zoning laws, the area’s limited housing supply has caused home prices to skyrocket over the years while developers have a difficult time building new, affordable housing. And though San Franciscans typically earn higher wages than the state average, their money just doesn’t stretch as far as it might elsewhere. Because of this, most of the city’s residents are renters, rather than owners.

Though pricey, San Francisco is still a highly desirable place to live with lots to offer.

Check out homes for sale in San Francisco or explore San Francisco real estate trends.

San Diego Ca.

3. San Diego

  • Population: 1,423,851

  • Median Household Income: $75,456

  • Median Home Sale Price: $633,113

  • Median Gross Rent: $1,611

Can’t decide between a beautiful beach town, a hiker’s haven, an urban playground (with a great nightlife to boot) or a sightseer’s delight with lots of museums, parks and a world-famous zoo that will keep you and your kiddos entertained every weekend for years to come? Why not all of the above?

San Diego achieves the near-impossible task of being many different things at once – and each of these things are all great ways to spend a warm, sunny afternoon (or a long, memorable night out).

This Southern California city has great weather, endless entertainment and nightlife options and some of the best Mexican food in the U.S. Be prepared to eat your weight in tacos and burritos – especially San Diego’s beloved Cal-Mex classic, the California burrito, which is a carne asada burrito with fries stuffed inside.

San Diegans are hip and generally pretty laid-back, except when it comes to the city’s traffic, which, like many big cities in the state, could be better (though it’s a far cry from LA). Because the city is relatively spread out, don’t expect to be able to trade your Buick for a bicycle.

Check out homes for sale in San Diego or explore San Diego real estate trends.

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Mountain View, CA.

4. Mountain View

  • Population: 82,739

  • Median Household Income: $128,252

  • Median Home Sale Price: $1,636,000

  • Median Gross Rent: $2,314

If you’re drawn to the beauty and climate of California but aren’t so fond of the hustle and bustle that comes with some of the more populous big cities, Mountain View might be more your speed.

Located near the Santa Cruz Mountains (yes, you can see the mountains from here, as the name suggests) Mountain View is one of the cities that makes up Silicon Valley. It’s home to the Googleplex, Google’s corporate headquarters.

Though Mountain View is a quiet city, it certainly isn’t a sleepy one. The sense of community is strong here, and the local government is very involved in providing engaging programming and services for its residents, including after school programs, farmer’s markets, community gardens, holiday celebrations and dozens of physical activity and class offerings for young children, seniors and everyone in between.

An ideal home for individuals of every age, the city is a member of the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Network.

Check out homes for sale in Mountain View or explore Mountain View real estate trends.

Downtown Los Angeles, CA.

5. Los Angeles

  • Population: 3,979,576

  • Median Household Income: $58,385

  • Median Home Sale Price: $768,043

  • Median Gross Rent: $1,376

For many people outside the state, Los Angeles is California, and California is Los Angeles. While there are many other wonderful and unique towns and cities in the state, you can’t blame them for thinking this way. After all, as home to the country’s entertainment industry, LA is one of the country’s main cultural hubs; its influences are felt from coast to coast.

The Los Angeles area is full of great spots – some of them even made this list in their own right, including Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County. But what’s so special about Los Angeles proper?

In a word: diversity. Diversity in the people, the food, the art, the culture, the opportunities and the neighborhoods.

There’s always something to do in the city, and if you ever need a temporary escape from the urban environment, an endless supply of beaches and hiking trails are just a short (by LA standards) drive away.

Check out homes for sale in Los Angeles or explore Los Angeles real estate trends.

Berkeley, CA.

6. Berkeley

  • Population: 121,363

  • Median Household Income: $80,912

  • Median Home Sale Price: $1,267,500

  • Median Gross Rent: $1,612

Berkeley residents tend to be an intellectual crowd with a reputation for strong opinions. The city has an undeniable “college town” vibe, and is home to the University of California’s main campus.

This means that Berkeley offers plenty of opportunities to stretch your brain or absorb the city’s art and culture, whether you’re looking for an interesting museum or a lively theatrical performance.

More interested in finding your perfect cup of coffee or stein of craft beer? Spend your weekends in your new city trying out Berkeley’s many great coffee shops and breweries, or tasting your way through the many delicious restaurants that make this place a foodie haven.

Check out homes for sale in Berkeley or explore Berkeley real estate trends.

The Grand Canal on Balboa Island, Newport Beach, CA.

7. Newport Beach

  • Population: 84,534

  • Median Household Income: $122,709

  • Median Home Sale Price: $2,089,205

  • Median Gross Rent: $2,175

If you want to live out the quintessential California dream of living in a beautiful house on a beautiful beach, spending your days soaking up the sun, this is the place to be.

Newport Beach is an affluent community where residents tend to have much higher than average incomes. This makes sense, considering most of the townies here own their homes, which typically sell for upward of $2 million.

However, the people of Newport Beach tend to be fairly laid-back and friendly. They spend their leisure time biking around town, sailing (or racing their yachts), participating in the city’s outdoor fitness class offerings (paddleboard yoga, anyone?) or taking advantage of the ample shopping and dining options.

Check out homes for sale in Newport Beach or explore Newport Beach real estate trends.

Santa Monica Pier, CA.

8. Santa Monica

  • Population: 90,401

  • Median Household Income: $93,865

  • Median Home Sale Price: $1,484,500

  • Median Gross Rent: $1,734

Santa Monica, with its iconic pier, is a haven for tourists and permanent settlers alike. The city is super walkable (or bike-able) and perfectly located for anyone who wants the convenience of being close to L.A. without having to sit in traffic any time they want to leave the house.

However, you're mistaken if you think that the main draw of Santa Monica is its proximity to LA. This city is a chill beach town at heart, full of cool people and plenty of ways to enjoy yourself, whether you’re surfing, biking or working out at the original Muscle Beach, the famous open-air gym that’s located right on the sand.

Check out homes for sale in Santa Monica or explore Santa Monica real estate trends.

University of Santa Clara, Santa Clara, CA.

9. Santa Clara

  • Population: 130,365

  • Median Household Income: $116,257

  • Median Home Sale Price: $1,270,000

  • Median Gross Rent: $2,261

Another Silicon Valley darling, Santa Clara is a thriving city that offers residents a comfortable suburban vibe and a strong job market. It’s a great home for families or anybody looking to settle down in an area that boasts plenty of local attractions and amenities.

Santa Clara is fairly diverse with a strong community spirit. The city is packed with nearly 40 pristine parks, lots of public art displays, including sculptures and murals, and a variety of fascinating historic sites.

Plus, it’s also the location of California’s Great America amusement park.

Check out homes for sale in Santa Clara or explore Santa Clara real estate trends.

Highways in Davis, CA.

10. Davis

  • Population: 69,413

  • Median Household Income: $66,162

  • Median Home Listing Price: $475,500

  • Median Gross Rent: $1,455

Davis is a down-to-earth college town, home to the UC Davis campus. The city offers residents a small town feel with plenty of amenities and cultural offerings. The people of Davis are generally well-educated and tend to be fairly eco-conscious.

Davis is known for being a bicycle-friendly city, so if biking is your preferred method of transportation, you’ll fit in well here – especially on the UC David campus, which does not allow students who live in on-campus housing to bring their cars to school with them.

Check out homes for sale in Davis or explore Davis real estate trends.

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5 Best Places For Families

Think California isn’t very family-friendly? Think again. While many of our top 10 picks also make for great places to raise a family, here are a few spots that we think families of all kinds will really enjoy calling home.

Palo Alto, CA.

1. Palo Alto

  • Population: 65,364

  • Median Household Income: $157,120

  • Median Home Sale Price: $2,750,000

  • Median Gross Rent: $2,471

Beautiful Palo Alto has a robust job market, a friendly and safe suburban feel, great weather year-round and a highly rated public school system, making this one of our top spots for families looking to settle down in California.

With Stanford University just a stone’s throw away, this area is chock-full of highly-educated residents and diverse dining options.

The city’s namesake, El Palo Alto, is a thousand-year-old redwood tree and an official California historical landmark. True to its roots, the city maintains an “urban forest” of nearly 66,000 trees that line its streets and fill its parks.

Check out homes for sale in Palo Alto or explore Palo Alto real estate trends.

Large field with Pleasanton in the distance. Pleasanton, CA.

2. Pleasanton

  • Population: 81,777

  • Median Household Income: $148,852

  • Median Home Sale Price: $1,110,000

  • Median Gross Rent: $2,251

Our next three entries, including this one, are all next to one another, running from South to North along I-680. Along with a few other cities and towns, including Livermore, these places make up California’s Tri-Valley, a triangular region of the Bay Area. Each city is unique, but what they all have in common is that they’re great for families.

Pleasanton is a truly family-oriented community. Not only does it boast some of the best public schools in California, but it also offers an abundance of community events and outdoor recreation, including over 1,200 acres of picture-perfect parks and trails.

In Pleasanton, there’s something for everyone in the family – not just the kids. From the city’s brew crawls and wine strolls to the charming and lively downtown district, adults will feel right at home in this family friendly oasis.

Check out homes for sale in Pleasanton or explore Pleasanton real estate trends.

Dublin, CA.

3. Dublin

  • Population: 64,826

  • Median Household Income: $144,564

  • Median Home Sale Price: $820,000

  • Median Gross Rent: $2,535

Outdoorsy families will love Dublin’s many parks and scenic hiking trails (including the gorgeous Dougherty Hills park pictured above).

Dublin is serious about its Irish roots, with its trademark shamrock logo displayed throughout the city. The city’s year-round Irish pride culminates in its huge St. Patrick’s Day festival, which brings in thousands of visitors each year to revel in authentic Irish food and entertainment.

Dublin is a fast-growing area that has seen a nearly 41% population increase between 2010 – 2019. Though the city has enough to do to keep families busy on the weekends, it also shares two Bay Area Rapid Transit stations with Pleasanton, meaning that a day trip to San Francisco is less than an hour’s train ride away.

Check out homes for sale in Dublin or explore Dublin real estate trends.

San Ramon, CA.

4. San Ramon

  • Population: 75,995

  • Median Household Income: $151,026

  • Median Home Sale Price: $952,950

  • Median Gross Rent: $2,282

Families looking for a quiet suburb will love idyllic San Ramon, a peaceful community surrounded by beautiful rolling hills and bursting with greenery.

This city offers a variety of community programming for its residents, including poolside movies in the summer, an annual sheep shearing festival, live performances (including opportunities for kids to get some stage time) and a wide array of classes for students of any age.

Thanks to the high quality schools, friendly people and community offerings, San Ramon is a wonderful place to live for families looking to live a more tranquil lifestyle.

Check out homes for sale in San Ramon or explore San Ramon real estate trends.

Hot air balloon festival, Temecula, CA.

5. Temecula

  • Population: 114,761

  • Median Household Income: $90,964

  • Median Home Sale Price: $470,243

  • Median Gross Rent: $1,787

You may not know it, but Southern California is also home to a wine country, and Temecula is at the heart of it. While this might be a draw for the adults in the household, what makes it such a great place for families with children?

Temecula cares about its kids, offering a variety of youth enrichment programs. In addition to its quality public school system, the city of Temecula offers many internship opportunities, a STEM program for middle school girls, a leadership academy for high schoolers, vocational education and training and other great programming.

Temecula also has an extremely fun, interactive children’s museum called Pennypickle’s Workshop.

Check out homes for sale in Temecula or explore Temecula real estate trends.

Other Popular California Cities

While these places didn’t make our top list, we still think they’re worthy of your consideration.

Downtown Oakland, CA.

1. Oakland

  • Population: 443,031

  • Median Household Income: $68,442

  • Median Home Sale Price: $874,351

  • Median Gross Rent: $1,354

Just across the Bay from San Francisco sits Oakland, a beautiful and culturally rich city that’s bursting with art, music, incredible food, nature, history and activism. Oakland is an incredibly diverse city and its residents are very proud of their hometown.

Nature lovers can spend their weekends boating or bird-watching around Lake Merritt, the city’s beautiful lagoon, or hiking in Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park. Foodies can eat their way around the city’s robust dining scene, sampling cuisines from cultures around the world. Sports fans and families will have a blast during baseball season at Oakland A’s games.

To outsiders, Oakland may have a reputation for being an unsafe place to live, and while its crime rate is higher than the U.S. average, it’s like many other U.S. cities in that there are areas that are relatively safe and areas that are relatively unsafe.

Check out homes for sale in Oakland or explore Oakland real estate trends.

Manhattan Beach Pier, CA.

2. Manhattan Beach

  • Population: 35,183

  • Median Household Income: $150,083

  • Median Home Sale Price: $2,450,000

  • Median Gross Rent: $2,499

A suburb of Los Angeles, Manhattan Beach is a great place to live for singles, families, retirees or anybody else looking to settle down in a luxe-yet-low-key beach town.

Manhattan Beach is upscale, there’s no doubt about it. Homes here are beautiful, but expensive.

The area has lots of delicious seafood, great boutique shopping and gorgeous weather. The beach itself is considered by many to be one of the best beaches in California, and the perfect spot to spend the afternoon relaxing.

Check out homes for sale in Manhattan Beach or explore Manhattan Beach real estate trends.

San Jose, CA.

3. San Jose

  • Population: 1,021,795

  • Median Household Income: $104,234

  • Median Home Sale Price: $994,202

  • Median Gross Rent: $1,970

Often referred to as the “Capital of Silicon Valley,” San Jose is a diverse city with endless opportunity.

The city is a popular spot for high-earning tech workers, so even if you aren’t one yourself, expect to meet quite a few. San Jose residents love their city and everything it has to offer.

Enjoy the lively nightlife, play life-size Monopoly in Discovery Meadow, check out a live theatrical performance or spend the day exploring the San Jose Flea Market, California’s largest open-air market.

Check out homes for sale in San Jose or explore San Jose real estate trends.

Santa Rosa, CA.

4. Santa Rosa

  • Population: 176,753

  • Median Household Income: $71,347

  • Median Home Listing Price: $550,000

  • Median Gross Rent: $1,531

If living in NorCal’s wine country sounds like the dream to you, there’s no better place to do it than Santa Rosa. This Sonoma County city boasts beautiful vistas and a bustling downtown area, making it a solid option for those who don’t want to put too much emphasis on the “country” part of “wine country.”

Of all the locations on our best of California lists, Santa Rosa is the one with the shortest average commute: just over 23 minutes for the average worker, which even manages to be lower than the U.S. average of almost 27 minutes, an impressive feat for a California city.

Residents enjoy a leisurely lifestyle, enjoying farm-to-table dining, biking through vineyards and, of course, tasting the region’s world-renowned wines.

Check out homes for sale in Santa Rosa or explore Santa Rosa real estate trends.

Sacramento, CA.

5. Sacramento

  • Population: 513,624

  • Median Household Income: $58,456

  • Median Home Sale Price: $315,000

  • Median Gross Rent: $1,179

The capital of California is home to lots of down-to-earth, fitness-minded, outdoors-loving people. It’s also a touch more affordable than most of California’s other major cities, making it an attractive option for those who are looking to keep their cost of living manageable.

Whether its enjoying a stroll in the park, hitting up one of the city’s many farmer’s markets or checking out a local band, Sacramentans rarely want for things to do here.

Check out homes for sale in Sacramento or explore Sacramento real estate trends.

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Criteria Considered When Choosing To Live In California

Obviously, whether a city is a great place to live or not is incredibly subjective. There’s no way that a single area can completely satisfy the desires of each of its residents.

In coming up with our list of the best places to live in California, we tried to take a holistic look at each locality, considering its cultural and entertainment offerings, its job market, the strength of its education system and a variety of different socioeconomic factors.

We also tried to include a variety of places that would appeal to different types of people. Some cities on our list are more senior-friendly while others are more popular with young adults. Some are great for always-on-the-go urbanites while others are more suited to those who prefer a slower-paced lifestyle.

How can you best evaluate whether an area would be a good place for you, personally? Here are some things to think about.

Cost Of Living

Obviously, you want to know if you can afford to live there. While an overall great place to live, the state of California has a relatively high cost of living.

Housing costs are a big part of cost of living, but they aren’t the only factor. In cities with high costs of living, it’s not just rent or home prices that put a strain on your wallet. In Los Angeles, for example, you’ll likely pay more for something as simple as a gallon of milk than you would in, say, a small town in Iowa.

However, areas with high costs of living also tend to offer higher-than-average salaries to balance it out.

Job Market

If you’re moving to a new city with a job offer already in hand, you may not think about this as much. But an area’s employment prospects are an important part of what makes it a good place to live or not.

Take a look at the availability of jobs in a city as well as its unemployment rate, its poverty rate and its median income to get an idea of whether you’ll be able to thrive or barely survive in the area.

Crime Rate

People want to feel safe in their homes and their neighborhoods, which is why researching a city’s crime rate can be helpful in determining how much you’ll like living there.

Keep in mind, however, that simply looking at an area’s crime rate without any context doesn’t necessarily give you a full picture of how safe an area is. For example, while many cities have higher-than-average crime rates, crime is typically concentrated in certain areas, meaning the majority of a city’s residents might rarely, if ever, encounter crime.

Public Education

If you have school-age kids, whether an area has a good public education system or not is obviously going to be important to you. However, the quality of the local public schools can be an important factor even for those who don’t have kids.

Good schools tend to correlate with strong home values. If you’re planning to buy your home rather than rent when you move to a new city, buying in an area with a good schooling system can help ensure your home holds its value and remains marketable when it comes time to sell.

Local Amenities

For house hunters in popular cities such as Los Angeles, attractive amenities often include things like great beaches, exciting nightlife and quality restaurants. However, in smaller towns, new residents might just be looking for a good grocery store that isn’t too far away and a reliable doctor’s office.

When evaluating a potential new hometown, remember that you aren’t just moving into a new home, but a new community. If that community doesn’t have the amenities you need to be happy, you likely won’t enjoy living there.

Summary

If you’re considering a move to California, you’ll find a variety of wonderful locales that are great to settle down in. Our list is by no means exhaustive, and there are many other cities, towns and villages in this large state that make for great places to live. When deciding where you want to live, make sure that it’s not just “best,” but “best for you.”

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Molly Grace

Molly Grace is a staff writer focusing on mortgages, personal finance and homeownership. She has a B.A. in journalism from Indiana University. You can follow her on Twitter @themollygrace.