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10 Best Places to Live in California

By: Davina Ward
April 23, 2021

As one of the country’s biggest states, moving to California means dealing with the challenge of determining where you’ll live. The sheer number of options can feel overwhelming for prospective renters.

However, your California apartment search doesn’t have to be an overwhelming experience. The first step is simple—choose your city.

To help you narrow down your list of options, we’ve created this guide exploring the best places to live in California. Let’s get started!

1. Sacramento

  • Population: 513,624
  • Who’s Moving Here?: Many people move from other areas within California. The highest number of new residents are coming from San Francisco, Stockton, and San Jose.
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,582
  • Median Household Income: $62,335
  • Walk Score: 45
  • Transit Score: 34
  • Bike Score: 68

With over half a million residents, California's capital city attracts individuals from all around the world. Known for its plethora of universities, financial center status, and developmental growth, Sacramento attracts individuals from across the world.

There's a lot more to Sacramento than meets the eye. Although it’s often overlooked compared to other major cities like Los Angeles, Sacramento has its own unique vibe, which many describe as an eclectic mix of urban, artsy, modern, and hipster. It's also one of the cheapest places to live in California, which makes it an affordable CA city.

There is plenty to explore in the city. The growing art scene includes several premier performing arts groups, including orchestras, ballets, operas, and theater groups. You'll also find a robust collection of museums, most notably, the Crocker Art Museum.

Sacramento is home to a notably large LGBTQ population, many of which reside in the Lavender Heights neighborhood. That's where you'll find Sacramento's annual Pride Parade.

Learn more about other neighborhoods in Sacramento.

Additionally, Sacramento is known for its excellent coffee selection throughout the city. You can stop by several upscale cafes and coffee shops for your morning brew during your commute.

Speaking of your commute, it isn’t likely that you’ll have to traverse very far, especially if you work within the city. Residents spend under half an hour on their commutes, in large part due to the city's comprehensive transit system.

Sacramento's top employers include the state, city, and county government, health facilities, the public school district, and Intel.

2. Santa Rosa

  • Population: 176,753
  • Who’s Moving Here?: The majority of new Santa Rosa residents move from other California cities, according to data trends.
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,921
  • Median Household Income: $75,630
  • Walk Score: 44
  • Transit Score: 27
  • Bike Score: 51

Santa Rosa is very diverse, boasting a foreign-born population that makes up 20% of the city. Downtown is home to a large LGBTQ community, which provides many public events throughout the year.

There are loads of rental opportunities in Santa Rosa, allowing prospective residents to search for their dream apartment.

If you prefer modern living arrangements, newer apartment communities are plentiful, boasting amenities like pools, indoor gyms, and rooftop lounges.

Santa Rosa's economy is stable, though it's not like any of the other major cities in California. You won't find a ton of tech companies or startups within city limits. Major employers include the district schools, the local government, and health facilities.

Santa Rosa is a dream destination for wine lovers. It offers close proximity to Fountain Grove vineyards and wineries, giving residents the first pick of California-grown wine. In Downtown Santa Rosa, you'll find a fun nightlife scene with many clubs and bars.

3. San Francisco

  • Population: 881,549 (up almost 10% since 2010)
  • Who’s Moving Here?: San Francisco attracts people from all over. San Jose, Los Angeles, and Sacramento ex-pats make up the majority of new residents in San Francisco. You’ll also catch a high number of people from the Northeastern and Atlantic regions of the US.
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $2,410
  • Median Household Income: $68,883
  • Walk Score: 87
  • Transit Score: 80
  • Bike Score: 72

There are two critical things that any prospective San Francisco resident needs to know about the city.

  1. Every San Francisco resident lives within a 10-minute walking distance from a park.
  2. Every San Francisco resident lives just a quarter-mile from a transit stop, which translates to a 5-7 minute walk.

Those two facts alone are what drive thousands to San Francisco. It's a large part of the reason that San Francisco residents average a low 33.8 minute commute time.

Cyclists can rejoice too, as the city's updated bike infrastructure means that commuters and hobbyists will enjoy smooth, safe rides throughout the city.

Not to mention, San Francisco is made up of several gorgeous parks and beaches. If you're an outdoor buff or fitness lover, there's not much more you can ask for!

Moving into the financial side of things, San Francisco is projected to experience job growth of 39.1% in the next 10 years. With major U.S. corporations such as Fitbit, Salesforce, Square, Inc, Twitter, Reddit, and more, all of which are headquartered in the city, the employment opportunities are seemingly endless!

As for recreation, San Francisco is home to a bustling nightlife scene and a fair share of tourist destinations that locals can enjoy. It's home to Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Ocean Beach — just to name a few.

4. San Jose

  • Population: 1,021,795
  • Who’s Moving Here?: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento breed most of San Jose's newest residents, but they come from all over the country.
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $2,073
  • Median Household Income: $109,593
  • Walk Score: 49
  • Transit Score: 41
  • Bike Score: 62

San Jose is one of the major cities in California, though many people refer to it as Silicon Valley. While there are a plethora of tech jobs available in the city, the cost of living is very high. The median household income is $109k, so you'll most likely find yourself renting with a roommate until you're able to establish yourself financially.

For graduating college students or those who want to enter the tech industry, San Jose is the perfect place to land an internship or secure a job. The city's major employers include eBay, PayPal, Zoom, Adobe, Samsung, Acer, and more major names in the industry.

Beyond the booming tech industry, San Jose boasts many recreation and entertainment options for those who live by the motto of "work hard, play hard."

The nightlife scene in San Jose is impressive. Downtown boasts many bars and nightclubs, including Trials Pub, which offers an authentic British pub experience complete with brews and Shepherd's pie, and Loft Bar and Bistro, perfect for those seeking good eats and libations.

5. Santa Cruz

  • Population: 64,608
  • Who’s Moving Here?: The majority of new Santa Cruz residents move from other California cities, according to data trends.
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $3,425
  • Median Household Income: $77,921
  • Walk Score: 62
  • Transit Score: 37
  • Bike Score: 84

Santa Cruz offers residents the opportunity to take advantage of living in a California city with a more suburban vibe. Many classify Santa Cruz as a beach town.

One reason people find the city so attractive is its proximity to the Pacific. The town is brimming with those who love water sports and outdoor activities. Expect to rub shoulders with surfers, kayakers, paddle boarders, divers, and swimmers. The local Santa Cruz Bicycle and Santa Cruz Skateboard companies support a significant skating and cycling community in the city. In short, Santa Cruz is an adventure lover's paradise.

Like any beach town, a fair portion of the economy is rooted in tourism. That said, Santa Cruz is also home to prominent agriculture, education, and technology employers. Your commute time will vary, but the average Santa Cruz resident spends just under 24 minutes commuting one way.

Most residents own a personal vehicle and rely on it as their sole means of transportation. While there is a public transportation system in Santa Cruz, it's not comprehensive enough to meet residents’ needs.

6. Fresno

  • Population: 531,576
  • Who’s Moving Here?: The majority of new Fresno residents move from other California cities, according to data trends.
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,244
  • Median Household Income: $50,432
  • Walk Score: 45
  • Transit Score: 32
  • Bike Score: 59

Fresno boasts a unique position as a city located near the geographical center of California. For anyone who has to travel throughout the state, it’s the perfect location.

Better yet, Fresno is about 60 miles away from Yosemite National Park, which means that outdoor enthusiasts are only about an hour and a half drive away from the best outdoor adventure of their lives.

The largest employers in the city of Fresno are within the healthcare, government, and education industries. That said, it's not uncommon to commute outside of the city for work, though you should be prepared for a lengthy commute and rising gas costs.

On your days off, a trip to the Fulton Mall will usually net you a fun experience, as the mall often hosts free public events. However, if you want to get the most out of your leisure time, head over to the Tower District.

Here you'll find tons of annual, monthly, and one-off events. These events include a large Farmer's Market, car shows, Mardi Gras celebrations, a Gay Pride parade, and more.

When it comes to food, it’s hard to go without mentioning Taco Truck Throwdown. This annual event pits the best taco trucks in the city against each other and lets residents decide the winner. Of course, there are many other excellent culinary options, but none with the same pizazz of the taco throw down.

7. Santa Barbara

  • Population: 91,364
  • Who’s Moving Here?: The majority of new Santa Barbara residents move from other California cities, according to data trends.
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: Starting at $1,356 a month
  • Median Household Income: $76,606
  • Walk Score: 61
  • Transit Score: N/A
  • Bike Score: 66

Finding employment in Santa Barbara isn't difficult if you work in one of its major employment industries. Many aerospace and defense companies lie within the city limits. However, the city and county governments, as well as the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), are among the top employers in the city.

Although there is no recorded transit score for Santa Barbara, its public transportation system isn’t lacking, by any means. The system includes bus lines that serve the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Santa Barbara City College. That said, it’s a relatively limited transit service. You may be able to commute to work via the peak-hour commuter service.

Santa Barbara is known for its distinct culture, which features a thriving arts scene, an enthusiasm for outdoor recreation, and a love of museums. Santa Barbara hosts an annual International Film Festival, a massive Bastille Day festival, and several annual music festivals.

It's also a coveted surfing destination that surfers flock to in droves.

When it comes to museums, Santa Barbara is in a league of its own. It's home to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara, the University Art Museum, and the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

8. Santa Monica

  • Population: 90,401
  • Who’s Moving Here?: The majority of new Santa Monica residents are those moving from other California cities, according to data trends.
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $2,359
  • Median Household Income: $96,570
  • Walk Score: 82
  • Transit Score: 62
  • Bike Score: 86

Santa Monica is more than just another California beachfront city, offering some of the best opportunities to get your foot in the door of a major company.

The city is a hub for game development, with industry giants such as PUBG, Activision, and Naughty Dog.

Not to mention, the city is ripe with employment opportunities thanks to the plethora of venture capital-funded startups in the area. If you prefer a more established company, Hulu, Universal Music Group, and Lionsgate Films are also headquartered in the city.

You’ll find a variety of entertainment and recreation offerings in Santa Monica, including the famed Palisades Park, the Santa Monica Track Club, the Santa Monica Pier, and the vibrant downtown nightlife. However, the employment opportunities are its biggest draw.

9. Los Angeles

  • Population: 3,979,576
  • Who’s Moving Here?: The largest number of new Los Angeles residents come from Riverside, California, San Francisco, and New York.
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,989
  • Median Household Income: $62,142
  • Walk Score: 68
  • Transit Score: 53
  • Bike Score: 59

Los Angeles is arguably California's most famous city. It's also the largest city in the state, with a population of nearly 4 million.

Of course, the city is known for its role as the central hub of the entertainment industry, but for any resident who isn't trying to catch their big break — there's a lot more to living in LA that you should know.

You'll likely be able to find employment at some of the biggest Los Angeles employers, including healthcare facilities, the University of Southern California, and a few notable aerospace technology companies.

You can take your time exploring the city throughout many ethnic enclaves, such as Little Ethiopia, Little Tokyo, Little Koreatown, and many more unique Los Angeles neighborhoods.

There are famous attractions like Hollywood Sign, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Griffith Observatory, Staples Center, and Dodger Stadium.

There is also an almost hilariously high number of professional sports teams in the city (11!). So, you're free to take your pick. If you like to plan ahead of time, you can even buy tickets to the 2028 Summer Olympics, which will be hosted in the city.

In short, Los Angeles isn’t so much a city, as it is its own little world that residents and visitors alike can enjoy.

10. San Diego

  • Population: 1,423,851
  • Who’s Moving Here?: Residents from Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Francisco. New residents from out-of-state come from all over the U.S.
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $2,106
  • Median Household Income: $79,673
  • Walk Score: 51
  • Transit Score: 37
  • Bike Score: 43

San Diego is one of California's largest cities, and, as such, it has a lot to offer a prospective renter. In it, you'll find a thriving metropolis with a downtown waterfront location.

It's a great mix of all the best bits of California, including Pacific Ocean views, west coast city living, excellent year-round weather, and a variety of recreation options.

You'll find tons of museums in San Diego, but we recommend starting with the San Diego Museum of Art for its variety of exhibits.

San Diego is home to the San Diego Padres MLB team, though you can also catch some professional and amateur sports events in the city throughout the year beyond baseball.

Thanks to numerous military bases in San Diego, the Navy is the city's biggest employer. However, local universities and healthcare facilities are also among the top employers.

Gaslamp Quarter (or District, if you’re a native), which is located Downtown, is home to the city's major nightclubs and bars. It’s one of San Diego’s most popular neighborhoods.

Final Thoughts - Where Should I Move To In California?

California is an exciting destination for any renter, regardless of which of the state’s many awesome cities you end up in. Once you’ve narrowed down your list, take our quiz above to find your dream California apartment!

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Davina Ward is a contributing author at Apartment List and freelance writer specializing in real estate and digital marketing. She received her B. Read More
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