Yosemite Bound? Detour to This Classic California Town Serving Up Retro Charm
It’s all about art deco, vintage neon signs, and nuns growing cannabis here.
Traveling between Fresno and Modesto isn't exactly glamorous. It's nowhere near the ocean and at least 100 miles from wine country—but Merced is slowly starting to stake a claim as a California travel destination that deserves to be on your radar. The city is around an hour's drive to Yosemite's nearest entrance, which—considering the proximity and simultaneous distance—is why Merced’s slogan asks, "Why don't you stay awhile?" And there’s good reason to.
The city has traces of vibes throughout the ages, with hints of Art Deco and vintage road trip culture. And the historic downtown area is reviving once again, welcoming new businesses at a frantic pace and embracing its location in the heart of California's Central Valley. Here, agriculture isn't just an industry, but something that moves the needle in the wining, dining, and entertainment spheres. You've got seasonal tasting menus, whiskey distilled with sweet potatoes, and nuns who grow their own weed.
It also doesn't hurt that Merced is home to the newest University of California campus. Because who doesn’t love a lively, happening college town? Plus with arts, off-beat shops, and enough retro neon signs to rival a mini, classier Vegas, the city is full of character. Here's what to do when visiting Merced.
Spend the night in an art deco dream
Merced has its share of chain hotels, but there's really no comparison to El Capitan. The 144-room boutique hotel opened in 2021 and is a driving factor in the revitalization of Merced's downtown district. Most of it is newly constructed, with the exception of a wing preserved and renovated from the original hotel from 1872. An old neon marquee was cleaned up and now hangs near a central courtyard, where guests can enjoy wine and cocktails underneath string lights—because drinks always taste better with string lights.
The hotel rides a perfect balance between rustic and modern design. The small touches count: local artwork in the lobby, in-room record players, a Peloton machine in the gym, and San Francisco's awesome Equator Coffees (featuring sustainably sourced beans) served throughout the property. Plus all children receive a stuffed bumblebee that the hotel buys on behalf of a save-the-bees program.
Walk the streets and shops of downtown Merced
Downtown Merced was a hub of history, charm, and endearing quirks long before the wine bars came along (more on that later). The heart of Main Street runs about seven tree-lined blocks (between O Street and G Street, give or take) with independent retailers front and center.
Buy a used book from Second Time Around, a new wardrobe from Kelli, or vinyl from Tiggers & Daggers Records. Just want to browse a bit of everything? Abracadabra is an eclectic boutique with local art and oddball items, while the Merced Antique Mall showcases vintage items from a variety of resellers—almost like a flea market, but with a cleaner layout. Some of the best items are in the basement and in the garage that specializes in rustic outdoor decor.
Eat the freshest California produce in innovative dishes
The local restaurant Rainbird wouldn't look out of place in San Francisco or Napa Valley. The eatery opened its doors in February at El Capitan, but is already making a huge impression on Merced's dining landscape. The food is served exclusively in five-course tasting menus, and guests are allowed to make preferences along the way. It's not unusual to see experimental dishes using seasonal ingredients, like smoked cauliflower custard or white onion macaroons with pork pate.
Bella Luna has a similar, but less dramatic dedication to local ingredients, serving traditional Italian cuisine like pasta and pizza in a cozy brick and wood space. 510 Bistro (named after its Main Street address) serves a variety of classic and New American dishes on the best outdoor patio in Merced, overlooking a grassy courtyard with a fountain and palm trees. The Branding Iron is a steakhouse with an Old West feel that dates back to 1952 and takes pride in its prime rib. There's also no shortage of Mexican restaurants and food trucks throughout Merced. Try J&R Tacos first, which places a focus on fresh ingredients and healthier dishes, including vegan options posted on the wall.
Tour a farm that makes its own wine
Vista Ranch is a multigenerational family farm that sits on 20 acres of what used to be the largest peach orchard and canning operation in the world under a company that would later become Del Monte. The land now known as Vista Ranch is a gorgeous spot for weddings, private events, and weekend drinks. "Vista Nights" are held every Thursday and Friday between May and October, offering drinks, wood-fired pizzas topped with homegrown vegetables, and live music to the general public.
As everyone knows, pizza is the perfect partner to wine. In recent years, Vista Ranch has branched out into the vino business, using their own grapes for zinfandel and cabernet, while turning to Napa grapes for syrah, merlot, chardonnay, pinot grigio, a pink moscato, and two sparkling wines. Owners Stephanie and Ivan Marchini are also looking to experiment with natural wines later this year.
The property's tasting room now sits in an old ranch manager's home, built in 1910, where guests can sample and buy bottles, along with olive oil and other items produced with farm ingredients.
Light one up with nuns who grow cannabis
You can't have a full discussion about California "agriculture" without discussing cannabis. Merced has its share of dispensaries, but the Sisters of the Valley are the most compelling local business in the category. The convent of nuns grows their own weed on their own land, promoting the health benefits of the herb while selling a line of CBD products and scoring their own Rolling Stone article in the process.
To be clear—the Sisters of the Valley aren't Catholic. They're not even fans of organized religion, but the group is extremely spiritual, considers themselves servants of the poor, respects the planet, and grows their crop according to the placement of the moon. The nuns pray together and smoke together.
Their products are available online and shipped throughout the world, including their top-selling CBD salve with coconut oil and Vitamin E. You might even see a few items around town. The Smoker's Blend Tea, for example, is sold at Bobby's Market, which is on the same block of El Capitan and operates as the hotel's gift shop and convenience store.
Sip on spirits made from sweet potatoes
David Souza doesn't just grow sweet potatoes on his Atwater farm. He also distills them into booze for his side company, Corbin Cash. After all, you gotta do something with the ugly ones the grocery stores don't want anyway.
All that rye on the farm, around for more than 100 years, comes in handy at the distillery too. Everything is made on site—farm-to-bottle. Take a tour and tasting to see what the operation is all about. Souza is a good talker, and he's armed with endless information about sweet potatoes.
Fortunately, it's a fascinating process and the spirits are the real deal. The sweet potatoes work exceptionally well in vodka and gin. Souza also combines a neutral sweet potato spirit with his rye to create a blended whiskey that actually makes sense. Both versions of the whiskey are aged for five years in charred white oak barrels. There’s also a sweet potato liqueur, which is a nice, easy sipping spirit—sweet, but not too sweet—with cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.
Catch some theater in nifty-looking buildings
One of the best things about Main Street is the Merced Theater, an imposing 1,200 seat venue built in 1931 with gorgeous Spanish Colonial design and a dramatic mural of explorers at sea. It's home to the oldest symphonic orchestra in California, which now consists of Bay-area musicians who come in four times a year. Kenny Rogers reportedly claimed the theater had the best acoustics of any hall he'd performed in.
Dig deeper into the local art scene with Playhouse Merced, where community theater thrives, or the Merced Multicultural Arts Center, which is both an art gallery and performance venue. The latter is next to the Mainzer, a renovated art-deco theater with a game room, stage for live music, and bars with self-serve beer taps. An upstairs hall was converted into a movie theater with stylish West Elm chairs and tables in place of the same-old cinema seating.
Around the corner is The Tioga, which is almost like a work of art all by itself. Built in 1928, the former hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places and is now being repurposed as an apartment building. It's the tallest building in Merced and the city's most visible landmark from the main highway.
Sample California wines and then every cocktail imaginable
So where can you get a good drink around here? Merced's booze scene is changing rapidly with two new wine bars opening just months from each other on Main Street. Vinhos serves wine alongside Mediterranean tapas in a chic, contemporary atmosphere with concrete floors and industrial ceilings. The international wine list has more than 100 labels, dominated by California producers, although Vinhos tries to avoid stuff that's easy to find elsewhere.
Hi-Fi Wine is in soft-opening mode, but celebrates an official grand opening on June 6. The bar and lounge is named after a vintage cabinet stereo system that's been brought back to life, helping the lounge feel like a cozy get-together in somebody's living room. The space is also a retail shop emphasizing West Coast wines with California, Washington, and Oregon well represented. Expect to see a strong selection from independent artisan wineries, especially women-owned businesses, as well as organic, biodynamic, and vegan selections.
But it’s not all wine. Native Son effortlessly transitions from being a coffee bar during the day to a cocktail lounge at night in the lobby of El Capitan. Whereas The Partisan also has a full bar, but a more locals-oriented crowd. The Cue Spot is a billiards hall with more than 120 beers. It's the place where everyone ends up when they don't want to go to bed early. And then there’s the 17th Street Public House, another social spot for craft beer. (By the way, "17th Street" is Main Street.)
Step back in time in a museum from 1875
If you were to send a postcard from Merced anytime over the past 100 years or so, chances are good it would have a picture of the Merced County Courthouse on it. The city’s most identifiable landmark reflects the same Italian Renaissance design of California's state capital in Sacramento. Makes sense, since both buildings shared the same architect. Fun note: the Lady Justice statue is not blindfolded. Interpret that however you like.
The county courthouse, nestled in front of a large park, dates back to 1875 and was in operation for a full century until 1975. Today, it's a free museum run by volunteers, open Wednesday through Sunday in the afternoons. Core exhibits include the courtroom itself, a preserved school classroom, and equipment from a blacksmith shop. Exhibits don’t sit still too long, though, as there are ongoing rotations. The latest, for example, is about tractors—and who doesn't love a good tractor?
Explore the old Gold Rush town of Mariposa on the way to Yosemite
Okay, okay… so you want to go to Yosemite National Park. It's not a bad place to be. Heading there takes you through Mariposa, a small town worth a detour all by itself. Highway 140 slows down and turns into Mariposa’s Main Street, where the vast majority of the action is. The former mining community dates back to 1849. The Mariposa Museum & History Center is a small but engaging look into the town's Gold Rush history, with a restored stamp mill and other mining equipment outside.
Overall, Mariposa is a fun hodgepodge of eras, mixing an Old West legacy with American road trip culture. Venture around to the back of the Mariposa Hotel Inn, where the entrance of the Hideout Saloon is burrowed into the building, almost like a tunnel. Say hello and order the fried pickles. Heariter appetites may prefer the Happy Burger Diner. It claims to have the largest menu around—and with eight pages of descriptions in small font, few will argue. It's across the street from the Patten House, a home built in 1880 that's now a restaurant serving alligator bites and other takes on Cajun cuisine. So grab lunch at your dining establishment of choice and continue to Yosemite—or turn around and head back to Merced to stay a while. To be honest, you can't go wrong in either direction.