More and more travelers are discovering what central-coast Californians have known for years: This beautiful beach town bargain is ready for its closeup.
As you approach Morro Bay, California, from Highway 101 in summer, as my family and I did in July, the first thing you’ll notice is that the outdoor temperature drops a few degrees each mile as you head west, over some switchbacks in the coastal range, and down to the lovely little beach town dominated visually by the iconic Morro Rock, a holdover from the region’s volcanic origins. As the environment along the road quickly changed from inland farmland vistas and 97-degree heat to misty seaside hills with breezes bringing temps down into the 60s, we relished what central-coast Californians have known for years but other U.S. domestic travelers are just now getting to know: Morro Bay is a charming beach town that is a real bargain along this beautiful stretch of coast.
Our lodging for the night, The Landing at Morro Bay, combines the best aspects of a design-forward seaside hotel (mid-century modern interior design and furniture, ample windows and glass doors facing the water) with the comfy convenience of a family-friendly motel (ample parking, friendly staff, excellent local coffee brewed all day at the front desk). We loved that The Landing is a super-short walk from Morro Bay’s scenic wharf and parkland, not to mention our view of the impressive Morro Rock from the second-story balcony.
WHAT TO DO
There’s enough to do in Morro Bay to keep you busy for days, but our first-ever visit was limited to 24 hours, giving us a chance to get to know the town and add some spots to our “next time to-do list.” Pacific beaches beckon for those who want to catch serious waves (visit AZ.HI.AZ.I.AM Surf Shop first) or just soak up some sun (with some help from Beach Butlerz if needed). The town of Morro Bay and its surrounding area is renowned for hiking in Morro Bay State Park and along the Cloisters Park Trail, kayaking in the bay (or explore via “bay cruisers” or electric boats to see sea otters and sea lions in their beautiful habitat), and golfing on a course affectionately dubbed “the poor man’s Pebble Beach” for its beauty and affordability. Drop by Kites & Surreys to purchase one of the many eye-popping beach-friendly kites on display or to rent a pedal surrey in which to explore Morro Bay’s park trails. And if you’re looking for a splash of urban sophistication amid the natural beauty, we loved Revolve Thrift for its impeccably curated retro-chic collection of vintage clothing, mid-century artifacts, and home decor.
WHAT TO EAT
The evening we arrived in Morro Bay, we enjoyed dinner at Bayside Cafe, in Morro Bay State Park, serving a nice array of seafood in a family-friendly atmosphere (indoor and patio seating) along the marina. I went with some of my personal “comfort foods,” crab cakes appetizer and fried clams dinner, and was happy that I did. The meal isn’t over until you share some desserts like the outstanding Boysenberry Crips, Key Lime Pie, and (the current frontrunner for my favorite dessert name of all time) Chocolate Oblivion.
Breakfast at popular Frankie & Lola’s is everything you might hope for, with an array of omelet options that include fresh veggies, a reminder of Morro Bay's proximity to the central coast’s incredible farmland. I opted for a massive breakfast burrito, half of which completely satisfied my hunger and the other half of which I packed and happily consumed during our trip down the 101 toward Ventura. Right down the street from Frankie & Lola’s, stop into House of Jerky for artisanal meat snacks made with grass-fed, humanely harvested stock.
Don’t leave town without grabbing a meal at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant on Embarcadero, where you’ll find not just a great bustling diner-style eatery specializing in fresh-caught Pacific seafood but also a mini-conglomerate of Tognazzini-branded enterprises that includes the Fish Market & Patio and the Smokehouse & Pub. We enjoyed Dockside’s great sandwiches and salads and savored a relaxing stroll along the wharf watching the fishing boats (you may even spot Captain Mark Tognazzini and Bonnie Tagnazzini’s boat, the Bonnie Marietta), and ogling the fresh-from-the-sea bounty at the fish market.