Visions of moonlight glistening on the bay and candlelight dinners with the sound of the waves lapping onto the shore while eating delicious seafood meals are all part of the experience of visiting Half Moon Bay.
Half Moon Bay is located on Highway 101, 30 miles south of San Francisco. Stunning vistas along the coastline beckon you to stop and breathe in the fresh air. The adventurous might want to drive the 375 miles from Los Angeles on Highway 101, which often hugs the Pacific Ocean coastline.
Before arriving, I talked with Dave Cresson, a local historian. He said, “I’m looking forward to taking you on a walking tour of our little town.” Thus, when I drove into Half Moon Bay, my immediate reaction was, “Wow, this town is much bigger than I thought!” It is a town of 12,500 with apparent signs of continuing growth.
Fun Fact: Thanks to citizens banding together early on, many of the buildings in this seaside community have been preserved. Preservation efforts have saved what is claimed to be the first steel-reinforced bridge in the United States. It was built using recycled San Francisco streetcar cables. Today, this charming, white-railed bridge is the gateway to downtown for visitors exiting Highway 101.
Note: My journey was a comp trip provided by Chamberlin PR and the gracious people in Half Moon Bay. I am most appreciative, for, without the guidance from locals, I would not have discovered many of the places I will share with you in this article. All opinions are my own.
1. Explore Main Street
Main Street is lined with blossoming trees providing shade for shoppers dashing in and out of the many locally owned retail stores. Antique stores are abundant, as are beach decor shops. Furniture artisans have their work studios open and welcome special orders. Floral boutiques and garden specialty stores display unusual floral containers and weatherproof art that would enhance any backyard.
Half Moon Bay Artichokes
Half Moon Bay bakeries are numerous. A specialty of the area is artichoke bread. This unusual and filling bakery delight is delicious and a must-try when you are in the area. Half Moon Bay embraces this vegetable by applying it to clothing and kitchen accessories in various ways.
Fun Fact: Castroville, considered the Artichoke Capital of the World, is an hour away.
2. Art Galleries With A Twist
Art gallery managers have had to rethink the operations of galleries. The galleries in Half Moon Bay appear to be at the forefront of new ways to enhance the gallery experience for both artists and visitors.
Coastal Art League Gallery
The Coastal Art League Gallery is a sizeable two-room space filled with quality art. One of the rooms has a juried exhibit with a theme and attracts people of all abilities to submit an entry. With approximately 100 pieces, a wide variety reflects the theme and provides the observer with a different vantage point to consider the subject.
The other room serves as a retail store for local artists. It is filled with paintings, sculptures, stationery, glass, and jewelry, ready to find a new home.
Ocean Blue Vault
Ocean Blue Vault shares the wealth with the artists and the community. David Oliphant is the owner of the real estate company next door and became aware the space was available for rent. His creative mind went to work and he developed a concept that appears to be a win/win/win.
Artists rent a space on the walls. It is located on a prime downtown Main Street corner which sees lots of traffic. When art sells, he takes 25 percent of the profits, instead of today’s norm: 50 percent.
The twist here is that one wall is used for art donated by local artists. A local nonprofit is identified. If the artwork sells, the entire amount goes to the nonprofit. In April 2022, for example, $1,000 was donated to the designated nonprofit.
3. Historical Walking Tour
David Cresson, the local historian I chatted with before I arrived, delights in leading walking tours of Half Moon Bay. A long-time resident of the area, he bought the Zaballa House, constructed in the Greek Revival style, when its demise was imminent. Estanislao Zaballa, an immigrant from Spain who was one of the first to start a business in the area, originally built the house around 1855. It is believed to be one of the oldest original structures in the town.
David proudly starts walking tours in the Zaballa House living room, complete with period furniture. He plans to open the house again as a quaint hotel. Today it is the centerpiece of Zaballa Square, located in the middle of downtown Half Moon Bay.
On tour (which can be arranged by calling or emailing the town’s history association — contact info available here), you will see many of the original structures still standing. Some of them have been repurposed by their owners. Still, others remain as residential homes steps away from downtown.
Pro Tip: You will want to wear comfortable shoes and a hat, bring water, and wear sunscreen. Wheelchairs will have no problem navigating the streets while on this one-hour tour.
4. The Johnston House
James Johnston traveled from the east during the time of the gold rush. He built a salt-box Eastern-style house on an 860-acre ranch about 2 miles from downtown Half Moon Bay in 1853.
Today, the Johnston House is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, captures the lifestyle of the period, and serves as an educational resource and an event space.
5. Half Moon Bay’s New Historical Museum
The city jail, used up to 1965, is still complete with its cell and now functions as the office for the Half Moon Bay History Association. Immediately behind the prison is a barn that’s being repurposed as the new historical museum. Locals await the new museum’s opening at the end of this month, June 2022.
The barn’s facade remains in tack. However, the inside has been transformed into an open space with portable walls for changing exhibits. Planners, keeping in mind the environment, designed the building to take advantage of green energy-saving mechanisms throughout the construction.
Soon the thousands of artifacts collected and saved will be able to have their story told. It is anticipated this will become a tool for highlighting the area’s history for local school children.
Pro Tip: Follow along with the museum’s progress or check to see if it will be open when you visit here.
5. Half Moon Bay Art Glass
Doug Brown’s welcoming smile and enthusiasm for the art of glass blowing are immediately apparent as you walk into the magical Half Moon Bay Art Glass studio. A display of his colorful and varied artworks adorns the shelves near the entrance.
By appointment, you can arrange to attend one of his classes. This hands-on experience will have you collect the glass on the blowpipe, blow it into the pipe to form your vessel, add color, and continue the process until all agree it is ready to break off the blowpipe. After a day of cooling, you can come back and pick up your creation.
In an unusual twist, Doug has a mobile trailer to take his classes and equipment to any location. He delights in that he has witnessed how a half-day corporate retreat with him is a great team-building exercise.
6. Dining In Half Moon Bay
One of the most surprising things about Half Moon Bay is its restaurants’ varied and outstanding cuisine. Since we are on the coast, one would be expecting fine seafood and seafood restaurants.
Sam’s Chowder House
Sam’s Chowder House is one of those places. Though casual in decor, this gigantic restaurant is perched high enough to get a beautiful view of the bay. This restaurant is where you order dishes and are convinced the last one is the best. Flavorful and cooked to perfection appears to be their guiding principle.
Surprisingly, there are several Italian restaurants in the area. Here are two of them:
Although there is no ocean view, the drive down to Mezzaluna takes you closer to the harbor filled with boats of all sizes. The menu includes farm-to-table entrees and vegetarian options — and I am still raving about my meal ending with the gelato and expresso dessert.
Fattoria E Mare
The minute you walk into Fattoria e Mare, you are convinced you are in a restaurant in Italy. Everything about this restaurant reflects the owner’s attention to detail. A conversation with him reveals his philosophy: “If it is not the best product in the area, I do not include it on my menu.”
7. Where To Stay In Half Moon Bay
The Beach House Hotel Half Moon Bay is located about 4 miles from downtown Half Moon Bay on Highway 101. Once you walk to the entrance under a portico, the registration area unfolds before you. Ocean decor, fresh lemon water, and a fireplace that would be welcoming on a chilly winter night lead you to the staff, who are ready to help you get settled in for your stay.
When you walk into your room, you will most likely be surprised. The unusual configuration of the suites has you walking past a king-size bed and then stepping down into a living area, complete with a pull-out sofa. Opposite the living room is a full kitchen which will have you at least considering making a meal or two.
Walk out through the glass doors on your patio and enjoy a 180-degree panorama of the bay — the perfect setting for drinking your morning coffee or watching the sunset.
Editor’s Note: We also recommend browsing these vacation rentals in Half Moon Bay.
Coastside Or Half Moon Bay?
Do not be confused when locals say Coastside instead of Half Moon Bay. Initially, the area within San Mateo County had eight cities and hamlets and was called Coastside. Today, it is apparent Half Moon Bay is developing its own identity and is flourishing by carrying through on its creative ideas that appear to be enhancing the way of life for its residents and visitors.