This quiet town on California’s Central Coast is the perfect family vacation escape

California’s Highway 1 is full of picturesque beach towns and Morro Bay is one of our favorites. It has a small-town vibe with welcoming locals, loads of wildlife, and not-too-crowded beaches for a day in the sun. Whether you are road tripping from the Bay Area or Los Angeles, Morro Bay is the ideal destination for families looking for coastal relaxation without all the cheesy souvenir stores you’ll find in many of the other California beach towns.


kids looking for shells on the beach in Morro Bay
Kate Loweth

Things to Do in Morro Bay with Kids

Located just north of San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay is most recognizable for the iconic Morro Rock, which was formed 23 million years ago from the plugs of now-extinct volcanoes. We’ve tried out quite a few activities while visiting Morro Bay and you can find our favorites both on land and on the water below.

RELATED: Road Trip! California’s Central Coast Offers Sun and Fun for the Whole Family

boy kayaking in Morro Bay California
Kate Loweth

Wildheart Coastal Adventures
Mandy at Wildheart Coastal Adventures is your key to learning about what makes the Morro Bay Estuary the unique spot that it is. She will craft the perfect kid- and dog-friendly adventure that can include hiking to the top of the Black Hill Trail to see the estuary from above as well as kayaking adventures for all levels of paddlers. During our paddle, she pointed out sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, and tons of birds and other wildlife. We especially appreciated how conscientious she was regarding keeping our distance from wildlife so as not to disturb them in their natural habitats.

Sub Sea Tours Whale Watching and Harbor Cruises
For a less active way to explore Morro Bay from the water, we recommend reserving a spot on a three-hour whale watching tour or one-hour harbor tour with Sub Sea. The whale watch tour takes you out past the calm harbor waters to see if you can spot gray or humpback whales that come to feed on the abundant sea life offshore. A shorter, less bumpy option (for those who might get seasick) is the harbor tour. A glass-bottomed boat takes you to visit the sea lions that have taken over a wooden platform in the harbor and the sea otters that frolic near shore. You can also rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards from this location.

Black Hill Trail Hike
For some killer views of Morro Rock and an easy hike for the kids, head to the Black Hill Trail. To find the trailhead to this 0.62-mile round trip hike, turn off Main Street just past the Inn at Morro Bay and on to Park View Road. Keep left on to Upper State Park Road and follow that to the end where you can park. The trail meanders up to the peak where there are boulders to climb and great spots for a family picture.

Maritime Museum in Morro Bay California
Kate Loweth

Morro Bay Maritime Museum
Your little explorers will love visiting this museum that has a tugboat, a Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle, and a commercial fishing vessel as part of its fleet. The museum is free to visit and open from Thursday-Monday but you can always walk through the outdoor exhibits and learn about things like pulleys from the information displayed. Indoor you can watch a video that shows what powerful waves do to Morro Bay Harbor and why its layout makes it particularly difficult for captains to navigate.

Morro Rock Beach
Spend some time with your toes in the sand at Morro Rock Beach. You can walk there from downtown or drive out and park in the free lot. If you are lucky, you will get to see some surfers catching gnarly waves just offshore. This is also a great spot to fly your kite as the wind whips around the rock. Head to the harbor side to see what the sea otters are eating today. If you make your way to the back side of Morro Rock, you’ll be rewarded with climbing rocks and many stone cairns.

succulent plant story in Morro Bay California
Kate Loweth

Shopping in Morro Bay
You can easily spend a whole day exploring downtown Morro Bay. From the life-sized chess board that resides in the center of town to the many souvenir shops along the harbor, there are lots of spots that the kids will enjoy.

  • The Garden Gallery is a favorite spot to pick up some succulents or garden art to take home with you.
  • Pick up a surrey at Farmer’s Kites and Surreys and head out along the bike path to check out Morro Rock up close.
  • Swing by The Shell Shop to grab some crustacean art to take home with you. Since 1955 this shop has been selling jewelry, corals, and shells of all types. We especially love their windchimes made out of seashells.
kids looking at exhibits in Morro Bay
Kate Loweth
  • Looking to learn a little more about the sea life in Morro Bay? A great spot to stop is the Estuary Nature Center. This free spot will teach kids (and grown-ups) all about protecting our natural resources for generations to come. It is located on the second floor in the Marina Square Building.
  • If thrift shopping and treasure hunting is on your must-do list, Morro Bay has at least a dozen spots where you can find your new favorite outfit or that perfect gift.

Related: Up Your Kayak Game at These Bay Area Spots

outdoor dining in Morro Bay California
Kate Loweth

Where to Eat in Morro Bay

With easy access to super fresh seafood, Morro Bay is a seafood-lovers paradise. We love the easy dining that’s offered at the many fish markets in town like Giovanni’s Fish Market (pictured above). Here you can get fish tacos and clam chowder, along with any type of fried fish you could dream up. The outdoor dining is particularly kid-friendly.

Tognazzini’s Dockside is another favorite as the portions are big and the service is friendly. You’ll have a lovely view of the harbor while you enjoy fresh-caught fish and some of the best desserts in town. Their Fish Market next-door is perfect for when you want something a little more casual.

Grab a table at Dutchman’s Seafood House at sunset and enjoy the colors changing with Morro Rock in the background. This family-owned restaurant also owns its own dock, ensuring the freshest fish for its patrons while supporting the sustainable fishing methods of local fishermen. Try the sand dabs and a cup of clam chowder.

Another option just above the life-sized chess board downtown is Dorn’s Original Breakers Cafe. Open since 1942, Dorn’s offers fresh, local seafood as well as steaks, chicken, pasta, and salads. It’s also a great spot for your weekend brunch.

Just outside of town you’ll find the unassuming Taco Temple where you’ll definitely want to make a stop. Huge portions are the name of the game so feel free to split meals. Go for whatever is listed as the catch of the day and enjoy it taco style with horchata on the side.

The Bayside Cafe has some of the best no-frills dining in the area. The California Chowder in a bread bowl is a crowd favorite. This side-by-side combo of clam chowder and green chile soup is the perfect balance of spice and the sea. Save room for their boysenberry crisp, generously topped with whipped cream, it’s not to be missed! Be sure to check out all the cool ceiling art on your way out.

For breakfast, we recommend the breakfast sandwiches at Morro Bay Coffee Company and bottomless cup of coffee (and snickerdoodle cookies) at Sun-n-Buns Bakery.

kids eating ice cream in Morro Bay
Kate Loweth


Sweet Treats
There’s no shortage of spots to stop and grab some sweets in downtown Morro Bay. Embarcadero Fudge and Ice Cream has just that—fudge and ice cream—with samples of whatever you are thinking of purchasing. Carousel Taffy is a must-visit spot with taffy by the pound.

You may never get the kids to leave Kelli’s Candies with their massive selection of jelly beans, ice cream, taffy, and more. With arcade games in the back, you might as well get yourself an iced coffee and a piece of fudge as you’ll likely be there a while.


pool at the Inn at Morro Bay
Kate Loweth


Where to Stay in Morro Bay with Kids

We love the location of 456 Embarcadero Inn & Suites for your Morro Bay visit as you can easily walk to all of the great restaurants in town or hop over to one of the kayak rental spots to book your day on the water. Rooms are large and many have balconies so that you can enjoy your coffee while breathing in the fresh ocean air. The property also has a hot tub for relaxing in the evening hours.

Just outside of downtown near the golf course is the Inn at Morro Bay (pictured above). It’s a great option for families looking to stay a few days as the rooms are large and each has a private deck that looks out over the harbor or the pool area. The pool is kept at a nice, warm temp and there’s a hot tub if you want to relax with the jets on.

What a Weekend in Morro Bay Looks Like with Kids: *Spoiler Alert* It’s Awesome

Must-Do Adventures near Morro Bay

Morro Bay is an easy three-hour drive along 101 from San Jose. There are tons of spots for detours to break up the journey a bit. Swing by the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery on your way out of town. It’s 45 minutes north of Morro Bay in Cambria. Kids will love how close they can get to these massive creatures. Volunteer docents are often available to answer questions.

Head up the hill to tour the majestic Hearst Castle on your next Morro Bay Visit. This massive property is accessible to visitors via buses from the visitors center (believe us, you wouldn’t want to attempt the steep, windy roads in your minivan). On your way up, you might spot some of the unique animals that make this property their home before you enter the walls of the property that was built for W. R. Hearst by architect Julia Morgan. Adults and older children will enjoy seeing the swimming pool that is lined in gold, as well as the massive dining room and other opulent spaces. 

Related: How to Plan a Successful Road Trip from SF to LA

sunset over the water in Morro Bay
Kate Loweth

Discover More Details about Morro Bay

Morro Bay is the ideal family destination with the perfect balance of things to do and also ways to relax. Check out the Morro Bay Tourism website for more ideas on what to do on your next weekend adventure. You can find out about seasonal events like the Maritime Family Fun Day.

Note: This trip was paid for by Morro Bay Tourism but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer. 

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