Merced Named One of the Coolest Small Cities in the U.S.

Merced, California

Population: 89,308
Imagine you wanted to visit Yosemite, but along the way, you get a chance to live out your retro road trip dreams. Enter Merced, a town just an hour from the national park, with a selection of vintage eras to choose from, spanning old western saloon vibes, 1920s art deco architecture, 1950s neon signs, vinyl or cassette tape shops, and a theater suitable for Back to the Future screenings. Everything here is in with the old and in with the new, since modern remodeling awaits on the insides.

Dig for treasures in the Merced Antique Mall or at Second Time Around. If you’re into old machines, check out the Grapes of Wrath-style farming equipment and old railway machinery at the town’s Agriculture Museum. Or head to the Castle Air Museum in nearby Atwater for retro aircraft. All you’ll be missing at that point is your DeLorean.

Must eat & drink: Merced’s central-California location means you’ll have all your Napa and Sonoma wines in easy reach at Hi-Fi Wine or Vinhos, but kick things up a notch by visiting Vista Ranch, where you can see (and taste!) the magic as it’s happening. Chase it down with cocktails from Native Son and craft beer from 17th Street Public House. Get high-end, seasonal farmers produce turned into clever dishes at Rainbird, or go for traditional Mexican cuisine with vegetarian options at J&R Tacos.

Don’t leave without: Lighting up fresh buds grown right in the valley. In fact, there’s even a convent of nuns in Merced who grow their own cannabis, and are you really gonna pass up a chance to ask a sister to pass the bowl? —Danielle Hallock

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