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Just minutes “over the hill” from the heavily populated cities strung north and south along San Francisco Bay, the appealingly small town of Half Moon Bay provides a welcome respite from Silicon Valley’s busy schedules and rush-hour traffic.

This coastal town sits at the mouth of a lush valley, surrounded by nature’s bounty. Inland farms grow everything from poinsettias to pumpkins, while the local fishing fleet’s grizzled mariners supply daily boatloads of fresh salmon, rock cod, crabs, and other seasonal delicacies.

Living off the land and the sea, coastside residents include artists, farmers and flower growers, commercial fishermen, surfers, conservationists, and alternative lifestyle advocates. Their common denominator is a passion for the coast and a shared vision of Half Moon Bay as the portal to a timeless and genuine way of life. So when you’re in town, put your internal engine on idle and allow yourself to savor the multitude of flowers, the laid-back atmosphere and the historic ambiance.

Along with its graceful mosaic of Victorian homes and quaint cottages, Half Moon Bay is also chock-full of restaurants, shops, galleries, and boutiques. Stroll along Main Street and sample the smorgasbord of bakeries, coffee houses and restaurants. Anyone with a craving for seafood will find ample fresh choices on the local menus—from ocean-fresh salmon and abalone to Northern California’s signature Dungeness crab. The mantra of the day is “organic,” and seasonal fruit and vegetables are widely available at the mom-and-pop markets and produce stands along Route 1, as well as at the Saturday Coastside Farmers Market at Shoreline Station, which runs from May through November.

Gustatory delights aside, Main Street also abounds with unique, independently owned businesses that make it a shoppers’ paradise. There are no national chains here. One can easily spend a day browsing through everything from art to jewelry and apparel, with many items made by local artists and craftsmen. You can also sample local wines, cheeses and olive oils.

The town’s contrasting architectural styles underscore the melting pot of European cultures that found their way here over the past 200-plus years. The Spanish came first, followed later by Portuguese, Italians, Irish, Scots, Chinese and  Mexicans. Many of the present-day family-owned businesses reflect this diverse heritage.

Among the many buildings still surviving along Main Street, you’ll find old haciendas and the town’s City Hall. The latter looks suspiciously like a bank, which is not surprising since that’s what it was in the 1920s. The vintage Mosconi Hotel at Main and Mill streets, built in 1905, is now the San Benito House, a bed-and-breakfast inn featuring an old-time saloon.

Other historic buildings include the United Methodist Church (circa 1872); the Mary Vallejo History Center, where the town’s first jail was located in 1911; and, on a hillside just outside of town, the striking Johnston House, a New England-style “salt-box” structure (circa 1855).

South of Half Moon Bay, Miramontes Point Road leads to an anomaly on the otherwise rural, low-keyed coast. The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, a luxurious five-star hotel with striking Shingle-style architecture, perches on a bluff overlooking Manhattan Beach. Golfers flock to its challenging 36 holes of oceanfront links with panoramic views of the Pacific. 

The road southward leads to San Gregorio State Beach, notable for its steep grassy bluffs, driftwood, and a protected estuary that’s a refuge for a variety of bird species.

Just inland, the town of San Gregorio charms with its General Store, in business since 1889. This old-time emporium still hawks everything from raccoon traps to cast-iron cookware. Locals sidle up to the bar on weekends to enjoy live music from blues to bluegrass, while tourists scan the shelves for kitsch and books on local history.

Continue south to reach Pescadero where old frame houses and the 1867 Pescadero Community Church form a quaint background for shops, a wine tasting room, artisan food markets, and historic Duarte’s Tavern.

Pescadero is also artichoke country, as evidenced by the line of people waiting to buy the famed, hot from the baking oven, artichoke garlic herb bread at Arcangeli Grocery Company.

See also our pick of 16 Fun Things to Do When in Half Moon Bay.