Merced is not your classic California tourist destination city. After all, it’s in the Central Valley, a sprawling region better known for agriculture and farming communities. What’s more, Merced isn’t exceptionally large in comparison to prominent Central Valley cities like Fresno or Sacramento. But if you think there isn’t much to do in this historic city, think again. In fact, Merced has a thriving cultural arts program, an emerging culinary scene and the newest University of California campus. Of course, Yosemite National Park is just a few hours away. With all this in mind, learn more about the best things you can see and do in Merced, the “Gateway to Yosemite”.

Applegate Park Zoo

1045 W. 25th St.
Merced, CA  95340
(209) 385-6840
www.facebook.com/mercedzoo

Hours: Thursdays through Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Closed Monday through Wednesday and major holidays
Price: Ages 5-15 $2, Ages 16-61 $3, Ages 62+ $1.50, Under 5 free

By no means is Applegate Park is big zoo. Indeed, it only houses about 75 animals that can’t survive on their own. What’s more, it only occupies a small portion of its namesake 32-acre city park. On the other hand, it’s quite affordable and operated by a top-flight staff and volunteers. Of these 75 mammals, reptiles and birds, the majority are native to California. For instance, you can see goats, raccoons, a gray wolf, bobcat and even bears. However, the zoo also holds non-native animals like a capuchin monkey, native to Central and South America. If you have children, the zoo can make for an entertaining day, with chances to feed animals in the Kiddie Corral.

Castle Air Museum

5050 Santa Fe Drive
Atwater, CA  95301
(209) 723-2178
www.castleairmuseum.org

Hours: Daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission: Adults 18 to 61, $20, Youths 13-17 and 62+, $15 and Children 6-12, $10. Active and retired military members, $15.

Just a short drive from downtown Merced, Castle Air Museum is one of the top tourist attractions in the area. As a matter of fact, it’s a must see, if you’re a lover of historic military aircraft. In general, the air museum is home to more than 80 vintage military aircraft, in addition to more contemporary models. That is to say that you can see famous aircraft like a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, Boeing CH-47D Chinook and McDonnell Douglas F-15A Eagle. That’s to say nothing of the Lockheed P-80 and McDonnell Douglas VC-9C, which served as Air Force One. Equally important is the notion that Castle Air Museum is the largest aviation between Washington State and Southern California.

Street view at dusk of the main entrance to the El Capitan Hotel in downtown Merced
El Capitan Hotel (credit: Randy Yagi)

El Capitan Hotel – JDV by Hyatt

609 W. Main St.
Merced, CA  95340
(209) 383-1234
www.hyatt.com/jdv-el-capitan

If you’re looking for overnight accommodations or fine dining, El Capitan Hotel is your best bet. A historic property now managed by JDV by Hyatt, El Capitan Hotel reopened in 2021 as the top boutique hotel in Merced. Featuring an extensive renovation with 114 nicely appointed rooms and suites, El Capitan Hotel offers free parking and onsite fitness center. In addition, the upscale hotel offers three exceptional dining experiences, including the signature Rainbird restaurant. Backed by an innovative chef who’s worked in Michelin Star restaurants, Rainbird features inspired California cuisine with ingredients sourced from local purveyors. While Rainbird is open for dinner or brunch, you can also dine at Native Son or EC.

Related: El Capitan Hotel: Your Top Choice In Merced

Mainzer Theatre marquee lit in vivid neon colors
Mainzer Theatre Marquee (credit: Randy Yagi)

Mainzer

655 W. Main St.
Merced, CA  95340
(209) 446-4001
www.themainzer.com

Just a short walk from El Capitan Hotel is the historic Art Deco theater, the Mainzer. The sister property to El Capitan Hotel, the Mainzer is one of the best entertainment venues in the city. The 1920s-era theater not only features a movie theater, but also separate sections for live entertainment and dining. In case you visit, there are upcoming movie screenings like “Rango” and regional musical acts like Strait Country and Joe Peters. For dining, the Mainzer is open for brunch, lunch and dinner, with popular dishes like burgers and sandwiches and salads. If that’s not enough, the Mainzer also has an arcade room, with games like Skee-Ball and foosball.

Travel Tip:

Just across the street from the Mainzer is the Tioga, the largest building in the city. Originally built in 1928 to be a grand hotel, it now serves as an apartment complex. The Tioga is best viewed as dusk, when its iconic neon sign is illuminated atop the structure.

Related: America’s Best Train Station Hotels

Daytime view of the Italian Renaissance-styled Merced County Courthouse Museum
Merced County Courthouse Museum (credit: Randy Yagi)

Merced County Courthouse Museum

W. 21st & N St.
Merced, CA  95340
(209) 723-2401
www.facebook.com/mercedmuseum

Hours: 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday
Admission: Free

If you are interested in learning more about the history of the city, visit this museum. That’s because the Merced County Courthouse Museum is managed by friendly volunteers of the Merced County Historical Society. Housed within one of California’s oldest historical courthouses, the museum features 8,500 square feet of permanent and rotating exhibitions. Among the museum’s collection are Native American artifacts and exhibits on the city’s rich agricultural history. In addition, you can see “Betsy”, Merced’s first fire engine from 1859 and items from the city’s earliest days. If you visit, don’t forget to visit the beautifully restored courthouse room, complete with seating and magnificent wood design.

Listed On The National Historical Register

The courthouse was designed by Albert A. Bennett, architect for the California State Capitol building and several courthouses. The Italian-Renaissance designed courthouse is the last of its kind in California. Moreover, it’s said to be the finest example of this architectural style between Sacramento and Los Angeles. Indeed, it’s also a noticeable reminder of the area’s transition between the pioneering days and Merced’s evolving prosperity.

Merced Multicultural Center

645 W. Main St.
Merced, CA  95340
(209) 388-1090
www.artsmerced.org

You literally can’t miss the Merced Multicultural Center (MAC) if you’re at El Capitan Hotel or the Mainzer. That’s because this gorgeous 28,000 square foot facility is nicely tucked in between. Opening in 1997, it’s managed by the Merced County Arts Council and home to several culturally diverse organizations. In more detail, it houses the Merced Academy of Dance, artists and theater groups, art galleries and more. In addition, MAC offers classroom instruction for people of all ages, a black box theater and ongoing events. One of the most popular activities are its Arts and Spirits (paint and sip) sessions that are held throughout the year.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge

7430 W. Sandy Mush Road
Merced, CA  95341
(209) 826-3508
www.fws.gov/refuge/merced

Hours: Daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Admission: Free

If you’re a nature photographer, one of the region’s best places to view wildlife is at Merced National Wildlife Refuge. A protected area encompassing over 10,000 acres, it provides a safe habitat for migratory birds and native animal species. During the fall to winter months, the refuge is home to the largest populations of sandhill cranes and Ross’ geese along the Pacific Flyway. However, you may also spot more species like marsh wrens, burrowing owls and northern harriers. The best time to visit the refuge is from November to February although it’s quite popular during the summer. Within the vast area are four nature trails, along with an auto route tour. Despite its Merced, California address, the refuge is about 18 miles from downtown Merced.

Daytime view of the historic Merced Theatre with its distinctive Art Deco tower
Merced Theatre (credit: Randy Yagi)

Merced Theatre

301 W. Main St.
Merced, CA  95340
(209) 381-0500
www.mercedtheatre.org

One of downtown Merced’s most distinguishing features is that there is not one, but two historic movie houses. In addition to the Mainzer is Merced Theatre, a blend of Art Deco and Spanish Colonial architectural styles with a distinctive tower. Dating back to 1931, the grand theater originally had a seating capacity of 1,640. Today, after an interior reconfiguration, the theater’s capacity is 1,185, making it the area’s largest. Among the upcoming events happening are a Motown tribute group, Eagles tribute band and Johnny Cash tribute singer. However, it’s not just live musical acts at the Merced Theatre. For instance, comedian Henry Cho, a stunt dog show and even a Richard Wagner opera with the Merced Symphony are on the schedule.

Related: Famous Opera Houses In Europe

UC Merced

5200 Lake Road
Merced, CA  95343
(209) 228-4400
www.ucmerced.edu

Whether you’re a prospective student, interested parent, academic or curious visitor, UC Merced is a must. The newest segment of the UC system offers family tours of the diverse campus for students and families. Of course, group tours for schools and community groups are also available. In addition, UC Merced is a member of the CalPac Conference of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The university also has an impressive Arts and Culture program, with an art gallery and events held at venues like Merced Theatre and Playhouse Merced. If you’re just curious to see the campus, please contact the Visitor Center for information. While on campus, don’t forget to try some of the outstanding food available at dining facilities and food trucks. Entering its 18th year of instruction, UC Merced has earned multiple distinctions, including America’s Greenest College in 2022 by EcoWatch.

Travel Tip

Just minutes from UC Merced is Lake Yosemite, a 500-acre reservoir that’s popular for boating, fishing and water sports. Managed by Merced County, the admission fee is $6 for vehicles and boats, and $10 for buses. For golfers, Merced Golf & Country Club is also a short drive from the campus.

Vista Ranch

7326 East Highway 140
Merced, CA  95340
(209) 722-8200
www.vistaranch.com

Hours: Daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

If you’re looking for wine tasting, Merced has that too. Just head over to Vista Ranch, located along the highway that connects Merced to the Yosemite Valley. A 20-acre property with an important historical significance, the ranch is also popular for weddings and other special events. The wine tasting room is housed within a historic 1910 farmhouse and is open to visitors and Vista Wine Club members. The price $7 for wine by the glass of $10 for wine tasting of five varietals. Additionally, wood-fired pizza, salads and more are available for purchase on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Vista Ranch has five acres of vineyards, producing cabernet, pinot noir and primativo grape varietals.

Related: Five Colorful Destinations to Visit in California

About The Author

Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer who served as the National Travel Writer for CBS from 2012-2019. More than 900 of his stories still appear in syndication across 23 CBS websites, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. During his peak years with CBS, Randy had a reported digital audience reach of 489 million and 5.5 million monthly visitors. Additionally, his stories have appeared in the Daily Meal, CBS News, CBS Radio, Engadget, NBC.com, NJ.com and Radio.com. He earned a Media Fellowship from Stanford University in 2012.