- Distance from San Francisco: 74 miles
- Best time: April to December
- Best for: FamilyRomanticOutdoor
While the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is perhaps the most well-known attraction for Monterey, this gorgeous coastal town warrants a visit for plenty of other reasons. Its array of activities is almost as boundless as its beauty—in a weekend, you can explore its quaint downtown and bustling Cannery Row and Fisherman's Wharf, walk or bike along miles of beautiful seaside trails, and dig into just-caught seafood at top-notch restaurants.
Just four miles away is Carmel-by-the-Sea, an upscale enclave that beckons with blocks of charming shops and restaurants, plus plenty of nearby options for beaches and hikes. This is prime whale-watching territory, with year-round opportunities to see the majestic creatures. In short, these side-by-side towns make for an ideal family getaway, whether you're after education, adventure, or rest and relaxation. No matter what's on the itinerary, though, be sure to bring the camera, as there's a photo opp around every corner. – By Blane Bachelor
Monterey and Carmel Cheat Sheet
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1Stretch your legs with a stroll along the shops and stores of historic Cannery Row. Sardine canning factories once flourished in this former working-class neighborhood, which got its name from the title of John Steinbeck's 1945 novel. Tin-roofed factories have been renovated into a cheerful stretch of stores selling souvenirs and homemade candy and fudge, as well as some wine-tasting rooms and antique shops.
2Tuck into tasty pizzas at Gianni's Pizza (725 Lighthouse Ave; 831-649-1500), a longtime favorite among locals and just a three-block walk from Cannery Row. Little ones will love watching the pizza makers toss the dough and top the pies with ingredients at this casual, come-as-you-are spot.
3For post-dinner entertainment, the cozy Crown & Anchor pub is packed with nautical and UK-themed memorabilia sure to delight both seadogs and landlubbers of all ages (and there's a fenced patio to keep tiny pirates captive). For an adults-only nightcap, leave the kids with a babysitter—The Clement is one hotel that offers in-room babysitting services—and sip a well-crafted cocktail under 200-year-old oak trees on the magical patio of Restaurant 1833.
Did you know? Hollywood screen legend Clint Eastwood was Carmel's most famous mayor, serving one term from 1986 to 1988. Eastwood still has a home in Carmel, along with other paparazzi-shy celebs including Doris Day, who co-owns the dog-friendly Cypress Inn.
1Fuel up for the day with a delectable, but casual, breakfast at the Crepes of Brittany in Fisherman's Wharf, which features both sweet crepes made with Nutella, fruit, and whipped cream and egg-topped breakfast versions. From there, it's onto the 8,500-square-foot MY Museum, where little ones can engage in a pint-sized game of Operation! or don a hard hat to work on a tiny construction site, for an affordable $8 entry fee.
2Breathe in plenty of fresh sea air and the most majestic views of the northern California coast, plus wildlife sightings of harbor seals and sea otters, along the 18-mile Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. Stroll or roll via bike or a four-wheeled, canopy-topped surrey (keep in mind that the trail is very popular with recreational and serious cyclists, so stay to the far right if you're going at a slower pace).
3Hop in the car for a quick drive to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, just three miles south of Carmel. Named for the sea lions that gather—they're called "lobos marinos," or sea wolves, in Spanish—this scenic park features easy hikes and spectacular views, as well as glimpses of sea otters and sea lions. Park outside the reserve for free or pay $10 for quicker access to several hikes, some of which are less than a mile long.
4Spend the rest of the afternoon strolling the beautiful coastal town of Carmel, whose main drag, Ocean Drive, hums with cozy shops, restaurants, and B&Bs. Parents can trade off kid duty while indulging in the Wine Walk By-the-Sea Passport: $65 gets you tastings from ten participating in-town tasting rooms, from estate-grown wines to sparkling varieties, plus waived corkage fees at some restaurants. At The Cheese Shop, sample cheeses from all over the world and grab a wedge or two for your next stop: the beach.
5Carmel Beach, a public access cove at the western end of Ocean Drive, buzzes with families and frolicking dogs. Wind down the afternoon by relaxing on the soft sand (but be sure to bring a jacket, as it can be windy and temperatures drop as the sun sets). Carmel Beach is not only dog-friendly, it's bonfire-friendly, too. A company called Romantic Room Designs offers a Beach Fires and Picnics Kits in which they'll set up a beachside bonfire, complete with fixin's for s'mores and extra firewood, for the whole family to enjoy.
6Sink your teeth into a juicy burger at upscale diner, 400 Degrees. A straightforward menu includes a kids menu, burgers, sandwiches, and salads with gourmet touches, such as duck-fat fries and Sea Salt Caramel milkshakes. The restaurant provides computer tablets at tables so you can order extra items, pay your bill, and—perfect for impatient young'uns—play games.
1Arrive early at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to beat the lines, which can stretch around the block by mid-morning (or, go after 2 p.m.). Once inside, a good strategy is to head straight for the Splash Zone, which features more than forty-five exhibits and a touch pool for hands-on access to sea creatures like abalones, sea stars, and bat rays.
2Grab an easy lunch at nearby (and locally owned) Sea Harvest Market & Restaurant. Sit at red-checkered cloth-topped tables for favorites like clam chowder, barbecued oysters, and fish 'n' chips.
3The final stop before heading home: the Dennis the Menace Playground in the El Estero Park, brainchild of the comic strip creator Hank Ketcham, who lived in Pebble Beach for nearly twenty years. No frou-frou, safety-centric stuff here: Think colossal slides, a suspension bridge, and climbing structures sure to thrill kids (and adults, too!) while tiring them out before the trip home.
Where to Stay
Reflecting the Spanish architecture of Monterey's charming downtown—also called Old Town or Old Monterey—the hacienda-inspired Casa Munras (rooms from $177/night) offers comfortable, upscale digs at affordable prices. The Clement Monterey (rooms from $303/night), an InterContinental property, is just steps from the aquarium and Cannery Row.
When to Go
Summer is high season for Monterey and Carmel, with perpetually sunny weather that even manages to slightly warm up the chilly Pacific for the brave souls who want to take a dip. Visiting in the winter months, however, means fewer crowds, whale-watching season (gray whales can be seen from winter through the spring; humpbacks and gray whales migrate from April to December; orcas are spotted year-round), and better deals on hotels, which often offer aquarium passes as part of discount packages.
Bike enthusiasts should consider a visit during the Sea Otter Classic in April, which bills itself as the largest bicycling festival in the world and takes place at the nearby Laguna Seca Recreation Area. The four-day event features a massive expo with giveaways galore, pro demos, and family-friendly activities.
How to Get There
By car: Monterey is just two hours from downtown San Francisco. For a spectacular drive down the coast and through Santa Cruz, take scenic Highway U.S. 1 and follow the signs to Pacific Grove to reach most downtown hotels. You can also travel inland on Highway 101 to see the abundant agricultural bounty of the region.
By train: Let someone else do the driving and hop aboard Amtrak's Coast Starlight, which runs from San Francisco along the stunning Pacific coastline into Salinas. Keep in mind, however, that the train only leaves from Oakland, with service to Salinas, where you'll have to transfer to a connecting bus charter or take the free Monterey-Salinas Transit bus.