Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
Also note that many of our recommendations for the Monterey Bay Area remain closed and this article should currently only be used for planning purposes for when it’s safe to travel again.
So many of California’s best destinations are coastal cities or towns—and yet, even among that most esteemed company, there’s something particularly special about Monterey. The water here teems with a staggering diversity of marine life. The land is lush with pine trees and knotted with wind-bent cypresses. The once capital of Alta California is the perfect place for anyone who wants to spend their weekend eating good food, sampling local wine, and contemplating the wondrous mysteries of the ocean (like how do sea otters get so dang cute?).
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From San Francisco, Monterey is about a two-hour drive via the US-101 South. To go via train, take the Amtrak from the Emeryville to Salinas (3-4 hours) and then take a bus transfer to Monterey (about an hour).
From Los Angeles, the fastest way is to take the I-5 North and then around Lost Hills start heading west until you can hop on the 101 North around Paso Robles. From there you’ll stay on the 101 North the rest of the way. This will take about 5 hours. It takes a little longer to take the 101 North from the start but it is much more scenic and there are more options if you need to stop for a quick bite or a cup of coffee.
To get to Monterey by train, take the Amtrak from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Salinas (which will take 8-9 hours) and take a bus transfer to Monterey (about an hour).
After driving along the coast and finally reaching the Monterey Peninsula, stop for lunch at Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill for some gastropub-style food and beer and a rotating selection of their latest craft brew creations. If you’d like to enjoy your Duane’s World IPA ale amongst the fresh air, opt for their beer garden where, if you’re lucky, you can nab a spot next to one of the fire pits.
After lunch, take a little time to get the lay of the land and check out Cannery Row. The eponymous canneries closed up decades ago, and have been converted into a collection of restaurants and shops. If nothing else, it’s worth taking a stroll for the bay views and finding your way to Coast Guard Pier where you’re almost guaranteed to see sea lions sunning on the rocks or sea otters frolicking in the water.
Now it’s time to really get up close and personal with that bay you’ve heard so much about. Explore the water via kayak. Go out on your own or book a tour with a company like Adventures by the Sea for a chance to see sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions in their natural habitat. For marine mammals of a larger scale, book a whale watching tour in the winter and early spring to see gray and killer whales or late spring through fall for a chance to see humpback, blue, and killer whales.
Celebrate all the new friendships you’ve made amongst the denizens of the sea at A Taste of Monterey. This wine shop and tasting room showcases wines from Monterey County. Red, white, sparkling, rosé—whatever strikes your fancy, you can sample a curated flight of local vintages all while enjoying a spectacular view of the bay.
For a dinner that does not skip a beat, head to Montrio Bistro. Located in a converted historic firehouse, the atmosphere is romantic. The New American menu is as creative as it is delicious. The wine list is spot on. And not only is the food organic and sustainably sourced, but they’re also environmentally friendly behind the scenes, implementing such practices as near-zero waste, full recycling, composting, and in-house reusables.
Stop by Café Lumiere for a cup of something caffeinated and a quick, satisfying breakfast. But don’t let the relaxed atmosphere fool you, every sip or bite you take has been brought to you thanks to an immense degree of consideration. The beans are locally roasted, they work solely with purveyors located in Central and Northern California purveyors, and almost everything—from the pastries to the sauces—is prepared in-house.
It’s time to hop back in the car and gear up for this morning’s activity: driving. Specifically, the 17-Mile Drive, which takes you down the coast from Monterey through Pebble Beach and concludes in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Along the way you’ll take in such sights as Point Joe, Bird Rock, and the famous Lone Cypress. Because the drive goes through Pebble Beach Resorts there is a per-vehicle entrance fee. But even in an area full of jaw-dropping vistas, it’s worth the $10 to take this most scenic of routes. And, hey, it’s about the journey, not the destination, right? Although the destination isn’t too shabby either…
At the end of the 17-Mile Drive you’ll find yourself in Carmel-by-the-Sea (or, just simply, Carmel), which has the look of an exquisitely quaint village and the spirit of a high-end resort town. For the dining equivalent of the city’s quintessential charm-meets-sophistication vibe, check out Le Bicyclette. This bistro serves classic French cuisine in an atmosphere that’s suffused in cozy, Old World charm.
Yesterday was about exploring the region’s “surf,” now it’s time for Central Coast California’s equally awe-inspiring “turf.” Continue south toward Big Sur (your route will also take you across Bixby Bridge, which you may recognize from the opening credits of Big Little Lies and countless car commercials) where you’ll find yourself in a nature lover’s paradise. There are a number of state parks and hiking trails to choose from—some offer ocean views, some allow you to lose yourself in what feels like an enchanted redwood forest, but they all make for an incredible experience in the (truly) great outdoors. (Note: If you have your heart set on a specific trail make sure to check that it’s open ahead of time.)
Dinner is at Passionfish back up north in Pacific Grove. Sustainability is a vitally important element to this restaurant’s mission, which means guests will always be served fish that’s incredibly fresh, local, and creatively prepared. All of that, plus the wine list highlights unique vintages from wineries dedicated to sustainable production all at a price that foregoes the usual, over-the-top restaurant markup.
Close out your night with a beer flight Dust Bowl Brewing Co. Tap Depot. Whether you’re an IPA devotee (try the Hops of Wrath) or looking for something light and smooth (check out the Taco Truck lager), this taproom makes for the perfect spot to enjoy a relaxed, laid back evening. Plus, if the weather’s nice, you can enjoy a friendly game or two of cornhole out on their patio (or if it’s on the cooler side, you can still enjoy your brews outdoors cozied up next to one of their fire pits).
Start your day at Wave Street Café, which has everything you could want in a breakfast spot: cute-as-a-button patio, a view of the bay from said patio, friendly service, and a menu full of generously portioned breakfast favorites.
You’ve spent nearly this whole weekend looking out at the bay, hearing about its incredible biodiversity, but the best way to experience everything this incredible ecosystem entails is with a visit to the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. The exhibits here recreate what it might feel like to be immersed in the depths alongside these creatures. Glittering sardines swirl overhead in one room while a variety of ethereal and strange jellyfish flank you on either side of a darkened corridor. When you enter the Kelp Forest exhibit, you’re at eye level with mighty sharks and humble hermit crabs alike. And you can watch the sea otters from above the water and below so you don’t miss a moment of their playful antics. (And, yes, they’re as adorable in real life as they are in the aquarium’s live streams.)
By the time you exit the aquarium, you’re likely to have clocked quite a few steps on your pedometer, so stop for a quick bite at nearby El Cantaro for some delicious vegan Mexican food—try the cactus huarache!
Before you head out, take a few moments to stop by Asilomar State Beach. With its dunes and tidal pools, it’s an idyllic place to have a final, personal moment with nature and draw your weekend to a close.
WHERE TO STAY
For a romantic, intimate atmosphere where you’ll be surrounded by verdant gardens, find your way to Old Monterey Inn. You’ll be further away from the heart of Monterey but that just adds to luxe, hideaway atmosphere. For a cozy stay that is also in easy walking distance to downtown, check-in at the Casa Munras Garden Hotel & Spa. The rooms here have an old-world, Spanish-inspired style and some feature a fireplace—perfect for those nippier nights. If you prefer to be in the heart of Cannery Row and close to the water, make the Spindrift Inn your base of operations. Even if you don’t nab one of their bay view rooms, you can take advantage of their rooftop garden for some gorgeous vistas.
WHEN TO GO
There’s nothing like strolling along the water during Monterey’s mild spring and summers—the only downside is that this is when it tends to be busier so expect crowds, especially around popular attractions like Cannery Row and the aquarium. Because it is so literally centered on the water, it can get quite damp and chilly (by California standards) in the fall and winter. But the fog and mist just adds to the peninsula’s dramatic vistas during the days and make it perfect for cozying up with a hot toddy at night.