Monterey and Carmel are two of the most popular destinations in California’s Central Coast, but they’re best seen as a pair. Located around 2 hours’ drive from San Francisco, these twin destinations are popular for weekend trips from the City by the Bay. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the world’s top 10 aquariums, and it has quickly become a must-see tourist attraction for visitors to Monterey. Some people like to combine their visit with a day trip to Pebble Beach Golf Links or Point Lobos State Reserve; others prefer to stay in Monterey and explore its charming downtown area.
This sample itinerary aims to show how you can cover the two towns of Monterey or Carmel in as little as 2 days. This can be easily done as a weekend trip out from the Bay Area or as part of a wider trip tracing California’s coastline.
Table of Contents
Day 1: Monterey
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
The Monterey Bay is home to America’s most spectacular national marine sanctuaries: The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It stretches for more than 200 miles along California’s coast from San Francisco to Cambria, and it’s filled with fascinating sea life. The sanctuary is home to more than 500 marine plants and animals, including sea otters, harbor seals, leopard sharks, and the occasional humpback whale.
Monterey State Historic Park
The historic district has a number of attractions for visitors, including 19th-century Victorian mansions built by wealthy merchants who profited from sardine canning. Today, the mansions are open for public tours and make great subjects for local artists’ paintings. The park also features several museums dedicated to art, science, and history. The Cannery Row Historic District is a popular tourist destination with plenty of shops, restaurants, and entertainment opportunities. It’s located just one mile from downtown Monterey.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Located within Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the world’s best aquariums and a must for visitors to Monterey. It has nine exhibition areas filled with fascinating sea life ranging from sea otters and jellyfish to sharks, penguins, and sea turtles. Highlights here include the 28 feet tall Kelp Forest exhibit and the Open Sea community exhibit.
Explore Monterey’s Cannery Row
After or before the aquarium, you can explore Monterey’s Cannery Row (made famous by John Steinbeck), do an al fresco lunch at one of its many seafood restaurants and then head over to Asilomar Beach for a nice afternoon stroll. This little town is a favorite of celebrities and artists, and it’s filled with luxury boutiques.
A visit to Cannery Row will give you a chance to see what life was like during the heyday of Monterey’s sardine industry in the mid-20th century. The last cannery closed in 1973 with the renovated canneries in the area now housing shops, restaurants, and museums dedicated to the history of this fishing town.
Day 2: Carmel-by-the-Sea
The beach at Carmel-by-the-Sea is a must if you want to experience this town’s unique and charming atmosphere. The water here has one of America’s most gentle surfs (it’s almost like swimming in an oversized bathtub), and the town itself is a photographer’s dream come true. Carmel-by-the-Sea has less than 2000 people, but it’s home to more than 100 galleries and dozens of high-quality restaurants. It also hosts an annual arts festival in September that draws art aficionados from all over the world. From Monterey, you can take the scenic 17-mile drive to get here.
Carmel is a beautiful town filled with quaint shops and charming cottages that seem to come from some fairy tale. If you are up for it, you can walk uphill through Ocean Avenue from Carmel Beach to downtown Carmel. Once there, indulge in some retail therapy by exploring the independent shops and galleries. Carmel Plaza is the primary shopping mall of the town.
If you have time, also check out the Carmel Mission. This is one of California’s most charming missions, and it’s located just a few minutes away from downtown Carmel-by-the Sea. The San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission was established in 1771. It’s located on a hillside overlooking Carmel Bay and it’s dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo, who was an Italian saint of the 16th century (and also one of Pope Pius IV’s nephews). The church is still active today so visitors are welcome here during mass hours.
Point Lobos State Reserve
A day trip to Point Lobos State Reserve is a must if you’re into hiking, bird-watching, or photography. The area has some of the best coastal scenery in California. It offers three miles of trails that pass by old ranch houses and wind through dense forests, where you can spot some rare species. Depending on the time of year, you will also have a chance to spot sea otters and grey whales.
Carmel Valley Village
The Carmel Valley offers some excellent wine tasting opportunities as well as galleries and shops worth checking out. Don’t miss this charming village located 13 miles from Carmel-by-the Sea.
Carmel Valley is known for its lush landscapes, excellent wineries, and beautiful architecture. It’s also home to the stunning Carmel Valley Ranch with a luxurious spa where you can indulge in some expensive therapy services after long days of exploring California’s Central Coast. If you’d like to visit wineries, you can choose from more than 20 tasting rooms which offer some excellent wines at affordable prices (around $15-$20 per person). Most of these wineries are open daily; reservations aren’t necessary, but you should know that they only serve premium wines (no jug wines).
Where to Stay
During my visit to Monterey and Carmel, I stayed in Pacific Grove, the town bordering Monterey, which has more motel-like options. If you are driving, you’ll find the lodgings here quite convenient with easy parking just under your unit. The rooms here are also more spacious for the same price (or even lower than) that you’d be paying for a room in downtown Monterey. I stayed at Best Western The Inn & Suites Pacific Grove. Situated in a quiet neighborhood, the rooms here have a fuzzy “cabin in the woods” kind of vibe, with high wooden ceilings and fireplaces. Prices are generally around half of what you’d pay for a hotel in Monterey, for the same room size. You can also check out other hotels in Monterey here.
As you can see, there are plenty of things to do in Monterey and Carmel. Each town has its charm and appeals to different travelers; however, if you only have two days for these two destinations like most people visiting the area on vacation, you should spend your time in Monterey. You can easily drive from one town to the other within a couple of hours, so there’s no need for long trips between destinations.
Monterey is home to some of California’s best attractions, and it has a lot more going on than Carmel-by-the Sea. The area will give you an experience of California’s rich history and nature. Even if you don’t have time to visit all the attractions, definitely check out Monterey Bay Aquarium; it will be worth your while.