Monterey and Carmel trip itinerary
Monterey and Carmel are destinations that are on every West Coast road trip itinerary, and that local Californians go back to time after time. Located just a short drive south of San Francisco on California’s central coast, these two towns are the charming, sleepy, seaside escapes that make for the perfect getaway. It’s easy to craft an itinerary for Monterey and Carmel, but there are some hidden gems that you might not be aware of – ever heard of Carmel Valley? More on that later 🙂
In this post, you’ll find tips for what to do in Monterey and Carmel, where to stay in Monterey and Carmel, and how to reach Monterey and Carmel.
Looking for more California destinations and travel tips? Check out these posts:
- The best cheap and FREE things to do in San Francisco
- What to do in Mammoth Lakes, California
- Visit Sacramento: what not to miss in the capitol city
- The ULTIMATE California bucket list
- Hiking in NorCal: Castle Crags State Park
- The 2 Day San Francisco Itinerary
- Tahoe Camping: Exploring the hidden Sierra Buttes
Day 1: Spend a day exploring Monterey
San Francisco to Monterey is an easy two hour drive, taking you through Palo Alto and San Jose before reaching California’s central coast.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Start your day off in Monterey by visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This impressive aquarium is perched on the coast overlooking the ocean on Cannery Row, and is the main attraction in the city. You could say that no first visit to Monterey could ever be complete without a visit here – it is practically a rite of passage for all kids growing up in Northern California.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a nonprofit aquarium whose mission it is to inspire conservation of the ocean. There are tons of impressive exhibits at the aquarium, but the most popular, or at least my favorite is the sea otter exhibit. Sea otters are native to the Monterey Bay, and are just so darn cute! Get stoked for your trip by watching the sea otter live cam – you’re welcome 😉
You can easily spend half a day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, so after you finish, explore the rest of Cannery Row. Cannery Row is a touristy strip filled with shops and restaurants.
Cannery Row was once an industrial center for sardine packing, and was made famous by Californian novelist John Steinbeck in his book aptly named “Cannery Row.”
Grab some lunch, pick up some souvenirs, or have a beer, and don’t miss the John Steinbeck statue by the sea.
Stroll along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail in Pacific Grove
The California coast is not short on beauty, and luckily, there is a path following the Pacific ocean you can follow for almost as long as you want – well at least until you reach the beginning of 17 Mile Drive! After visiting Cannery Row, drive down Ocean View Boulevard, and park anywhere you’d like to begin your walk.
The Monterey Bay Coastal Trail is a gorgeous way to spend part of your day looking out over the Pacific Ocean and getting fresh air. This trail is flat the entire way, so it perfect for walkers of all ages.
Don’t miss Lovers Point Park, a great stop along the way to take a moment to sit and look out at the sea.
if you’re up for it, you can walk all the way to Asilomar State Beach, where you can check out the tide pools, and probably get a chance to see tons of starfish in the water!
If you’re not up for a walk, you can also check out Old Fisherman’s Wharf where you can go on various ocean cruises, whale watching tours, or deep sea fishing.
Where to stay in Monterey
Monterey has a variety of options for all budgets – if you’re like me, you’re not shy to stay at the Days Inn Motel in Monterey, which also includes a free breakfast. Monterey is filled with motels like this, and luckily motels are pretty much the norm in Monterey, so there’s no need to feel uneasy.
Day 2: Monterey to Carmel
17 Mile Drive in Pebble Beach
Start your day with one of the most beautiful drives in the world, the 17-mile drive, a road trip no California vacation would be complete without.
The 17-mile drive is a must do for any Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary. You’ll need to pay $10.50 per vehicle to enter for a day into this private, highly affluent community along the coast and dotted with the some of the most scenic golf courses.
Along the 17-mile drive there are various lookout and photo spots indicated on the map (and with signs indicating where to pull over). Some of these stops are probably ones you’ve seen photos of on your computer’s screensaver! You’ll also drive past some of the most impressive houses you’ve ever seen. I wish there was a tour just to view the most incredible houses in the area.
Some of those I find most scenic are the Lone Cyprus and Pescadero Point.
Take time along the way to stop at the famous Pebble Beach Golf Course, and grab a bite along the way as well. If you spend $35 within the 17-mile drive, you’ll be reimbursed for your $10.50 entry ticket.
Explore Quaint Carmel-by-the-sea
After taking your time to complete the 17-mile drive, you’ll end up in Carmel, one of the loveliest little towns you could imagine. Carmel-by-the-sea is a sort of fairytale town – it has loads of cute boutiques, shops and restaurants, and is the perfect location to wander, sip coffee and do a bit of shopping.
Ocean Street is the main drag where you’ll find the majority of spots to stop into, with hotels located in the surrounding streets.
Carmel owes it’s cute-ness to the fact that its population has been largely made up of artists, with Clint Eastwood even serving as mayor for a period of time.
The distance from San Francisco to Carmel is an easy two hour drive (120 miles or 190 kilometers).
In Carmel you can also check out Carmel Beach (if you haven’t seen the ocean enough yet by then!), or alternatively, check out some arts and culture while you’re there.
Go wine tasting in Carmel Valley Village
If time permits, take the short drive down to Carmel Valley Village. Carmel Valley is still a hidden gem – few people have heard of it, which means it won’t be as busy with tourists as Carmel-by-the-sea or Monterey.
Carmel Valley is tucked into the hills, giving it a different climate than neighboring Carmel-by-the-sea. While Carmel-by-the-sea can be foggy and cooler, Carmel Valley Village is warmer, making it feel like you’ve traveled a lot longer than only twenty minutes to arrive at this destination.
There are less than 5,000 residents in Carmel Valley Village, but what it lacks in population it more than makes up in vineyards and tasting rooms. Go to Carmel Valley Village to partake in wine tasting in one of the town’s twenty tasting rooms.
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BLUEGRASS & BBQ // We are closing the property down, March 15th to join @thewinehousecv as they host a foodie extravaganza with @gourmetfestcarmel We will be pouring rare wines and library releases to complement the phenomenal food from an exclusive lineup of Relais & Châteaux Chefs, along with bluegrass and bocce ball at the beautiful Wine House. Tickets and info can be found through Gourmetfestcarmel.com
I recommend the Joyce Vineyards Tasting Room, which has a large outdoor patio where you can sit and enjoy both the weather and a flight of wine. I personally loved the rose so much I bought a bottle to bring home.
You’ll find the Joyce tasting room along the main street, East Carmel Valley Road. Life moves at a slower pace here, so take a moment to enjoy the scenery of the rolling hills around you – this is what California is all about! Wine tasting in Carmel Valley is a great, off-the-beaten-path addition to your West Coast road trip itinerary. If you have more time to continue your road trip, head on down to Big Sur, one of the most beautiful locations on the California coast.
While you’re in the area, stop by Earthbound Organics Farm Stand for a fresh, healthy and organic meal. Smoothie anyone?
Where to stay in Carmel Valley Village
Although Carmel Valley Village is small, it offers several lovely places to rest your head.
We stayed at the Carmel Valley Lodge during our visit. It’s a mid-range hotel that is located just a short distance from the wine tasting rooms and restaurants of Carmel Valley Village – you could walk to them if you wanted to! The stay here is comfortable and clean.
If you’re looking for something a bit higher end, check out the Bernardus Lodge and Spa, located a bit further outside of Carmel Valley Village, but still just a short drive into town. When we visit again, I’d definitely like to sit on that patio drinking wine!
Did this post help you plan your California vacation to Monterey and Carmel? Let me know in the comments below!
Looking for more to do after your trip to Monterey and Carmel? Check out Pinnacles National Park!
Gabby is a native (Northern) Californian who spent the majority of her 20’s living the expat life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exploring Europe and beyond. 27 countries later, she’s relocated back to her home base in California where she explores her passions for the travel and the outdoors.